Why the Feminine Face of God Matters
Today, people are gathering in California at the US Catholic Bishops’ meeting to make a Declaration for A Church for Our Daughters and to ask for dialogue in how to build it together. As a way to honor this day, the following is an essay that explains why the Feminine Face of God matters in our Church today.
by Marci Madary
Catholics seem to be starved for the feminine Divine in their faith lives. While people may not be comfortable admitting as much, due to the over-emphasis of male-only language used for God, their actions speak otherwise. Mary of Nazareth over time has been promoted to almost the status of a deity. While she birthed God’s child, she herself was a humble woman, not a goddess. Yet, looking at all of the statues, sanctuaries, and altars created to venerate her and pray to her, it would be easy to think otherwise. Our Lady of Guadeloupe, in the hearts of the Mexican people, has certainly been elevated to have an equal footing as God. This phenomenon seems to indicate the natural desire people have to access both masculine and feminine attributes in the Divine. If God could be called and imaged as a woman as well as a man, would Mary have such prominence in the Catholic Church? This apparent hunger for the feminine face of God, filled in with Mary as the surrogate, is a strong indicator that Elizabeth Johnson’s feminist understanding of the Trinity has both relevance and value in Christianity today. Specifically, Johnson’s theology as represented in She Who Is adds value to the Church by sanctifying femininity and offering balance to both men and women, bringing the image of Mother Sophia to the forefront in a time of ecological crisis, and speaking about the Trinity as a model for relationship as the globe becomes more interconnected.
As Johnson begins the rationale for the importance of incorporating feminine God language and images into the usual male-only construct, she explains that the sole emphasis of a male God is damaging. “Speech about God in the exclusive and literal terms of the patriarch is a tool of subtle conditioning that operates to debilitate women’s sense of dignity, power, and self-esteem” (2002, 38). The patriarchal God has been used as an excuse to dominate and subjugate women. Boff agrees with Johnson’s assessment, “In the family, the father holds sway; a centuries-old patriarchy has forged relations of inequality in family and parental bonds” (2003, 75). In addition, because men and women have a combination of feminine and masculine energies, suppressing the sanctity of femininity hurts men as well women. Johnson holds up the aspects of humans that nurture and comfort, and care by attributing them to God feminine. Johnson offers a path to honor the fullness of each human person by honoring more than the masculine face of God.
Whether the general public accepts or denies it, scientists agree that our planet is experiencing global climate change at an unprecedented rate. Draught, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis cover the headlines in today’s newspapers. The earth is crying out for attention. The Gospel imperative to bring the Reign of God into reality does not stop at humanity but invites right-relationships between all living creatures. In Laudate Si, Pope Francis declares a mandate to care for the earth and all of creation. Johnson’s theological construct of Mother-Sophia offers a perspective of God that is nurturing and compassionate as well as attentive to justice. “All creatures, human beings and the earth, exist in relations of mutual kinship with each other and with God their mother, creator of heaven and earth, who delights in creation and whose passion it is to bring the whole world to the fullness of life” (2002, 186). This God-image invites Christians to live into the likeness of a God whose fierce mother-love protects and is attentive to even the tiniest element in nature. The African female symbol of Obirin meta who with her “largeness of heart, strength of character, and depth of wisdom and insight” (Orobator, 2008, 32) cares for the many facets of creation. Likewise Mother-Sophia encourages Christians to walk in her ways of ecological justice and care of creation alongside justice for the forgotten and love for the broken; this is a clear value needed in today’s Church.
In describing the totality of the Trinity from the feminist perspective, Johnson describes a mutual relationship between the personas within the Trinity. This is a needed shift from the hierarchical Trinitarian arrangement that has been promulgated: the Father as the first person of the Trinity; the Son as the second; and the Holy Spirit as the third. Even the numbering, along with catechetical emphasis, articulates the Father is most important, the Son is second in importance, and the Holy Spirit is lagging in the distance. Johnson’s Trinitarian model speaks to the connection between Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother-Sophia as the mutuality found in friendship. “At the heart of holy mystery is not monarchy, but community; not an absolute ruler, but a threefold koinonia” (2002, 216). This sparks the imagination to think of a different way of how God relates God’s self and how Christians might relate to one another. LaCugna writes about how God dwells and lives in the mysterious love where all people are welcome and mutuality reigns. “Jesus preached the reign of God (basileia), he revealed the order of a new household (oikos), a new dwelling place where the Samaritan woman, the tax collector, and the leper are equally at home” (1991, 378). This is radically good news for all of God’s people. There is another option of how to be in the world. Rather than ranking whose life style is more holy or who is closer to God, all Christians can see themselves as sisters and brothers in Christ. All are equally important in the eyes of God. This reciprocal and relational Trinitarian view can spread across our planet, mending the divisions of economics, geography, and race.
While Johnson’s feminist understanding of the Trinity is relevant and could offer a lot of value to Christianity today, it is by and large a missed opportunity. These ideas were published over ten years ago, but not much has changed in the actions and words of the Catholic hierarchy. Somehow feminine images of God and female language for God are at the least uncomfortable if not threatening. They are often subtly and directly put down, minimized and vilified. Fortunately this theological stance is not disappearing and will wait for Spirit-Sophia to broaden the minds and open the hearts of the people of God.