You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is looking for the Holy Grail, and he chooses the most humble cup among all the gem-encrusted, golden splendor before him? I love that scene, because it rings so true to my idea of God, and of Jesus—of course Jesus would drink from a simple cup. I had the same feeling after finishing Elizabeth A. Johnson’s She Who Is—a feeling that here, truly, is where God dwells. But in this case, the feeling is not a foregone conclusion—it is more like the release of unconscious tension, the feeling you get when you finally receive some long-awaited good news. This book brought feminism and Christianity together for me, and the experience was liberating and deeply satisfying.
Be aware: this book isn’t an easy read. It is a scholarly work, and the author places her thoughts within the context of classical theology. I sometimes had to reread passages, look up unfamiliar words, or accept that I would understand the gist of a paragraph (usually one that included a lot of Latin) without getting it word for word. But oh, was it worth the work it took to read this book. The rewards were manifold: a deeper understanding of historical Christian thought (especially classical theology—think Aquinas and Augustine), a revelation of the roots of patriarchy within Christianity (you know, that image of the Father in Heaven on a throne—he has a white beard, right?), and an explication of the work of women that Christianity has marginalized or left out altogether. By the time I finished this book, I understood that I had unconsciously accepted that my own religion didn’t hold women in as high esteem as it holds men, and that I shouldn’t accept it at all, consciously or unconsciously. Such an approach to the divine is wrong: not just socially, but spiritually. Not just in human consciousness, but in divine consciousness.
This truth, it seems, should be self-evident. And yet the concept of the divine feminine has been so buried within Christianity that the religion as a whole resists the idea of naming God She as something untoward, bordering on blasphemous. Even the Holy Spirit, which is traditionally the aspect of the Trinity that can be associated with the feminine, is not always named She. And when it is, the Spirit tends to be seen as lesser than the other parts of the Trinity.
Through a careful examination of the right way to speak about and conceive of God, Elizabeth Johnson frees Christianity from the restrictive bonds of patriarchy. The pages of She Who Is are filled with passages like this one: “What then has gone wrong? For despite the value of maternal metaphors in human language and the legitimacy of their occasional appearance in biblical texts and theological tradition, it is highly characteristic of Christian speech that the origin and care-giver of all things is named almost exclusively in terms of the paternal relationship.” (p. 172) Again and again, Ms. Johnson exposes the ways in which Christian speech and thought have taken male metaphor—and the historical gender of the man Jesus—to fashion a God that is, despite theological admission that God cannot be fully understood or categorized in human terms—literally as well as metaphorically male.
By bringing feminine metaphor to the forefront, and exploring the ways in which the personification of Biblical Wisdom known as Sophia permeates all of creation, Ms. Johnson excavates the lost feminine in Christianity. Like the divinity she describes, the pages of this book are dynamic, renewing, life-giving, sustaining, everywhere suffering with those in pain and yet far from helpless. Ms. Johnson’s concern is to empower women to see themselves as truly imago Dei, made in the image of God.
And so she does. To read She Who Is is to understand Christian thought in a completely new way—one that is inclusive of the experience and suffering of women throughout history and throughout the world, one that seeks the right way to speak about divine nature, one that explores the symbols of the Trinity with an eye toward embracing all of humanity. Throughout the book, Ms. Johnson emphasizes the unknowable nature of holy mystery, as well as the limited explication that any metaphors, male or female, can bring to this mystery. And yet, by revealing the long-obscured feminine aspects of divinity within a religion that has been defined by patriarchy since it became codified in Greek philosophy, she brings our understanding a little closer to that mystery, so that we might feel we are, truly, in the presence of a living God—She Who Is.