Thoughts on Furiosa and a 19th Century Missionary Wife While Searching for Glory
Last night I sat on my husband's lap and cried into his shoulder. I wasn't really sure why I was crying. In some ways it felt like I was crying over nothing. In other ways it felt like I cried because of everything. I wasn't so upset that I couldn't talk. It was one of those strange moments when tears are coming out of your eyes and snot is welling up in your noes, but you look significantly worse than you feel. All of my thoughts were still with me, and unlike the many other occasions when crying makes them murkier and more confusing, last night's cry put everything into focus.
It's been a weird week. It's been hard to even know why it's been weird. I've been stressed to the max with a Master's thesis I'm trying to write. Each day I've sat down and seriously doubted everything - my topic, my timeline, my brain. Which of course has led me to doubt so many other things about myself - life choices, financial situation, calling. And when I doubt those things, I tend to go on crazy power grabbing hunts. I set my eyes on the best schools I could possibly get into. I make crazy goals for myself like working five career advancing jobs and working out every day and publishing and eating only healthy food and loving everyone I meet and serving in every way possible in my church and getting pregnant right now and cooking more often and... and... and...
I recently read an article someone posted on Facebook about how women can't have it all and how we shouldn't be trying to have it all. Last night, what brought me to tears was realizing why I struggle with wanting it all. The question isn't whether I can or should try for it all, but rather, why do I even want it all in the first place? The truth is, more than anything else in life, I want glory. It's like lead poisoning in my soul. It's so much a part of my nature and a part of my environment that I don't even know it's there until I face these weeks when the sheer stress of it all makes the poisoning obvious.
I have struggled with this disease my entire life. In fact, I would even go so far as saying that a lust for glory is the single more basic thing for understanding who I am and the decisions I've made. It's been intangible enough that it isn't immediately obvious when looking at my life. But when I think of my youngest self and the way I wanted, truly thirsted after being a princess, movie star, or celebrity more than anything else, I see this desire for glory. Then I grew up a little and my pre-teen interests developed and I fell in love with ice skating and dreams of going to the Olympics, and still it was there. Of course those dreams didn't last, but by then I was a teenager and the definition of glory simply changed. The glory I sought after didn't have to be world-renowned. No, I was pretty content with seeking after the more localized glory of "coolness." I wanted to be cooler than everyone else, alone in my glory among the throngs of the "uncool" world. By college, this desire hadn't quite dissipated, but a different sense of glory was growing in competition. Romance. I wanted to find the one person who would bring me the more adult glory of marriage and sex. That was a long quest, and eventually it choked out the glory of being cool. It's amazing, though, how quickly everything changed once I got married. Almost immediately, my heart made the subtle shift from relational glory to the glory of a career. With one major thing checked off, the glory quest moved on to the next thing.
Sometimes I am just so damn tired of it. I have repented and repented and repented again of this thing inside me, but most often it seems like there is just so little to do about it. It is so far, deep, down in my soul that unless I am actively staring it in the face, it will resurrect. It will come back again, and then again in one form or another. It's not the whack-a-mole of sin. At least with whack-a-mole, the mole always looks the same and there are a limited number of spots where it can appear. It's more like the shape-shifting living dead - I can never tell it's there until it's eating me alive because it never looks the same.
As I've been struggling through all of this over the past week, a few images have been floating through my head. First, the funerary words, "She hath done what she could," spoken in memory and honor of a dead 19th century missionary wife. (If you want to know where in the world I got that from, ask my thesis.) Second, the image of Furiosa from Mad Max. These are two very incongruous images - there probably isn't anything more oddly juxtaposed than a meek and petticoated woman from two hundred years ago and a feminist icon who rips the bad guys' heads off. But they are deeply linked in my mind.
I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time last weekend. I had wanted to see it when it came out and I read all of the countless reviews raving about Furiosa. But I don't think I could have understood just how striking she is as a character until seeing the movie for myself. She is, hands down, my favorite portrayal of a heroine I have encountered to date. My favorite used to be Tolkien's Eowyn, but Furiosa cast a light on Eowyn I had never noticed before. I haven't read the books and or watched the movies for quite a long time, so my memory may be faulty, but I remember it being pretty clear that Eowyn wants the glory of battle. She is not allowed to go and so there is a lot of discussion about her desire to participate in something so honorable. She wants to protect her home and family, yes, but she honestly also just wants to be part of something so downright great. Eowyn wants glory. Furiosa, on the other hand, is not once portrayed as considering glory, or even herself, in her quest. She has a mission and she will do whatever it takes to complete it. Whereas Eowyn's desire for a glorious quest requires her to be secretive and cut off from the others, Furiosa's mission requires her to know both her strength and her weakness, enabling her to ask for help when and where she needs it. At the end of Eowyn's battle, she has done something remarkable and she has done something good, but there is much about her narrative that is clearly focused on Eowyn and her triumph as a victory for herself. At the end of Furiosa's tale, however, the clear narrative is that "She hath done what she could."
I think for my entire life, I have wanted to be Eowyn. I have never been able to look beyond the glory involved in the good things there are to do. I have never been able to truly escape myself in the various quests I've set out upon. But glory is not mine to seek. Glory is something that belongs to God alone. As my sweet husband reminded me last night while my snot and mascara smeared across his sweater, one day, because I am his heir and child, God will glorify me at the end of time as he promised. "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." But let's be honest, I don't even really know what that means - to be glorified with God one day. So while I may live in the hope of glory, I really can't seek it now, in this life.
In the end, I'm not even really sure what I'm trying to process in this post other than that I need Jesus. And I need whatever the anti-lead-poisoning equivalent for the soul is. Which is probably just more of Jesus. I'm really not a fan of the "just open to a certain page and find God's message for you" approach to life, but sometimes it is shocking how well it works. Most nights, I tend to just lie in bed gooning out on my phone while Trey brushes his teeth. But last night, for some inexplicable reason, I put the phone down and picked up Augustine's Confessions. I have it in my stack of books next to my bed as a hopeful "one day I won't look at my phone and will read this instead" reminder. I opened to wherever I had last left off and found the following words. "You have rescued me from all the evil roads I have trodden, and given me a sweetness surpassing all the pleasant by-paths I used to pursue. Let me have a mighty love for you; in my inmost being let me hold tight to your hand, so that you may deliver me from every temptation to the very end." (1.15.24)
All of the paths of glory are my lustful temptations, but God has rescued me from them. The cure for my glory-sickened, leaden heart is the same one Augustine sought - to hold tight, very tight, in my inmost being to the hand of God.
Fifty-Six: Abraham and Augustine
Abraham heeded the Lord’s calling and his willingness to do so is credited to him as righteousness; this despite his tragic rebellions along the way. Sometimes, Abraham obeys quickly and willingly and at other times he fails hard. Throughout it all, though, God continues to call and Abraham continues to respond. He lives his life following the Lord, even when it is not clear why or for what purpose.
I sometimes find myself identifying with Abraham because I think he must have been exhausted at times. Like Abraham, I often feel like I don't understand what God is doing in my life. I want to see the big picture so badly, but God rarely seems to share that particular concern. I wonder how Abraham could have responded so quickly to God’s call to leave all that he knew behind. God required him to leave everything familiar and become a sojourner, thereby losing his very identity. As I read his story, I feel the frustration and confusion of following the Lord when the promises seem so real, but the immediate reality so unclear.
Hebrews 11:8-16 tells us:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land… For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking about that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand why Abraham could quickly give up what he already had to follow the Lord’s call. For Abraham, the promises of God were more real than everything he had already attained. How could he not follow?
There is a lot of uncertainty in my life. I've worked in ministry and lived off of support raising for most of my adult life. I have moved ten times across multiple cities, regions, countries, and continents. I want to return to school uncertain of how to fund it. I am a woman in what is still very much a man’s world. I want to have children and I want them to love the Lord. Each and every one of these things brings great uncertainty into my life.
I often find myself trying to grasp ahold of these things to make certain of them; but the more I try to do so, the more dissatisfied and anxious my heart becomes. The more I try to force God’s promises, the more I find the results to be my personal Ishmaels. What brings me peace, joy, and rest is believing that the promises of God are more real to me now, even in all of their hazy unclarity, than what I can produce myself. The city with sure foundations already belongs to me through the blood of Christ and when I keep my eyes focused on it, all of the sojourning through this world quickly passes by.
In an act of historical imagining, I think the words of Augustine could have brought great comfort to Abraham. At least, they have brought much comfort to me in my own attempts to obey God’s calling, focusing my eyes on the sure foundation and heavenly city throughout my wanderings. Augustine writes in his Confessions 1.5.5,
“Who shall give me the gift of resting in you? Who will grant me this, that you come into my heart and make it drunk, so that I forget my evil deeds (Jer. 44.9) and embrace you, my only Good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, and let me speak. What, for that matter, am I to you? Why do you command me to love you? And if I do not, why are you moved to anger and threaten me with utter misery? But is my misery any less, if I fail to love you? Have pity, O Lord! For your own mercies’ sake, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me! Tell my soul: I am your salvation (Ps. 35.3[Ps. 34.3]). Speak, and let me hear your voice. Bend down to my soul’s ear, O Lord; open it, and tell my soul: I am your salvation. I shall run after your voice, and catch you (Phil 3.12). Do not hide your face from me. Let me die to see it; for if I do not see it, I shall die.”
It is still amazing to me that Abraham so quickly heeded the Lord’s call and remained faithful to it throughout his life despite so many doubts and disasters along the way. But I think he would have understood well the heart of Augustine’s words above. Following God often feels like a crazy leap into uncertainty, yet we know it is the most certain thing we do. Abraham’s life demonstrates to me that in the pursuit of God’s face, I must “die to see it; for if I do not see it, I shall die.”
Fifty-Two: The Accident of Sex
"We sometimes hear the expression 'the accident of sex,' as though one's being a man or a woman were a triviality. It is very far from being a triviality. It is our nature. It is the modality under which we live all our lives; it is what you and I are called to be - called by God, this God who is in charge. It is our destiny, planned, ordained, fulfilled by an all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving Lord."
Unless you're living under a rock, you know that gender is a big issue in today's world. A really big issue. I'm not convinced this is an entirely new phenomenon - history is full of humanity's attempts to clarify, assert, and remember what it means to be a man or a woman. But we are entering a time that is new for our collective consciousness, a time in which definitions and parameters are being directly challenged in ways unparalleled for the modern Western world.
There are many ways Christians can respond to these changes, but two of the most common ways I observe among the community of faith are fear and accommodation. We all have friends and family members who are either rampaging about what the world is coming to or lamenting that the church remains so culturally outdated and judgmental. One side argues that nothing should change regarding our ideas of manhood and womanhood. The other side doesn't care if the popular culture dictates gender to be a sliding scale. Maybe you belong in one of these camps yourself.
Instead of fear or accommodation, the most encouraging responses I've seen and the response I wish more people would take, is a celebration of the human being's design. Today America's younger generations love design. Good design is obsessed over and glorified. I've heard some of my most hip friends give good design an almost salfivic role in the world. Young America is in love with the idea of a curated life - a life which displays the careful consideration and design of a person making conscious decisions. We celebrate our own ability to carefully arrange the things around us, but somehow we don't have an appreciation of that which is above us in the design and curation of this world.
The world has always been plagued by the divorce of the human being's wholeness. For millennia, humanity has held in one way or another to the sharp divide between our material and immaterial selves. In some ways, it's understandable. We feel a disjointedness between our bodies which every day underwhelm and disappoint us and the inner life that can be so rich and promising. But this is a false division, a feeling which is only that, and which betrays the brokenness of humanity.
"No one can define the boundaries of mind, body, and spirit. Yet we are asked to assume nowadays that sexuality, most potent and undeniable of all human characteristics, is a purely physical matter with no metaphysical significance whatever.
Some early heresies which plagued the Church urged Christians to bypass matter. Some said it was in and of itself only evil. Some denied even its reality. Some appealed to the spiritual nature of man as alone worthy of attention - the body was to be ignored altogether. But this is a dangerous business, this departmentalizing. The Bible tells us to bring all - body, mind, spirit - under obedience."
Our materiality matters and it matters in our modern understanding of gender. We must let it speak to us, especially if we believe that there is a God who designs and curates the universe in which we live. Maybe my hipster friends are on to something - there is a lot of learn from their appreciation of and respect for design. They work to bring both the material and immaterial world into unity and submission to their plans. There are no "accidents," but rather chaos brought into beautiful harmony. Love is poured into their work, and labor, and they know even the smallest details of the worlds which they build. Everything has its role and purpose. And they celebrate it.
As women, we need to celebrate the way we have been designed. This doesn't mean there is no debate or discussion about how to understand or interpret our design. For example, we no longer believe women shouldn't participate in athletic activity for fear our uteruses will fall out. This misunderstanding of the design caused centuries of discrimination and was rightly challenged and changed. But that doesn't mean there isn't a design. We can and should continue to anticipate that the material world which not only surrounds us, which indeed is us, has something to say about who we are. As Elizabeth Eliot finally asks us,
"Yours is the body of a woman. What does it signify? Is there invisible meaning in its visible signs - the softness, the smoothness, the lighter bone and muscle structure, the breasts, the womb? Are they utterly unrelated to what you yourself are? Isn't your identity intimately bound up with the material forms? ...How can we bypass matter in our search for understanding the personality?"
New Blog on China
Check out this new project I'm helping with - www.chinapartnership.org/blog.
We're starting up a new blog on China and its church as well as global-local ministry in the US. Still working out a lot of kinks with with site, but I think it's going to develop into something really good in the coming months. We'll be fully launching in January!
Click the picture to read my introduction to the blog!
The author of the following and I come very different perspectives and I would be remiss to recommend much of her other work, but her thoughts here are beautiful and thought-provoking. So I thought I would share...
"Our theme is the world of life, the word communicated through... a word written in blood. In his blood shed for us Jesus signs the new testament assuring us of God's forgiveness and bringing us into a new relationship with one another... The litmus test of our love for God is our love for others, our love expressed not only in the giving of our lives but in the sharing of our goods, our livelihood, with the poor of the world.
And for some that has meant literally laying down their lives. For since we last met we have seen the body of Christ shedding its own blood through the witness of the martyrs... who died with clothes stained with the blood of sacrifice, blood freely given for the poor and oppressed in the struggle for justice and in the ministry of reconciliation.
The shedding of blood can be a symbol of creation and life rather than destruction and death. For a woman the shedding of blood which is sometimes thought of as a curse is in fact a blessing. It is a sign that her body is being prepared to give birth if and when life is conceived within her. And even if she personally never knows the privilege of motherhood, the instincts and energies released within her can be used by God in the partnership of sustaining and nourishing his children, deprived or robbed of their full human dignity. She is called to magnify life wherever it is diminished, as, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, she magnifies the Lord.
Jesus compared his disciples to a pregnant woman. While the world waits hopefully she must agonize and labour to bring to birth the life hidden within her.
We live in a world pregnant with his coming kingdom. We share the travail and the labour and the sweat of bringing to birth that new age of the son of God, to whom, as the writer of the epistles puts it, the spirit, the water and the blood bear witness."
- Dr. Pauline Webb based on 1 John 1:1-4, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes,which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete." Also echoing Galatians 4:19-20, "My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!" and Matthew 24:4-8, "Jesus answered: 'Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains."
"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.
For My Troubled Heart
"Who shall give me the gift of resting in you? Who will grant me this, that you come into my heart and make it drunk, so that I forget my evil deeds (Jer. 44.9) and embrace you, my only Good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, and let me speak. What, for that matter, am I to you? Why do you command me to love you? And if I do not, why are you moved to anger and threaten me with utter misery? But is my misery any less, if I fail to love you? Have pity, O Lord! For your own mercies' sake, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me! Tell my soul: I am your salvation (Ps. 35.3 [Ps. 34.3]). Speak, and let me hear your voice. Bend down to my soul's ear, O Lord; open it, and tell my soul: I am your salvation. I shall run after your voice, and catch you (Phil 3.12). Do not hide your face from me. Let me die to see it; for if I do not see it, I shall die."
- Augustine, Confessions, 1.5.5
On Calling God "Mother"
I first heard someone call God "Mother" in 2005 when I was studying in Washington, DC, during my junior year of college. What shocked me most was not the word itself, but the context. Growing up in university settings, my social circles were pretty diverse and concepts of the divine feminine were not new to me thanks to Hindu playmates and a neighbor who constructed a giant, papermache Mother Earth statue in the back yard for her high school graduation. No, what was shocking that year in DC was that the context was not the already familiar pagan one; rather, the word came from a classmate at an evangelical Christian study program. When it came to her turn to say a prayer before class one afternoon, my classmate started her prayer with "Father, Mother God..." After her address of God is such a manner, I can't remember another single word she said because I was so stunned at what I heard. To whom did she think she was praying?
Well, as usually happens, life kept on going, papers were still due, and I didn't give too much time to either thinking about what had happened or to getting to know this classmate whom I only occasionally saw. I returned from DC to my college outside of Chattanooga and forgot about it even further. But not for long. For my senior thesis in history, I decided to study early 20th century feminist sexual philosophy. It fascinated me and I loved delving into topics about which I had long been curious. Funnily enough, I also found myself in a theology class and the intersection of studying historic Christian doctrine while reading DeBeauvior and the Heterodites left me asking a slew of questions about where and how women fit into God's eternal plan. Why was my faith so male-centric? (This is a topic of vast width and depth, but for some of my initial thoughts on it from a while back, see here).
Thankfully I had very wise professors who, rather than dismissing my questions, kindly pointed me in the direction of better questions and I was able to come to a place of peace and faith about having a Heavenly Father. But I still continue to think about and mull over these questions. Ultimately, the question that I have come to is this: Since God has chosen to reveal himself as our Father, what is the significance of this choice? But before coming to this question what I recognized, and what many other women will have to recognize, is simply that God has revealed himself using masculine language rather than feminine. And it is his prerogative. Before any conversation about where and how women fit into God's design and plan, we must first understand God's choice of language for himself.
Now I am in seminary and finding plenty more opportunities to think about these questions. They are complex and they are wonderful questions. And they are challenging. Our God is not simple and he is not mild. Even in the midst of serious wrongs against and problems with women in the church, God's character does not alter and he is awesome in his beauty.
Anyways, I wrote the following paper for a class and since I found the topic to be really interesting, I thought you all might find it interesting, too. I am not going to tout it as a great piece of research, but hopefully it can be a source of thought as we strive to know and love the God who created male and female and revealed himself as Father.
P.S. I took out the footnotes for ease of reading on the blog, but left the bibliography.
Naming the Divine: God’s Gender, Feminist Theology, and the Doctrine of Revelation
1. Introduction – Who Are We Talking About?
In the last fifty years, feminist theologians have raised a number of fundamental questions about the nature of God. What started as an exploration of and outcry against the church’s history of misogyny led to efforts to see justice done by introducing feminine language for God. The feminist theologians have faced strong criticism from evangelical theologians. At stake within the debate is Christianity’s very understanding of God and his divine right of revelation. More fundamental to the debate are questions about God’s personhood. Whether they are content to maintain the label of Christianity or intent on wrecking the religion as a whole, the feminist theologians examined in this paper all take issue with the traditional orthodox understanding of who God is.
This paper will discuss two of the most prominent feminist writers and the disregard for God’s right to reveal himself that underpins their writing. There are many different aspects to feminist arguments for gender inclusive language, but in this paper we will be analyzing the underlying views of God, particularly in the works of Virginia Mollenkott and Mary Daly. Rather than interacting with God according to the language he has chosen, these theologians’ take the right of naming God for themselves, either reducing God to a concept or claiming that the need for female inclusion outweighs God’s communication. The reclamation of the power to name was central to the feminist movement philosophically and these theologians openly talked of the need for renaming God.
In response, we will consider how Christian doctrine has held for thousands of years that it is God who reveals himself to us. We do not create him, change him, or name him. As with any person, but especially with the eternal Person, it is not within our power, ability, or rights to alter what God has told us about himself. In response to the feminist theologians, we need to look to one of our most foundational doctrines and carefully consider its application. The starting point of our response must be God’s rightful revelation of himself – that God tells us about himself, names himself, and directs our language towards him.
2. Radical and Evangelical – The Feminist Theologians
Feminism’s history with Christianity is long and complex. Feminism and Christianity have not always been oppositional, in contrast to the typical portrayal: many Christian denominations and organizations from the mid 19th century onward provided a home and support structure for various feminist movements. Serious feminist theology, however, did not begin until the late 1960s and started to take significant shape in the 1970s and 1980s.
Though a simplified statement, the feminist theologians were initially divided into two groups – radical and evangelical feminists. Both groups believed in the importance and necessity of religion for the further good of women; however, they had very different ideas about what that meant. The evangelical feminists believed the gospel held the power necessary for female transformation and strove to find Biblical support and answers for their causes. The radical feminists were more diverse in their relationship with Christianity. As exemplified in Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow’s popular anthology of radical feminist theology, Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, the radical feminists either desired to completely transform and alter the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition by looking back to what they claimed to be its roots, which incorporated goddess worship, or they considered themselves “post-Christian” and breaking beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith.
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott initially found herself within the evangelical feminist movement and, though perhaps an unlikely candidate, was one of its leading voices. Mollenkott was raised in a strict fundamentalist setting and attended Bob Jones University for her undergraduate degree. She married straight out of school, but went on to complete a Masters and Doctorate in English while raising a family, not a small feat for a woman in the 1950s and 60s. After chairing the English department in a religiously affiliated college, Mollenkott quit her job and found a position at a secular institution in order to clear the way for what she felt to be an inevitable divorce. Shortly thereafter, Mollenkott started to become involved with the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, the center of evangelical feminism, and though Mollenkott’s relationship with evangelicalism eventually completely broke down due to dramatic shifts in her theology and personal life, her first two books on the topic of Biblical feminism had a huge impact.
Mary Daly, who held a doctorate in each of the areas of religion, sacred theology, and philosophy, taught at Boston College and sat squarely within the radical feminist camp, if not at its head. One of the first feminist theologians to have a major impact, Daly came from the Catholic tradition, but openly rejected most, if not all, church doctrines.
3. Constructing the Feminine within the Divine
A. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Mollenkott’s arguments are marked as much by what they leave out as by that for which they argue. Apart from certain odd hermeneutical arguments concerning Paul’s writings on women, Mollenkott’s arguments for feminine language for God in Women, Men, & the Bible and The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female rely on her understanding of metaphor. The starting point of Mollenkott’s argument for using feminine language for God is that since God is neither male nor female, all language used for him is metaphorical in nature. She writes,
“It is vital that we remind ourselves constantly that our speech about God, including the biblical metaphors of God as our Father and all the masculine pronouns concerning God, are figures of speech and are not the full truth about God’s ultimate nature.”
From this point, she goes on to assume that because these Biblical metaphors do not capture God’s full nature, they can therefore be changed or altered.
Mollenkott further argues that since the cultural context of the Bible should not be absolutized, the presence of feminine imagery for God shows us that the authors intended to encourage their listeners to conceive of God in feminine terms. Mollenkott argues in Men, Women, and the Bible that since the cultural setting of the Bible was strictly patriarchal, any presence of feminine imagery for God would have been a challenge to masculine conceptions of God and a statement on the acceptability of feminine language. She applauds the daring of the Biblical writers for referring to God in the feminine as much as they were able to, since given their cultural context they could not refer to God in feminine language more than they did. This idea forms the basis of her later book, The Divine Feminine, where she looks at a variety of passages with such images as birth pangs (Isaiah 42:14), Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 1-9), and a mother hen (Matthew 23:27) used in connection with God.
Mollenkott’s underlying assumption is that it is humanity that names God. She correctly argues that all of the images used for God are inspired; yet she fails to recognize or acknowledge God’s revelation of himself. Mollenkott writes,
“The Bible certainly utilizes male imagery concerning God, and Jesus encourages us to call God our Father, so there cannot be anything wrong with that. The problem arises when we ignore, as we have, the feminine imagery concerning God, so that gradually we forget that God-as-Father is a metaphor, a figure or speech, an implied comparison intended to help us relate to God in a personal and intimate way.”
Mollenkott is very intentional to say that in interpreting the Bible, we must look for the author’s original intent; however, she does not seem to talk as if God is author behind those humanly involved. In Mollenkott language, primary Biblical authorship lies with the human author and as such, we have the freedom, and even responsibility, to change our language for God based upon current needs.
B. Mary Daly
In reading Daly’s groundbreaking works, The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, it is hard to escape the influence existentialist philosophy had on her view of God and religion. In The Church and the Second Sex, Daly directly credits Simone de Beauvoir with influencing much, if not all, of her arguments. In The Church and the Second Sex, de Beauvoir’s philosophy is a more direct influence and source for much of Daly’s criticism, but in Beyond God the Father, we see existentialist philosophy more fully thought out and applied to her deconstruction of Christianity. In these two books, we see Daly develop and bring to fullness her arguments for God as Verb and her ideas that transcendence for humanity lies in female liberation. By the end, Daly has taken away any possibility of God’s self-revelation.
In The Church and the Second Sex, Daly starts her arguments with pretty traditional feminist criticisms of Christianity, such as skewering its misogynistic history, but she quickly moves on to interlace discussion of de Beauviour’s own criticisms and philosophy of gender. She integrates de Beauvior’s arguments that as an instrument of women’s oppression, the church has kept women in passive roles, prevented them from full participation, and taught them to focus on the after-life as compensation. Daly states, “…the Church by its doctrine implicitly conveys the idea that women are naturally inferior.” Daly then goes on to argue this can be most clearly seen in the doctrines of Mary. Women within the church were forced to abandon the mother-goddess of antiquity and in substitute were given the virgin Mother of God who continually exists in a role subordination. She criticizes what she sees as Greek influence in Christian thought which led to ideas of fixed natures and Jewish influence towards antifeminism.
Daly’s most significant issue is with that of fixed natures. Echoing the existentialists, Daly writes in the The Church and the Second Sex that for woman to have her own personhood and freedom, she must be able to develop and define her own nature. Any idea of scripture informing or defining the nature of femininity or womanhood is abhorrent to Daly. She writes, “The characteristics of the Eternal Woman are opposed to those of a developing, authentic person, who will be unique, self-critical, active and searching…” and later “…on all fronts the Eternal Woman is the enemy of the individual woman looking for self-realization and creative expansion of her own unique personhood.” Because the church has argued the nature of gender is immutable and God revealed himself as male, woman cannot enter fully into personhood, so the source of immutable gender must be challenged.
To do this, Daly offers a number of solutions. No one really believes God belongs to the male sex, but we continue to speak as such, so “conceptualizations, images, and attributes” of God must be altered. To do so, Christianity must first be de-Hellenized, or moved beyond ideas of omnipotence, immutability, and providence. Second, ideas of biological nature or Natural Law must be ridden as part of the larger need to do away with a static worldview. Third, Christianity must move beyond institutionalism and fourth, beyond ideas of sin. But most importantly for our discussion, Daly calls for the end of the idea of a closed and authoritative revelation.
Daly develops her ideas further in her follow up Beyond God the Father. Because of Daly’s views on revelation and scripture, she sees no separation between what the church has been or said and what the Christian view on women is. She says, “The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as a plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting.” God is not above or separate from his people, therefore what the church has said and what the scriptures say are not separated in their implications for women. This is the heart behind Daly’s infamous statement, “…if God is male, then the male is God.”
From this point, Daly has very few pretenses of staying within the bounds of Christianity or of relating to the God who reveals himself. Her purpose is to find transcendence and “the search for ultimate meaning and reality, which some would call God.” Key to her argument is the rejection of God as a person to be known. In her view, religion no longer has a relational nature to it and as such there is no God who tells us anything about himself. Without the concept of revelation, the concept of God can be dismantled and rebuilt according to a person or group’s needs. She says,
“The various theologies that hypostatize transcendence, that is, those which one way or another objectify ‘God’ as a being, thereby attempt in a self-contradictory way to envisage transcendent reality as finite. ‘God’ then functions to legitimate the existing social, economic, and political status quo, in which women and other victimized groups are subordinate.”
“I will begin my description with some indications of what my method is not. First of all it obviously is not that of a ‘kerygmatic theology,’ which supposes some unique and changeless revelation peculiar to Christianity or to any religion. Neither is my approach that of a disinterested observer who claims to have an ‘objective knowledge about’ reality. Nor is it an attempt to correlate with the existing cultural situation certain ‘eternal truths’ which are presumed to have been captured as adequately as possible in a fixed and limited set of symbols. None of these approaches can express the revolutionary potential of women’s liberation for challenging the forms in which consciousness incarnates itself and for changing consciousness.”
Daly goes on to argue that we should no longer conceive of God as a noun, but rather as a verb, or rather God as Verb. She believes all ideas of God as a person are anthropomorphic, and that hope for women lies in beginning to see God as “Be-ing” in which we can and should participate. She writes, “Women now who are experiencing the shock of nonbeing and the surge of self-affirmation against this are inclined to perceive transcendence as the Verb in which we participate – live, move, and have our being.”
Furthermore, the power of naming must be restored to women in addition to participation in the transcendence, or being, of God. This includes the power of naming God. Daly writes, “To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God. The ‘method’ of the evolving spiritual consciousness of women is nothing less than this beginning to speak humanly – a reclaiming of the right to name. The liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves.” Along with God’s being, his name is no longer something revealed, but rather something constructed and reclaimed by womanhood.
4. The Doctrine of Revelation
After looking at these arguments, one may ask what an orthodox response should be. Of course, there are many more aspects to these women’s arguments that are not covered in this paper. But I have chosen to look closely at views on revelation because the fundamental question we need to ask is if we are talking about the same God. Who are Daly and Mollenkott talking about? I would propose that unless they are talking about a God who has revealed himself on his own terms, the discussion is about a false god.
It is a basic tenant of Christianity that God’s transcendence sets the precedence for our relating to him. In Knowing God, J.I. Packer starts his book with a wonderful observation on the nature of relating to God. He writes,
“… the quality of extent of our knowledge of other people depends more on them than on us. Our knowing them is more directly the result of their allowing us to know them than of our attempting to get to know them… Imagine, now, that we are going to be introduced to someone whom we feel to be ‘above’ us… The more conscious we are of our own inferiority, the more we shall feel that our part is simply to attend to this person respectfully and let him take the initiative in the conversation.”
If we really believe there is a transcendent God, then we must rely upon what he tells us about himself. We may not understand or like it, or we may see grave misinterpretation by the church of what he has told us, but we are completely dependent on God’s communication of himself to us.
In his book on the topic called The Revelation of God, Peter Jensen ties our ability to pray to God to the name by which he reveals himself. Apart from God’s revelation of how we should call upon him, all spiritual relationships are sinister and deceitful. He writes,
“Throughout the Bible, our speech directed towards God is understood to be an essential part of this friendship with God. Prayer is virtually a universal human phenomenon, but Christian prayer takes its nature from what we know about God, including the invitations to prayer that he gives us. The prayers of the Bible, including those of Jesus, show that prayer responds to the revelation of God in his word. Its scope, content, and assurance are based on the character of God as he reveals himself. Confident prayer is based on knowing God’s name. As far as Christians are concerned, God is characteristically addressed as Father, in the name of the Son and in the power of the Spirit. This trinitarian intimacy arises from an encounter with the words God has spoken. The Bible does not regard those who are ignorant of God as lacking spiritual relationships, but considers that those relationships are sinister rather than helpful. What Israel in particular has been given is the name of God, by which God’s people may address him with success, in that they may be confident of being heard. Without the name, relationship is impossible. Prayer moves within the ambit of revelation…”
In prayer, our most intimate interaction with God, we are told to call God our Father and it is not within our rights or abilities to change this fundamental requirement for relating to God.
If it is up to God to reveal himself to us, then we must assume that though the feminist theologians were correct in arguing that God is neither male nor female, they were incorrect in arguing male language for God is optional. In his Christian Theology, Millard J. Erickson says,
“Humans cannot reach up to investigate God and would not understand even if they could. So God has revealed himself by a revelation in anthropic form. This should not be thought of as an anthropomorphism as such, but as simply a revelation coming in human language and human categories of thought and action.”
If we accept that even God’s anthropic language about himself is revealed, then we do not have the liberty to change the gender of the language used. Erickson also says of God, “The particular names that the personal God assumes refer primarily to his relationship with persons rather than with nature.” We may believe that God is Spirit, and therefore neither masculine nor feminine, but we must believe that his choice to use masculine language and teach us to call him Father was for a relational purpose with his people.
5. Conclusion – Why Should Revelation Matter for Feminism?
As the feminist theologians accurately assessed, naming is power. It is not something one does to another unless they have the right to do so and hold a significant degree of authority over the other. The right to name belongs to only a select group of people in this world, parents and the self, and the latter only in renaming. For a disenfranchised group to be empowered, the ability to name is an important right to establish. In Daly’s aggressive linguistic arguments to erase God’s personhood and Mollonkott’s more seemingly benign arguments using various Biblical imagery to refer to God in feminine language, both of these women recognize and lay claim for women to the primal power there is in naming the divine.
What the feminist theologians disregard is the fact that it is not their right to rename the transcendent God. By doing so, as Jensen implies, both Daly and Mollenkott break the “friendship with God” that he forges with humanity through his name. God will not be wrestled into a new identity because of the very real injustice done to women; rather, he first demands relationship according to his will, and then promises freedom and restoration.
The issues addressed by the feminist theologians are real ones and as such, Christians should participate in the conversations surrounding feminism; however, we must remember in doing so that God is not a concept to be changed for the benefit of humanity. God is the transcendent, triune Person about whom we can know nothing unless he reveals himself. In this, we should find hope because this Person who tells us about himself is all-powerful and just. The God who Is tells us about himself and he tells us that he will put to right all that has been wrong.
Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, ed. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1979.
Cochran, Pamela D.H. Evangelical Feminism: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.
Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968.
Erickson, Millard J. “God’s Particular Revelation.” In Christian Theology, 200-223. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1983.
Erickson, Millard J. “The Greatness of God.” In Christian Theology, 289-308. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1983.
Jensen, Peter. The Revelation of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. New York: Crossroad, 1983.
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. Women, Men, and the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1977.
Mossman, Jennifer, ed. Reference Library of American Women, Volume I. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1999.
Packer, J.I. Knowing God. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
I've recently been taking a class at the seminary where my husband studies. It's a pretty basic survey of theology and to be honest, I often have a hard time paying attention. The other day, though, I found myself pausing for thought as I was faced with the very basic question, "Why does theology matter?" After some reflection, I came up with my answer, but only to then further ponder the question, "Why does theology matter... for women?"
I don't think it's a ground-breaking statement when I say most women within Christianity don't devote a lot of time to thinking about theology. In a place and age where the average Christian, male or female, struggles to spend significant time in scripture and prayer, reading or studying theology often seems obscure and unnecessary. Throw into that an average women's ministry which focuses primarily on devotionals, family life, and maybe a little counseling, and we start to see why there is a significant dearth of women who put much time or energy towards picking up classic theological works on such daunting topics as revelation or providence. Trust me, I too would much rather pick up a devotional study on hospitality or reconciliation than a stodgy tome on the different views of imputation.
So then, what's the big deal with theology?
As the professor stated at the beginning of my course, theology has to do with the great truths and mysteries of life, all of which center around the knowledge of God. And this knowledge has much to do with our spiritual being and existence. It is the backbone for the process of salvation, the center of our relationship with the Creator, and the foundation of the spiritual comfort he offers. Theology is the cognitive expression of the saints’ collective knowledge of their Father making it an important task if we claim to be his daughters.
The question of theology is not one of whether we like it or even of whether we completely understand it, but one of whether we are striving know to our God. In any relationship, systematic analysis and contemplation of the information provided by the beloved is vital. For example, I cannot know my husband apart from what he reveals to me; I must rely on his desire to communicate about himself for our relationship to be established. Nothing can happen unless he makes himself known to me. However, I also am responsible with what he reveals. If I do not carefully consider what my husband tells me about himself or reflect upon what it says about him, then I am making a truly poor attempt to know and love him. It is my relational responsibility as a wife to have thought about the truths of my husband to such an extent that should somebody ask me about him, I might be able to provide an accurate answer. It would be a shame if when asked about my husband, I answered, “I can’t tell you anything about him. The only way for you to know of him is to have a direct experiential knowledge of him yourself.” Not only would this make no sense at all, it would raise doubts concerning whether I care enough about my husband to have my own understanding of him.
And the analogy goes further. If I never asked or listened to my husband's family or close friends about their understanding of who my husband is, I would be considered an egotistical (insert your word of choice...)! Unless I think they are just absolutely wrong, I am obliged to find out what my beloved's family knows of him. (And even if I think they are completely wrong, I probably need to hear what they have to say if for no better reason than an accurate education on my new family.) I have no right in any relationship to develop my knowledge of the person I love in exclusion from what others have to tell me about their knowledge of the person. I must get to know my husband myself, and I can even have the expectation that I know him better than others, but my relationship to him is not unilateral.
Similarly, if we, the bride of Christ, cannot give answers about God according to what he has revealed about himself in scripture and in recognition of what the saints through the ages have said about him, then we have paid no more attention to him than a wife who cannot clearly answer questions about her husband and has never listened to the stories told by her in-laws. Theology is something integral to what we do as human beings in our desire to know the God who first knew us. Everyone theologizes; the issue is how we do so. Every wife has an opinion about her husband, but that does not necessarily mean it is an accurate opinion. If we truly love Christ, the question is not “if” we should study theology, but “how.” All Christians will have opinions about their God, but will those opinions be according to what our Lord has actually revealed about himself?
And that's just the point. As women, we should be making just as much an effort to know our God as any one else in our life. I was personally deeply convicted when I asked myself the question, "How much effort do I make through the course of my day to know and understand my husband, best friends, parents, siblings, and every other person who is significant to me?" And I don't just flippantly get to know them - I (at least try) to seriously give them my attention and invest in knowing them. I pride myself on being an authority on them in ways others aren't. Can I honestly expect my relationship with the Creator to be any less? God has brought us into his family and told us about himself. As women, let us sit together with our brothers and sisters throughout the ages and learn about Him in order that we may be daughters who know their Father well.
"(An) ...observation is this: Man and woman together are the image of God. We have already made the point... that man's having been created male and female is an essential aspect of the image of God. Karl Barth, as we saw, lays great stress on this point: man's existence as male and female is not something secondary to the image, but is at the very heart of the image of God. This is so not just because of the difference in sex between man and woman - since this distinction is found also among the animals - but because of far-reaching differences in personality between the two. Man's existence as male and female means that man as a masculine being has been created for partnership with another being who is essentially like him but yet mysteriously unlike him. It means that woman is the completion of man's own humanity, and that man is wholly himself only in his relationship with woman.
This implies that man is not the image of God by himself, and that woman cannot be the image of God by herself. Man and woman can only image God through fellowship with each other - a fellowship that is an analogy of the fellowship God has within himself. The New Testament teaches that God exists as a Trinity of "Persons" - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Human fellowship, as between man and woman, reflects or images the fellowship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And yet there is a difference. For persons as we know them are separate beings or entities, whereas God is three "Persons" in one Divine Being. Human fellowship, therefore, is only a partial analogy of divine fellowship - yet it is an analogy.
It is there unfortunate that the English language has no word like the German Mensch or the Dutch word mens, both of which mean "human being, whether male or female." The English word man has to serve a double purpose: it may mean either (1) "male or female human being" (the generic sense) or (2) "male human being." This double use of the word man seems to betray a typical masculine kind of arrogance, as if the male is the carrier of all that is involved in being human. But man can only be fully human in fellowship and partnership with woman; woman complements and completes man, as man complements and completes woman. When we use the word man in the generic sense, therefore... we must always keep this in mind.
The fact that man and woman together image God will still be true in the life to come. Jesus once said, "When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (Mark 12:25). The similarity to angels, however, means only that there will be no marriage at that time; it does not mean that the differences between men and women will no longer exist. In the final resurrection we shall not loose our individuality; that individuality will be not only retained but enriched, and our maleness or femaleness is the essence of that individual existence.
In the life to come, therefore, not only shall we continue to image God as men and women together, but we shall then be able to do this perfectly. We do not know how such fellowship and partnership between men and women will be carried out in a situation where there will be no marriage. But we do know this: Only then shall we see what the relationship between men and women can be like in its richest, fullest, and most beautiful sense."
- Created in God's Image, by Anthony A. Hoekema