God Acting Womanish
(1) The context – women’s experience: Societies and religions have devalued women through human history, and this bias against women is intensified by racial and class prejudices. ¶ In society: Violence against women is common world-wide; lack of education for girls means that 2/3 of the world’s women are illiterate; and while women make up half the world’s population, they work 3/4 of the world’s working hours – but earn a tenth of the world’s salary. ¶ In the church: Despite the liberating theology of the early church, women were marginalized as the church began to organize itself – and when women are excluded from church leadership, it is commonly assumed that men have a more privileged place before God. ¶ Woman, you are set free: The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s led many women to work for changes in society and church. When church authorities resisted their call for change, some women left the church; others defected in place; others still remain in the church, hoping for reform.
(2) Diversity: Feminist theologies (from the Latin femina, woman) embrace an alternative vision of equality between sexes, races, classes, peoples, and the earth. Today feminist theology refers to theology being done by white American women of Anglo-European descent. Black women in the U.S., who have been repressed not only because of sex but race, have called their theology ‘womanist’ (from an African-American term meaning audacious, courageous). Women of Latin American descent use the term mujerista (from the Spanish mujer, woman). In all these branches of feminist theology, patriarchy (rule of the father) refers to social structures where power is held by dominant men; and androcentrism (male-centeredness) refers to making men’s way of being human the norm for all human beings.
(3) Glimpses of divine presence and action: Many women have experienced discomfort with the dominant images of God as father, lord, and king – because these images of God are hierarchical, and also reminders of women’s inequality. Male images of the divine also function to maintain male dominance in society, because language about God also has powerful effects on culture. Today’s feminist theologies argue that the mystery of God cannot be confined to any set of images, but transcends them all.
(4) The graven image: Verbal images of God in liturgy, preaching and catechesis – along with visual images in art – have forged a strong link in the popular mind between God and maleness. Because dominant images for God have offered no alternatives, these images are often taken literally. Using female metaphors for God, in addition to male images, can release holy mystery from its patriarchal cage so that God can be truly God – the ground of being, incomprehensible source, sustaining power, holy Wisdom, indwelling Spirit, and holy mystery that surrounds and supports the world.
(5) Mother God: In the Bible, God is sometimes imaged as Mother, which points us to God as the creative source and origin of life. Old Testament texts depict the Holy One of Israel as a pregnant woman crying out in labor, giving birth, breast-feeding, carrying her young, and nurturing her children’s growth. These images convey the unbreakable compassion of God. The Hebrew noun for compassion comes from the root for uterus, rehem; theologian Phyllis Trible notes that rehem suggests the meaning of love is selfless participation in life, protecting and nourishing without possessing or controlling. Sallie McFague observes that a mother gives the gift of life to others, nurtures what comes into existence, and passionately wants her young to grow, flourish, and be fulfilled. And Elizabeth Johnson herself adds, “Witnessing the biblical journey of this metaphor (from the wombs of women to the compassion of God) one cannot help but think what a difference it would make if this knowledge became an explicit part of the teaching on divine love…” A mother’s strong instinct to care for her most needy child also expresses God’s preferential option for the poor.
(6) Holy Wisdom: In thinking about God, people need more than parental models. The later writings of the Old Testament introduce a female figure of gracious power and might who creates, redeems, and sanctifies; she is called Sophia (wisdom) in Greek. Language about Sophia uses female imagery to describe the unfathomable mystery of the living God. In the New Testament, Paul draws on this wisdom tradition, identifying the crucified Christ with the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24).
(7) A symphony of symbols: In addition to Mother and Wisdom, there are other images which help women and girls to recognize themselves in God-language. The Spirit of God, named with the feminine noun ruah (breath, wind, spirit) in Hebrew, is often depicted in Christian art as a dove, an ancient symbol for the goddess of love. Jesus’ parable of the woman who sweeps her house until she finds her missing coin (Luke 15:8f) spoke concretely to a woman in a Mexican base community, who said, “this is exactly what a poor woman would do who needed those pesos to buy tortillas for her children’s breakfast.” Today women are exploring the mystery of the divine, searching for new expressions of religious language and new patterns of spirituality that bless – rather than demean – the reality of being female.
(8) The danger of dualism: When we speak of God having feminine traits or dimensions, our language can become dualistic. When we identify the masculine as active, powerful, and rational we can imply that these characteristics are meant for public leadership. When we identify the feminine as passive, malleable, and emotional, we can imply that these characteristics are meant for nurturing roles in the private realm. If we see God through this gender dualism, the Holy may have feminine attributes, but these attributes are not sufficient for governing the world. Instead, feminist theologians argue that God does not have opposing masculine and feminine traits; rather, women are fully capable of symbolizing the whole mystery of God as adequately (and inadequately) as male images.
(9) Praxis of Biblical justice for women: The struggle for women’s equal dignity is yielding a growing treasury of female images of the living God. The image of God who acts womanish (outrageous, audacious, courageous) supports work for justice in the church and in society. When women are silenced and devalued in the church, this image of God encourages women to speak up. People of faith are also challenged to transform society into a place where discrimination, exclusion and violence against women and girls will cease.