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.
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