The following are some questionable assertions made by Christian feminists, and their answers.
Androgynous means "being both male and female", but God is neither male nor female! The Church has always taught that God transcends both sex and gender. Saint Gregory Nazianzen ridicules the notion that God is masculine, feminine, or even neuter1. Saint Ambrose says that when we call Jesus "Man" (Latin vir a human male) we attribute gender "not indeed to the Divinity, but to the human nature"2. According to Saint Jerome, "There is no gender in the Godhead"3.
As the Catechism states: "In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the differences between the sexes" (CCC 370). Since God is neither male nor female, God cannot be androgynous.
Some think that Genesis 1:27 teaches "divine androgyny", since it says that God made our first parents "male and female" in the divine image. However, Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that Scripture says this "not to imply that the image of God came through the distinction of sex, but that the image of God belongs to both sexes, since it is in the mind, wherein there is no sexual distinction"4.
The image of God in humanity does not consist in maleness or femaleness, but in our intellect, reason, free will and dominion over the earth. Since both women and men possess these qualities, they both reflect God's image. This is what the inspired writer of Genesis wished to convey, not "divine androgyny".
Taken literally, this oft-quoted feminist axiom is absurd. God is not male, as we have seen, and even if God were male that would not mean that bulls, stallions, drakes, ganders, stamens, Y-chromasomes, or even human males are God by very nature. So we must understand this saying in a less literal sense: namely, that depicitions of God in male terms cause people to subconsciously deify maleness and men, which leads to an inevitable denigration, or even demonization, of all women.
Do male images of God go hand in hand with female images of evil? Scripture does occasionally personify evil in feminine terms (ie. Lady Folly, the Whore of Babylon) and popular medieval demonology postulated the existence of "female" demons such as Lilith and the succubi6. Yet Satan himself, the father of lies and prince of darkness, is overwhelmingly depicted as "masculine" in Scripture, Tradition and popular demonology.
Feminists do not find this "exclusive language" objectionable. They never call for the "re-imaging of Satan". Their theologians do not contend that the Devil is also the mother of lies and princess of darkness, who roams about as a roaring lioness seeking whom she may devour! They seem rather unconcerned that depictions of the Evil One as male might constitute an injustice towards men!
If the statement "If God is male, then the male is God" is true, could we not also say that "If Satan is male, then the male is Satan"? To contemplate the latter statement is to perceive the weakness in the former. If Western religion is a conspiracy of misogynist men to degrade women and arrogantly deify themselves, why then did they effectively demonize their sex by fabricating a male devil? The fact that Christianity uses masculine images for evil, as well as feminine images for good (Lady Wisdom, the Woman Clothed in the Sun), shows that it is neither hostile towards women nor partial to men.
This implies that the traditional use of male imagery for God somehow constitutes an "injustice" toward all women. Feminist theology seems rooted in the assumption that Jewish and Christian males have called God Father over the centuries as part of an evil attempt to degrade and disenfranchise their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers.
Yet it is highly unlikely that every time the writers of Scripture penned a masculine image of God they were thinking "Ha! take that ladies!". The father-image of God in Scripture is no more intended as a slight against women than feminine images are a slight against men. Those who believe in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture would not read such hostile political motives into ancient texts which portray so eloquently the human longing for the Creator and God's response.
Finally, it is not some human notion of "justice" which necessitates the use of womanly images of God, but faithfulness to Divine Revelation which depicts the Holy One in these terms. We must understand and image God as God wants to be understood and depicted, and if this involves female depictions we should comply.
Many women like to see God imaged as a woman, for, as even the Holy Father says, such imagery reaffirms the fact that women reflect God's image. Some of them do like it better than the more common "male" imagery, especially if they accept the modern charge that the latter is "sexist". Other women, however, like both equally, while still others prefer the masculine images, sometimes to the point of rejecting all feminine ones! So the generalization does not always hold true.
In her excellent study of the medieval devotion to "Jesus-as-Mother", Caroline Walker Bynum shows that maternal depictions of "God appear more often in the writings of medieval monks than in those of nuns7. The latter may occasionally speak of God as Mother, but they clearly prefer masculine images such as Christ the Bridegroom! This soundly refutes the argument that all women prefer to see God portrayed in terms of their own sex8.
The analysis of the last argument partially answers this one as well. If all women do not prefer female images of God, then logically not all can "relate to" them either.
Some women may identify with such divine imagery better than with the common "old-man-in-the-clouds" image, at least to a point. But as I discovered, a woman cannot completely identify with "womanly" portrayals of the Most High God because they are only images; they do not make God female or a woman. So a woman can only relate to womanly depictions of the transcendent God of revelation up to a point, for she ultimately cannot identify with an infinite, genderless Supreme Being the way she could with another woman.
The God of the Bible is essentially distinct from creation. This in no way demeans creatures, however, for Scripture says that God made them "very good" (Gn 1:31) and loves them all (Wis 11:25ª27). We may not understand the Infinite One perfectly, but that makes no difference when it comes to worship. The One True God deserves latria as our First Beginning and Last End, Who is infinite Goodness and Perfection by very nature. Whether or not we can relate to Him is irrelevant!
Contrary to the assertions of the thealogians9, we have no solid evidence of a prehistoric matriarchal utopia in which women held the ascendancy and everyone worshipped a female supreme being. Nor did the presence of goddesses in pagan pantheons significantly improve the status of women in those societies.
In her book In the Wake of the Goddesses10, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, an Assyriologist and expert on Sumerian and Akkadian mythology, argues convincingly that the roles of goddesses in the myths of those cultures generally reflected and thus confirmed the subordinate status of women in those societies.
This holds true for other pagan cultures as well. The importance of the sun goddess Amaterasu in Shintoism did not alter the patriarchal structure of Japanese society. Hinduism boasts many prominent goddesses yet still considers women to be less than men. The city of Athens bears the name of the goddess Athena, yet the men of ancient Athens kept the women out of public life and politics. Even the Gnostics often denigrated the female in their writings despite their worship of "Mother Sophia"11.
If pagan cultures subordinated their women despite their belief in goddesses, how can we presume that feminine depictions of the God of revelation will bring about a proper appreciation of the dignity of womankind all by themselves? Men can adore a feminine ideal while despising and mistreating flesh-and-blood women. Even in Christian societies, though many men have allowed their devotion to the Mother of God to positively affect their treatment of Her daughters, we unfortunately cannot say this of all men!
The antidote to misogyny and maltreatment of women is repentance. Men who degrade women must repent of their failure to treat women in a just and charitable manner, and seek God's grace to change their ways. A change of heart will do much more for the exaltation of womankind than a change in divine imagery.
As far as lay leadership is concerned, women have already become leaders in many parishes without the inspiration of any institutionalized female images of God. The greater acceptance of female leadership in society in general may have a lot to do with this. Even traditionalist women, many of whom oppose female portrayals of God, have risen to lead the laity in the struggle for orthodoxy. They have not felt a need for a Mother God to inspire them in this task; rather, many of them look to great female saints such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila as role models for female leadership and involvement in the Church.
As for clerical positions, the Holy Father has definitively declared that women cannot receive Holy Orders, and depicting God as a mother will never change that.
Many Catholic women throughout the centuries have enjoyed positions of authority in the Church without being clergy. Medieval abbesses exercised authority12, and those in charge of double monasteries had both nuns and monks under obedience to them! Saints Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena wrote prophetic letters to popes, cardinals, bishops, priests and kings admonishing them to do God's will, and Saint Birgitta of Sweden once instructed a group of male theologians in Rome13. These women all had some power, influence or authority without Holy Orders - in fact, they even opposed the "ordination" of women14!
Finally, Jesus said that whoever would be great in the kingdom of God must become the least and the servant of all (Mt 20:26-27). Thus leadership in the Church is actually servitude. Anyone, man or woman, who seeks a leadership position in the Church in hopes of acquiring "power" should not receive that position, for his or her attitude opposes that of Christ, Who came "not to be ministered to, but to minister" (v. 28)
Child abuse by anyone in any form is a despicable sin (Matthew 18:6). The victim suffers devastating physical, psychological and emotional trauma, and, if the abuse comes from a father, the victim may indeed develop a distorted concept of fatherhood. Christian psychologists call this a "negative father image", and it does adversely affect ones perception of God the Father.
However, advising the victim to substitute God the Father with God the Mother sidesteps the real problem. He or she needs healing, not a strategy for avoiding emotional scars. God is not an abusive Father, but is perfect, infinite Goodness Who desires to heal all our wounds. Many survivors of paternal abuse, rather than rejecting God the Father, have developed through prayer a positive view of and healthy relationship with Him, and have found that this helps to heal their painful memories and even forgive the abuser at last15.
Of course, mothers abuse children as well16. This fact puts the argument into a logical quandary, for if abusive fathers somehow "negate" God the Father then the existence of abusive mothers would logically negate God the Mother as well! Moreover, in families where the father physically abuses the children, the mother often knows what is going on and she may try to cover it up to preserve the family's reputation or even blame the child for the abuse! How would someone who grew up in such a household perceive a Mother God? As a Deity more concerned with outward appearance than human suffering? or as an angry God who blames everything that goes wrong on her children? A survivor of paternal abuse may have a "negative mother image" as well! So this problem is a bit more complex than this argument depicts it.
Parental abuse of children tells us nothing about the nature of God; it is a terrible result of human sin and godlessness (CCC 239; 2779). Yet even a good earthly father or mother only reflects imperfectly the perfect love our Maker has for us (CCC 219).
God is utterly perfect and greater than any human parent. "Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up" (Ps 27:10). Though a mother may forget her child, our Motherly God will never abandon us (Is 49:15) but will love us infinitely more than the most loving mother on earth ever could (Sir 4:10). So abusive parents do not disprove the fact that God is the Origin and Standard of human parenthood, nor do they negate the validity of paternal or maternal images of God.
Many of the above arguments contend that female depictions of God will "help" women in one way or another. Yet since Christianity is based on Divine Revelation, our "God-language" must be based on Revelation as well. Therefore the question is not "Will these images possibly benefit someone?", but "Are these images of God true and legitimate?"