Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 29, 1998
Seeing God as masculine and feminine
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
The issue of God's gender is not one that can be trivialized and seen simply as something arising from feminist ideological concern - "It is important for women that God not be conceived of as exclusively masculine!"
Much more is at stake than a feminist agenda. How we conceive of God has immense consequences for all of us, in ways that we rarely imagine.
Simply put, this is what is at stake: Until we can conceive of God in such a way that, within God, masculinity and femininity can be seen to be mutually and perfectly empowering, then masculinity and femininity in this world will not find a mutual harmony and happiness either.
The analogy is to that of children who grow up in a house within which there is not both a strong and healthy father and a strong and healthy mother. In all likelihood, such children will have some struggles within their own marriages and within their own roles as fathers and mothers.
Our parents have to model the mutuality of femininity and masculinity, otherwise we have problems later on. The same is true for God, our ultimate parent.
Unfortunately, there are huge problems when we try to conceive of God in terms of both feminine and masculine. First, there is the emotional baggage that is tied to this question, with both feminists and anti-feminists often taking rigid or inflated positions that, outside of such an over-charged emotional context, they themselves would criticize.
Then there is the whole history of this thing: We have, within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, several thousand years of tradition within which we conceive of God primarily, though not exclusively, as male, a male celibate in fact. These complications however are not insurmountable.
What is seemingly insurmountable is the fact that God is ineffable and that all our concepts and words about God are more inadequate than adequate. Ultimately, we cannot conceive of God, given that God is infinite and our minds are finite.
Try to think of the highest number imaginable? God can never be captured in imagination, thought or words. As the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 defined, the difference between God and creature is always greater than the similarity between them. Anything we think or say about God is more inaccurate than accurate.
And yet we need to think of and speak about God, these limits notwithstanding. The issue of God's gender is, in terms of imagination, concept and language, a particularly difficult one.
Why? Precisely because our imaginations and words fall short here. We simply do not have the symbolic tools to properly imagine and speak of God's gender. That, however, is at the level of imagination and language. At the level of theological truth things are clearer.
Theologically, it is clear: God is not male, nor is God female. God is both - perfect masculinity and perfect femininity which mutually empower.
When Genesis says: "God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them," it is saying that God is equally male and female and that both, masculinity and femininity, equally image that Godliness. The rest of Scripture is in accord with that revelation.
So is anthropology. Mircea Eliade tells us that, archetypally, reality is structured in this way: At its very centre, as the source of and power behind everything, sit two thrones. On one sits a king, on the other sits a queen. The kingdom is ultimately ruled by both, both acting as one.
And there is harmony between the two thrones, the king and the queen. They never fight with each other, are never jealous of each other, are never threatened by each other and never act against the other. They are in perfect harmony and perfect symphony.
Yet they are different - one is male and the other female, and each brings something the other does not.
In anthropology, as in great mythology, at the centre of everything, at the source of it, there is a king and queen, a man and a woman, a masculinity and a femininity that are perfectly mutually empowering.
That is also true of the God. In God there is both femininity and masculinity - but, unlike here, there are no jealousies, no power struggles, no misunderstandings, no competition or anger. There is also no violence. Maybe when we can conceive of God more healthily, men and women who worship God might again be able, with joy, to shout: "Viva la difference!"