What we're talking about when we talk about the feminine divine in Christianity
By Rosemary Radford Ruether
It has become a kind of dogma among many feminists interested in spirituality that Judaism and Christianity suppressed all female imagery of the divine. It is also assumed that it was women who created female symbols of the divine and that these symbols served to empower women. So, this line of thinking goes, female symbols for the divine were suppressed as a part of a patriarchal disempowerment of women. However, my own research, published in my book, "Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History" shows that all these relations are considerably more ambiguous.
Men, more so than women, probably shaped much of the classical images of the female divine in the ancient Mediterranean world and elsewhere. Such images served male and upper class interests, at least in their official expressions The feminine divine was seen as protecting men in power, probably because they were believed to be protecting men, like a great mother whose power is seen as nurturing rather than judgemental.
But in truth, female symbols of the divine were never entirely suppressed in Judaism or Christianity. Although they were marginalized, they continued to reappear in renewed forms--and are still with us today.
Wisdom as a feminine aspect of God was developed by scholar-sages in Jerusalem after the return from exile in the late sixth century B.C.E. Earlier Judaism had known of the Goddess Asherah, wife of the Canaanite God El. Since the Hebrew religion identified Yahweh--God--with El, much popular Judaism before the exile continued to assume that Yahweh had a consort, Asherah. Although the reformers of the tradition gradually suppressed this veneration of Asherah, a lingering memory of this tradition may have influenced the scholar-sages may as they shaped the idea of Wisdom as a feminine manifestation of God. Later Jewish mysticism would speak of the Shekinah (a term used to refer to the Presence of God) as the feminine consort of the male God.
Christianity shaped its understanding of who Jesus is through a synthesis of the two traditions of apocalyptic messianism--a belief in an imminently coming Messiah----and wisdom cosmology, the belief in Wisdom as creator of the cosmos. Significant ideas in our understanding of Christ--such as the preexistence of Christ as divine Word with God, the shaping of the creation through the Word, and its role as sustainer and redeemer of the universe and revealer of God's truth (Gospel of John 1:1-18)--all developed through the Wisdom tradition. Jesus is variously seen as a prophet of Wisdom, Wisdom's son, or Wisdom's incarnation. The New Testament preserves some references to the feminine personification of Wisdom manifest in Jesus, such as "Wisdom is justified by her deeds" and "Wisdom is justified by all her children." (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:35). But as the faith developed, the idea of Word (Logos, a male concept) started to be substituted for Wisdom (Sophia, the female concept). Word was identified with Jesus,a male prophet, tending to mask the feminine roots of the Wisdom idea in Western Christianity.
Eastern Christianity continued to place an emphasis on Wisdom, which is identified with Christ or Mary Theotokos (the Mother of God), Mother Church, or even as the sustaining ground of Being of the Trinity. This emphasis is clear in the name of the great mother church of Eastern Orthodoxy in Constantinople: Hagia Sophia, which is Greek for Holy Wisdom. Although Wisdom as a manifestation of God was temporarily eclipsed in the West, fervent female symbols were cultivated over the years as expressions of the redeemed human individual and community in relation Christ. Particularly important are the ideas of the feminine soul as bride of Christ and of Mother Church as both bride of Christ and mother of Christians in whose baptismal womb Christians are reborn. These feminine theological symbols tended to merge in the figure of Mary, Jesus' mother, as the New Eve through whom Eve's fall is reversed. She is the Virgin mother through whom Jesus is born without sin, and the Theotokos, or Mother of God. In the later patristic and medieval period. theologians would elaborate on the ideas that she was assumed bodily into heaven at death and preserved from sin in her own conception.
Still, the theme of Wisdom as part of our understanding of God remained familiar to all Christians through the reading of the scriptures at Mass. And medieval mysticism--particularly through female mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) and Julian of Norwich (14th century)--would take these ideas even further. For Hildegard of Bingen, Wisdom (Sapientia in Latin) is present in God from all eternity. She is God's bride and the means through which all created things are brought forth. She gives life energy or "greening" power to all things. She mediates between the transcendent divine and creation, sustaining all things, She is manifest in all human sciences, as well as in the revelatory and redeeming knowledge of God. She is incarnate as Christ through Mary's virginal womb, and she continues to speak through the teachers of the church. She is manifest finally in the redeemed people of God as Mother Church.
For Julian of Norwich, Wisdom is identified with Christ, the second person of the Trinity. She is the one through whom we are created naturally and recreated spiritually. "Thus Jesus Christ who does good against evil is our very Mother, We have our being of him, where every ground of motherhood begins, with all the sweet keeping of love that endlessly follows. As truly as God is our Father so truly is God our Mother" ("Revelations of Divine Love," chapter 59).
The Protestant Reformation sought to sweep away all that they saw as later developments in order to restore a pristine New Testament Christianity. This meant rejection of the mediation of the saints and of Mary. By following a different Old Testament canon, much of the Wisdom tradition was no longer read in church. The new Protestant Bible dropped Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon--though the change came about not because the reformers wanted to "repress" Wisdom, but because they followed a different version of the canon of Hebrew Scripture. Still, while Proverbs and Job remained, these changes meant a radical reduction of the presence of female symbols in Protestant Christianity.
Yet not all Wisdom theology disappeared. In the Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), there is a redevelopment of Wisdom theology. For Boehme, Wisdom is the female consort of God who is born through God's self-reflection. Through Wisdom all things are created, and through loving devotion to Wisdom souls are restored in Christ.
Boehme's wisdom theology was transmitted to many different Protestant followers who cultivated mystical and millennialist spirituality, such as the Philadelphians in England, the Harmonists in Germany and the United States, the Swedenborgians, and the Shakers. The Shakers particularly are responsible for making known to 19th century Americans the idea that God is both masculine and feminine, Father and Mother, Power and Wisdom. As the Shaker Bible puts it, "Thus we may see the true order of our existence,& not only in the state of innocence, but in the state of grace, proceeding from eternal parentage, the Eternal Two, as distinctly Two, as Power and Wisdom are two, and as the Father and Mother are two, yet immutably, unchangeably, One Spirit" ("Testimony of Christ's Second Appearing," 4th edition, sec. 7).
In the later 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, picked up some of this idea in her rewriting of the Lord's Prayer as "our Father and our Mother who art in Heaven." Thus the feminine aspect of the divine has never disappeared in Christianity. It is continually rediscovered and renewed. Today's interest in the divine Mother is only the most recent expression of a long history. Today we have many groups of women and men who are seeking a feminine expression of God. But they dont have to look to other religions for this idea. A feminine image of God has long been a part of the Christian tradition.
Rosemary Radford Ruether taught at the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and at the GTU in Berkeley, California, and presently at the Claremont School of Theology and Graduate University. She is author or editor of 42 books on theology and social justice issues, including 'Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History. Originally published on www.beliefnet.org.