Many names

After discussing the role of experience–specifically women’s experience of affirming themselves as fully human and valued by God, equally created in the divine image–Elizabeth Johnson turns to the Bible and classical theology as sources for feminist theological discourse.

It’s no secret that the Bible was written by men in patriarchal cultures and reflects the presuppositions of those cultures. Johnson argues that these aspects of scripture are incidental and don’t pertain to what is necessary for our salvation (just as Vatican II affirmed that historical or scientific inaccuracies in the Bible don’t affect its core message). “It is most emphatically not salvific to diminish the image of God in women, to designate them as symbols of temptation and evil, to relegate them to the margins of significance, to suppress the memory of their suffering and creative power, and to legitimate their subordination” (p. 79)

Moreover, there are “trajectories” in the Bible that allow for speaking about God with female metaphors. Chief among these are Spirit, or Shekina, God’s holy presence with God’s people; Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom; and Mother. All of these images or names are licensed by scripture and all use female metaphors for God. Johnson finds Sophia to be particularly potent, being both explicitly female and invested with divine attributes. Sophia, who looms large in the books Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha, may even represent some healthy borrowing from nearby goddess cults:

The controlling context of meaning remained the Jewish monotheistic faith with borrowings being assimilated to that faith. At the same time, through the use of new categories, Jewish beliefs about God and God’s ways with the world were expressed in a way that matched the religious depth and style of the goddess literature and cult and counteracted its appeal. The wisdom literature, then, celebrates God’s gracious goodness in creating and sustaining the world and in electing and saving Israel, and does so in imagery that presents the divine presence in the female gestalt of divine Sophia. (p. 93)

The importance of the figure of Sophia is further reinforced by the New Testament’s identification of Jesus with divine wisdom (i.e., Sophia). A “wisdom” Christology can, consequently, provide a corrective to a “logos” Christology understood in excessively masculine terms. “Since Jesus Christ is depicted as divine Sophia, then it is not unthinkable–it is not even unbiblical–to confess Jesus the Christ as the incarnation of God imaged in female symbol” (p. 99).

Turning to the tradition of classical theology, Johnson focuses on the divine ineffability and the long tradition in Catholic theology that language about God is, necessarily, analogical. That is, we can’t speak about God in literal terms, but we aren’t left speechless because certain attributes belong to God in a “more eminent” way than they do to creatures. For instance, we apply “good” to God because we first experience goodness in creatures. But “good” must be qualified and even in a sense negated when applied to God. It points us in the right direction, but it doesn’t provide anything like a literal description of what God is like.

For Johnson, a renewed emphasis on the analogical nature of all divine language can loosen the grip that male names and metaphors for God have had on the Christian imagination. Even when the analogical nature of all theological language was recognized, the insistence that male language was the only fully proper language reinforced sexist attitudes. But if we appreciate anew the analogical nature of theological language and recognize the full and equal humanity of women, then we can affirm the appropriateness of female names and metaphors for God, including those drawn from under-appreciated parts of the biblical tradition.

Indeed, Johnson emphasizes the need for many names for God. Because of God’s infinity and incomprehensibility, we need a kaleidoscope of names and images for pointing to that reality. This can prevent certain images from becoming fixed and reified, which can tempt us to idolatry. Paraphrasing Augustine, “If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God” (p. 120).

4 thoughts on “Many names

  1. muqeem

    Muslims Believe In JESUS (Peace be upon him)

    To know more please visit : http://islam100.wordpress.com

    We are presenting this not to placate you out of policy or diplomacy. We are only articulating what our Creator had commanded us in the Noble Qur’an (Which is translated as follows);

    “Say (O Muslim), “We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been sent down to Abraham (Abraham), Isma’il (Ishmael), Ishaque (Isaac), Ya’qub (Jacob), and to Al-Asbat [the twelve sons of Ya’cub (Jacob)], and that which has been given to Musa (Moses) and ‘Iesa (Jesus), and that which has been given to the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we have submitted (in Islam)”. [Chapter 2: verse 136]

    As Muslims we have no choice. We had said in many words:

    ” WE BELIEVE IN ONE CREATOR, WE BELIEVE IN ALL HIS PROPHETS, WE BELIEVE, THAT JESUS (peace be upon him) WAS ONE OF THE MIGHTIEST PROPHETS OF GOD, THAT HE WAS THE MESSIAH AS WELL AS THE WORD OF GOD, THAT HE WAS BORN MIRACULOUSLY- WITHOUT ANY MALE INTERVENTION (which many modern-day Christians do not believe today) , THAT HE GAVE LIFE TO THE DEAD BY GOD’S PERMISSION, AND THAT HE HEALED THOSE BORN BLIND AND THE LEPERS BY GOD’S PERMISSION.”

    Islam respects all religions. Nevertheless, Muslims consider the view of Christendom to be a misguided one. The Noble Qur’an highlights the important aspects of Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) mother, his birth, his mission and his ascension to heaven.
    VIRGIN MARY:
    Story of Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) in the Noble Qur’an starts with the conception of his mother, Mary, when the wife of Imran, Mary’s mother, vowed to dedicate her child to the service of God in the temple. This is mentioned in the following verses (Which is translated as follows);

    “(Remember) when the wife of ‘Imran said: “O my Lord! I have vowed to You what (the child that) is in my womb to be dedicated for Your services (free from all worldly work; to serve Your place of worship), so accept this, from me. Verily, You are the All-Hearer, the All-Knowing” “Then when she delivered her child [Maryam (Mary)], she said: “O my Lord! I have delivered a female child,” — and Allah knew better what she delivered, — “And the male is not like the female, and I have named her Maryam (Mary), and I seek refuge with You (Allah) for her and for her offspring from Shaitan (Satan), the outcast.” “So her Lord (Allah) accepted her with goodly acceptance, He made her grow in a good manner and put her under the care of Zakariya (Zachariya). Every time he entered Al-Mihrab (a praying place or private room) to (visit) her, he found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Maryam (Mary)! from where have you got this?” She said “This is from Allah” Verily, Allah provides sustenance to whom He wills, without limit” [Chapter 3: verses 35-37]

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