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).