This is an incredibly hard post to write, but an important one, I think.
A couple of years ago, I started (and never really finished–but I will!) a blog series which outlined a systematic way that as a male, I can incorporate feminist perspectives on theology into the way I think about God and life.
I call it “Male Feminist Theology” because there’s something about truly being a “feminist” that requires having embodied the experience of being a woman–which I have not. (Similarly, I could not call myself a “Black Activist” with any kind of integrity.)
I started this series with a bunch of posts about using feminine language for God. There was a lot of blowback from that, most of it entirely unexpected. I still hold to that belief that God is gender–ful (not gender-less) and so the full range of human language, both masculine and feminine, ought to be applied to God.
And yet, in my actual-lived out spiritual life, this hasn’t seeped into my engagement with God as much as one would expect, considering how strongly I intellectually believe these things. Maybe an occasional substitute of “Mother” for “Father” in the Lord’s prayer or a Creed recitation, but I do it quietly under my breath. Only occasionally do I find myself remembering to pray to God in such terms. My unconscious reflexive depiction of God in my imagination is still fundamentally male. I have to actually exert energy and thought to try and conceive of something different.
Some of that is normal. I mean, if I’ve spent three decades being acculturated to have certain mental maps of my spirituality, they won’t be redrawn overnight. It takes work and time. But still, I’m forced to ask, how much do I really “believe” this, then, if I don’t find myself embodying it? What part of me believes this and why?
Because (and this is the hard part of this post), even though much of my later life has had such a passionate and singular focus to find bits of misogyny and patriarchy in myself and the world and dismantle them, much of my own inner life has been lived with such disregard to the women around me.
There. I said it. Now the world knows.
From battles with pornography (especially in college), to compulsive dating and flirting, to moving relationships too quickly and too soon simply because I desired it (wisdom be damned), to sublimating my sense of self to seek a partner’s continued love and approval, to fantasizing and obsessing over love lost or not yet attained–and many other ways–I am confronting the reality that I have too often used femininity as something to be used for my own ends, rather than seeking to serve and know women in their fullest dignity, complexity, and self-hood–apart from how it affects me.
Now, a few caveats: I introspect myself to death and can overstate the subtle movements of my own heart. Many, many women in my life have felt genuine support, love, care, and advocacy on my part towards and for them–and it’s been real and genuine! This unhealthy relating to women is deeply unconscious, doesn’t pop up in my actual actions too often, finds its roots in deep cultural and familial experiences, and–most importantly–is something I believe most all of us suffer from. So though I may overstate my sin somewhat, I still think I’m connecting with something real and dark in me…and us.
As embarrassing and shameful as it is for me to write what I just did, I think what I’m noticing in myself is a reality that infects nearly all of us, no matter how religious, “progressive”, or “feminist” you might be. The only difference is that life, pain, loss, and the Spirit have forced me to see this in myself most clearly right now.
Looking over the sweep of history and societies, one has to admit that in aggregate, women have suffered more consistently and to a greater degree than any other single cohesive group. They have been treated in utilitarian ways to prop up power, masculinity, and injustice in every society and in every age. I think this is a macro, social expression of this subtle evil within most of our hearts–even Christians, even “progressives”, and even women.
A few nights ago, I was praying through all of this stuff in my heart, and I found myself drawn to pray to God as Mother–with the Feminine aspect in mind. (Please don’t stop reading just yet if that offends you.) I’ve done this before, but more than ever, it really did shift the posture of my inner life in communing with God in that space. And it was healing.
One reason I think this is true is because most all of our mental maps of God (again, no matter how feminist we are) are still firstly “masculine”, and only secondarily “feminine” (if at all!).
This means that we as societies, churches, and humans exist in a world in which men are seen to uniquely bear some representation of the divine within themselves–and women do not. Again, this is deeply unconscious and spiritual, not explicit and conscious (most of the time). Yes, yes, Christians would say that women bear the image of God just as much as men; but too often, this is seen as on account of simply being “human”, and not specifically within their womanhood.
In other words, Masculinity is seen as a more easily translatable vehicle by which to see and understand God than is Femininity.
This causes us (and me), I fear, to treat women with less dignity; to see the divine flame within them as somehow essentially dimmer or only existing in so much as it is connected to or subsumed under a broader masculine umbrella. (Again, this is most all unconscious.)
And because of the intimate connection between humanity and divinity, in reducing the Divinity we see in women, that in turns reduces the Humanity we recognize within them as well. That leads to so many mistreatments of the women in our lives and churches; it may even lead to some people wanting to label themselves “male feminists” more for the social currency they feel it gives them than a genuine empathy for the concerns of women in the world.
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
We are each vehicles of both the best and worst that humanity has to offer. Though I may be seeing some of the echoes and movements of these tendencies within myself, I still recognize that much of my concerns and works and efforts to seek the flourishing and equality of women have been genuine and healthy. I just want to recognize and extract all the ways in which I have and do unhealthily relate to women in society and my life.
And in that effort, I think the Feminine aspect of God’s nature will be a huge healing factor for me. Maybe it’s not for you. But please, please find some way to find and root out anything that diminishes the light and life of women in your heart, life, communities, workplaces, churches, and society.
For me, though–right here, in this season–in moving this Divine Feminine aspect to a more primary mode by which I relate to God, I’m hoping and praying that it shifts my inner life in how I relate to womanhood and femininity among my human friends, Christian sisters, and all the woman I relate to in the world.
[image credit: “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” by Marcel Duchamp]