Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Cult of True Feminism

I've only had one formal class that would fall into the category of women's studies. My college offers a minor in it, but it's one I haven't bothered to get into. And my one "women's studies" class -- Feminist Theology. (Taught by an incredible professor who's now at Vandy.) Now, this wasn't a conversion experience for me. I had already moved through my initial childhood recognition that girls were treated differently from boys, through a pathetic teenage period of resentful resignation, developing into an angry young "why yes, I am a feminist, and you need to hear that word more often" type at the end of high school. But I was a self-taught feminist, and I basically still am. So my first encounter with formal feminism was, shall we say, interesting.

The first text we read was Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father. In many respects I see why it's an important book -- someone had to point out that "if god is male, then male is god." However, I personally felt that the trying to read Daly was like chewing on broken glass, and I'm very hesitant to say that just because having God as Father as the ONLY image of God is detrimental, that there is anything ontologically wrong with the image of God as Father -- it just should not be the exclusive image.

And then there was the issue of experience. It just didn't fit. Not because I had managed to sidestep the patriarchy. I most haven't. But I did miss the patriarchy specific to upper-middle class white America. Lower-middle, working class rural white America patriarchy is different enough, throw in that I was constantly moving back and forth between the patriarchy of fundamentalist Christianity and a family where, oddly enough, women are less restricted in terms of what they can do than are the men due the family patriarchy. (Thank you, Great-Aunts!) So yeah, things just didn't fit. (And often I felt like grabbing one especially talkative and WASPy chick, shaking her, and screaming -- you do not speak for me!) Then we read Ada-Marie Isasai-Diaz's Mujerista Theology, and I was a much happier little thing. Even happier when we got to Sallie McFague -- I likes the high theology. Finally, the course led around to Kwok Pui-lan and Postcolonial Theology, and I liked that even more. (There was a method to the Prof's starting us out on Daly. Chewing glass does help one cut teeth quickly, I suppose.)

At first though, it seemed to me that the Cult of True Womanhood had only been replaced by a Cult of True Feminism. Some ideal-type was in the works dictating what you were supposed to believe, how you were supposed to think, and even what type of experiences you were supposed to have under your belt. And if you didn't live up to that ideal-type, too bad, you just weren't enough of a feminist.

I discovered the Feminist Blogosphere a few months later. I found it fascinating. So many different opinions -- not even necessarily ones I agreed with all the time, but one's that certainly made me think which is why I read. And, I've somehow always managed to miss the central battles of the Feminist Blog wars -- probably because I'm not too faithful about reading comments, but it does seem to be a case from the periphery that some Cult of True Feminism is at work in some sectors deciding who is and who isn't enough of a feminist. And my response to that is the same thing I thought back in class: well, that's silly now, isn't it?



Obviously, "Feminism" True or otherwise, is not my main thrust in life. But I am sensitive to a number of feminist issues and to women in general. So, I ask your pardon, if I seem off base with your post, but I figure my input is welcome here - based on past experience.

I have long been aware of images of "God as mother" in the Bible. I even have a couple of passages marked as such in the margin of Isaiah and so forth. I am particularly mindful that Jesus laments over Jerusalem saying, "How I have longed to gather you as chicks beneath my wings" - which interestingly enough Wright then shows to be a seen of self sacrifice since in a barn fire, the mother hen will gather chicks under her wings and give the offspring cover and survival in her own demise.

I am mindful that at the crux of the power of the book/movie Sophie's Choice lies the unspeakable horror of a mother forced to choose between children to protect! There are powers and forces at work in womanhood (traditional or not) that run so deep and fundamental to all our humanity as to be absolutely indespensible. This does not mean we automatically honor/respect/value women properly, but when push comes to shove, we cannot deny either.

I am aware that there are other femine aspects of God's character besides those that are strictly "mother"-like as well. In fact, I have spent the last week reading the chapter in Fretheim's book on Woman Wisdom from Proverbs (and thus woman folly too). Fretheim makes the case that God creates Woman Wisdom and then enters an interdependent relationship with her - actually making himself dependent upon her for her input in creating the world! I highly recommend a look into this book, find it featured in the sidebar of my main blog.

All this to say, I am with you on the notion that viewing God strictly as male or as Father is a mistake - and especially with our culturally conditioned expectations of masculinity. (For even our ideas of masculinity are skewed along the way too.) The Bible itself clearly does not view God in strictly the male imagery.

I believe the male imagery takes the main stage, but it is not the only way to see God. And anyway, when, as Gen 1 plainly tells us, God made humanity in his image, they made the image bearer "male and female" which should tell us a lot about what God looks like! And should make us treat each other very carefually - sexually speaking - because we need each other to complete that image.

As always, thanks for the engaging post. And for drawing my male mind into the feminist perspective with greater sensitivity.

Jesus is Lord!

WordK said...


That's an interesting image for God as mother that you point out. Is it from one of the Gospels? Or Isaiah? The additional meaning from Wright is also intriguing and adds another dimension to it. And there goes my brain wandering off into thought. :)

Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly from Proverbs are some of my favorites. My personal theory is that Sophia Wisdom imagery was cut out of early Christianity (or subliminated into the motherly Virgin Mary) in Christian thought because of the strong association of Sophia with the Gnostics. There's a strong interest in "sophiology" in late 19th, early 20th century Russian literature and religious philosophy. There's a lot of correlations that can be drawn between Grushenka/Katerina Ivanovna in The Brother's Karamazov and Wisdom/Folly in Proverbs. Vladimir Soloviev had a more systematic approach and then Sergius Bulgakov refined that further into dogmatic theology. Ah, this is one of my favorite areas! Anyway, Bulgakov postulates Sophia as a sort of guiding principle of the world's progression towards it's end perfection. A sort, of substance of Christ's revelation. That's a terrible summary -- the man's theology is sublime. The Bride of the Lamb is his major work. Anyway, he's not a feminist, per se. (I actually have a goal of writing a friendly feminist critique of him one day.) But he's still sublime.

I think I managed wander off topic there. It's always a danger for em when someone brings up Sophia. I'll have to look into the book you mentioned -- sophiologies fascinate me. The creation and then interdependence of God upon a feminine principle I've seen articulated in several Gnostic cosmogonies, if that were found in canonical OT sources . . . again, my brain is wandering off.

Sorry I took so long writing up this reply. As always, your comments are welcome.



Glad for the theological engagement! Much appreciated and under-excercized. Thanx.

I first encountered the idea of God as Mother in Walter Brueggemann's THEOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT page 258 under the heading "Yahweh as Mother". Check it out at the library. (Incidentally, he has some important things to say about "the negativity of Yahweh" too and cites an out of print book also worth a look called FACING THE ABUSING GOD. And also- another incidentally -he cites a feminist theologian (can't remember who now) who considers the verb in a particular verse of Hosea (also dont remember that just now and don't read hebrew so...) which usually gets translated as "entice" and how that in other contexts the same verb means "RAPE" meaning that Hosea may be depicting a God who leads Israel into the desert to rape her. A highly problematic reading to be sure, but needs to be examined closer than any Bible teacher I ever met is willing to do.)

Anyway, back to the trail, Bruegg specifically cites Isa. 49.15-16 and 66.13 with regard to Yahweh as mother. He also deals with the hebrew term for "mercy" and how it is also used for "womb" and points out several passages where that occurs.

As for Jesus' use of the hen and chicks, see Matt 23.37. And then look at N.T. Wright's little book called THE CHALLENGE OF JESUS to get his take on the barnyard self-sacrifice.

As for Proverbs and Woman Wisdom, I see most of the first nine chptrs as the arrangement of a marriage between the son(s) and Wisdom by the father/king. (Keep in mind that in those days, pretty much all marriages were "arranged" this way. And I think, though Fretheim never put it in these terms, that knowing Woman Wisdom has a quasi sexual quality about it. Knowing Wisdom is first and formost about Loving Wisdom. It is not about what we sometimes call "head knowledge" though that is involved. It is more about loving the World Order the Creator God gives rather than the World Disorders we put in place outside God's will.

This thinking on sexual "knowing" comes not least from the Bible's use of "knowing" in place of "sexual relations" on various occasions, such as "Adam 'knew' Eve..." and so forth. But also because I have come to believe that Truth IS Relative rather than Objectively Absolute (my apologies to those Dobson enthused Christians who violently disagree).

When I say this, I DO NOT mean that I think "anything goes" any more than Dobson and friends. But I read another deeply challenging and life shaping book a couple of years ago called COLOSSIANS REMIXED by Walsh/Keesmaat (a married couple of theologians btw and both are former Wright students!!!) These folx demonstrate (as does Wright in NEW TESTAMENT AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD only much more succintly) that we must LOVE the TRUTH before we can KNOW the TRUTH and that means RELATING with TRUTH rather than holding TRUTH at an objective distance "out there". A complicated argument that I will not attempt to unfold here, but strongly recommend a look into on your own time....

Anyway, as for the Russian stuff... sorry, I have no exposure there. For what its worth, my best college buddy was Ukrainian and exposed me to as much as a Texan can be exposed to by an exchange student. Great guy. VERY SMART, and helped me to graduate with honors etc... Glad I knew him. But other than that, I know no Russian... Sorry...

But hey, I am open to learning!

Well, this has been a pleasure.


Dw3t-Hthr said...

Not entirely tangentially, IIRC, some of the early portrayals of Jesus were deliberately androgynous -- portrayals with breasts in addition to the beard, basically. In order to make sure to include the feminine nature of the divine.

WordK said...

dw3t-hthr, this is entirely tangential, but your comment made me think of it. And I'm all for tangents!

One of the classes I was in last semester had a day on imagery in Song of Songs. Of course, this favorite for sexual imagery fell on a day when the campus was overrun by "innocent" high school pro studs and their parents. My professor was lecturing with the door open, and just as a group of parents was walking by, she's standing at the front of the room, gesturing, and proclaiming loudly, "Okay, guys, what does God have? God has BREASTS! And what do we get from breasts?"

Several terrified parents actually stopped dead in their tracks in the hall outside and peered cautiously into the classroom. We waited until they left to start giggling, and the professor made a joke of throwing out statments of that sort anytime she saw a tour group walking by. (What's impressive is that she normally made the relate to the subject at hand.)