Tradition as a source for liberating speech about God

Granted my theological reading is pretty spotty to begin with, but a particular hole I’ve been meaning to fill has been feminist theology. So, when I saw a copy of Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is at a local used bookstore I decided to pick it up–and I’m glad I did. Not only does Johnson make a compelling case for revisiting how Christians speak about God in light of feminist insights, she writes clearly and straightforwardly, without dumbing down her material.

I think among feminist theologians Johnson is probably considered to be somewhat conservative in the sense that, while acknowledging that the Christian tradition has played a major role in oppressing women, she also thinks that it has rich resources for liberation. Other feminists think that a wholesale reconstruction, or even rejection, of the tradition is called for, but Johnson is able to mine it in surprising ways, and uncover long-neglected truths.

Johnson’s main thesis is that Christian speech about God has been deformed by patriarchal social structures and that theological discourse has tended to elevate masculine language for God to a normative and even literal status, despite official disclaimers to the contrary. This not only relegates women to second-class status, but is theologically inadequate, and even idolatrous. Since all speech about God is inherently analogical and God’s mystery eludes any of our attempts to name or describe it, insisting on one set of images presumes that we have captured God in our conceptual or linguistic net. Johnson shows this most clearly when she points out that any deviation from masculine language about God is thought to be in need of justification, which implies that such language is more “proper” or “appropriate” for speaking about the divine.

But Johnson argues persuasively that this, in effect, denies the full personhood of women. Women are created in the divine image, just as men are, so it follows that feminine language can represent God just as adequately (or inadequately) as masculine language. In fact, both types of language (along with more “cosmic” language drawn from the realm of nature) are necessary if we are to avoid idolatry and recover a more holistic way of speaking about God. The criteria for adequate speech about God, from a feminist perspective, is “the emancipation of women toward human flourishing” (p. 30). No theological language or system that oppresses and dehumanizes can be religiously true, adequate, or coherent.

Johnson rejects some common attempts to correct the exclusive use of masculine language. One such solution is to avoid personal language for God altogether. The problem with this is that it has the effect of denying personality to God. While God is certainly “supra”-personal in that God transcends personality as we know it in human beings, God is not less than personal.

Another strategy Johnson rejects is that of attributing “feminine” qualities to some aspect of the divine. The Holy Spirit is the usual candidate here. The problem with this approach is that it usually leans on stereotypes of men and women and associates the “feminine” aspect of God with qualities like nurturing, compassion, etc., while the other more “masculine” qualities are attributed to other aspects of God. Not only does this perpetuate stereotypes of men and women, Johnson argues, it introduces a kind of division in God. (Indeed, Johnson argues that in the West many of the feminine qualities were, in practice, transferred to the figure of the Virgin Mary, creating another de facto mediator between us and a wrathful, “masculine” God.)

What Johnson proposes instead is that women and men can both–in their diversity and complex fullness–point to the inexhaustible reality of God:

The mystery of God transcends all images but can be spoken about equally well and poorly in concepts taken from male or female reality. The approach advocated here proceeds with the insight that only if God is so named, only if the full reality of women as well as men enters into the symbolization of God along with symbols from the natural world, can the idolatrous fixation on one image be broken and the truth of the mystery of God, in tandem with the liberation of all human beings and the whole earth, emerge for our time. (p. 56)

To tackle this task of enunciating a more adequate language about God, Johnson draws on three sources: women’s (interpreted) experience, scripture, and classical theology. I’ll try and say a little about each in a future post (or posts).

4 thoughts on “Tradition as a source for liberating speech about God

  1. I have been reading some similar work. I picked up an old collection called Womanspirit Rising. This gave some background to the kinds of environments in which feminist theology sprang up. Take Yale at about 1970 with a liberal theology that had just staked off certain questions as going too far. Given the presuppositions, it does seem that the main reasons for not asking those questions was cultural.

    I found it interesting that the term used of the kind of approach you mention in your post was “iconoclastic.” This ironically offers roots to the process of uprooting.

    But I think the question that needs to be asked is whose speech this is. Is God silent? Is there true Special Revelation? It is one thing to propose radical reading strategies. It is another to imply that we are engaged here in creative writing.

  2. Pingback: Gender and God-talk « A Thinking Reed

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth Johnson on ecological Christology | A Thinking Reed

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