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The ongoing struggle to define the indefinable

17 July 2015

There is nothing new in our attempts to understand God as being beyond gender, suggests David Bryant


Blurring the boundaries: Ruth and Boaz by William de Brailes, c.1250 (ink and pigment on parchment; Walters Art Museum)

Blurring the boundaries: Ruth and Boaz by William de Brailes, c.1250 (ink and pigment on parchment; Walters Art Museum)

AN EXTREMELY rare Great She Bible was recently unearthed from a dusty cupboard in St Mary’s, Gisburn. Dated 1611, it contains a misprint in the book of Ruth: Boaz is referred to as “she”. For an irreverent moment, I thought that the Holy Spirit was giving us a dig in the ribs over our male gender representation of God — “Hang on, you’ve got it all wrong.”

Our theology is uncompromisingly paternal. There is a reluctance to reinterpret scripture in contemporary terms, for fear that it will tumble the religious edifice into a morass of soggy liberalism. The Church has an inbuilt determination to stick with tradition and let the present century slip by unheeded.

Radical change is too unsettling, and there is a lingering patina of male dominance in the West. Even worse, we instinctively associate the female in God with paganism, and shudder at the thought of Astarte the moon goddess — or, even more outrageous, Aphrodite, the houri of unfettered sensuality. Our God imagery needs a drastic re-orienteering so that it incorporates feminity.

Before anybody blows a fuse, this is solidly biblical. Isaiah refers to God as a woman in labour. In Proverbs and Job, God is Wisdom — a feminine concept. This moves effortlessly into the New Testament. God makes bread, and is depicted as a woman sweeping the floor for a lost coin. Even St Paul — a misogynist at times — calls the cosmic Christ “all in all”, thereby logically including feminity.

The mystics throw their weight behind this. For Julian of Norwich, “God Almighty is our loving Father and God of all wisdom is our loving Mother.” Hildegard of Bingen joins forces: “I am life, complete unto itself, whole, sound.” In his sensuous poetry, John of the Cross sees more than a hint of femininity in God the lover.

Turn to psychology and the dual-gender motif is central. For Carl Gustav Jung, every human being is a mixture of male and female, animus representing the male part of a female and anima the female identity of a man.

This is not just semantics. It is theologically vital. The male image of God excludes half of humanity. Such a radical distortion can only foster division and, ultimately, fanaticism. All-embracing images open the path to toleration, inclusiveness, and harmony. We need to hew out a theology that is not dismissive or divisive. So God and gender should be an integral part of the theological college syllabus, and God-talk needs to be thrashed out in confirmation classes, discussion groups, and clergy chapters. Liturgiologists have the important task of reviewing ecclesiastical usage in terms of relevance and comprehensiveness.

So far, so good; but well-balanced images are only useful when they thrust us through and beyond words and pictures into the presence of God. If we see no further than the image, we are in a spiritual cul-de-sac; for all imagery and symbol is a human invention. Rilke, the German mystic and poet, knew this: “There is no image I could invent that your presence would not eclipse. They (images) separate us from God like a thousand walls.” That is strong stuff, and hits hard.

The feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether deftly swings this round to Christology, forcing us to rethink.

“The maleness of Jesus has no significance. His incarnation was a kenosis or emptying of patriarchy. Jesus brings liberation to the underprivileged.” That includes women.

To look beyond symbols and imagery in our search for God might seem to be a deconstruction of the entire edifice of traditional religious teaching and practice. There is a real fear that it is nihilistic, throwing us into a wordless, pictureless space whenever we attempt to approach the Almighty. To put it crudely, it seems that we are praying to nothing. That is not true, for “deep in the darkness is God,” as Rilke said.

All this entails a prayerful spiritual journey that finds a solid provenance in the Ten Commandments: Do not make images of God. When asked about prayer, a Carthusian monk — a member of the strictest of strict orders — said that God is nothing he could imagine or define, beyond the sum of his experiences, or his ability to conceptualise. And so he tried to stay in God’s presence — to wait on God. Those words sum up the pure prayer of contemplation, the goal of our spiritual quest.

Gender-balanced images are fine in that they help to buff up our awareness of God in the world. But we need to move beyond them to what really matters: communion with the all-incorporating, immanent, holy Lord.

As the liberation theologian Elizabeth Johnson put it, “The incomprehensible mystery of God is love beyond imagining.”


The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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