God’s New Name: on feminist theology and the dissolving of divine masculinity

Eternal Father, Lord of Lords, King of Kings – most of the language believers use to describe the Judeo-Christian God is masculine. So, Lou Heinrich wonders, can women ever achieve equal status in a religion that worships a male deity? 

Photo: 'Contemplation', by Jonas Tana (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

King of Kings. Raise hands in surrender, squeeze eyes tight, move, sing, sway. Heavenly Father. Creaky wooden floorboards, quiet tears or angry hearts or joyful noise: my church family and I sing to God. Fully God, fully man. We worship Him.

If God is man, then men are divine. This thought has corrupted religious institutions for thousands of years.

In the secular world, God is a white man with a white beard. Essayist Chuck Klosterman writes that our internal images are television-inspired – indeed, for most Millennials The Simpson's imago dei reigns supreme.

This subconscious image is similar for the religious. Saviour King, Son of Man; he embodies a multiplicity of characters: warrior, father, lover. He is a He. God is a man.

To worship is to revere, bow down, surrender – in the Christian context, it is to imitate, to assimilate oneself to Jesus, the Son of God, who modelled revolution through sacrificial love.

Despite the beauty of my spiritual practice, I wonder: does it damage female believers to worship a male God?

Detail from God the Father by Pieter de Grebber, 1654

I'm fifteen. Every day I ring my eyes with kohl. I'm exhausted with not being enough. ‘You should come on Friday night,’ my brother says, shrugging his shoulders. So I go to youth group. And I return; there are boys. There are couch races and excursions and one night a bus takes us to a grassy hill, and everyone peels into lines of ten and waits to slide down the shadowy decline, sitting on large chunks of ice. Beyond the dim orange light at the hill's peak, darkness fades to black.

Some nights a band plays and we jump and sing words like ‘I need you’. Preachers talk about a God who made us exactly as we are and loves us extravagantly. I am rescued from high school loneliness. I belong.

Detail from Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam

Carol P. Christ writes in her 1978 essay, Why Women Need the Goddess, that religions ‘keep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority, while at the same legitimating the political and social authority of fathers and sons in the institutions of society’.

If God is man, then men are divine. This thought has corrupted religious institutions for thousands of years.

In the 4th century, Saint Augustine established foundational ideas about the existence of good and evil; he also wrote that women were the weaker sex. Thomas Aquinas was one of the most influential medieval thinkers, laying the groundwork for modern ethics and political science; he contributed some spectacular work on the moral inferiority of women.

Because God is the ultimate authority, institutional authority is explicitly male, too. In conservative denominations, there are severe limits on women's leadership. This trickles down to marriage, too, in what is called ‘biblical complementarianism’. Developed in the United States, the attitude towards marriage is propelled by theologian John Piper, who believes God created men and women equally but different. In his sermon What Does It Mean to Be Complementarian?, Piper adheres to traditional gender roles: men are leaders who provide and protect, women willingly submit.

Head of a Female Saint by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1515–16

At nineteen, I am restless. My current community unwittingly embraces princess theology; women are mothers and wives and pretty and submissive. A friend never feels men pay attention when she speaks because she's ‘not hot enough’. In a similar church, another friend watches a service where a pastor gives thanks to God for a young woman's beauty. Female pastors are technically allowed, but they generally preside over children's ministry.

Rachel Held Evans is an American Christian writer who fights for gender equality. She suggests complementarianism is patriarchy. She writes that it assumes that ‘masculinity and femininity are rigid, set-in-stone ideals to which we must ascribe, rather than fluid expressions of our unique selves’.

God is both male and female, God is neither; God is beyond gender. If this is so, why do we call God He?

Author and professor Carolyn Custis James agrees. There is a ‘mistaken assumption that patriarchy is the Bible’s message,’ she says. ‘It is not the message. Rather it is the cultural backdrop of the Bible that sets off in bold relief just how radically counter-cultural the Bible’s message is.’

A friend and I share a bottle of Fiano at a trendy bar. She's a biblical scholar, who has mentored me through my twenties. We talk feminist theology while sitting at an open window. Light autumn rain sprinkles the pavement outside. ‘The thing we need to remember,’ she says, ‘is the Bible is a fallible text – written (mostly) by men.’

I gulp down chilled wine, citrus on my tongue. For so long I've conceived of the Bible as the literal word of God, an encrypted letter from the universe to me, – not as a text written in ancient times that must be interpreted through passages' purposes, authors and prejudices.

Biblical flaws don't end there. What language can we possibly find to explain the eternal beauty of the divine? We are made in God's image, not the other way around! There are numerous female metaphors for God in the Bible: a nursing mother, a mother hen. Ultimately, God is both male and female, God is neither; God is beyond gender.

If this is so, why do we call God He?

Feminist theologian Gail Ramshaw writes in God Beyond Gender that Roman society was a polytheistic tradition with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Zeus was the father of all gods and all worshippers; in the evolution to Christian monotheism, our linguistic address retained masculinity, and the divine was named God (not Goddess).

Our understanding of God, be it secular or religious, has been created in a patriarchal culture. I am dissolving divine masculinity, making room for something more wonderful.

How then, to pray, to worship, to sing? To talk to God, about God, without using He? The fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa insists that we can use mother as an address for God, but it is fuzzy on my tongue. I will try different names: Creator, Redeemer.

An old white man with a white beard – I am rubbing the image off the blackboard, limb by holy limb.

Portrait of Lou Heinrich

Lou Heinrich is a writer and critic whose words have been published in the Weekend Australian, the Guardian, and the Lifted Brow. She is interested in faith, sexuality, and feminist theology, and is working on a book about women resisting patriarchal Christianity around the world.