“The mystery of God in feminist theological discourse” is the subtitle of Elizabeth Johnson’s widely read She Who Is. The notion that God is “a mystery” is rarely questioned in feminist theologies. But maybe it should be.
Although it is true that the finite cannot encompass the infinite, and that all knowledge is rooted in particular standpoints, I do not agree that the first and last thing to be said about the divine power is that it is “a mystery.” Indeed as I will argue here, speaking about God as “a mystery” obscures more than it “reveals.”
The notion that Goddess or God is “a mystery” is rooted in notions of “a God out there” that most spiritual feminists reject. Goddess or God “in” the world is, I suggest, not unknown, but known, not hidden, but revealed–in the beauty of the world and in ordinary acts of love and generosity.
The notion that God is “a mystery” is a well-worn trope in Roman Catholic theology. Protestants make similar claims when they speak of the hiddenness of God and assert that all language about God must be symbolic or metaphoric. Feminist theologians may appeal to notions of the mystery or hiddenness of God when we assert that images of God as a dominating male other are historically conditioned by patriarchy and can be changed as feminists become liturgical and theological actors. So far so good? Do we need to look any further? I think we do.
One source of the notion that God’s essential nature is a mystery or hidden is found in the Platonic tradition that asserted that God is totally transcendent of the world. In this tradition, “God” exists alone, apart from relationships which constitute finite existence, and therefore, it is said, “God” cannot be “affected” by anything or anyone. If this philosophical premise is accepted, then it is “logical” to conclude that the idea that God is related to the world in any fashion at all is “a mystery” that cannot be explained. The further notions that God is involved the histories of particular peoples, was incarnate in Jesus Christ, or suffered on the Cross become “great mysteries” or “paradoxes.”
Another source of the idea that God’s essential nature is unknown is rooted in theological notions of divine judgment. Here the transcendence of God is expressed in terms of God’s ineffable or unknowable will. In Christian theologies in particular, it is asserted that if God’s demands (whatever they are) are not met by human beings, then God has “the right” to condemn human beings to the everlasting torments of hell. Once this premise is accepted, it becomes “logical” to speak of the “love” or “mercy” of a God who redeems anyone at all as “a great mystery.”
A third source of the idea that the nature of God is a mystery stems from the theological doctrine of divine omnipotence. If God is in control of everything, then the existence of evil and suffering in the world becomes difficult to explain. One response to “the problem of evil” is to say that the relation of God to evil is “a mystery.”
But don’t feminist theologians reject the God of the philosophers who is totally transcendent of the world? And don’t feminist theologians reject the God who stands outside the world and judges it? And shouldn’t we reject notions of divine power as omnipotence derived from notions of God as a dominating other? Aren’t all three of these concepts legacies of the “God out there” feminists reject? Most spiritual feminists—Goddess, Christian, and Jewish—assert that God is not “outside the world” but (in one way or another) “in the world.” I have called this the “immanental turn” of feminist theologies. Yet many of us continue to appeal to notions of the mystery or hiddenness of God rooted in notions of God’s transcendence of the world in order to justify feminist re-imaginings. Can we really have it both ways?
I suggest that feminist theologians need to question notions of God’s “mystery” and “hiddenness” that have their roots in philosophical notions of divine transcendence of the world. Similarly we need to question notions of God’s “mystery” and “hiddenness” that are rooted in notions of God’s transcendent judgment defined as the right to condemn human beings to hell. And finally we need to reject the doctrine of divine omnipotence that denies any effective power to human beings and other beings in the web of life.
But if Goddess or God is not “a mystery” and not “hidden,” who then is She? I would argue that Goddess is “revealed” in the beauty of the world and “known” in the love, care, and compassion we feel for each other and by extension for all beings in the world.
From a matriarchal point of view—from a point of view that begins with gratitude for the gift of life—the love of mothers and others who nurture life, and the love of God the Mother is no mystery. Quite the opposite. Without the gift of life given by the Source of Life, and without the gifts of life given to us by others and by the earth itself every moment of every day, we would not be here. The Greeks have a word, “Faneromeni,” “She Appears,” that they use in speaking of places where the Panagia, She Who Is All Holy, has revealed herself. This too is no mystery. She is everywhere.
*Stuffed vine leaves, eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini prepared with love by Christina in Skoteino, Crete
Carol P. Christ has just come back from the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute. There she gave thanks for the gift of life on altars to Mother Earth and Mother Sea. It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014. Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.