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An image of God beyond violence


A young friend of ours recently attempted suicide. She nearly succeeded. For the next four days she lay in her hospital bed, listlessly staring at the ceiling, refusing to get up, to wash, even to look at or respond to anyone who spoke to her.

On the fourth evening, she became aware of a woman standing in her room. The woman took Molly’s hands in hers and ever so gently asked, “Who was it that hurt you so badly?” Molly did not answer.

The woman stayed for several minutes, quietly holding Molly’s hands. Then, turning to leave, she said, “I am the chaplain here, and I will be on the floor all night. Call me anytime if you feel like talking.”

At three o’clock that morning, Molly got up and called the chaplain. She remembers it as the moment in her long struggle with manic/depressive illness when she finally chose life.

“Now I know why in my support groups they have sometimes spoken of God as a woman,” she later said. “Never have I experienced such compassion and gentleness as that woman showed me in those few words and in the whole quality of her presence. Only a womanly God could have reached me in the state I was in that night. I hated myself. I didn’t think I could ever be forgiven. And I had made myself absolutely unreachable.”

Here are two contrasting stories, no less true.

In recent weeks Seattle has mourned several local women who were murdered as they tried to escape situations of domestic violence. One was the mother of two teenage daughters, both brutally killed with her in their home. Another was shot along with the young daughter she had just picked up at a “safe exchange site” for the husband’s visitation rights. He had secretly followed them back to their car and opened fire on them there.

Domestic violence is a complex issue, and we may not immediately think it has anything to do with images of God. But professionals who work with men who batter report that assaultive men believe the stereotypes about male-female roles and identify strongly with the stereotypical male role. They feel they have the right to control anyone with less power or status. Battering is the most effective way to establish one’s dominance.

In the background of this misguided supremacy is the image of God as male, silently but powerfully legitimating male control at the very highest level of power.

Most of us grew up simply taking a male God for granted and living unconsciously with the consequences. In recent years, this exclusively male imaging of God has been called into question by growing numbers of theologians, reflecting both biblically and philosophically on the issue. Now there is quite a struggle in the churches over how we should speak of God.

Little wonder people on different sides of the matter take it so seriously. It has immense practical implications for our personal and cultural lives. It deeply affects how we see ourselves as women and men.

In Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life, Roberta Bondi gives a moving account of her discovery that as a woman she images God. Having prayed the psalms for years, she finds herself one day unexpectedly confronted in them by a violent male world. She feels anguish, betrayal and despair as a woman in a male world. Shutting her eyes in her hopelessness, she begs God to help her. 

Gradually behind her closed eyes she becomes aware of a living landscape. There, under a large oak tree surrounded by all the animals of the earth she sees a tall, dignified woman dressed in brown. Self-possessed and graceful, the woman looks something like Bondi’s mother. Gradually, Bondi realizes: “This, too, is the image of God!” She is filled with amazement and delight:

“In spite of all my difficulties, I had not even known before that I hadn’t believed I was made in the image of God. Now, for the first time, I knew it to be true. I, as a woman -- neither as a defective male nor as a generic human being, but as a woman -- am made in the image of God. I no longer felt divided against myself.”

Other women have shared with me how powerful it is to hear the divine named as female. One rejoiced as she repeated the refrain of a litany: “All you works of God, praise Her and glorify Her forever.” Another felt her experience as a mother fully embraced for the first time, as a prayer leader intoned: “O Spirit of God, you who hover over us as a mother over her children.” Women turn to God as Holy Wisdom, Sophia and Shekinah; as compassionate sister, delightful daughter, supportive midwife, wise crone.

They say they could not have imagined the resulting relief and freedom, the breaking open of inner regions hitherto unknown: “Something sprang to life in me. I knew a connection and acceptance that made me want to laugh and weep all at once.”

Surely this kind of joy and liberation is a work of God’s Spirit. Have these women discovered anything else but what the Bible tells us in its very first chapter, that God created humankind in the divine image, male and female (Gen 1:27)?

New vision of male/female relationships

We are in the midst of a revolution in our understanding of what it means to be woman and man in the image of God. In the old way we were two incomplete parts of a whole.And the parts were not created equal. As father became the primary metaphor for God, patriarchy became the pattern for the universe. There were two modes of human nature, one superior and the other inferior.

Attributes associated with masculinity took precedence and determined the role men and women would play in the world. Men are by nature active, rational and autonomous; their proper arena is the world. Women are passive, intuitive and emotional; their proper place is the home. The sexes complement and complete one another at every level of existence. Unfortunately, crucial relational qualities like dependency, empathy and compassion are assigned inferior status because they are regarded as feminine.

In her prayer “Bone of my Bone” in Celebrating Women, Janet Morley names the losses connected with this system:

Loving Creator, we confess that as women and men
we have distorted your image in us. ...
We confess that we have created a world where,
between women and men,
there is violence and fear, resentment and distrust.
We seek God’s forgiveness and reconciling love,
that we may learn to do justice,
and so come without shame
before the one who delights in the human race.

We all lose by these artificial divisions of the patriarchal system. Work and love are separated, with work assigned to men, love to women. And so the ethic of love never strongly influences the workplace, and the love and service that family members render one another never achieves equal dignity. Women and men who want to combine fulfilling work and generous love meet many obstacles: inflexible work schedules, inadequate child care, inequities in salary scales, and other resistance from business and professional communities highly invested in the traditional family/work dichotomies.

Human relating that is going to mirror the divine life has to be equal and mutual. Relationships must reflect the Christian ideal expressed in an early baptismal fragment from one of Paul’s letters: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

The gospel holds up an ideal of true communion, of right relationship among persons.

What might this transformed pattern of relating look like? Qualities like reason and feeling, power and vulnerability, rather than being stereotypically masculine or feminine, would be open to all of us as human persons to cultivate. Women could fully participate in shaping the larger systems of economic, social and political life. Men could take on the tasks of nurturing and caring: the feeding, clothing, washing, cooking and cleaning that are the heart of domestic life.

Both women and men would take time to notice the trees, the water and the sky, to attend and connect again with the living earth. We could be free to build a community of self-esteem and social communion where love and work, nurture and public vocation, and, above all, the cultivation of the full palette of human qualities, belong to both women and men. We would know the divine richly imaged in a communion of persons with a variety of gifts who understand what it means to give and receive the gift of self in many different ways.

But we cannot create new patterns of relating between the sexes until women and men both believe at the deepest levels of themselves that all of us are fully human and equally vessels of the divine. The way we speak of God has determinative significance here, either for good or for ill.

Ending violence against women, earth

As we have seen, domestic violence has its remote but vital root in the exclusively male imaging of God. If God is male, then male control in the world is legitimated at the highest level. From this notion flows the patriarchal family, in which wives and daughters are owned and exploited as the property of men. Relationships of dominance and submission become perfectly legitimate. Far different is a culture in which the divine is imaged in both male and female ways, supporting a relationship of equality and mutuality.

There is a further consequence. A tradition that does not reverence the female does not honor nature either. The patriarchal mindset lumps women together with earth, matter and nature; it identifies males with sky, intellect and transcendent spirit. The same dualism that values reason over emotion, mind over body and male over female, goes on to value human culture at the expense of nonhuman nature. Nature has no rights; it is entirely at the disposal of human beings. The result is pollution, deforestation and the relentless depletion of natural resources.

As the poet Denise Levertov says in her poem “Urgent Whisper,” from her book Breathing the Water:

... I whisper
because I’m ashamed. Isn’t the earth our mother?
Isn’t it we who’ve brought
this terror upon her?

Violence toward women, toward the body and toward the earth all follow from the same false assumption.

It is crucial to this whole discussion to realize that all divine images are just that, mere images for a Mystery that surpasses them all. Each hints at a facet, nothing more. Each is relative. And our best defense against idolizing any of them is to use a number of them. In Through the Gateless Gate, the poet Catherine de Vinck says it well:

To catch the name of God
to keep it within reach
we spin our human word
into gossamer webs suspended
from horizon to horizon.

Today, openness to female images of the divine is not a luxury. It is an intrinsic part of the healing and transformation to which we are all called. It is the beginning of gospel conversion. Repairing all the relationships in our broken world must begin with the retrieving of female images for God.

We might feel uncomfortable when others respond with shock or disapproval to our naming of God as Mother or Sister, as She or Her. But this is a shock we need to receive.It forces us to recognize that our exclusive use of male images for God for so long has caused us to believe that God is literally male.

As we begin to entertain female images as equally expressive of the Mystery, we begin to see and to feel the many differences that makes. We can never again see ourselves or the world or God in the same limited way we did for so long. We are alive now in a much larger, freer space.

Kathleen Fischer lives in Seattle. Her most recent book is Transforming Fire: Women Using Anger Creatively (Paulist, December 1999).

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999