I wrote a couple of leaflets for the Mind Body Spirit fayre I was at this weekend, one of them was called ‘Mother God?’, and a lot of people picked it up. It’s pretty basic, but it was supposed to be light and easy to read, anyway – here’s the text – crowd sourced revisions and clarifications are welcome. I think the one thing I would add if I were to redraft it today, is some kind of prayer at the end of it.
Christianity, Patriarchy and the Divine Feminine
Because of its language, Christianity can seem to be a rather male dominated affair. Talk of ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ can make the Christian faith sound very patriarchal. But in fact the only truly male aspect of the Trinity that Christians call God, is the person of Jesus.
God in his or her own right cannot be ascribed a single gender, containing aspects of both the masculine and the feminine. Jesus refers to God as his ‘Father’ – thereby demonstrating his own inheritance of God’s authority, but throughout the Bible God is shown as having feminine qualities, including giving birth and suckling.
So why has the Christian God become seen as masculine? Without doubt culture and power have played a role in the construction of an almost exclusively male portrayal of the divine. For many years the culture of male rule was firmly entrenched in society, and many leaders were loathe to change or upset that, particularly as it might be seen to threaten their own positions.
The names of God in the Bible
The Bible we read today is the product of the hard work of translators who have faithfully worked to provide a text which accurately represents the original words and meanings of documents many centuries old.
But we might reasonably consider that the idea of God as masculine, and the ongoing patriarchal culture which has come down from that interpretation is not a good reflection of either the ancient scriptures, nor even the text we have today. Certainly God is described as ‘Father’ but that is not the only way that deity is described. Jesus called God ‘Abba’ a word which has its closest contemporary meaning in ‘daddy’ but most accurately represents a parental relationship of great intimacy.
Other passages give God an particularly female aspect – for instance, the name El Shaddai is used for God a number of times in the book of Genesis. El Shaddai has been translated as ‘Almighty God’ but might more accurately be understood as ‘God with breasts’.
On other occasions God is given female qualities, including the ability to give birth.
Deuteronomy 32:18 “You neglected the Rock who begot you, And forgot the God who gave you birth.
Jewish Rabbis used the word ‘Shekinah’ to describe the presence of God, as a hovering manifest being, an image which would later be used by Christians to describe the Holy Spirit. Shekinah is a feminine noun, and has also been used to help describe God in feminine terms.
Patriarchy and power
There is no doubt that it has suited many powerful people for many years to ensure that power remained in male hands. However, even major religious leaders have over years explained God in terms which deny the idea of God as solely masculine.
“God is a Father. More than that, God is a Mother.”
Pope John Paul II
While the language may take many more years to change and adjust, neither essential Christian teaching, nor even many of the major spiritual leaders would ascribe a fully male nature to God.
Many in the protestant church are wary of the idea of the elevation of Mary to God status, and that may have reinforced the use of masculine words for God, but it is becoming more and more widely accepted that to try and confine God into a gender or sex, is impossible.
Gender inequality and the ‘priesthood of all believers’.
There has for many years been a gender imbalance in the ‘hierachy’ of the church. In fact, many believers will accept that there is not, or should not be a hierarchy at all, as Jesus teaching was that ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first’ – demonstrating his own humble spirit by consenting to be treated as an outcast and murdered by his opponents.
But despite that, it is still true that for some time, women have been excluded from holding roles of responsibility within the church – or have they?
Certainly some major denominations have stated that only men can serve as priests or bishops, but in reality women have since the earliest days of the faith been operating in positions of power and responsibility within the global church. Certain high profile roles have remained exclusively male, but that is slowly beginning to change, and Christian thought, which is always a widely divergent and slow moving being at the best of times, is ever more accepting of the rightness and necessity of equality between the sexes.
There are certain bible passages which continue to cause discussions and disputes between opposing groups within the Christian faith, but there are many others which demonstrate very clearly that Jesus came to set us all free. That he considered all of us as equal, and that, as one Biblical writer put it: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)