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.