Lord or Lady?: The Search for the Divine Gender
In broad-ranging spiritual discussion circles, there tends to be a fair amount of conversation about the Divine “Life Force” which most of the world refers to as God. One of the main issues of contention is whether this “Force” has a gender, and if so, whether it is male or female. I am going to do my best to come at this complex quandary from a Catholic perspective in hopes of clarifying our position on gender in general.
First off, it must be remembered that God is always far above and beyond human attempts to describe or categorize. Also, if there is a Divine Being outside of time and space from which all existence flows, this Being is most certainly spiritual in nature. So like angels, it is reasonable to conclude that God is indeed above and beyond gender.
Since human beings, both male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God, it would also be a logical conclusion that the good attributes found in both men and women are a part of the nature of God.
From God comes both “the strength of man and beauty of woman,” as George MacDonald wrote, fusing the utility and asceticism that defines the world in which we live. I will go further to say that in God, who is singularly responsible for bringing forth the universe from the depths of nothingness, we see elements of both the life-giving seeding of man and the life-nourishing birthing of woman.
In different cultures, the search for the Divine has led to a variety of expressions that emphasize strikingly different, although also occasionally similar, understandings of the ground of reality. In Judaism, the People of Israel received revelation from God in a distinctly male persona. For a patriarchal society such as their own, this made perfect sense to their understanding of the world.
However, other peoples, such as the Druidic Celts, had a strongly held belief that spiritual wisdom was the kith and kin of female intuition. They also identified the land itself as female, which they believed was charged with a magical grandeur that was itself an extension of the Mother Goddess. Indeed, the earth was often called her body, and the rivers her blood. This inspired the Celtics to view underground springs and wells as sacred portals to the spirit world.
Other variations of this belief in the divine feminine included the worship of the Mother Goddess Gaia from Greek mythology, who continues to have quite a following in New Age circles and is often depicted bearing the earth in her belly as a pregnant woman. Returning to Indo-European style Paganism, extending into modern Wicca, there is also a belief in the duality of the Divine, made manifest by “The Forest Lovers” or “The Lord and Lady of Nature”, according to the “Witches’ Rune.”
All this cultural analysis aside, there are two key points which orthodox Christians must be ready to acknowledge and accept: first, that Jesus Christ is God, “I AM”, the Second Person in The Holy Trinity, who took on a human nature and an accompanying male gender; and secondly, that He repeatedly and specifically referred to God in the masculine as His Father, as epitomized in “The Lord’s Prayer.”
However, I believe it is incorrect for men to feel any sense of superiority over women on this account. God is God, outside of our boxes, and if it had been according to Divine plan, the Messiah might have come among us as a female. Of course, it clearly was not within that plan, and I as a Christian woman am fully content with that. While I make no pretense to understand the mind of God, there are some very valid reasons I can think of off the top of my head for why this was not the case.
Firstly, the Jewish patriarchal society would never have accepted it, and the Jews were the Chosen People from whom the Messiah would come forth. All the prophecies spoke of the coming of the Prince of Peace and the Son of David, reestablishing and continuing the royal legacy of their deposed kingship. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is deep theological significance in Christ coming as a man…or should I say the Man.
The story of the Incarnation starts when The Holy Spirit overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary as the ultimate life-giving force, the Masculine embrace of the Feminine. In this sense, all our souls, that spiritual essence of ourselves, are to some extent feminine in that they are brought new life by the masculinity of the Christ, the New Adam. This is also brought to the fore in the masculine death on behalf of the feminine in Christ’s death to ransom humanity, acting as a lover pouring out his strength to defend his beloved. This is the crux of the chivalric ideal.
But even with all this noted, it must also be remembered that Christ Himself made reference to attributes of God more strongly associated with feminine nurturing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
Also, in Christian art, the symbol of the mother pelican piercing her breast to feed her young has commonly been associated with the sacrifice Jesus made by shedding His blood for humanity. After all, it has been said that a mother’s love is said to be strong enough to carry all the world…surely this also could include bringing that world into being and sacrificing oneself on its behalf?
Returning to the subject of life-giving blood: do not women shed their blood to prepare for new life through their menstrual cycles? While it tends to be a subject less spoken about in western societies, many indigenous cultures celebrate the beginning of a girl’s cycle with various rituals and festivities. It is a sign that the Great Circle of Life shall continue forward into the future. Equally so, the shedding of Christ’s blood enabled us to be reborn and know life in abundance.
Elaborating on the same point, there is a certain feminine element of the Eucharist, the bread and wine Catholics believe is transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ during the consecration during mass. Mary is the one who fully gave her flesh and blood to Christ, since He had no human father.
Beyond that, the act of God bestowing on us this flesh, this blood, this food for our nourishment found at the Eucharistic Table, can also be seen as a form of mothering. Indeed, some Bible verses make it sound strikingly similar to breast-feeding, particularly in the injunction, “This is My Body. Take and Eat.”
Another very striking reference to breast-feeding and the spiritual life runs as follows: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” (1 Peter 2:2)
In another sacramental context, Catholic author Solange Hertz makes the point that genders view baptism in different ways. Men tend to view it as waters of cleansing, whereas women view it as birthing waters. Of course, the Bible confirms that it is indeed an act of re-birth: “Unless a man be born again of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1,5).
Even the Old Testament tends towards the feminine in describing the goodness of God: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).
Also, there is a Jewish tradition of referring to Holy Wisdom in the feminine, just as the Celts did for Divine Inspiration: “She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, ‘Let all who are simple come to my house!’” (Proverbs 9:2-4)
Perhaps the tension between masculine and feminine attributes is more based on our own rocky gender relations in our fallen society than it is on any substantial theological conflict. Men too often have abused the strength of their bodies and turned their protective instinct into aggression. The life-giving force is transformed into self-gratifying gluttony that can tyrannize and dehumanize the feminine. In this atmosphere, many spiritual seekers find the concept of a female divinity to be a safer and more fulfilling alternative to a male one.
This preference may well be grounded in a distorted image of the nature of masculinity. Sometimes I feel that quite a few well-intentioned Christian men fall into this same trap when defining the nature of manhood. There are some stereotypes which are foisted onto us by our culture, and the masculinity is made synonymous with toughness projected through visible gestures such as guzzling down alcoholic beverages, inhaling tobacco smoke, or engaging in blood sports.
But perhaps the real proof of manhood is not so much a tough attitude, or a proclivity towards smoking or drinking, or a tolerance for violence, but rather is grounded in true strength. And the single strongest thing that exists is love. It is the purest form of that which God is, and it is necessary seed from which all other virtues grow, as well as the pinnacle of the mountain which we climb. To be loving in a world of hatred is the true test of our humanity. This loving power is something that comes from within and is not worn on the sleeve with arrogance or for show.
All this brings to mind one of my favorite television heroes, Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. Soft-spoken, humble, and empathetic, he defies many of the stereotypes about proving one’s manhood through vulgar displays of high-handed arrogance and crude mannerisms. Nevertheless he proves to be the pinnacle of physical and mental strength. Not only is he skilled in the martial arts, which he uses for the defense of himself and others in need, but he is also able to bear the brunt of insults and prejudice with amazing resignation.
His strength is most often revealed through gentility, enabling him to tread on rice paper without tearing it and among serpents without rousing them to attack. Also, out of respect for all life forms, he is a vegetarian, and to keep his mind clear, he drinks no alcohol. And yet in all these things, he comes off as profoundly masculine. Indeed, when asked what he is, he often simply responds, “I am a man.” While clearly set apart on many levels in both nature and comportment (e.g. Christ both ate meat and drank alcohol, according His time, place, and heritage), in the way of gentle strength, sacrificial resignation, and pure masculinity, Kwai Chang can be seen as an imperfect type of Christ, the Son of Man.
In this light, it is much easier to embrace the masculine aspects of God. We see them for what they were meant to be, not bent by a warped, misogynistic, power-hungry perspective. Also, in the light of the gender identity of Christ, it is understandable why only men can be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In addition to being about bodily constructs, gender shapes the essence of our identity and that which we were created to be. To act in persona Christi, it only makes sense that such an identity should be shared.
This is not to say that women are somehow viewed as being on a lower plane in Church life. According to Catholic doctrine, the only person aside from Christ himself to be conceived free from the inheritance of Original Sin was a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. We acknowledge her title as Queen of Heaven and Earth, the most powerful and exalted member of our species aside from the God-Man Jesus Christ.
When inferiority has been projected onto women in history, with the symbolic use of Eve’s apple and an excessively priggish attitude towards female sexuality (which, within the proper context of a life-long, sacramentally sealed commitment, is one of the great beauties of life), it has been largely the result of cultural norms and preconceptions, not any infallible declaration of the Church.
While both men and women are called to live the fullness of the Christian life with both strength and love, perhaps we have our own unique ways of revealing it. We share so much, and yet there is still that priceless Ying and Yang factor which enables us to find equilibrium in each other’s company. That’s why it’s aptly said that behind every good man there is a good woman. As biological and emotional nurturers, women have an amazing transformative power. At the same time, good men bring out the best in women and honor their whole person with dignity and encouragement to be the best they can be. In all things, it can be truly said that the opposite of rape culture is nurturance culture.
This brings us full circle in our search for the gender attributes of the Divine, a topic that proves to be highly controversial and even polarizing many religious circles. One such example of said polarization was when actor Leonard Nimoy (aka Star Trek’s Vulcan Science Officer Mr. Spock) mishandled an effort to promote the image of God in the feminine to a predominately Jewish audience by taking a picture shoot of naked female models, some of whom were holding or garbed in sacred Jewish ceremonial pieces. Although perhaps initially well-intended, the project quickly ran amuck.
Predictably, the orthodox Jewish audience that had once felt a certain emotional kinship with him because of his own Judaism (albeit of a much more liberal “universalist” variant…indeed, he had previously made the controversial move of hijacking a rabbinic ceremonial blessing which became famous as the Vulcan salute!) promptly denounced the “heretical” display, which did seem pretty much on a par with girly calendar material, no matter what philosophical intro he may have included. Nevertheless, the whole project had some residual benefits for him…and he proceeded to make one of the models his second wife (which, of course, he must have decided was the logical course to take)!
So yes, these topics can be severely mishandled and transformed into a sometimes sordid, sometimes farcical mess! This is especially the case when the subject at hand becomes less about gender and more about sexuality (ala Nimoy!). But this should not make us any more reticent to approach this important topic and treat it with the fairness it is due. Perhaps the question of “male or female” should best be answered “the best aspects of both, and way beyond either.” Interestingly, this balances the different aspects of human interaction with the divine rather well.
For instance, in the Pagan understanding of the Divine feminine, she is meant to be pursued by a mystically male humanity, exemplified by the Celtic kings who were expected to mystically mate with the land, understood to be an extension of the Goddess. On the other hand, in the Christian understanding of the Divine masculine, He is the one who seeks after and embraces humanity, as the Hound of Heaven and the Christological lover, bringing to the fore the Catholic mystics such as Catherine of Sienna who underwent a spiritual marriage to the Divine.
Perhaps we, as humanity, both seek after and are sought after in turn, being purged by the Fire of the Holy Spirit (which could be seen as more masculine) and nurtured by the fruits of the Holy spirit (which could be seen as more feminine). Using a final Asian analogy, perhaps God is very much like a Samurai’s sword, infused with both strength and beauty, and believed to contain the essence of the soul.
But again, all these attempts at explaining the unexplainable are ultimately exercises in perception about a God who is beyond any labels humanity may be capable of devising. No neatly packaged box is able to take it all in. While revelation, tradition, and mysticism can all lend us glimpses of the Ultimate Reality, the full Truth must wait until we have reached a higher realm. In the end, perhaps it is the mystery of the Divine that is the most poignant reality. If it were not so, God would not be God.
By Rosaria Marie
(Also published on the St. Austin Review)