Letters Between Friends: Rebekah Rossi, the Holy Spirit our Mother, gender constructs and the divine feminine.

Rossi recently posted: “How would you respond to someone referring to or praying to the Holy Spirit as “Mom”? I’m interested to hear your thoughts…”  She tracked me down and wanted my input and I jokingly put “heresy” but promised a more serious comment later.  It was too long so I just made it a post.

Simply put: I wouldn’t care. (By this I mean, I would not be concerned that the person was a heretic, or a feminist bent on changing Christianity)

There has always been a challenge to incorporate the “divine feminine” into Judaism and Christianity. YHWH is talked about in scripture from a highly patriarchal context. He is referred to as male and male pronouns are used to referr to Him almost without exception.  This alone does not cause problems. However, it seems many cultures have seen God exhibiting attributes and taking actions that are, according to gender stereotypes, more feminine in nature.  In polytheistic religions there are often male and female gods so this isn’t a problem.  The more feminine actions of the divine are attributed to female gods and the masculine actions are attributed to male gods.

The trouble is in the monotheism of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, a male God appears to take actions that are both masculine and feminine in nature. YHWH is an avenging God but also a mother hen who gathers her chicks, who inspires a prophet to write, “Comfort, comfort, my people.”

While many comments on Rossi’s blog suggested essentially that “this wasn’t a problem because God is neither male nor female and we all (both male and female) are created in his image…” some would disagree.

I recently read an argument against the modern notion that the Ancients believed God was sexless. There are ancient graffiti describe “YHWH AND HIS ASHERAH (wife).” These two gods are depicted as having the approrpiate male and female parts. Additionally there are allusions in scripture to God having a wife/wives (even if these are metaphorical in nature). Ezekiel 1:27 talks about God having fire coming up from and down below his loins (aka, male genitilia).  God is referred to as male consistently, was incarnated as a male, and to my knowledge God is not directly referred to as feminine in any verse. This sexless God does not look so sexless, at least not in the Biblical account.

Personally I would suggest that extra-biblical evidence and even the scriptural evidence in Ezekiel 1:27 represents the Israelites struggling with exactly what I am taking about here.  Where do you put stereotypically feminine characteristics in a religion dominated by a monotheistic male God?  For some it appears that the answer was to take the option presented by a variety of religions around them in the day and they gave God a wife, an Asherah.  This to me represents a creative, if syncretistic and ultimately unorthodox, option.

Throughout the history of Judaism and the Church a variety of things, people, and even nations have taken on the role of playing the divine feminine counterpart to the male God of the Bible. Wisdom is referred to as feminine. Hosea talks of Israel being God’s unfaithful female spouse.  Later both Mary, the mother of Jesus, is raised in Marian theology to represent and take a lot of female aspects apparently missing from the Bible.  The Church itself has often been referred to as “Mother Church” and seen, collectively, as providing a safe, nurturing, and distinctly feminine environment.

Even in patriarchal situations there have been some creative options.  Dr. Thompson recently highlighted a variety of comments from early Church fathers where Jesus is presented in a feminine and maternal role.  Many early church leaders, who would be deemed unbelievably sexist by todays standards, refer to young Christians being nursed at his bosom. Julian of Norwhich, a female mystic from the medieval ages, wrote that, “Christ, he is our Mother.” Dr. Thompson suggested Julian was breaking a stereotype (about the person and nature of Christ) with another stereotype (the role and attributes of women).

Talking about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit as feminine or female is not an invention of third wave feminism or something that is new.  I think the contemporary assertion that God is sexless or that it would be wrong to refer to the Holy Spirit as feminine or as mother says a lot more about our individual and cultural understanding of what it means to be feminine and what it means to be masculine than anything else.

The Holy Spirit Herself is is a feminine noun in the Greek and Hebrew.  So if someone reacted strongly to someone calling the Holy Spirit “Mom,” I would ask why.  Likewise, I would want to know why someone felt the need to describe God in feminine terms.  Is masculinity equated to brutality in their mind?  Can only a feminine God be truly loving for them?  Why? Have we arbitrarily excluded fathers from being loving and nurturing to their kids?  Are women not allowed to be assertive and fight passionately for justice?  Is this an effort to tone down aggressive/abusive/masculine aspects of the Bible that seem too aggressive for a loving God and are offensive to us?

In short: I do not think such a statement represents heresy, or even a new or novel struggle in the modern age. But I do think it begs a lot of questions about what we think about God and gender.

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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6 Responses to Letters Between Friends: Rebekah Rossi, the Holy Spirit our Mother, gender constructs and the divine feminine.

  1. Becky says:

    Kevin, thanks for this well-thought out and insightful approach to the question. I appreciate especially your consideration to the person praying to “mom”, and their intent, context, and heart in the matter. I think one of the most important things we can do as Christians in 2011 is to be slow to speak, to not judge (condemn), and to seek to be a healing source wherever we go, and by all the words that escape our lips, given the mass amount of damage that many Christian/non-Christians have testified of from religious bodies and individuals. I was recently touched by Romans 14, and the underlying goal: To encourage harmony within the body. Our God is so sweet! A God like this, who looks past theoogy and to the heart makes me so happy. 🙂

    • Kevin says:

      It’s funny as you were writing this I was thinking of a witty comment along the lines of…

      “No Rossi, what we Christians really need in 2011 is more plaid and folk worship music…” but then I realized this was just my judgment of hipster Christians coming out.

      Kevinfail and gracefail

      -Kevin

  2. David Portela says:

    Hi Kevin – I’d like to point out that your first response: “I wouldn’t care.” doesn’t really jive with what you say later, that you would be interested in why this person feels the need to treat God (in the person of the HS) as female. So you do care, you just don’t “care” to the point of condemning the person, which sadly is the default response of many who run into these situations.

    The truth is that God is much more mysterious and complex that we give Him credit for. On the one hand, He displays a tenderness, mercy and love that our cultures throughout history have relegated to the feminine. On the other, even while displaying those attributes, not only does he display others which have been traditionally associated with the masculine, but in his revelation to us he insists on using certain male-centered metaphors, such as father/son (albeit a very loving and tender father/son relationship) and groom/bride (Christ and the church). There are many layers of meaning in those metaphors but what’s most interesting to me is that they are the archetypes for the relationships, while our own versions are the types.

    To clarify, can you imagine if we as men were to strive to model the Father/Son relationship described within the Trinity, and later, in respect to how the Father treats us (as children)? As a relatively new father (now I have two little ones) these issues are ALWAYS on my mind. I continually ask myself “What am I teaching Lucas about God through my behavior?”, because if he is to properly understand God as Father, he needs to know a just, righteous, holiness-seeking, yet merciful, loving, tender earthly father first. It’s a hell of a challenge!

    So perhaps it’s not so much an incongruity on His part in not describing himself as feminine, it’s a problem on our end for twisting masculinity and femininity into things that they are not and were never meant to be, and then turning around and complaining that God doesn’t fit the roles we’ve constructed.

    The Bible itself has plenty to say about roles and behavior but it’s definitely interesting that the great leveler before Christ includes the man/woman distinction along with the Jew/Greek and Master/Servant ones when it declares us all the same before Christ. On the other hand, along with that in the NT are several instructions (including those about church leadership, etc) that place different roles upon men and women. So there is a sense in which we are the same, and another in which we are to rescue and restore (through Christ) those ways in which we were made to be complementary and different.

    Striving to be a father in the same way He is to me, – David

    • Kevin says:

      David,

      Yes I probably should have used less muddy language.

      By stating “I wouldn’t care” I was referring to the fact that it would not be cause for alarm for me. Some Christians (and myself several years rolled back) would probably be insistent on a masculine God across the board and any suggestion that God might have feminine aspects would be decried as non-biblical or evidence for the influence of feminism.

      As you have pointed out, however, I would care in terms of what it says about the person saying such a thing, what it means about them and their relationship to God and to people.

  3. I appreciate this post a lot. I especially like your third to last paragraph. Thanks for taking the time to write about this.

  4. Pingback: Letters Between Friends: David P. and hearing from God. « Speak Faithfully

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