The image of God as Mother is so instinctive that patriarchal religions could not avoid it. The ancestors of the Jews worshipped the Goddess Asherah and the mystical tradition in Judaism known as the Kabbalah revered the Shekinah, the indwelling presence of God. Raphael Patai in The Hebrew Goddess called Shekinah,
an independent divine female entity, a direct heir to ancient Hebrew goddesses.His assessment is shared by other scholars. Asphodel Long in The Absent Mother wrote that Shekinah represented the Tree of Life and the community of Israel.
In the latter case, she is re-mythologized to become the marital partner of God, reflecting the Biblical tradition of God the husband, Israel the wife.Shekinah was secretly glorified by male Jewish mystics whose devotion to Her was not permitted to the whole Jewish society. Women were consequently kept in the dark about this feminine image.
One author of our Christian scriptures employs an image strangely maternal. John 7:38 says,
From within him (literally "from his belly") rivers of living water shall flow.We see here the pattern of attributing female strengths to male God-images because our patriarchal tradition did not allow female God-images. Priscilla, a leader in the early Christian group in Asia Minor known as Montanists, declared,
In a vision Christ came to me in the form of a woman in a bright garment.Not very strange, but the following is. A second century “Church Father” whose theology reminds me of today’s Christian right-wingers, Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote,
His purpose was to feed us at the breast of his flesh, by nursing us . . .Weird and telling!
Another “Church Father” of that time, Clement of Alexandria, wrote:
The Word is everything to the child, both father and mother, teacher and nurse ... The nutriment is the milk of the Father ... and the Word alone supplies us children with the milk of love, and only those who suck at this breast are truly happy. For this reason, seeking is called sucking; to those infants who seek the Word, the Father's loving breasts supply milk.Clement assigned the most powerful image of divine nurturing to a male deity, the Father, because patriarchy could not allow a Goddess. This not only robs female-power; it turns male God-images freakish.
Feminine God-imagery came from yet another “Father,” one in the fourth century—John named Chrysostom (“golden mouthed”). But out of his "golden mouth" came vile sexism:
What else is a woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, as domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! (from Sex Priests and Power by Richard Sipe)How could men called "Church Fathers" and saints be so stupid?
Catherine LaCugna, a modern Trinitarian theologian, tells us that one of the famous fourth-century Trinitarian theologians from Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey),
chided his opponents for thinking that God is male because God is called God and Father.A rare man!
Many have remarked that the biblical Jesus seems feminine, the Jesus of Christian art even more so. His beardless face, his long, abundant, and curly locks distinguish him from the disciples. An unmistakably feminine Christ with swelling breasts and wide hips appeared in the art of Gaul, Ravenna, Rome, and Thessalonica from the mid-fourth century to the beginning of the sixth. If you find the book The Clash of Gods: a Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art by Thomas Mathews, you can see pictures illustrating this.
Catherine LaCugna reports that the Eleventh Church Council of Toledo proclaimed that the Son proceeds from the womb of the Father. Other Christian greats who described God or Christ in feminine terms were Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Anselm of Canterbury, and Mechtild of Magdeburg.
Bernard, Julian, and Mechtild contributed to the twelfth century devotion to the "maternity" of Jesus. They imagined him as their mother, his breasts giving them nourishment—“Mother Jesus" was the name Julian gave him.
Praying to a female image of the Holy One is so natural that Christians do it in spite of being forbidden to do it. Every period of history has had its Goddess—suppressed, dismissed, distorted, demonized—but always under the surface and finally irrepressible.
What difference if God or Goddess? October 4, 2011
It makes a huge difference how we imagine the Holy One. The male-only God dominating Western life had the effect of disparaging feminine values, which left almost a monopoly for masculine values. The God-king encouraged a hard-on-self spirituality. Edward Whitmont in Return of the Goddess throws more light on his influence:
The patriarchal ego is heroic. Its idealized achievement is conquest of self and world by sheer will and bravery. Personal feeling, desire, pain and pleasure are disregarded. Failure to do so is accounted weakness.This rigor had consequences for Western religion and Western political history: wars, conquest, forced conversions, obsession with sin and following rules to get into an exclusive kingdom.
The resulting psychological achievement is a sense of personal identity vested in a body-limited, separate self, answerable to the law of group and God-king.
My overriding theme in this series and much of my writing is our need for inclusiveness, and this is a feminine value. J.J. Bachofen (Myth, Religion, and Mother Right) recognized it in his study of ancient cultures:
Whereas the paternal principle is inherently restrictive, the maternal principle is universal;Bachofen's reflection reminds us that masculine exclusiveness, unchecked, can become a harsh message of every man for himself, us against them, we are the best, look out only for our own.
the paternal principle implies limitation to definite groups, but the maternal principle, like the life of nature, knows no barriers.
The idea of motherhood produces a sense of universal fraternity
. . . Every woman's womb, the mortal image of the earth mother Demeter, will give brothers and sisters to the children of every other woman;
More contrasts between male & female emphases to come.
Maxine Moe Rasmussen emailed,
I've had this quote on my bedroom mirror for many months. Since I've had my own vision of the Great Mother awakening, I can only be hopeful for all of humanity.
"Without a restoration to the Christian mysticism of Jesus' own full celebration of the Divine Feminine, the 'kingdom-consciousness' cannot and will not be born."
The Gospel of Thomas, Annotated & Explained—Stevan Davies & Andrew Harvey
Return of the Goddess
Increasingly the Great Mystery of the Universe is imagined female as She was all over the globe in pre-historic times. Evidence of the Goddess' return surrounds us—visions of Mary, Goddess myths resurrected, and feminism, although reviled, making an impact.
From the science of biology comes the Gaia hypothesis, which observes the biosphere stabilizing global temperatures, oxygen in the atmosphere, ocean salinity, and other factors that support life. It is named after the primordial Earth Goddess Gaia. Even Christians and the slow-moving institutional Church are softening their image of God. An Irish Jesuit quoted by Horrocks (The Absent Mother: Restoring the Goddess to Judaism and Christianity) writes,
Mary is now the atmosphere in which I walk, a feminine atmosphere, a protecting atmosphere, a guiding atmosphere, a loving atmosphere.The monopoly of masculine values wanes, as the globe steadily, inexorably continues its shift to feminine values.
Woman is Life-Giver, Mother Earth, the encircling womb, the Body that gives life and nourishment. She is the power that gives birth to forms, the ultimate Source. As nurturing Life-giver, She inhabits material reality in a way impossible for a Father-God. She is a more immediate parent than the Father can be because She is the Womb from which we are born and to which we return at death to be transformed into new life. Therefore She is not so separate, so disconnected, so "other" from us as the male God. She is, according to Horrocks,
matrix of everything, that is, the home, womb, destiny, and point of return for all life.The perception of power She brings with Her also differs from God the Father’s rule. God and male power sit up there in a vertical universe—over, higher, other. Now we visualize the Holy erupting from below or appearing from within or surrounding us. God as Mother encompasses all, is inner, deeper, through. The Goddess is less a Ruler over us than a Presence empowering us. She gives us power-to-act instead of power-over-another.
As did the Nazarene. The man depicted in the gospels was not a dispassionate superior but cared to the point of weeping. His wont was to empower others. He would say "Arise and walk," but "obey" was not in his vocabulary, and he denounced those who expected to be obeyed. His kind of authority did not diminish others or make them dependent on him; it empowered others and gave them autonomy. Jesus really models the feminine principle.
It stands to reason that we need to balance the tilt of thousands of years. We need the whole. He rules and sets limits, provides protection and strength; She nurtures, gives unconditional love, provides gentle security and unending advocacy. We can only guess, but a society too exclusively-feminine might discriminate too little, might need more demanding standards, might need more drive to achieve, more competition, more anxiety! But if the feminine had more say in our world, there would be fewer wars, fewer children starving and abused, fewer assaults, more local and global cooperation, more care of the environment, and more sharing of wealth.
Of course it would be as foolish to insist that the transcendent Power is a She as to insist that it is a He. The ineffable, holy Power/Mystery/Force of the Universe is beyond words, beyond forms, beyond images, beyond male/female, beyond any conceptions of which we are capable. Augustine:
When we have comprehended, what we have comprehended is not God.Whether we call the majestic Power of the universe "Her" or "Him," "God" or "Goddess," or any of a thousand other names, we need images both firm and yielding, both stern and flexible, both our superior and the ground of our being, both other and our own deepest selves. The Great More continues Her unveiling of Self. The Holy One is both She and He.
Restoring the Divine Feminine is not a favor to feminists; it is the sine qua non of all efforts at healing human divisions. The feminist critique is not a footnote to theology; it is central to everything. Its implications touch global concerns such as starvation, the ecology, the nuclear threat, economic justice, and peace. We are witnessing the most profound change in the human conceptual paradigm in thousands of years, if not in the history of humanity. The evolutionary leap is worth taking.
P.S. In response to an email, I add that I never pray to a female image of Divinity; I communicate with gender-less Spirit. What drives these posts is my fury at Christianity's exclusively male "Father Lord, HeHimHis." I am disgusted that our religion perpetuates ignorance, that it encourages worship of a male-idol, a god, not God.
The world needs Goddess, October 27, 2011
This past Saturday I gave a presentation on the biblical Goddess as part of the Women & Spirituality Conference at the State University in Mankato, Minnesota. In this space I already gave information about Goddess in the Bible and I’ll say more in future posts, but here I want to say that I always come away from the conference feeling hopeful that a shift is occurring in human consciousness.
I started attending in 1992 and haven’t missed a year since then because at that conference I find women (and some men) who GET it, people who ask big questions, arrive at out-of-the-box answers, and come to the conference to be with others who get it. They have the guts to doubt official stories about what we call God, about religion in general, and about politics—the topics that rile and divide people because some have the ability to make imaginative leaps that others fear.
Western religions, which have a disproportionate influence on global spirituality, train people to scoff at the Goddess and that training fosters idolatry. How? By limiting the human imagination to male images of spiritual reality. The Christian “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” for instance, are discussed as if they were male individuals with never any suggestion that the Trinity could be as much female as male. I think very few Christians realize that the God-images they worship are not God the SOURCE of ALL.
No image of Divinity is. That’s what the First Commandment is all about.
I recall an event in the 1990s that brought together college students and professors to listen to presentations from a variety of religions. I represented Goddess spirituality and, when I said that we don’t claim God is more female than male, I sensed surprise, relief, and increased respect. The surprise and respect from some, confusion from others, rose higher when I pointed out that God is also not more male than female.
To the shame of Western religions, an exclusively male deity is precisely what they preach. I’ve actually encountered supposedly scholarly pieces arguing that God is more male than female, but most such preaching happens unconsciously with the pronouns I’ve come to loathe when they’re used in reference to Transcendent Divinity—He, Him, and His. The habit of using exclusively male pronouns promotes idolatry.
Here’s typical God-talk:
Who has known the mind of God? To him be glory. ”What happens when you read this alternative?
“The Lord feeds us; He answers our needs.
Who has known the mind of God. To Her be glory.If it feels wrong, you’re a typical victim of Western religious training. Consider the implications of accepting the first but rejecting the second. I challenge you to consider whether you’re worshipping an idol, thus violating the First Commandment. An idol because your God-image will not admit Transcendence that’s beyond gender, beyond what makes sense to our limited human minds—Transcendence that’s both She and He and infinitely More.
The Power of God feeds us; She answers our needs.
Respectful Goddess-talk and use of She/Her in reference to Transcendence would not only nudge victims of Western religious training toward a deeper understanding of Transcendence; it would profoundly improve every aspect of human life. This is why we need the Goddess.