ALTERNATIVE IMAGES OF GOD BY CAROL CHRIST AND EMMA TROUT


Carol P. Christ at Alverno College 1

Carol Christ at the Conference of Women Theologians

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.

I am surprised that we also mentioned the need for a new non-static or process metaphysic, a theme I did pursue until I wrote Rebirth of the Goddess and then She Who Changes several decades later.

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.

Conference of Women Theologians 1971

Conference of Women Theologians 1971

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.

. . .

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.

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Categories: Divine Feminine, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, God-talk

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14 replies

  1. The image of God as giving birth to us and nourishing and protecting us can encompass the characteristics of male and female and is makes a relationship with the creator so much easier to embrace.
    http://haddonmusings.com/2015/08/02/the-naomi-and-ruth-project

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  2. Enjoyed. Thanks. And I just ordered your book ‘She Who Changes’ and am looking forward to reading. I loved the intro with its talk of Charles Hartshorne and how he embodied the Divine Feminine. Yes, I completely agree it is time to step beyond polarity and embrace both genders of divinity found within all of us.

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  3. Thanks for the topic, Carol!

    It’s so self-centered, really, it’s hard to even begin to understand why we don’t question any such thing as a male or female godhead, because by those terms, we imagine a humanlike person ruling the universe, rather than the exquisite simplicity of the laws of nature —

    And that reminds me of that delightful, ancient Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, born way back in the 6th c. BCE, who said that if they had a religion, cattle would claim that their gods looked like cattle, horses like horses, and lions like lions.

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  4. What a difference an article makes- this one and the “the” one! Referring to the Divine as “it” has always seemed disrespectful to me, but what is one to do in a language that is gender segregated? Thanks for posting this.

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  5. I loved both Rebirth and She Who Changes.

    As for gender when we’re talking or writing about gods and goddesses, part of the problem is that English just doesn’t have a neuter third-person pronoun. Our only choices in the singular form are “he” and “she.” That’s why people so often turn to a more neutral (if grammatically incorrect) “they” when they mean neuter.

    Good article! You were smart and perceptive back in the olden days and you still are.

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    • P.S. Yes, English has “he,” “she,” and “it.” But “it” seems so disrespectful when talking about divinity that in this case “it” doesn’t count. We don’t say “God…it” or “Goddess….it.” We use “it” to refer to dead things, not gods and goddesses. (Gee, it’s annoying to be a grammar obsessive.)

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  6. How is it that British royalty speak of the “we”, while Goddesses/Gods are relegated to “I”? It would certainly seem that Goddesses/God are more encompassing than a queen or king.

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  7. At the risk of, perhaps, offending women, my book “The Gospel Truth” begins with a story of a warm and attractive feminine God written specifically for men. . . Copy & paste: http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-Truth-Living-Unreal/dp/1498232019/ref=as_sl_pc_tf_til?tag=mitchandkathy-20&linkCode=w00&linkId=CMHZOLREUJS2AVFB&creativeASIN=1498232019

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  8. The concept of a genderized God will continue to be a problem for English speakers, because as all comments above note, our language is gendered. But the solution to the problem is not to go gender-neutral, as we believed in the early days of the 2nd wave of feminism (from which this article springs). Since then linguistic studies have shown that neutral terms are assumed to be masculine by default until they’re proven to be feminine (i.e. a phrase that reads “All the workers migrated from Ireland, leaving only women and children,” i.e. workers are assumed male.) Although I agree with you, Carol, and with Mary Daly that God is a verb, not a noun, our language necessitates a noun form as well. So…my interim solution — until patriarchy is gone and this is no longer an issue — is to NAME deity as GODDESS, and, thereby, force a discussion of these issues. In our culture, not only are women demeaned but so are those characteristics that are assumed to be feminine. If we don’t name God in feminine terms, kindness, nurturance, care, love, compassion, mercy and many other values deemed feminine will not be lifted up as divine characteristics. And my verb-form of deity includes all of those activities.

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    • How about a God/dess noun and s/he pronoun? That would seem to be more inclusive.

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    • Not sure if you continued with the essay but our solution (pre-Goddess) was that one divinity needed to be referred to using dual male and female, not gender neutral terms: God She and God He, God the Mother and God the Father, etc. Emma and I did not believe that the solution was to go gender neutral.

      Unlike you perhaps Nancy, I think that if deity is loving, then both God He and God She should be imagined as loving and so forth. In other words we were saying that when we speak of God the Mother and God the Father, we should not picture the Mother as loving and compassionate, but the Father as shall we say judgmental and punitive–according to stereotypes.

      I should add that while I do not view divinity as static being, but as active and in relationship, I nysellf do not view divinity as a Verb.

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      • Great piece, Carol, then and now.
        The problem is compounded when you are dealing with other languages, such as Hebrew, that have no neutral pronoun and different verb forms for masculine and feminine. Some thealogians, such as Marcia Falk, substitute gender-neutral concepts (“Breath of Life”), which of course are gendered in the Hebrew language. The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess prayerbook explicitly uses feminine language for the Divine.

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