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.