Today I am publishing an early work on female language for God that I wrote with Emma Trout at the first Conference of Women Theologians in 1971. Highly contested at the conference, this essay is a foreshadowing of my subsequent work on the need for female imagery for divinity.
Rereading this essay more than four decades later, I am gratified to see that though we began our essay with the image of God giving birth (which I still view as an important image), Emma and I were aware of the danger that female imagery for God could reinforce “a false sexual polarity.” We insisted then that female imagery for God must not repeat sex role stereotypes, but rather must shatter them.
While the references in the essay are dated, the issues it raises are not. Though many mainline Christian and Jewish communities have adopted inclusive language, active experimentation with female language for God is relegated to the fringes of these groups. And while Goddess feminists resist gender stereotypes, some New Age teachers and Neo-Pagan groups perpetuate the idea that the Divine Feminine is receptive, loving, and giving, while the Divine Masculine is active, assertive, and aggressive.
ALTERNATIVE IMAGES OF GOD: COMMUNAL THEOLOGY BY CAROL CHRIST AND EMMA TROUT
How much better for theology to conceive of God the Creator as pregnant with the world, giving birth to it and nourishing it, than of God the divine Watchmaker who set the machine ticking millions of years ago. — Penelope Washbourne Chen in “Rediscovering the Feminine in God” The Tower alumni magazine
Even though we know that God Himself is not really a male, we have made use of no other images in talking about Him. As Mary Daly has pointed out, images have a way of perpetuating themselves even though we conceptually know better. (“After the Death of God the Father”) The image of God as a male authority figure serves to legitimize the structures of subordination (oppression) of women to (by) men. The problem is to conceive God in such a way that God’s masculinity does not function as a legitimation system for the oppression of women.
The imaging of God as male has two aspects: 1) the poverty of our language, and 2) the impoverishing of our vision of God by exclusive use of characteristics which our culture has attributed to and limited to the male in conceptualizing and imaging God. In the first of these two aspects we find images of God as Father, King, Lord; our language has no pronoun which is able to embrace and/or transcend both sexes. Our language forces us to think of God as male; we need words like “she-he,” “father-mother,” “daughter-son,” “brother-sister.” Regarding the second aspect: in the Western tradition, particularly the Christian theological tradition our ideas and images have been impoverished by almost exclusive use of “male” characteristics in conceptualizing and imaging God.
For example, initiative, transcendence, authority, primacy, leadership, control and order have all been conceived in static, self-sufficient, abstractly rational terms, in correspondence with masculine stereotypes. An alternative image of God suggested by Penelope Washbourne Chen, imaging God as pregnant, giving birth to, and nurturing the world, presents us with a more dynamic way of conceiving God. Philosophically, this image of God would find expression in the neo-classical metaphysics or process view of reality of Whitehead and Hartshorne, rather than the static ontology of the Greek tradition.
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Let us now turn to the alternatives. Underlying the problem of choosing among the alternative conceptions/images of God is the problem of the evaluation of sexual differences. If, for example, one believes sexual differences are a fundamental polarity in human experience, she will find it appropriate to see this polarity reflected in the deity. If, on the other hand, one does not see sexual differences as a fundamental polarity, she will be wary of correcting a false male image/concept of God by introducing a “female” element which may serve to further legitimize a false sexual polarity.
If one is open to the possibility that sexual differences may not be fundamental, the real question is how to shatter the idol of a male deity without either 1) substituting a reverse idol of a female deity, or 2) legitimizing a false sexual polarity.
Read the entire essay Alternative Images of God-Carol P. Christ & Emma Trout (1971).
Carol P. Christ 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 in 2016 from Fortress Press, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing.
Photos of Carol speaking at the Conference of Women Theologians and of the Conference Participants from the Alverno College archives. Thanks to Sarah Shutkin for providing a copy of the essay from the Alverno College Library Archives.