The Divine Feminine and the Roles of Biblical Women
The Divine Feminine The Divine Feminine and the roles of biblical women have been much on my mind and heart, churning in my spirit of late. In truth, they have been churning beneath the surface for a long time, but I’ve struggled with how to engage them faithfully. I grew up in a church that was mainly conservative. In our worship life, language for God was limited to God’s scriptural names and masculine pronouns. That felt comfortable to me. My relationship with God developed with the understanding of God as Father. I knew that, strictly speaking, God was neither male nor female, but the limitations of language forced one to choose. Experiences in my undergraduate and seminary years of education, however, led me to question such a choice.
I had been introduced to the idea of valuing both masculine and feminine expressions of God while I was an undergraduate at Valparaiso University in the days when the ELCA was shaping a new hymnal and weighing the merits of making changes that would address God with gender neutral terms, but the notion struck more personally when I worked as a bible camp counselor at an ELCA camp in Wisconsin between my freshman and sophomore years. I developed friendships with some of my fellow counselors, one of whom was a sophomore named Sarah. Early on, she shared with me that she believed strongly in the importance of using inclusive language and that she found exclusively masculine God language insensitive. Late in the summer, around campfire worship, Sarah was sitting next to me and began quietly weeping. We took a walk and she poured her heart out. She was grieving a summer’s use of masculine God language. Hearing such language exclusively for months made her feel “less than” a woman, like God cared less about her experience and her person. I was astonished. Why was this so personal? The language wasn’t personal. It was just an unfortunate reality of syntax. How could this grieve her heart? Did it really feel better to her to saying “God” repeatedly instead of using a pronoun? I listened, offered a shoulder, and held space for her struggle, but I didn’t understand. For me, personal pronouns felt important in relationship to God. Without them, God felt distant and less loving to me. I recognized that it was unfortunate that English had no gender neutral pronouns, but felt in the balance that I would rather a personal God to a distant God.
Apart from a few class discussions in upper level theology courses, the topic of the role of biblical women and the Divine Feminine went dormant in my life for a while until I began seminary. Every professor I studied with, both at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, adopted an inclusive language clause in their syllabus. In other words, I was required to use inclusive language about God in every paper I submitted. I could substitute God’s name every time a reference was needed or I could alternate between using masculine and female pronouns equally. Some professors would take points off for failing to do so, others would simply stop reading or fail the paper if only one gender of pronouns was used. I was taken aback when I first read this expectation. It seemed it must be a big deal, but I felt strongly about sacrificing the personal, relatable nature of one set of pronouns for God. In an intellectual way, I understood the point and I appreciated the effort to raise women from a kind of “second class” citizenship. That said, I did not understand the importance of such language. My heart and deepest self didn’t get it. That began to change, however, when I took a course on the Theology of the Cross.
One of the class requirements for the Theology of the Cross was to make a group presentation on a topic and explain how the Theology of the Cross intersected with it. A group of women in my class presented on Feminist Theology. Throughout class these women loudly self-identified as “feminists” and spoke boldly and angrily with little regard for other opinions. I confess, when their turn came to present, I tuned them out. I had heard enough from them. As a result, I recall very little of what they said. I do, however, remember one image that they projected. It was of a sculpture called The Christa, a controversial piece that depicted Jesus on the cross as a woman rather than as a man. My theologically orthodox brain said I should be disgusted by this art. Instead, I was transfixed. I sat dumbstruck by the image. I understood very little of what I was feeling, only that I had been shaken to my core. As I considered my feelings later, I realized that I had never seen a depiction of the Divine as female before. I easily accepted and related to God as male, but The Christa resonated intimately with me in a way no image of God ever had. I realized I had never seen my own sex and gender affirmed in a divine image. It was one thing to give intellectual assent to the notion that God is neither male nor female; it was something else altogether to see God in female form. My heart and mind wrestled with my experience. My heart sensed something true and deeply significant in The Christa, but my theologically orthodox mind was unsure what to do with those feelings.
I saw The Christa for the first time more than 13 years ago. My heart and mind still wrestle some, but I know more now than I knew then. I have since learned that understanding God in feminine and female terms is not unorthodox. Theology has a deep, rich, and ancient branch of study and experience that grew out of the Divine Feminine, the Wisdom Tradition. Wisdom is not only a kind of knowledge, it is something of a Divine name given to a female manifestation of God throughout the Old Testament scriptures. Wisdom is the Word in John 1, the Word that was in the beginning, was with God, was God. It is Wisdom that takes on human flesh and becomes Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are those of the Wisdom Tradition.
When we limit our understanding of God to male, we miss out on huge parts of who God is and how we are invited to be in relationship. We also, without meaning to, diminish women. Women of faith can go their whole lives without being affirmed or blessed in an understanding of themselves as women beyond intellectual understanding -- that being women is a gift, a divine blessing, that women are spiritually needed in the world, that their way of being is an integral part of giving birth to God’s kingdom in the here and now. Women can know in their minds that those things are true, but fail to experience them in an embodied way.
The Roles of Biblical Women
As the church was developing, it formed around mainly patriarchal lines. As a result, much of the Wisdom Tradition, recognition of feminine aspects of God, and the voices and stories of women of faith were hushed. There is an empty silence where the stories of strong women with deep faith would be within scripture and tradition.
A few years ago, during Lent, I noticed for the first time, that while the church often emphasizes Jesus’ abandonment by the disciples and repeats that He was left alone to die on the cross, scripture records Mary Magdalene’s presence at every step of Jesus’ journey from trial to cross to tomb to resurrection. This was a stunning revelation. Why had I never heard this before? Why is so little emphasis put on this? Who was Mary Magdalene that she walked with Jesus in such a way?
I began to read and research Mary Magdalene. I learned that what scripture actually attests to about her is vastly different from what has come down to us through tradition. Nowhere in scripture does it ever say (or even satisfactorily intimate) she was a prostitute. By contrast, scripture says that she was a wealthy woman, healed by Jesus, that bank-rolled His ministry. The fact that she is named, not as just Mary, or as Mary, wife/daugher of, but as Mary Magdalene speaks volumes about her significance among those closest to Jesus. That she is listed in scripture first among lists of women and in John’s gospel among Jesus’ family locates her within the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. There is a great deal to speculate about where Mary is concerned, but she is certainly not the questionable woman that has been passed down through tradition.
Mary Magdalene was a wake up call for me to begin looking anew at many women in the bible. I have stopped taking for granted what I think I know about them as I’ve discovered that often what I think I know was handed down through a smudged filter. For example, there is a woman in the New Testament, Junia, who is specifically named as an apostle of Jesus Christ. For thousands of years her name was translated in bibles as Junias because somewhere along the line someone or some group didn’t believe a female apostle was a possibility and so her name was changed to a masculine form. Another example, The Woman at the Well is widely considered to be a loose woman, but a close reading of the text suggests she may be a tragic figure and victim of terrible circumstance. The text itself does not say one way or the other. There are countless examples of this treatment of women throughout scripture.
All of this has been swirling in me in recent months largely because at five years old, my daughter has begun asking questions about God and about herself that are harder for me to answer. When I was pregnant, I knew one thing about her and about the kind of mom I wanted to be. I wanted to exemplify for her, teach, and empower her to grow into a strong woman of deep faith. I look at my beautiful little girl and I want her to know, really know, that she was made female in God’s image as much as if she had been made male, that who she is, is reflected in God’s nature. And, I want for her to see clearly in the bible that there are women worth looking up to. I want this for her because I know I need it for me. I need to know that my female nature is reflected in God’s nature. I need women of faith to look up to. All women do. And, really, men need it too. We all need windows through which we can see more of God, and in seeing more of God to see more of who we are and who God dreams us to be.
I write this not to suggest radical changes to the ways we use language in worship or as an argument for or against inclusive language. I write this as witness of my journey as a woman of faith. I write this for the women, the youth, the girls in this congregation who need to see themselves in God’s being. I write this for the men who hunger and thirst for God that will see more of God when the walls of the box God lives in are widened or blown off. I write this as a meditation on who God is and the intimate relationship God wants to have with each of us. I write this that we might consider God’s vastness. That God is bigger than we can imagine, and that the act of imaging can bring us in intimate contact with God as we bear witness to the little girls AND boys that will come after us.
I recently finished reading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. In it, a little caucasian girl, Lily, searches for her mother and finds mothers among a family of black women that venerate a black Madonna and use her image on the jars of honey they sell. Near the end of the book Lily asks about the image.“How come you put a black Madonna on your honey?” I asked. I’d been curious about this from day one. Usually people got in a rut putting honey bears on them.August grew still, holding the jar in her hand and looking into the distance like she’d gone in search of the answer and that finding it had been the bonus of the day. “I wish you could have seen [my friends] the first time they laid eyes on this label. You know why? Because when they looked at her, it occurred to them for the first time in their lives that what’s divine can come in dark skin. You see, everybody needs a God that looks like them, Lily.”Indeed. And, as much as we need a God that doesn’t look like us -- but that’s another article ;)
About the Author: Pastor Nicole Kelly is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.