Gendered Imagery of God (Part 2) by Elise M. Edwards

Elise Edwards

In my previous post, I shared some of the ways in which I’ve been wrestling with gendered imagery for God, the first person of the Christian Trinity often referred to as God the Father. In this entry, I’d like to reflect on ways I am reconsidering the gender of the Christ.

It is only recently, after reading Melinda Bielas’ post “Waiting for Jesus… I mean, Superman” (December 17, 2013), that I began to question male language for the Christ. I got into an interesting conversation with Grace Kao in January about it. My thoughts on this topic are still unformed and more theologically “speculative” than I usually share on this site, but I’d love to hear what you think. I think it is important for Christian feminists to consider the doctrines of the faith and assess where they support the co-humanity of women and when they degrade it.

This, of course, is the issue with the male-imaged Trinity. If God is presumed male, even if not in official doctrine but in practice or imagination, maleness is deified and femaleness is made invisible or subjugated. Melinda Beilas, in the FAR post cited above, makes the further claim that “dependence on a male savior prevents Christian women from claiming their own personhood, independent of a patriarch.”

I love Jesus and consider him to be my savior. I do not think his maleness is a part of what saves me, but I can recognize the potential for the Christ figure as the hero in yet another narrative where I–the weak, helpless, or incomplete woman–am rescued by the prince, the knight, the male lover, or some other strong man.

Troubled by these gendered associations, I started to reflect on what Jesus’ humanity means. In the development of the doctrine of Incarnation, Christians have asserted that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. I don’t wish to dispute that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, a male human. But what I wonder what happened to his humanity after his death and resurrection, after those events so central to the Christian understanding of salvation that we celebrate in the coming weeks. Christians believe that Jesus is still alive. We pray to him and talk to him and worship him. So I wonder what his humanity is now. Is the living Jesus still male or was that just an earthly facet of his being? Even if he was male for the decades he lived on earth, must he remain so for eternity?

There has been much debate on the nature of Jesus’ material body in the history of Christian theology. The veneration of holy images in the Eastern Church is a very tangible way of proclaiming that God appeared in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. John of Damascus, a Syrian monk and priest born in the latter 8th century, is a Church Father known for his defense of icons. John compellingly argues that Christ’s assumption of human flesh was not temporary in the way that someone puts on a coat in winter and then puts it away in the spring. Jesus’s body is not a seasonal garment. Christ’s flesh remains his own even after he returns to God, which means that the identity of the Logos (eternal Word) is eternally bound up with human flesh.

It would seem that if I accept John of Damascus’ argument, I must accept that the living Jesus has kept his male body. But really, what does that mean? Is Jesus floating around on some other plane of reality as an embodied human with male body parts? By distinguishing between sex and gender, I think there is another way to work through this confusion, or at least work with it. Sex refers to differentiated biological characteristics like chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external sex organs whereas gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture associates with a sex. Certainly, there is connection and also gray area between the concepts of sex and gender. But the fact that we can linguistically make sense of the phrases a “feminine man” and a “masculine woman” operates on this distinction between sex and gender. Sex is expressed in maleness/femaleness and gender is expressed in masculinity/femininity. (Obviously, I am reducing these to binaries for explanation, but I do NOT believe that only two options of sex or gender can and should exist.)

I remember that my concern with the first and third persons of the Trinity is not really whether God is male. God is not male, as maleness refers to an organism’s sex, and neither God the Creator, nor the Holy Spirit has chromosomes or sex organs or reproductive systems or anything that would identify sex. My concern has been with the gendered language that we apply to God: He, Father, King, Lord, etc. So why should I be preoccupied with Jesus’ sex instead of his gender?

Even if Jesus was male and continues to be male, he does not have to reflect the gendered norms of our contemporary culture. The gendered conception of masculine is always shifting; to be a “real man” in the 21st century is different from 1st definitions of masculinity. So I argue that because Jesus, the living Christ, the eternal Word, is not a part of our contemporary culture, we err in associating him with gendered tropes of a man saving the damsel in distress. My savior may have been a Jewish man in the 1st century CE, but he was never a knight in shining armor or Superman. He was not what his people expected him to be. I hope he is much more than what traditional Christians and feminist Christians like me imagine and expect him to be. We are limited by our finite minds, our language, and the gendered norms of our culture and era. Jesus, both human and divine, is not.

I suppose that after all this reflection, I am still left with a male savior. I will say that Jesus is a “he” but also admit that I do not know what that means. But I know this: My belief that Jesus is Savior grounds my hope that we can be saved from gender logics that make his maleness significant. The way we manipulate gendered norms to hurt and kill bodies and souls is sinful. I believe Jesus saves us from our sin but that the full redemption is not yet complete. So I pray that our distorted perceptions of gender will one day be transformed.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Belief, Christianity, Christology, Church Doctrine, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender, Gender and Power, General, God, God-talk, Jesus

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12 replies

  1. Hi Elise, Have you seen Crucified Woman, the sculpture by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey which is on the grounds of Emmanuel College at Victoria University in Toronto? http://crucifiedwomanreborn.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/welcome-to-crucified-woman-reborn/ is the website of a conference about her a few years ago.

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  2. Thanks for your wonderfully deep, Feminism and Religion questions, Elise!! Of course it depends on how we understand it, but why not interpret the teaching of Jesus from a feminist viewpoint?

    Jesus taught that the deeper dimension of our being, our spirit or soul — that is, our “angels in heaven” — are “neither male nor female.” And again, when we enter heaven, we “become like little children,” meaning not defined by whatever male or female role we might play in reproduction as an adult. In a broader sense, Jesus is clearly saying, sexism is not what I am here to teach.

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    • I agree about the message of Jesus. I wonder though, what it means for a woman to see a male figure as her ultimate Savior, which is what provoked my reflection here. Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your response.

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  3. Perhaps your argument assumes that the standard-brand god (no disrespect intended) was or is an authentic divinity and was not invented by the authors of the OT. Likewise, perhaps you are assuming the historical Jesus and not a mythological character. Mythological characters are often as real and living as, well, real people. Unlike some of my friends, I tend to see Jesus as a real man and his teachings–ahhh, if only the churches founded in his name paid attention to the Sermon on the Mount!–as generally good. Here’s an excellent book on Jesus and the Goddess by my friend Carl McColman. I recommend it to anyone who reads this blog or comes to this blog site: Embracing Jesus and the Goddess http://www.amazon.com/Embracing-Jesus-Goddess-Radical-Spiritual/dp/1931412782/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1397139514&sr=8-7&keywords=carl+mccolman Thanks for writing your blog and sharing your thoughts! You have hopefully stimulated a lot of thinking!

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    • Barbara, I took a look at Embracing Jesus, and from the parts that Amazon shared, I just cannot see where the author respects both Goddess and God equally. For instance, the author ends with the common symbolism of God as the father sun, and Goddess and the mother moon, claiming they dance together. Now who’s kidding who? The sun is vital for every breath we take. Without the sun (i.e., father, God, Christ), there would be no life. The feminine moon is pretty, with love abounding, but when She is dark the world still goes on. This is not a writer who has come to any kind of reconciliation of equal roles. Rather, he sounds trapped in old, weak analogies, and his God still rules. (I did appreciate the quote from Carol Christ that opened his book.)

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  4. Elise, thank you again for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I believe this quote you use, “dependence on a male savior prevents Christian women from claiming their own personhood, independent of a patriarch,” reflects exactly what the litetalist, evangelical Christians intend. They believe that women have no place outside of the authority of a male “head.” This is one of many reasons I left the church of my childhood, and why some days I have a hard time calling myself Christian.

    Amy

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  5. In looking at your musings on gender vs sex… some musings of my own pop up such as, 1) in the Trinity the male aspect of God and the sex of the son are perpetuated but the fact that the holy spirit is female (gender & sex) is rarely mentioned. She is all that is left of the spiritual, transcendent or “winged” Sacred Feminine for Protestants – at least Eastern or Orthodox Christian’s (and Lutherans) have Sophia. Judaism & Muslims have Shekina, Native Americans have Turtle Woman, Buddhists, have Mago, Kwan Yin, Amaratsu, Hindus have Durga, Kemetic traditions have many but Isis is predominant, islanders so many more and so forth. All are considered the “creative” force of earth and many are the Sun as well as the Moon (male deities, as he sun or moon do not arise until late in humanities spirituality 2) You have left out that Jesus is not the only resurrected spirit in the combined human story and he was not the only one able to clean one of transgretions 3) the one god theory is a manifestation of a one or whole universal consciousness theory or philosophy. Prior to the emergence of this idea there were many earthbound “spirits” – including Yaweh = Hebrew/Christian God. Therefore, what happened to spirituality was “religion” and consequently, who do Christian, Jews, Muslims and Orthodoxies pray to today; a Universal mind or an earthbound spirit? 4) You left out the argument regarding whether Jesus was just a divine man of God or “his” actual son. Whole religions and ethnic groups were wiped out in religious halocausts about just such a question that has never been answered – we have only speculations. 5) Jesus gave Magdalene the title of “Queen of the Stars” (King James Biblical Version) after his reserection, but is more likely the term “Queen of the Heavens” which was the title given to Priestesses. So, where is your argument that she was entitled to be the head of the Christian Church of Rome? Would that not make her equal to men? and lastly, 6) Logos means “knowledge” or better, “Wisdom” often used to depict original knowledge and/or enlightenment but it also refers to human wisdom. There are more musings but let’s begin with these.

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  6. Jesus was a man. With genitals. Why would we think of the post-resurrection Christ as anything but masculine? To my mind, what is needed is not to emasculate Jesus but to insist on his companion, counterpart, spouse, goddess, bride to give gender equity to the sacred image and to activate the bridal chamber. Does Mary Magdalene come to mind?

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