What if Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine Are Not Oppositional Categories? by Carol P. Christ

Carol in Crete croppedA friend who is a spiritual teacher speaks often “bringing back the values associated with the Divine Feminine.” For her this has to do with helping women to understand the beauty of our bodies and the importance of ways of being such as giving and caring for others that have been associated with the undervalued so-called “feminine” side of the masculine-feminine polarity. Though she also speaks about the Goddess, I think she prefers the term “the Divine Feminine” because of the implication that men too have their “Divine Masculine.”

This friend has a wonderful husband who is a teacher in his own right and who often ends up spending a lot of his time among powerful women who enjoy talking about the Goddess. In these conversations he sometimes speaks of the need for men to “recover the Divine Masculine” if they are to become whole.

I was reminded of these conversations when a two other friends, in different contexts, recently voiced their concern that Goddess imagery is problematic if it repeats sex role stereotypes. My response to them was that in the West, the feminist association of femaleness with power and value in Goddess symbolism automatically shatters the most important sex role stereotype: the notion that women are less powerful and less valuable than men. But, I said, after that, problems may arise.

I added that (for me) the categories of Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine are problematic because (it seems to me) that at their core these concepts are rooted in the notion that males and females are fundamentally different, and that the so-called “feminine” is relational, loving, giving, while the so-called “masculine” is independent, rational, aggressive, and sometimes violent and warlike. Those who speak of the Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine as oppositional categories usually try to avoid categorizing men and women by stating that “we all have our masculine and feminine sides.” Still it is hard to avoid the implication that men are more masculine and women are more feminine.

Though I agree that men need new images of what it means to be men as much as women need new images of what it means to be women, I hesitate to speak of these as new images of the Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine for two reasons. Although I recognize that others are inspired by images of the Sacred Marriage, for me it has been more important–and more possible–to find power within myself and in a wide variety of relationships, than to find it in a male-female heterosexual couple relationship in which the opposites are “joined.”

More importantly, I find that images of Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine often do justify patriarchal sex-role stereotypes. An internet search for “Divine Masculine” validated this fear. The first (and therefore most popular) website defined the Divine Masculine through six archetypes: God, King, Priest, Warrior, Lover, Sage.

The site’s author seems to want to help men learn new ways to interact with powerful women—as neither dominant over them nor submissive to them. The author writes: “The Divine Masculine represents an archetypal ideal, the best and most inspiring, elevating, and restorative aspects of masculine expression and manifestation in the universe. For those seeking an expanded understanding of the Self, the Divine Masculine is not a distant, detached, jealous and vengeful male deity. The Divine Masculine (along with the Divine Feminine) acts as a shining mirror of the Self, revealing aspects that need compassionate attention and support to become one’s highest potential.”

Following this insight, he redefines the God archetype as “unconditionally loving, inclusive, open, welcoming, heart-centered, spiritually focused, supportive and inspirational.” For him, the King archetype is “benevolent, evenhanded, calm, caring and thoughtfully present.” And the Warrior “finds his place in collaborative projects, being fulfilled and contented with the collaboration and not by ambition or competition.”

While I appreciate the ways in which this man redefines masculinity and male strength in terms that in the past have been associated with “the feminine,” I am concerned that he continues to view the six “archetypes” that include the King and Warrior as universal. He does not explicitly name patriarchy as a system of male dominance enforced through violence as the reason for redefining the meaning of the “archetypes.” I also worry that a good king is still a king, and that a warrior who fights for the good of others is still a warrior. From a feminist perspective, these archetypes are not universal, but rather are the product of patriarchy. Perhaps instead of redefining them, we should discard them.

peak shrine figurines 3
Male and female figures from ancient Crete are not strongly differentiated.

New research suggests that in matriarchies, there is no divine masculine per se, because though men have their own important roles, both males and females are encouraged to embody the values associated with mothers and mothering—in other words to be loving, giving, caring, and generous. In this context there is no opposition or sharp contrast between the divine masculine, the divine feminine, and any other divine gender or transgender.

I believe that that we need a multiplicity of images for divine power that express the diversity and differences of our bodies and all bodies in the web of life. We also need new images of how to be strong and powerful, yet loving and caring above all, in male, female, and other bodies.

However, if the “highest” values are the same for both—and all–genders, then perhaps it is time to retire the oppositional binary of Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine and to speak instead of images of divinity in male, female, and other bodies.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol by Maureen Murdock.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

12 thoughts on “What if Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine Are Not Oppositional Categories? by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thanks Carol. Realistically we have to go on working with strict gender differences in divinity and in our society, although it would be lovely to blur everything. My father was a lot gentler than my mother. My own life, and my gender not exactly conforming to the stereotypes either.


  2. Great post, Carol. I just “happened upon” a new book this morning, GALILEO’S MIDDLE FINGER, by Alice Dreger. Alice is a historian. In this book, she writes:

    “Human sex comes in two big themes — male and female — but nature seems to enjoy composing variations on those themes. Some sex variations occur at the level of sex chromosomes, some at the level of hormones, some at the level of hard-to-detect internal structures, and some at the level of anatomical parts you can see with the naked eye (assuming your eye isn’t the only thing that’s naked). If you call all of these variations intersex, you can then ask how common intersex is. That’s a question people love to ask. The problem is that to answer that question, one has to first decide how subtle a variation to count. How small should a penis be to count as intersex rather than male? How big a clitoris should count? How subtle a difference in hormone receptors? The truth is that human sex isn’t simple. Human sex is practically fractal.

    Nevertheless, wherever nature draws unclear boundaries, humans are happy to curate. And the specialist curators of sex tell us this: In America today, about one in two thousand babies is born with genitals so notably intersex that a specialist team is immediately called in. About one in three hundred babies has genitals unusual enough that the average pediatrician will give the parents a referral to a specialist. If you add up all of the dozens of kinds of sex anomalies — including incredibly subtle things you might never know you had without the benefit of a lot of fancy medical scans your insurance company probably doesn’t want to cover — the frequency of intersex in the human population comes to about one in a hundred. …”

    Perhaps more and more, we are beginning to see that male/masculinity and female/femininity are not oppositional categories–the question you ask in your title and develop nicely in the body of your essay.


  3. Brava! As usual, what you write is wise and thoughtful and thought-provoking. I looked (briefly) at the Divine Masculine website and immediately wondered what Sunyata’s Western name is and what else he does in the world.

    Does anyone else remember Robert Bly and his men’s movement? Iron John? I wrote a parody of Iron John. Women laughed, men, not so much. Carol, keep on keeping us thinking.


    1. I would love to read your parody of “Iron John.” I’m sure I would laugh, Barbara, because you can be very funny. I remember the Robert Bly-type of men’s movement well. It seemed to be better than the antifeminist men’s movement, but still very patriarchal.


  4. Great post, Carol.
    The mistake we make as modern/unenlightened human beings is to see everything in terms of an opposite. This follows up quite neatly on my previous question here on what is the feminine without the masculine, which rests on my opinion that feminism, as a reaction to patriarchy, is itself a political expression, which, naturally gives it the conquering structure of every political movement, making it an opposing force rather than a complementary one, or a self defining one.

    We tend to see black as opposite of white, light of darkness, men of women, boys of girls, love of hate, earth to sky, heavy and light…while missing in that the simple essential fact that each is part of the other, the other side of the coin to put it simply. There is no opposite in life, everything is on a spectrum of extremes, and the idea is to seek out the balance between the two, for everything good happens within the middle zone of that spectrum.
    God is never found in the realm of the black and white, the realm of extremes, only within the shades and the shadows, the softer esquisse of gray that make up life.
    And when we accept that the human being is God’s most valuable creature, we find that this human being is balanced between the extremes of angelic and bestiality.

    Speaking from the Islamic perspective, I cringe when people refer to Islam as a religion of peace, rather, it is a religion of balance, between man and woman, revenge and forgiveness, control and release… And the relationship between man and woman in the Quran is one of interdependence, of mutual ownership, of defining characteristics that are present within each but at a different level based on their roles for each other, and their role to (not in) society, which interestingly, echo the various expressions of God in relation to one another.
    (And by roles, I do not mean what is usually assumed of difference and of value… role is to act upon that which one is more suited to act upon. The issue arises when the role is defined by some and imposed upon others, and the issue is compounded when others respond to it by claiming an across the board division of labor that takes not in consideration the natural abilities and tendencies of people.)
    When Adam was created one, he was created whole, but he was not created complete for he needed a companion. But while Adam was made out of sounding mud, low dirt, his mate was created from a higher material, out of Adam himself, perhaps from cell material, perhaps from organ material, not as a lesser part of him, but as from him. She is therefore as much of him as he is of her, and one cannot be the opposite of his/her self.

    The interesting thing about the 99 names of God in islam, which speak of the natural attributes of God, we find some to reflect a male attribute and others to reflect a female attribute, but those become complementary into the whole, the Sum,the unicity of the Divine.
    It seems almost that the “baser” attributes of action and majesty are male while the “higher” attributes of aspiration and transcendence are female. But those do not work opposite one another, they are, rather, an extension of each into the other in that measure that each is cognizant of the other, and the balance of action and inaction, of heavy and light, of dark and bright, of male and female, makes that which transcends male and female to become One.
    In that regard, mysticism, the higher state of the soul, is simply the journey along the higher spectrum of humanity and its relationship with the divine. It is to find unification within the self, a self-realization that coalesces the various parts of the self as expressed through the major faultline between the male and the female selfs, and heal that rift.
    When one achieves sainthood, the summit of such journey, one is neither male of female, masculine or feminine, one just is. And it is only when one is mended that one achieves Oneness.


  5. Thanks, Carol, for this wonderful post. I agree with you that having a unitary goddess, whose defining characteristics have to do with nurturance, love, and generosity, allows a culture to develop and sustain itself in ways that are healthy and non-divisive. Another way that also allows for health, communality, plus individual difference is the multiplicity of polytheism, the gods and goddesses of which are assumed to be but aspects of a unitary goddess. This is what I call panentheism.


  6. Great questions, Carol. What is the sex of Spirit? Discussions about whether the divine is male or female — or both — make as much sense as wondering whether the divine’s blood type is AB or O. Spirit doesn’t have genitalia or chromosomes or muscles or blood, obviously.

    I choose to believe that all human beings have the capacity to embody the divine. But that’s very different than believing the divine to have a human body with human sex characteristics and innate respect for social stereotypes dictated by gender.

    The belief that male and female “energies” must somehow be “married” or “balanced” to achieve sacredness is just another assertion of compulsory heterosexuality. It’s a patriarchal belief cancelling out the possibility that a woman can be complete — and in perfect union with the divine — in and of herself. The “marriage of opposites” belief also cancels out the possibility that two women (or two men) can share a sacred marriage.

    Most women I know who embrace Goddess study and the Divine Feminine do not wish to perpetuate patriarchy, heterosexism, or harmful, false polarities between so-called masculine traits and so-called feminine traits. Rather, these women are acutely aware that for thousands of years in all major world religions, women and girls have been marginalized, shamed, blamed, silenced, exploited, sold, burned, raped, tortured, and murdered in the name of the divine, in the name of all things good and holy.

    Embracing the Goddess, and embracing the Divine Feminine, are attempts to rediscover and recreate a spirituality that is not toxic to female human beings. Such spirituality is revolutionary and deeply threatening to all established religions, and to all who benefit from the subordination of females. By couching revolutionary potential in the non-threatening status-quo-affirming verbiage of feminine-balances-masculine and Goddess-complements-God, I believe that women are giving themselves some cover, giving themselves a chance to grow and connect spiritually, hidden in plain sight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yoirr comment is fascinating, Lisa!! What is the divine blood type and what is the sex of spirit took me to a whole new level in my thinking!! We are too much involved in the human perspective.


  7. “By couching revolutionary potential in the non-threatening status-quo-affirming verbiage of feminine-balances-masculine and Goddess-complements-God, I believe that women are giving themselves some cover, giving themselves a chance to grow and connect spiritually, hidden in plain sight.”

    I suspect this is the case. More power to ’em, I suppose.


  8. Human finitude tends to turn archetypes into stereotypes, justifiably to some extent, or all archetypes would be identical.

    The main problem with these masculine/feminine discussions seems to be that we cannot or will not recognize that every archetypal pattern has negatives and positives, both light and shadow aspects. Patriarchy and matriarchy both have light and shadow aspects. They can be and are both complementary and oppositional. We do not have to sit flatfooted on one side of the paradoxical teeter-totter. There is room for various approaches to this thorny topic when one can see that human consciousness is multi-perspectival.

    Typically, in my exposure to this topic, patriarchy is employed in a pejorative manner, and blamed for most of (if not all) of the woes in the world. Until one can honestly see and admit the yin in the yang and the yang in the yin, we will continue to talk over and around one another–which seems to be the preferred approach in this current culture.


    1. Active and passive, giving and receiving and other oppositional pairs can be understood to reflect the flow of life. I would not call one side of these pairs masculine and the other feminine, that already prejudices the issues at hand. As I have written elsewhere on FAR patriarchy is a system of male domination based on the control of female sexuality. Any system based on domination must be critiqued. Males do not have to be patriarchal nor do they have to defend patriarchy.


  9. It’s so refreshing to see the occasional woman calling out the innate sexism of the Divine Feminine & Masculine. I’m sick of being told day in and day out by my yoga teachers, workshop holders and spiritual teachers online that the Divine Feminine is soft and surrendering.

    People tell me I’m getting to political and overthinking it. They say they’re just archetypes but these archetypes are rooted in outdated, patriarchal stereotypes and people don’t seem to realise or care that by uplifting these concepts, they also uplift and perpetuate the sexist ideas they’re built upon.

    I say strong/soft energy now, or fire/water. Day/night, yin/yang, etc. There are literally SO many other ways we can talk about this energy. I have no idea why everyone’s still determinedly clinging to this one particular way.


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