I thought I’d share some thoughts today on the ways in which women have contributed to new and important ways of thinking about our journeys of faith, the way we speak about God, the ways in which women are spoken of in the Bible and so much else. Is this a huge task? Yes, but today, I will try to simply provide a start to the conversation. I hope it may prompt each of us to think in new ways about how we imagine our Creator and the ways in which language about the Divine affects us as people of faith as well as the ways in which it has influenced gender roles, power, and so much else in our world. We know that women have been affected over centuries by the ways in which God has been named almost exclusively in male terms within the Christian tradition as well as Islam and Judaism. In the first book of Genesis, which serves as the first book of the Pentatuch in the Jewish tradition and the first book of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures within the Christian tradition, we hear these words,” So God created humankind[e] in his image, in the image of God he created them;[f]male and female he created them.”From the earliest stories of creation, we are told that both men and women are created in the image of God, that both possess qualities that reflect those of our creator. Women and men reflect something of the essence of God. Throughout history, we have attempted to name God in ways that can make God comprehensible in some way. Our language is limited in the ways that we may best describe the qualities of the Divine and our language has been framed by those who shared the stories and decided how we would speak of the Divine throughout history. Let us pray, Loving Mother, Sister Spirit, we gather this day to open our minds and hearts to the ways in which tenderly care for us, as a mother would with her child. Be with us as we seek to find ways to expand our sense of You. Amen.
There have been studies that show that by the time we are 4 or 5 years old, most of us have developed some sense of an image of God. Even if we are not raised within a religious home, most children have an image of who or what they imagine God to look like, even if it is not necessarily a God in which they believe or with whom they have a relationship. I invite you to travel back to your early childhood and to see if you can unearth a memory of how you saw God at an early age. For many of us, those early images stay with us for much of our life; they are either confirmed by popular culture or church or in prayer or they are challenged -whether by our own lived experience or in our own spiritual seeking for ways to connect to God.
When we speak of God, much of it has come from our reading of the Bible and we know there are many translations and many interpretations of the Bible and how it is understood. Why is there such divergence in how we understand what has been included in Scripture? For many in the evangelical tradition, the Bible is considered literal and infallible- in other words without error. For many raised in many of the mainline Protestant traditions, the Bible is viewed not as the inerrant word of God, but a historical document of the inspired words of God interpreted through writers within the context of their particular times in history, reflecting their priorities, their mindset, the heartfelt desire to share something important to pass along to future generations. It is a book that seeks to share with faith communities over time the stories of those who have come before, the Gospels of Jesus, and the stories of the early Christian community. Most of us do not read the Bible as literal; we understand that things that were accepted in an earlier time are simply wrong, such as slavery and the treatment of women. We look for the recurring themes of justice, love, peace, forgiveness and so much more as we seek an understanding of faith in our lives. I believe that Scripture needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and place.
Two memories I’d share. I was living in San Francisco and my roommates and I went to attend an Interfaith Service in Berkeley. I remember few of the details except that the church was packed and the presider was a woman minister. She was amazing; she was engaging; she gave a heartfelt Sermon and all of us were so touched by her words. I was 23 years old and it was the first time that I would see a woman lead worship and preach. The next year, I’m back in Boston at a wonderful Catholic church in downtown Boston. It’s a Sunday morning. As we near the time for Communion, a group of 5 or 6 girls emerge to the sounds of the hymn, Blest are They, and in a well choreographed liturgical dance, they prepare the altar for Communion. Tears fall and as I look around the church, many women are crying. Most of us grew up believing that women couldn’t participate as altar servers, never mind in offering the blessing of Communion. There have been times when women were not allowed to even touch the altar or the worship elements as they were considered unclean. And each and every week in most churches over time, including in this time, most people will only ever hear God spoken about in male terms, i.e. God the Father, the Son.
In the book of Exodus, we hear the story of God speaking to Moses. In the ancient Hebrew Language, the divine name which God uses is YHWH – which are the four consonants of the ancient Hebrew language that represent the name of God given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 3:14). This name has been translated as “I am Who am” or “I am Who I am.” ( it also translates as “who will, is and who has been.”)
What we know is that throughout history, it has been almost
exclusively men who have held power to determine what passages of Scripture would ultimately be included in the Bible. The writers were men, those who had the power to make decisions over the centuries about how we would worship and who would have any role in worship or theological writings were men. It has only been in the last half century or more that women’s voices have been included in some circles, that women have been ordained, that women’s scholarship has begun to examine how we have named God, spoken about God, or that we have analyzed Scripture from the vantage point of women.
There is evidence to suggest that in the early Christian communities, women did serve as priests and home church leaders. We know that women were and have always been the ones who passed along the faith from one generation to the next, and there certainly are important stories of women in the Bible, in which sometimes the woman is named and sometimes she is not. Many women have sought to reimagine who God is in their lives and to demand that their gifts and ministry and leadership be taking seriously within all of the world’s religions.
As Rev. Dorothy Austin writes, “The matter of how we imagine God is a struggle of enormous importance in our devotional lives and in the life of the Christian Church. The way we image and imagine God, the person of God, the gender of God, has everything to do with how we imagine ourselves, one another and the world. …We know that whoever has the power to name God is likely to have power and dominion over all the earth and over the people and animals who dwell upon it. As women and men struggle to find new ways in the Church to work together to bring forth a new heaven and a new earth, the Motherhood of God, the conception of God, is of paramount importance to us.” (Dr. Dorothy Austin.)
In 1973, the book Beyond God the Father, by Mary Daly, was published. In this groundbreaking book, she detailed the ways in which the Ancient Fathers of the Church held views of women that were not very enlightened, to say the least. Tertullian said to women, “You are the devil’s gateway.” Augustine was of the opinion that ‘women are not made in the image of God.” Thomas Aquinas wrote of women as ‘misbegotten males” and Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, once said that “God created Adam lord over all living creatures but Eve spoiled it all.” In more recent decades, there has been tremendous push back in many denominations about women’s ordination. An Episcopal Bishop, C. Kilmer Myers claimed that “the overwhelming majority of Christians cannot tolerate the idea of ordination of women to the priesthood. A priest is a God symbol. In the imagery of both the Old and New Testaments, God is represented in masculine imagery. The Father begets the Son, he said and this is essential to Christian faith and to tamper with this imagery is to change that faith into something else.” There are still plenty of people who embrace that kind of thinking sadly and it reverberates through congregations into families and how women are viewed within the family. I actually know some couples who, in their marriages, live out the idea that ‘women should be submissive to their husbands.’
In her important book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Professor Elizabeth Johnson of the, presents a re-conceptualization of God from the perspective of women’s experience. In our day, says Johnson, a debate over “right speech about God is exceptionally alive in a new way thanks…to …women”. Her book title signifies “the creative, relational power of being who enlivens, suffers with, sustains, and enfolds the universe. She Who Is points to holy mystery beyond all imagining who creates women as well as men to be imago Dei, (the image of God).”
In the book, she begins by asking the question, “How do we speak rightly of God?” She writes that in our speech about God, “the symbol of God functions as the primary symbol of the whole religious system, the ultimate point of reference for understanding experience, life and the world,” and so the way in which we speak of God is crucial. Speech about the Divine shapes the lives of not only the faith community but the life of its members as well.
As one reviewer explained, “While it is claimed theoretically that God is Spirit and thus is beyond identification with either male or female sex, in reality, the language used in church in preaching, worship or liturgy conveys a different message, namely that “God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or more fittingly addressed as male than as female.” This approach, Johnson explains, has legitimized women’s subordination and deprived them of their experience of God within the context of women’s authentic experience. A change in our language about God and especially using female images can expand our conceptualization of who and what the divine is, challenge the male images in God-talk and open new vistas for discourse about holy mystery, Johnson contends. As women engage in such creative “naming toward God,” from their own experience, they will be able to realize their own coequal human dignity with men.”
I would like to invite each of us, in our own personal prayer life, to begin to use feminine language to speak about our Creator. How might this shift not only how we imagine God but also how we see ourselves and our own experiences in relationship to the One who holds us as a Mother enfolds her children in her loving arms?
(She Who Is:The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
By Elizabeth A. Johnson, Book Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat)
(A Presentation Paper on Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mysteryof God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992) – David Muthukumar S.)