This is an excerpt from a paper presented by the Rev Glynn Cardy to Auckland’s Aorangi Club in September 2015.
As far back as the English bishop John Robinson’s 1963 book Honest to God the idea of praying to “Our Father” was criticised for being seen as important in creating the impression in the popular imagination that the Christian God was essentially male. Those who argued contrary to Robinson for the continuation of male language for God said that the use of male pronouns and descriptors was not gender specific (“he” supposedly meant “he” and “she”), and that if Jesus used the term “Father”, so should we. (This latter point raises the question of to what extent should Christians today imitate the 1st century Jewish religious language and customs of Rabbi Jesus.) They also argued that God could not possibly be imaged as a woman without the very foundations of Christianity falling down.
Not surprisingly in the 1970s and 80s many scholars and practitioners of religion criticised the fixing of God in a chromosomal box. As Professor Mary Daly famously quipped, “When God is male, the male is God.” Not surprisingly some researched and re-discovered the powerful images of a divine feminine, and encouraged their revival. And not surprisingly the foundations of Christianity didn’t fall down.
Elaine Storkey, the English evangelical theologian writing in 2014 says:
“Seeing God only as masculine is very limiting, and I think it’s good to stir people up to think about God by using feminine pronouns. I think the more we can do to remind ourselves that God is not biologically male, the better. The Bible has been used throughout history to repress women – you only need to look at people like Augustine and the kinds of things he said about women being second class citizens – and it’s not helped when God is presented as a man. It’s not something God’s done; it’s our extrapolation and our understanding. But even the fact that using feminine pronouns for God creates such a shockwave in most churches shows we have a long way to go”
Other female and male leaders in the 1980s had voiced the same sentiment as Storkey – just some 30 years earlier! Unfortunately little has changed in terms of God-language. Many churches still seem to think that the foundations of Christianity will collapse if God is not imaged as a man.
In Greek mythology the one who created, or rather gave birth to, the earth and the entire universe, the heavenly gods, the Titans, and the Giants, was Gaea the mother goddess. She was the mother of all. Other ancient cultures similarly had significant goddesses – Isis in Egypt, Ishtar in Babylonia, Inanna in Sumer, Astarte in Canaan, and Kuan-Yin in China.
One of the great spiritual mysteries has always been that of birth. Even today with extensive scientific and medical knowledge the advent of a baby, with a unique personality, finger prints and some would say “soul print”, is still something that is totally awesome and mysterious. Is it any wonder that our ancient forbears hallowed the mother through whom this wonderful miracle happened?
Gaea, as the legends say, was however, in addition to being the mother of all, the one who in the face of male power and desire to control all things (even time) threw a spanner in the works and refused to allow such a victory. Gaea shaped the emerging cosmos to ensure that chaos continued to exert influence and that there could be creative disturbance. Without chaos there is no death, but no creation and or growth either. Balance, harmony, is what Gaea sought, satisfaction with the goodness of all things in their proper place and relationship with the other.
So for the Greeks Gaea wasn’t only a bearer of children, but she also had a spiritual vision and agenda. Today some theologians have re-appropriated and re-configured this vision to express an ethic of cooperation and creativity in the hope that the prevalence of warfare and “power-over” policies will be thwarted, and life and love and hope will come to predominate.
A number of modern theologians find this “Gaea” strand in the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the traces that remain of Sophia [a personification of wisdom] – traces that were almost lost with the emergence of the kingdom in the time of King David (around 1000 BCE). Jesus speaks of himself as a child of Sophia and that she will be vindicated by her children, of which he was one. Sophia was said to be present with God (the male creator) at the beginning of creation and traces of her influence pop up from time to time in images and in nurturing behaviours such as gathering her children under her wing.
There are eleven references to God as a woman in the Bible. She is portrayed as a human mother, as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, as a comforter, in labour pains, as breast-feeding, as looking for a lost coin, and as the Queen of Heaven. These references are in addition to the references to Sophia, which are largely in the first 9 chapters of the Book of Proverbs. It is interesting to compare John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…”) with Proverbs 8 where the masculine logos/word has superseded the Sophia/wisdom. Male and female images, visions, and agendas have longed wrestled in religious history and practice.
Glynn’s paper is longer than was able to be published here, so if you want to read more, please download the full paper which discusses the evolving understanding of God’s gender, women in early Christianity, women in leadership roles in the early Church and other related matters.