This blog article is based on a talk I was giving last Sunday during a Faith-to-Faith event at St Mungo’s Museum last Sunday. The event had the theme “The Feminine in God” and I was asked to give a personal approach from a Christian perspective. Before me a Hindu woman was given her approach and afterwards there was time for dialogue between the 27 attendees from different religious backgrounds.
I’m not an expert in feminist theology, but I’ve had some lectures about it, especially in the beginning of my studying at the “augustana university” in Neuendettelsau in Bavaria. I will start with some examples of the traditional Christian way of talking about god in mainly Christian terms. Afterwards I will give some examples from the bible and the Christian tradition where feminine aspects in god are stressed. In the end I’m finishing with some personal thoughts.
The bible and the Christian tradition is dominated by a terminology that seems to support a male interpretation of god. Jesus talks about god as his father – not his mother. In the Lord’s (not the Lady’s…) Prayer god is called “our father”. At least two of the three persons in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are described by masculine terminology – and in some languages, as for example German, even “Spirit” is a grammatical masculine word. Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God in human flesh – so god choose to become a man and not a woman, when he (!) decided to become a human being. Some traditional attributes and activities of God are traditional connotated as rather “male”, for example gods anger or god leading his people to a military victory. Furthermore the whole Christian art tradition, as so far as pictures of god are shown, shows god often as an old man.
All this is probably not very surprising, because biblical times as well as the last 2000 years of church history happened in mainly patriarchal dominated societies and the religious institutions were dominated by men. That those men were teaching a male god, should not be a big surprise.
Fortunately there are examples in the bible and in the tradition that also support talking of god in feminine terminology and it is interesting that those examples come usually from the Old Testament (the Jewish Tanach) and not the New Testament.
It starts with the second verse of the bible. In Gen 1:2 the text talks about “Gods spirit hovering above the water”. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is “ruach” and other than in German or other languages it is a feminine word.
Also in the story of the creation in Gen 1:27 it is said that mankind was created in gods own image as male and female. So god includes male and female aspects and both aspects are represented in mankind.
The prophet Isaiah writes in Is 66:13 that “as one whom a mother comforts, so will I (God) comfort you”. In the protestant church in Germany this text was the official motto (“Jahreslosung”) for 2016.
Archaeological findings show us that there were times when the people living in Israel prayed to JHWH their god not alone, but JHWH also had a female companion (Ashera). Of course those times were long finished before most of the biblical scriptures were written, but it shows that for Judaism before the Babylonian exile the female aspects in god were so important that people prayed to their own goddess. After becoming more (and later completely) monotheistic those female aspects of god became part of JHWH and the biblical texts mentioned here are one result of it.
Also in the Christian tradition the female aspects of god were stressed from time to time, mainly in the Mystical traditions. One example are the texts and visions of “Mechthild of Magdeburg” and other powerful women in the medieval church.
For me personally the question of the feminine aspects in god is connected with the larger question of our human ability of talking and knowing about god. I’m convinced that no human talking about god – may it between highly educated theologians or just “normal” people – can describe god in any complete way. Our language and our thinking about god is therefor always incomplete and we are only able to use the language and vocabulary we have. Therefore neither “masculine” or “feminine” terminology describes god in any “better” way than the other does.
This position has also a tradition in the Christian tradition. In the ten commandments god prohibits to make images of god and to pray to them. In my opinion everyone who declares their own description of god as the only right one, does exactly this. They claim to know more about god than they are able to and this is one form of idolatry.
In the fifth century Christian theologians tried to resolve a huge argument about Jesus’ nature. Some were arguing that Jesus was “completely” human and some that he was “completely” divine. Recognizing that from a Christian point of view Jesus is god incarnated they decided in the Chalcedonian Creed to use paradoxical formulations (Jesus’ two natures are “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”). What is important in this for the question of the Feminine/Masculine in God is that they recognized the incompleteness and inability of human language in speaking about and describing god.
So human language and thinking can always just reach a part of gods being (like the A in the B in the picture).
This means the question of talking about god in feminine or masculine terms is not a question about truth, but about stressing different aspects of god. Because our tradition has overstressed the masculine aspects much more than the feminine ones (because of the causes mentioned above), I find it very important to stress the feminine aspects more than we used to be. One possibility for this is using feminine terminology. When I was in church at St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow last Sunday Jesus was for example addressed as “our mother” during the intercessions prayer. Such small moments of irritation can help us, to realize that god is not a man in meaning than a human being can be a man, god is much more. God has male and female aspects.
To recognize those aspects Christianity can probably learn something from other religions. I find it very interesting to see how Hinduism can see all the different gods and goddesses as appearances of the one divine being and so make the people much more aware of the different aspects of god.