“How a group names its God has critical consequences, for the symbol of the divine organizes every other aspect of a religious system,” says well-known controversial author and Catholic theologian, sister Elizabeth Johnson in her 2000 presentation at Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics at The University of Pennsylvania. The lecture she was delivering was titled, “Naming God She: The Theological Implications.” I have included the Introduction from her lecture and its Conclusion. If you wish to read the entire address (well worth the time and about 20 pages in length), click here. If you want more than this, I suggest you try reading one of her books. Enjoy!An illustration depicting a view of the night sky just before the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy, left, and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. Photo by NASA/AP
During the last decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the new sound of theologically trained women’s voices has been heard in the field of theology. Diverse in cultures, intellectual perspectives, and religious traditions, these voices are making contributions that are inevitably challenging to classical, patriarchal norms, but also surprisingly enriching to the core task of seeking understanding about matters of faith. One of the major areas where women have labored is central to any articulation of theology, namely, the image and concept of the divine, the One who is source, sustaining and saving power, and goal of the world, whom people call God. The importance of this work can hardly be overestimated.
How a group names its God has critical consequences, for the symbol of the divine organizes every other aspect of a religious system. The way a faith community speaks about God indicates what it considers the greatest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty. In turn, the image of God shapes a community’s corporate identity and behavior as well as the individual behavior of its members. A religion, for example, that speaks about God as a warrior and extols the way he smashes his enemies to bloody bits would promote aggressive group behavior among its adherents. On the other hand, a religion that preaches a God who lovingly forgives offenses would turn believers toward care for their neighbor and mutual peacemaking. The symbol of God functions. It is never neutral in its effects, but expresses and molds a community’s bedrock convictions and actions.
Women’s scholarship on this subject has made it piercingly clear that patriarchal naming of God in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man has the effect of legitimating male authority in social and political structures. In the name of the male Lord, King, Father God who rules over all, men have the duty to command and control: on earth as it is in heaven. In Mary Daly’s succinct, inimitable phrase: “… if God is male, then the male is God”. Consequently, women have traditionally been marginalized in the religions, largely without formal voice or vote, excluded from the official shaping of doctrinal or ethical teaching, prevented from participating in governance, barred from leadership in ritual, banned from the altar or the holy of holies. This subordinate positioning of women has traditionally flowed without a break into the societies influenced by the religions.
By challenging the bed-rock assumption of this arrangement, naming God in female images promotes change or, in religious terms, conversion of a community’s mind and heart to the true equality of women. When female personifications of the divine are not feminine aspects to be interpreted in dualistic tension with masculine dimensions or traits, but are rather representations of the abundance of God in creating, redeeming, and calling the world to eschatological peace, then they operate with prophetic power to challenge the subordination of women and to promote more just, egalitarian relationships among members of a community. As the history of religions demonstrates, God-language alone is not sufficient to bring about this transformation; female deities and the subordination of women can and do co- exist. But in the context of the social movement for women’s equality and human dignity, which now reaches global proportions, speech about God has a unique potential for affecting change at a deep and lasting level. If God is, she as well as he, obviously a profound, incomprehensible mystery beyond either, a new possibility can be envisioned of a way of living together that honors difference, but allows women and men to share life in equal measure. God spoken of in this way cannot be used to validate role stereotyping wherein public and private realms are divided by gender, with men acting as head, lord, and king to the exclusion or marginalization of women. This linguistic, imaginative practice of naming God SHE thereby holds a radical promise of transforming change for both religious communities and the civic communities they influence.
It has been my privilege and passion to work on this issue, most visibly with my book “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse“. In this Boardman lecture I would like to illustrate how far we have come on this issue and, in dialogue with other Christian and Jewish scholars who are responding, to assess more deeply some theological implications of naming God in the image of women rather than exclusively in the image of ruling men.
We have been pondering the dynamic process of how imaging God creates worlds. We have been exploring the claim that if women are created in the image of God, then God can be spoken of in female metaphors in as adequate a i d as inadequate a way as ~ o isdimaged in male onks, without talk-of feminine dimensions reducing the impact of this imagery. This has profound implications for the truth about God, for women’s equal human dignity, and thereby for the self-understanding and polity of the church and wider society.
As in any passage through the wilderness, this journey towards more just and liberating images of God is not without its dangers. Some fear that Christians will lose their true heritage, which is intertwined with the name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a theologian I am concerned about this. My own conviction, committed as I am to the Christian faith, holds the trinitarian formula dear. But it is not a literal formula, nor was it ever intended to be the only way that Christians name God. As indicated in my opening examples, a number of sources support efforts to use female names: the witness of the scriptures with their multitude of images; the example of Jesus who spoke about God in many startling ways (the Gospel of John, which depicts Jesus frequently referring to God as Father, was written late in the first century and reflects the growing practice of the community, not of Jesus himself); and the writings of early Christian writers and later mystics who employed maternal and wisdom references. There is, too, the added experience of women today, empowered to seek the face of God in new ways reflecting their own God-given human dignity. So long as the female words or images can be connected with the patterns of acting and loving of the God of Israel, revealed in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Mother Jesus (as Julian calls Christ), or Jesus-Sophia (as I would have it), so long as they point us toward the God who creates and redeems the world and whose Spirit fills the whole earth, this danger can be satisfactorily countered.
Let us conclude by revisiting some of our opening images with this in mind. God cries out like a woman in childbirth to bring a new world of justice to birth. With signs and wonders Holy Wisdom leads the people toward freedom; against her, evil does not prevail. A woman, imaging God the Redeemer, searches for her precious lost piece of silver. Creating, redeeming, and sanctifying are all the work of God our loving mother. A female doctor with intelligent eyes heals burns. Other images from women’s experience, past and present, also come to hand: Rosa Parks sits down in the front of the bus. The divine shekinah, female spirit of God, feels the pain in her neck when a man is hanged and suffers the degradation and the violence when a woman is raped. God shines in the beauty of the waters and flowers in the fertility of the spring. A Zapatista woman shelters her babe from flying government bullets under the shadow of her wings, her outstretched arms. God smiles upon us with the eyes of a woman in love. God rages against those who harm the poor like a mother bear protecting her cubs – she tears their heart out from their chest (Hos 138).
The holy mystery of the living God transcends all images but can be spoken about equally well and poorly in concepts taken from male or female, and indeed cosmic, reality. Far from being silly or faddish, the approach we argue for here goes forward with the conviction that only if God is named in this complete way, only if the full reality of historical women of all races and classes as well as men enters into our God symbol, only then can the idolatrous fixation on one image of God be broken, women be empowered at our deepest core, and consequently our religious and civic communities be transformed toward greater justice. Along the way, every use of female images for God produces one more fragment of the truth of the mystery of God healing, redeeming, and liberating all human beings and the earth.