Saturday, July 30, 2011

God's Fatherhood After Feminism

I recently witnessed a New Testament doctoral defense of a good friend of mine who quite literally defended, against significant opposition, the use of the word "Father" for God.  What's more, she was pregnant. Why would a woman do this?  Is it not her responsibility to push for other such metaphors?  After all, feminist thought has uncovered an abundance of them, and not necessarily from spurious sources.

Appealing to Scripture is far too easy.  Consider also the early Christian Odes of Solomon which suggest the incarnation happened because God’s “breasts were full…  The Holy Spirit… mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.”  Likewise, Clement of Alexandria spoke of the “breast that is the Word, who is the only one who can bestow on us the milk of love."  Ephraim the Syrian employs the semantic range of his native tongue to speak of Christ similarly: “As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk, He has given suck – life to the universe. As again He dwelt in His mother’s womb, in His womb dwells all creation."

Indeed, to think of God too literally as Father is not Christian orthodoxy but its opposite - a verified heresy.  The Arians overly-literalized God's fatherhood in order to posit Christ as the created Son.  Hence this surprising conciliar refutation from the Council of Toledo in 675:
We must believe that the Son was not made out of nothing, nor out of some substance or other, but from the womb of the Father (de utero Patris) that is that he was begotten or born (genitus vel natus) from the father's own being.
Such language was effortlessly employed by orthodox Christians not because they thought of God as female. Instead, they used such language because they knew that God transcended sex altogether.  Verna Harrison permanently altered the feminist trajectory when she showed that for authoritative fourth century theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa, God's transcending sexual categories was not an innovative idea, but axiomatic:  “The divine is neither male nor female," asserts Gregory, going on to ask, "for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either?”  Thomas Aquinas could speak of God literally as Good, Wise and One, but he could not do so regarding God's Fatherhood, language which he understood to be necessarily metaphorical.  Motherly metaphors are thereby Scripturally-warranted fair game, a means of loosening our grasp on the legitimately normative reference to God as Father.

However, this does not mean that mother metaphors can replace father language, which is overwhelming in Scripture and Creed.  To be sure, God's name in the Bible - I AM - defies categorization; and when God is addressed as Father in the Old Testament, it is never in the biological, pagan sense of fathers who mate with female consorts.  Yet in the New Testament, father language mushrooms in light of Christ's audacious - and appropriate - immediacy with his Abba.  Such language appears in the New Testament nearly 200 times.  Barth was right to point out that such language was more vocative than essential (51), but father talk is overwhelming nonetheless.  Accordingly, feminist Janet Martin Soskice rightly argued that to invent new terms for the Trinity, like "Mother, Daughter, Spirit" would be to invent a new religion.  Better, she suggests, to leave Christianity altogether, as many feminists have unfortunately (and needlessly) felt it necessary to do.

In addition, there has been a considerable backlash from feminists against the suggestion that mother language should replace father language when naming God.  Hence Jane Williams "reject[s] the feminization of the Spirit as a way forward for feminist debate because it leaves unchallenged our deepest convictions that there is sexual distinction in God... it allows us to to forget that all theological language works with analogy and metaphor."

Christ's masculinity, however, is no mere metaphor.   And this obviously does bring manhood into the Trinity.  But classical Christian thought shows surprising flexibility in this area as well.  Strangely enough, Christ's maleness was rarely emphasized in Patristic theology, lest a heretic suggest Christ did not save women as well.  “What matters for [the Fathers] is not that he became male (άνήρ, vir)," writes Kallistos Ware, "but the fact that he became human (ἄνθρωπος, homo)."  Ware points out the more broadly inclusive ἄνθρωπος of the Nicene Creed, adding that “even on occasions when we might expect the Fathers or the liturgical texts to emphasize the maleness of Christ, surprisingly they often omit to do so.” (87). 

Consequently a modern feminist such as Elizabeth Johnson does not argue for Christ's androgyny.  "Let us be very clear: the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a male human being is not in question.  His sex was a constitutive element of his historical person along with other particularities such as his Jewish racial identity..."  And yet, by investigating Scripture, Johnson discovers that Christ's totality indisputably includes the feminine.  When, for example, Christ says, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5), the women referred to just beforehand (Acts 9:2) are explicitly included in Christ's self-identification.  "The heart of the problem is not that Jesus was male," concludes Johnson, "but that more males have not been like Jesus" (311).  There is much to criticize in certain strands of feminist theology - but can one really take issue with that?

One of the liberating facets of living when we do is the chance to see certain trajectories of feminism played out (or having careened off the post-humanist cliff).  But the best of feminism has borne significant fruit.  Hence, "the Church should not condemn feminism," wrote Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, "but rather baptize, purify and enlighten it." Surprisingly therefore, a fine defense against gender essentialism can be found in traditional Christianity.  This involves retaining the normative use of Trinitarian Father language, including Christ's inevitable maleness, but employing both with the flexibility that was not invented by feminists, but which feminism has - thankfully - led scholars to recently rediscover in the early church.

And so, the reason a pregnant dissertation defender might not have a problem with father language is straightforward:  She is theologically well-educated.  She sees such language as normative, but holds it lightly, as any orthodox Christian must.  God names God, and we don't.  So yes, God is Father - but unlike any father that we know.  After all, that God is "Mother" is not nearly so daring as the orthodox Christian assertion that God has one.


pilgrim kate said...

Enjoy your blog.

How pleasing it would have been if orthodox Christians had been in the forefront of rectifying the anti-feminine, anti-female aspects of the way Christianity has been practised.

But as often happens, the secularists got there first and defined the issue, and we orthodox Christians are left 'baptizing, purifying, and enlightening'.

It puts one in mind of horses and barn doors.

As a woman, I bristle at feminist language for God, but that is primarily because it usually issues from the mouths of those whose agendas and orthodoxy I don't trust.

Your comments about the early Church fathers is helpful.

Carolyn said...

This is earthshaking!

I'm blown away by the connection between Acts 9:2 and 5. The Body of Christ is also male and female. And how good to say, "The heart of the problem is not that Jesus was male, but that more males have not been like Jesus."

Not only is this an eye-opening discussion of feminist thinking and the use of Father for God and of Jesus as male, it is also a powerful model of the kind of fruitful thought process that is too often absent among Christians.

I can't help wondering how inviting the church would be if we did more of this kind of healthy, honest, scholarly thinking instead of drawing agenda-driven battle lines. I can't help wondering what might have happened (and yet could) if more Christians thoughtfully engaged feminists, instead of shunning them. Maybe feminists would be making less use of that exit door, and maybe we'd be having more eye-opening moments like this.


millinerd said...

Those are two of the kindest and most thoughtful comments I've received on this blog. Thank you.

drycreekboy said...

I want to ever-so-carefully quibble here. This is no discussion to enter into lightly or thumping one's chest. Your attitude of humility is entirely appropriate to the subject. However, as important as the counsel of the early fathers is, I think we who are orthodox have to grasp the nettle that the great weight of the biblical witness itself is towards imagery of God that is male. And this is all the more true of the gospels and the NT wherein a humanly male Jesus calls upon his Father; not as a metaphor, but a name (and never more so poignantly as on the Cross). Jesus is the bridegroom of the church, and not vice-versa; He is a King, not a Queen and so forth. These are, I submit, key aspects of the faith, and ones where we have to interpret God's revelatory acts rather "thickly" as we are wont to say these days. This is by no means to say that God is male in the ontological sense, but that in his mighty works of redemption he has given us language, and a mode of relationships where male names in speaking of Him expresses the language of corporate worship and confession best, and that this is of His action and choosing (the language of personal devotion is a different issue). Therefore, while I'd certainly affirm we hold that language carefully we should not hold it lightly.

Pamela Rossi-Keen said...

I enjoyed your blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! As a lay-theologian and a feminist, I'm not all that surprised by these concepts. Having grown up in a very traditional ecclesiastical experience and then reading through feminist theology--some rather extreme feminist theology at that--I find that often the metaphors that resonate with a person come from the perspective with which they start to begin with. It's easier to find and resonate with masculine metaphors for our genderless God when you've been taught a very masculine idea of God to begin with. But when we start to think about the power of a mother in our lives, and to consider the wonder of a woman's reproductive capability and nurturing role, we may find these more maternal metaphors to be just as or even more powerful. If our fathers are absent and our mothers are gentle warriors for our family, these metaphors give us confidence in our God.

Having now expressed my comfort with both paternal and maternal metaphors, let me go on the record as a feminist saying that Jesus's maleness and his beautiful, tender relationship with God the Father do not trouble me. Nor do I feel the need to insert a woman in this mix anywhere to legitimate myself. Additionally, I don't see a need to try to change thousands of years of our faith's history so that I can be included. The story of our faith is historical situated and emerges from a specific time and specific (and male-dominated) cultural context. These realities must not be overlooked. Applying masculine metaphors to God just makes sense given this reality.

This does not change the truth that the Gospel and Christ's liberation is for all people, and applies to me as an educated 21st century American woman. Christ's simultaneously historical and ahistorical freedom, coming out of one context, applies to my context, too. I think our understanding of this freedom grows as our identity as persons becomes richer and fuller. I am a woman. I am strong. I am a mother and have a mother, and I want to understand God as passionately understanding, protective, and active on my behalf....and just as delighted by the woman I am as my mother is. Given my context, maternal metaphors make sense.

For anyone who might be interested in further reading on this topic, you might see Miraslov Volf's "The Trinity and Gender Identity" and Linda Woodhead's "God, Gender and Identity," both in _Gospel and Gender: A Trinitarian Engagement with Being Male ad Female in Christ_.

Failey said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful reflection. There's an obscure historical detail you might want to correct, however. It was not the Council of Orange, but the Eleventh Council of Toledo (in 675) which said we must believe that the Son came "from the womb of the Father." See . (By the way, you don't need to publish this comment unless you want to.)

millinerd said...

Thank you! Correction made.

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