August 15, 2012

Feminism, Patriarchy, and the Names of God

Madonna and Child by Marianne Stokes. This can also be labeled “Why traditional Christians can’t be called chauvinists.”

The increasingly popular Love, Joy, Feminism blog featured a short post that caught my attention. Echoing Sarah Over the Moon, Libby Anne asserted that male imagery of God is idolatry. I read this opinion not because I am a loyal follower of this Patheos blog. Instead, I came across it through several feminists friends of mine who fall into the “post-evangelical,” “hip Christian,” and “post-Christian” category. Libby Anne herself professes atheism, turning her back on a severely fundamentalist upbringing. She underwent various abuses and inconsistencies with the Quiverfull movement and Reconstructionist patriarchy. Many of her fans suffered the same excesses as found in fringes of the homeschooling community. For the uninitiated, one can research the names Bill Gothard, Debi Pearl, and Doug Phillips to get an idea of the beast we’re dealing with here. These harmful positions have received criticism from liberals and conservatives alike; they rely on poor interpretations of Scripture, generally disregarding the Christian tradition and employing cult-like techniques in leadership.

Nevertheless, as LJF clearly exemplifies, the reaction against such nuttiness can be just as dangerous. Sarah observed that literal understanding of human qualities leads to idolatry instead of “an analogy that aids human understanding and breaks earthly power structures.” The LJF author warned that this “brings God down to an earthly level…In other words, patriarchy lowers God to man. The opposite is also startlingly true: patriarchy makes man into God.” She concluded,

Christian Patriarchy is idolatry. It is worshiping man in the place of God because it equates an individual man’s will and views to God’s will and views. God and man combine and become one, and the women are left trying to swim in a swirling cloud of authority where what is human and what is divine has become too closely related to separate and even, indeed, one and the same.

I appreciate that LJF critiques hurtful overly-chauvinistic views. Also, as orthodox Christians, we can’t actually believe that God the Father literally has male members and comes replete with a celestial space-beard. He is spirit, and those that worship Him must do so in spirit and in truth. However, this feminist analysis isn’t too far away from the famed Re-Imagining Conference and its adherents who are still skulking about (as I reported here). Instead of talking about gender roles, I think we need to look at scriptural authorship, inspiration, and revelation.

God, as mysterious Otherness (yes, we’re bringing out the slick philosophical-theological words here), has the attribute of transcendence: His ways are not our ways. If we could understand Him fully, He’d hardly be God at all. Lots of religious claims have been made on account of this insight. There is a great depth to be plunged by scholars. What we all need to take away is that we cannot contain God in our minds as fallen, limited human beings. Thus, seeing God as an old man is inadequate; that picture is but one facet of Who He is. Human tongue could not utter His fullness.

What people raised in a Christian household can forget is that we are totally reliant on God to reveal Himself to us. Yes, the pagan world had many insights on the divine; to ignore them is the height of foolishness. Somehow, human memory and reason allowed for even the heathen to understand something of the supernatural (see Josef Pieper’s Tradition: Concept and Claim). God reveals part of Himself in what St. Augustine calls the “book of nature.” However, He also offers special revelation. As St. Peter wrote, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” The “moved by the Holy Ghost” uses the metaphorical language of wind blowing in the sails of a boat to propel it. Certain writers were inspired (a “breathing in”) by the Spirit. They weren’t robotic typewriters that God took over as a sort of zombie, but God used them to write what he desired. There is human participation. The church put the canon together. This scares some literalists and inerrantists, but it’s what the one holy apostolic church teaches and believes. Christ Jesus Himself ensured that the Spirit would guide the church in all these things and more—and continues to do so to this day (see John 17 for this promise). The Bible is God’s Word written. As an atheist, Libby Anne does not affirm this, but it’s a significant difference. Christians aren’t so freed up in their understanding of the Bible.

So, we believe God graciously gave the Scriptures to man when humankind was in the dark. The Bible is what He wanted written down, and this same body of literature uses masculine pronouns and metaphors extensively in reference to all three Persons of the Trinity. Notice I said “masculine” rather than “male.” There are characteristics of God the Father that are not enfleshed, but are somehow masculine. C. S. Lewis explores the difference in his Perelandra. We as the Church, on the other hand, are feminine. We are the “beloved” as seen in the Song of Songs, regardless of our sex. Basically, the language is a metaphor; “metaphor” does not translate to “I get to make it mean what I want it to.” People on either side of the issue who are incapable of understanding that have a stunted imagination.

I’m going to refer us to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a medieval theologian who struggled with a similar dilemma: how can names (which define and limit) be applied and used by an infinite God. In answering this question, he pursued negative theology. We’re just going to look at a statement from the introductory chapter of his The Divine Names:

Here too let us hold on to the scriptural rule that when we say anything about God, we should set down the truth “not in the plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit” [I Cor. 2:4] to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reaching a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being.

When we’re talking about God, we’re talking about someone Who is not only at the top of the hierarchy, but above and outside it. We’re much farther down the rungs and should be willing to refer to Him as He has so revealed Himself. To reinvent as we see fit would be presumptuous and hubristic.

Much more problematic to LJF’s case is that God not only revealed Himself in text, but also in flesh. When God took on human nature, He was born a man. When Jesus grew up, He probably had chest hair and a beard. I didn’t choose this, and neither did the much-ballyhooed patriarchal society He entered. In Christ is “the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” He’s male, and when God related to humankind so directly, immanently, and immediately, it was through Christ.

To use this truth to abuse power is vile. Unfortunately, young hipster Christians may yet be snookered in their defiance of injustice. God has revealed Himself partially but adequately to human beings—something we don’t deserve. Even more exciting, the redeemed shall one day see Him face to face. We don’t know what that kind of glory entails, but we should be grateful for the veiled truths we’ve received and pass on their mysterious entirety to coming generations.


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  • Betsy

    Bart, We have had a pastor who would not refer to God as He and went so far as to refer to God as God’s self rather then to say Himself. Just disturbing because not many people caught it nor were even aware when written in a letter to the congregation. Just slippery stuff. Thanks for your report . BK

  • J S Lang

    Over the years I have had a lot of my writings published in The Upper Room’s various publications, and I’ve observed that my writings get edited to remove all masculine pronouns referring to God, and (of course) God as “Father” is a no-no. These publications are read by millions of people, many of whom are evangelicals. The United Methodists, very liberal at the top levels, operates The Upper Room, which explains these “non-sexist language” restrictions. I think it’s sad that UMeths seem to want to direct people’s devotional lives by eliminating language that Christians for two millennia did not find “offensive.”

  • Fisher

    Ease remove all references that you were homeschooled, I really have a hard time believing it was a true Christian experience if you were indeed a Christian homeschooled student. One does not continually make comments like you do if that were the case. You are feeding the left, haters, and uneducated.

    • Bart Gingerich

      May I inquire which of these comments in this post help feed “the left, haters, and uneducated” when it is in fact written against all three?

      • Fisher

        What is a severly fundamentalist upbringing? If Doug Phillips is an example I guess you are lumping me in the “severly fundamentalist” catagory, which is consider an insult by those who use the word fundamentalist to use severly compounds the intended insult. Btw, I’d rather be “severly fundamentalist” than a liberal any day, I’ve seen what liberalism brings, it’s not pretty.
        Pearl I know nothing of, Bill Gothard, if he is the man I’m thinking of, is not a bad man. His teaching is hard right, especially in today’s culture, but if what he teaches was in public schools, as many years as what have now, our country would be better off.

        A qoute from you “What people raised in a Christian household can forget is that we are totally reliant on God to reveal Himself to us.” So who else should we rely on? Do you think pagans have as good of a grasp as to who God is as those ignorant Christians who read the Bible? Whether or not you intended it to come across that way it definitely made me think it would cause certain of your readers to think it, especially your atheist readers, like the one you mentioned.

        Then it appears to me that you are claiming these pagans were holy men, that God used the Holy Spirit to stir them up, inspire them. Pagans? Is that what you meant? And, without using a quote or page/ paragraph number, you link to someone’s book or paper. I didn’t look it up because I don’t want to read most of a book/paper to find out what you are trying to relate to me. Quote the man if I think the quote worthy and needs to be researched then I’ll follow the link provided.
        If my assumptions are wrong please clarify, I did not wish to be so blunt but I had just read another of your posts prior to this one so my blood was already stirring.