Thursday, April 26, 2007

Orthodox Women

I was surprised to see one of, if not the most respected medievalists in the country shed considerable doubt on some standard Seminary mythology:
"It was not women who originated female images of God.... such language is in no way the special preserve of female writers... There is no reason to assert, as some have done, that the theme of the motherhood of God is a 'feminine insight.' Moreover it is not at all clear, although many scholars assume it, that women are particularly drawn to feminine imagery" (140).
Bynum goes on to explain that in the Middle Ages, feminine God images were occasionally employed by men, specifically abbots, "because they needed to supplement their image of authority with that for which the maternal stood" (154). Interestingly enough, women writers used such imagery much more rarely, if at all. "Jesus as Mother" can therefore be contextually explained as a response to leadership challenges in medieval monasteries, not as a long-suppressed feminine ethos.
"The theme of God's motherhood is a minor one in all writers of the high Middle Ages except Julian of Norwich. Too long neglected or even repressed by editors and translators, it is perhaps now in danger of receiving more emphasis than it deserves" (168).
Instead, what stands out in the writings of twelfth and thirteenth centry nuns of Helfta is their theological orthodoxy:
"Unlike the God of the fourteenth-century mystics (Julian of Norwich or Eckhart , for example), the God of [Gertrude's] visions is tough... There appears to have been a moment in the thirteenth century at which the growing sense of man's likeness to God - expressed not only in the later medieval emphasis on Christ's humanness and the rich variety of homey and natural metaphors for the divine but also in the new confidence about man's capacity for intimate union with God - was still balanced by older images of an awesome God, totally unlike man, who rules a universe... This thirteenth-century combination of likeness and unlikeness underlay the optimism and strength of the piety of Helfta" (255).
Makes me not feel so bad for previous reflection.