The Scandalous FeminineThree weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Catholic blog “God In All Things.” It’s a website devoted to the spiritual practices of St. Ignatius of Loyola, featuring writing on prayer, discernment, imagination, and a basic willingness to see God in, well, all things. The topic of my piece was “Spiritual Déjà vu,” an expression I coined to describe the heightened sense of God’s presence when we encounter deep truths. The essay was a total of 1,148 words in length, but there was only one word that evoked controversy: She.
It was used only once, in the first sentence:
“I used to be quite frustrated that God never spoke directly to me the way She spoke to the Hebrew prophets.”
And yet, it provoked a deluge of comments ranging from the dismissive, “Why is God…”she”? I do not understand that? I’m reluctant to even read past that” to the recommendation that I, “review the sins of Heresy, Apostasy and Schism.” Basically the comments section reads like a modern-day Inquisition, ready to burn me at the proverbial stake for daring to use a feminine pronoun to describe God. Now, I know what you might be thinking. Haters gonna hate, just ignore the comments section entirely. And if the damning comments strayed so far from the topic at hand (Spiritual Déjà vu), why should I indulge them? I don’t need to waste any precious time being dragged into a cesspool of criticism and spiritual myopia. However, my mom persuaded me otherwise. She reminded me that most people haven’t been so privileged to formally study theology or pour into the feminist writings of Margaret Farley or Elizabeth Johnson. To quote the Gospel of Luke, “ to whom much has been given, much will be required.” And to quote the Spider-man series: “With great privilege comes great responsibility.”
All joking aside, I am sympathetic to the confusion many experience when God is referred to as She. Just as my readers were befuddled and offended that I used a feminine pronoun for God, I cringe when other people substitute He for the divine. The difference is, I do not correct people or tell them their metaphor of choice is blasphemous. I bite my tongue because I know how very much we need concrete, flesh and blood, relational images of an otherwise transcendent higher being.
God Has No Gender
More on those images later, but first let’s have a look at the name that God asks the Hebrew people to use. This scene takes place in the book of Exodus (ch 3: 13-15), when Moses is running back and forth between God, pictured here as a burning bush, and the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt. Moses is about to tell pharaoh “let my people go,” but the people want to be sure that this God is legit and will have their backs when they defy the hegemony:
“But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
“I am” is a title that deliberately resists the gender binary of male/female. This is divine mystery, after all. However, to help the Hebrews understand the ineffable being at the center of everything, God draws upon a string of famous relationships the people will recognize.
“You remember Abraham, right? “
“Yeah, of course, we’re all circumcised because of him.”
“Cool, well I’m his God. And Isaac and Jacob’s and every patriarch of note in your people’s history.” (loosely translated, MVD version)
This declaration from God “ I am who I am” is where we get the term Yahweh (YHWH), or as it is translated in Hebrew: יהוה . And this understanding of God as pure being was regarded as so holy that to this day many Jews will not speak or write יהוה. In other words, any attempt to contain God is blasphemous and the closest we can get to a divine nickname is “ultimate being.”
… But if we are going to use metaphors to describe God they should be abundant.It’s true, Jesus primarily speaks of God as his father, or Abba, and welcomes us into a familial relationship with the great I AM. But let’s consider the context. For centuries, Jews maintained a rather formal relationship with God through intermediaries; they atoned for their sins through ritual sacrifice performed on their behalf by temple priests and they observed 613 commandments from the Torah to demonstrate their piety. Jesus, in turn, picked grain on the Sabbath, dined in the homes of known sinners, and seemed to spend more time before the dawn in prayer than before temple authorities. In the relationship between the people and their God, Jesus cut out some middlemen. So when Jesus invites us to call upon God as father, he’s not stressing the masculinity, but the intimacy God enjoins us to.
I am not denying that scripture refers to God as a father, or other masculine images. But that is not the only image we have been given. As Dorothy -- one of my great defenders in the comment section mentions, God is also described as a mother hen. Jesus says to those brood of vipers, the Pharisees:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34).
The imagery for God does not end with hens. Momma eagles and bears also figure for the divine (Deuteronomy 32:11-12 and Hosea 13:8, respectively). In fact, across species the image of Mother God abounds. God says, through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
And then there is the woman looking for her lost coin: In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus likens God’s unwavering compassion to a woman who will not quit until she finds that one coin (Luke 15:8-10). Interestingly enough, the story of the woman with the lost coin is couched directly between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the prodigal son (read: a seemingly lost cause). We know that every other Catholic church is named after “The Good Shepherd” and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” has been rendered into glorious works of art, most notably Rembrandt’s masterpiece. “The woman with the lost coin” is smack dab in the middle of the Bible’s two most famous parables and yet, she remains oddly invisible to most Catholics. And while “The Good Woman Searching for Lost Coin” is not super catchy, I think we can all relate more to losing coins and keys than a stray sheep. But maybe that’s just me. Here’s my point: there are scores of female images of God that are perfectly orthodox, however, they conveniently land in our biblical blind spots. So if we are going to personify the ineluctable mystery of God through limited metaphors, we should draw from the full range of images, roles, and relationships that scripture supplies us with.
What About Jesus?Let me be clear about one thing: While I deeply enjoy feminine descriptions of God, I don’t actually believe God has a vagina. Just like I don’t believe God has a penis. I don’t mean to be vulgar but to directly confront our Christian culture’s reigning obsession with the maleness of God. To which some might argue, of course the transcendent God doesn’t have or require male anatomy. He dwells in an eternal “masculine essence.” Or as one commenter suggested, God “contains the perfections of both male and female.” However, we must be careful when speaking about masculine or feminine qualities as if they were stable “essences” that did not change with the tide of history or were consistently expressed in every cis man and woman. Because the qualities ascribed to men and women five hundred years ago are most certainly different than those nurtured today. Gender is not a consistent, immutable essence, but in constant cultural flux. And even if you conceive of God as possessing a perfect balance of both masculine and feminine natures, how then do we arrive at God as He?
But this is all getting very theoretical. Let’s return to the person of Jesus, through whom Christians claim to know God most accurately.
If we are patterning our image of a masculine God after the male Jesus of Nazareth, we should be equally offended by the whiteness of God depicted across Medieval and Renaissance churches. Jesus was born in the present-day Middle East. Now, I’m no geneticist, but fair skin and blue eyes seem an unlikely depiction for our Lord. What audacity of Michelangelo to adorn the Sistine Chapel with a caucasian Jesus when scripture clearly locates him as a brown-skinned man! And while we’re at it does anyone know the height or weight of Jesus? He was relatively young when he died, but did he inherit male pattern baldness from his mother’s side? This is the absurdity of reducing God to a set of biological features. It is also why St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Paul knew that while the human form of Jesus was male, the second person of the Trinity (Christ) would not be limited by culture, status or gender.
The Political Is Always PersonalMost of the time, and throughout the rest of “Spiritual Déjà vu,” I refrain from assigning any gender to God, opting for awkward grammatical phrasing over sexism, for all the reasons stated above. However, I deliberately chose to write “She” at the beginning of my essay, and was subsequently accused of being “arrogant or rebellious,” naming God in my own image. Some implied I have a “feminist agenda” as though feminism is a dirty word. Feminism means equality.
By definition it is "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” It is striving for equality, not dominion. But if you don’t have equality in a society, every assertion of the rights of woman might appear to be an act of subverting the rights of men. Similarly, my occasional use of feminine imagery for God is a mere suggestion that perhaps we have assigned excessive weight to the masculine that demands counterbalancing. She is not meant to replace He, but to disrupt our default tendency to think of God in exclusively masculine images.
My reason for doing so is both political (for the church at large), deeply personal (for my own spiritual healing) and pastoral (for others seeking a relational God). I don’t need to go into lavish detail about why the image of Father-God doesn’t suit me. Suffice it to say that if my image of God was formulated after my own earthly father, I would have a God that punched holes in walls when he got angry, required “managing up” throughout my childhood and who continues to troll my professional work online today. And because I am certain I am not the only person with a complicated relationship to my father, swapping in a maternal image for God is not exclusively about me. It’s about creating a space for all the daughters and sons in the pews who cannot connect with a masculine God because their biological fathers already damaged or deflated that metaphor. Without even realizing it, our stubborn insistence on calling God father may trigger emotional trauma for those already in much need of healing. The other danger, of course, is that when we default to masculine images of God were reinforce the ancient patriarchal assumption that men are somehow, by virtue of their gender, a closer reflection of God on Earth. A whole different post could be written on how the superiority of men and denigration of women has been made possible through theological appeals to God’s maleness. Or as the feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote in 1973: "If God is male, then the male is God.” In our current political state, where erectile dysfunction is not considered a pre-existing condition, but most all of being a woman is (difficult periods, pregnancy, domestic abuse, etc), I am afraid Daly’s warning rings true today. When we associate masculinity with divinity in our minds, we are further elevating the status of men in our society.
However, for those who have enjoyed a warm and loving relationship with their father that they can map onto their image of God, I say go for it! No one is denying you that. You are welcome to continue using He in your personal prayer practices, conversation, and liturgical celebrations. The insertion of She is not a total replacement of He. But if you have witnessed more unconditional love and support from the women in your life then perhaps that is the relationship through which God is speaking to you. All of these pronouns are mere placeholders for the ultimate expression of love, who the Jewish people called Yahweh, the great I AM. If our hearts of full of this love, we can free our imaginations to call God He, She, Most Merciful, Adonai, Allah, Hosanna, Momma Bear, Abba-Father, or any of the other 99+ beautiful names of God. I would only caution against become fixated or confined by a single word.