Symbols and the Divine Feminine

A recent post in this series on knowing God talked about the nature of symbols and how the ways we experience and speak of God can participate in the divine life, while never limiting or defining it.

Symbols are great, and all of our language for God is symbolic. But we have to be careful about which symbols we use, not just to make sure they are accurate, but also to make sure they are representative. It’s unquestionable that the dominant imagery in our Scriptures for God tends to be masculine. God is the King, Lord, Master of Armies, and our Father. This is no surprise considering the heavily patriarchal contexts in which our Scriptures were written and compiled. But the Church has tended to stack the deck towards the masculine even further than the Scriptures themselves warrant.

In her wonderful book, The Quest for the Living God, Elizabeth Johnson notes the huge variety of human images the Bible uses for God:

In addition to terms taken from personal relationships such as father, mother, husband, female beloved, companion, and friend, the images taken from political life such as advocate, liberator, king, warrior, and judge, the Bible pictures God on the model of a wide array of human crafts and professions: shepherd, midwife, farmer, laundress, construction worker, potter, artist, merchant, physician, bakerwoman, vinedresser, teacher, artist, metalworker, and homemaker, to name a few.

I have two comments about this. First, and I’ll address this more towards the end, we should be intentional about finding as many metaphors, names, and titles for God as we can. Just as we saw how talking about sin is more helpful with a wide array of images, the same is true for God. And second, the inclusion of so many feminine analogies to describe God should come as no surprise or shock. After all, our theology of creation tells us that both men and women are created — equally — in the image and likeness of God; and our theology of salvation tells us that in Christ, all the old divisions of race, religion, social status, and gender are rendered meaningless before God (Gal. 3.28). Nor is this, surprisingly enough perhaps, a recent concern. St. Basil of Caesarea, for example, insisted that all of Scripture’s promises “apply not only to men, for … many women have distinguished themselves not less than men in the spiritual warfare, and some of them more…” (Shorter Rules 3). And, Basil’s younger brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, said “Woman is in the image of God equally with man. The sexes are of equal value. Their virtues are equal, their struggles are equal…Would a man be able to compete with a woman who lives her life to the full? (Let us Make man in our Image and Likeness, 2nd discourse).

If both masculine and feminine reflect God’s nature, we do ourselves and God a disservice — and we skew our perceptions, theology, and worship of God in the process — if our language and images about God are weighted too heavily in one way or the other.

There is no need for this to be challenging. After all, if we think even of our culture’s most cartoonish stereotypes of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which we might imagine personified in the images of the aloof, unfeeling cowboy on the one hand and a Victorian woman laid out on a fainting couch on the other, they are both stereotypes of unhealthy and immature expressions of gender. I am convinced that the more whole and mature the energies of masculinity and femininity, the more they start to look alike. A whole and healthy man exhibits sterotypically ‘feminine’ traits — he creates, he listens, nurtures, is receptive to others, patient, and is able to express his feelings. A whole and healthy woman exhibits stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits — she is decisive and knows when to speak and act her mind. From a Christian perspective, we’d say this makes sense since in their healthiest forms, all humans, irrespective of gender or biological sex, bend towards the likeness of God. And if the healthy ‘masculine’ expresses ‘femininity’ and healthy ‘feminine’ expresses ‘masculinity’, then it should be easy to find expressions of both in our God in whose image both male and female are made.

With all due respect to ‘Lady Wisdom’ from Proverbs 8, the most common feminine image for God in the Scriptures is as a our Mother. Here’s a quick survey:

  • The Holy Spirit was said to have “brooded” over the deeps in Gen 1.2, a word generally used for a mother bird warming her eggs or hatchlings
  • “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deut 32:18)
  • “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” (Isa 42.14)
  • “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.” (Isa 49.15)
  • As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isa 66:13)
  • “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms …. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hos 11.3.4)
  • “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” (Hos 13.8)
  • “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mt 23.37, cf. Lk 13.34)
  • “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:2–3).

These are powerful and beautiful images — I’ve always been partial to imagining God as a mother bear — of God as the creative and nurturing origin of life. As Johnson notes, “For the child, mothering is associated with primal human experiences of comfort, security, nurture, compassion; the security and assurance of being held, cradled, sheltered, and protected.”

While the Church has often viewed expressions of divine motherhood with suspicion, our tradition is not without its reflections on this them. Perhaps most famous are the English mystic Julian or Norwich’s reflections on Jesus being our Mother:

The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life … The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss … This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.

As we continue reflecting on what it means to know, experience, and speak about God, it’s important to ask ourselves how our ideas and imaginations about God are skewed. For most of us growing up in the Christian tradition, it is likely skewed towards the masculine, but this is not necessarily the case. Some, in reaction against the Church’s discomfort with the divine feminine, have pushed aside the divine masculine, an effort which skews ideas about God just as badly.

While this post has been primarily about our gendered images for God, it’s helpful for all of us to look at all of our most cherished symbols and images and ask ourselves if they are too narrow or limited, if they have become idols for us, if we are willing to unsay them. If we speak of God as our King, can we also speak of God as a Beggar? If we speak of God as being a Lover, can we also speak of God as a Warrior? If we speak of God as a Judge, can we also speak of God as a Defense Attorney? And, yes, if we speak of God as our Father, can we also speak of God as our Mother?

Infinite is, after all, infinite.

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