Faith and Reason: Words that must tell a fuller truth: In a further article in our series on Catholicism and feminism, Sara Maitland argues that traditional language about God has shown women as inferior, and should be changed.
Saturday 06 August 1994
Gender is a feature of biology, which God does not have, being, as the Archdeacon reminds us, 'without body, parts and passions'. Christianity claims that it is a revealed religion; what we know about God we know because God, in love, wants us to know. That revelation is historical: it is given in a series of what the psalmist calls 'wonderful acts'. And in these acts - from the chivying of Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and into the desert, right through to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost and beyond, in the promise to remain with us always even to the end of time - we see a God who refuses to be pinned down to our rules; a God who continually shakes and drives and inspires the faithful to new things. We see a God who demands that we expand our minds and hearts; a God who sets aside the powerful of each generation and has a bias towards the poor and the oppressed: a God who loves justice and who calls on us through our incorporation in Christ to contest injustice.
There are many injustices in the world. One of them is sexism; the oppression of women. That women as women are oppressed, are deprived of justice, on a global scale has been demonstrated beyond question. This injustice cries to heaven throughout the Scriptures, and its amelioration is a Gospel imperative.
Like Christianity, feminism is not a self-fulfilment movement, it is a justice movement. We fail, we are self-indulgent, selfish, wrong- headed, incompetent, sometimes even crazy; we are like everyone else, we sin. None the less feminism offers an analysis and, at its best, an outline at least of a means to combat this injustice of sexism.
Feminist analysis is wide-ranging, but central to a good deal of its work is the conviction that language actually matters. It argues that a language that ignores women, that constructs them as inferior, as contained within maleness, or as less like God for example, is a language that enables - and even creates - the injustice against them. Language, various feminisms claim, is more than a tool. It has power; it constructs worlds, it constructs acts, it constructs truths; and also it destroys, conceals, lies, and manipulates.
Funnily enough this is what Christianity believes too. It believes in the central creative power of words. We are created by God's speaking; we are redeemed by the Logos, the eternal Word. Sacramentally, intention and matter are not enough; there must also be right rite: not just the correct things done, but also the correct words spoken. We are Children of the Book - looking to the ancient words as our cornerstone. Orthodox Christianity further believes that men and women were both created 'in the image of God' and, most of the time, also believes that women and men are equally precious to God; and that equality is sealed in our identical incorporation into Christ's death and resurrection through baptism.
You would think then that Christianity would fall upon the neck of feminism with gratitude and rejoicing.
What has gone wrong? I do not think that, put this way round, anything I have said is contentious; certainly nothing here is heretical or even particularly novel.
That God is without 'qualities' and that since sex is a 'quality' God does not have it. That God loves all people equally. That women are, in the fullest theological sense of the word, people. That language matters, that it must struggle to tell the truth, not neutrally but with the passionate engagement that Jesus, who was the Word, demonstrated, by loving us so much that for our sake he would 'humble himself even unto death, yes death on a cross'.
Now just suppose for one moment that there is any truth at all in the feminist suggestion that renewing and expanding the language we have traditionally used for God might help in eliminating the injustice against women. Is it actually imaginable that, even if God is most properly spoken only with male images and masculine pronouns, that He would mind being incorrectly addressed?
It is with God's love for justice and with Jesus's self-emptying and the direct injunction to follow that pattern that we must start. In this context we are entitled to ask who has what to gain or lose by insisting on one strand of traditional truth (that of naming God out of a gender-restrictive pattern of imagery only, even though we know that those who created that complex, beautiful, tough, subtle language were living with a theory of female 'incompleteness' or deficiency that we do not believe in any more) at the expense of another (that God is without qualities; and that all our God-language is therefore the language of analogy). And if the answer is 'people with power', we are authorised to reprimand them. We know that these traditionalists do not mind 'innovations' such as verbal images of Jesus as 'lover', nor visual ones that show him as northern European. So what is happening? Could it be sexism itself? Surely we are called upon to remind such people that Jesus, unlike their verbal postures 'did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped'. We are obliged to try and forge a new poetry and a new grammar which expresses the complexity of God better.
I am a feminist. I am also a Christian and a writer. I believe that there is real content to feminist ideas about language and its power. I am delighted that the new biological, social, historical, ontological knowledge about women has asked new questions of the tradition; and given us access to another way of engaging against sexism. I am excited by the chance to explore how a without-qualities-but-personal God might now be spoken of. I believe I not only may, but we must.
Obviously God is not going to be hurt by the process; who is?
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