As we arrived home from church last Sunday, my daughter asked, “Mom, why do we always say that God is a He?”
“I’m reading a book about that very question,” I replied.
“You ARE? What does it SAY?”
I gave her a brief description of patriarchy as codified in Christianity: dudes were in charge when the church was forming, and those dudes had some entrenched beliefs about women being morally, physically, mentally, and spiritually inferior, so they spoke of God only in masculine terms, and built the structures of faith around sexism. Then I asked, “Did you notice that the Reverend referred to the Holy Spirit as She?”
“No, he did?”
“Yes. Because in Hebrew Scriptures the term used to refer to the Holy Spirit was feminine, and so were the images that represented Her. It made me very happy that the Reverend said She.”
Audrey nodded. “I always thought of God as a She, but I guess that’s because I’m a girl. If I were a boy, I would probably think of God as a He.”
“I don’t really think God is like us in that way,” I said. “I think God—”
“Is like a flower? With a stamen and a pistil?”
I was about to say something about God transcending gender, but I liked this thought very much, and it is an excellent symbol, a place to begin conceiving of God as fully male and fully female. As Elizabeth A. Johnson, the author of She Who Is, puts it, “The symbol of God functions.”
“Yes. I think God is exactly like a flower,” I replied.
There you have it: a three-minute conversation about the nature of humanity made in God’s image with a ten-year-old. Now, if we could just shape our lives around the idea that we—male and female—are equally sacred, we’d all be a lot better off.
As I’ve said before, I don’t think that Christian beliefs should shape every American’s beliefs: I embrace the idea that we are a country of many faiths. However, our politics have always been shaped by patriarchal Christianity. If we are to envision a different America, built on inclusive policies that allow us all to be our full selves, we need to confront sexism within Christianity.
A national conversation about the sacredness of woman within our country’s dominant religion will open the doorway to the conversation we need to have about the dignity and humanity of every woman, regardless of her religious beliefs. When white, male, Christian leaders cry the validity of rape from podiums across the nation, it reinforces a set of beliefs that are both underscored by and completely separate from fundamentalist, take-your-enemies’-women Christianity.
As Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite asserts in a Washington Post article about feminist theology and Mitt Romney: “Unless and until we go deeper on why women are paid less, are told they don’t have the religious freedom to act on their own consciences in regard to their reproductive health choices, and why they are abused in their bodies, minds and spirits with little or no legal protections, then we will not get to the real problem and real and more permanent solutions will elude us.”
American Christianity’s diminishment of women gets into the heart and mind of every woman; if she is Christian, it means the religion that is so close to her heart marginalizes her through its use of male-centered language and imagery, which have been historically used to reinforce patriarchal systems that hold women as secondary to men. If she is not, a religion she doesn’t follow helps to shape policies and attitudes that diminish—and often demean—her.
As Elizabeth A. Johnson puts it: “Women experience the effects of sexism both socially and psychologically; nor, as the feminist axiom ‘the personal is political’ insightfully acknowledges, can the two be divorced.” (p. 25)
The need for women of faith to recognize our own worth is bound up with the need to recognize ourselves in images of, and speech about, God. This is an elemental need, and it shows up in deeply personal ways. My soul rejoiced to hear that the Holy Spirit is feminine.
But Ms. Johnson liberated my soul further with her accurate analysis of this practice. While conceiving of this aspect of the Trinity as feminine does include feminine traits in the divine, it relegates those traits to the invisible: “For all practical purposes, we end up with two clear masculine images and an amorphous feminine third.” (p. 50) The author then goes on to argue that what we need—and by “we” she means men as well as women—is to see God as equally male and female.
To be able to pray to a She, and yet move within the religion of my heart. Oh, it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s—sacred, that idea. I can’t wait to learn more about it.
And I can’t wait to share it with the world.
Imagine the conversations we could have if, when a patriarch legitimates rape via Christianity, a Christian leader answers, “No, God doesn’t approve of rape. Rape violates Her sacred creation. You are slandering Her name, and Her truth, to keep yourself in power.”
To get there, we must start within: we must start by naming the sacred She in each of us, not as a joke or an ironic wish, but as a truth as resounding and full as that held within the sacred He.