Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Feminine Side of God

The Feminine Side of God
by Julie Clawson

At lunch the other day a women who has shown up at our church a few times, and who I am just beginning to get to know, confessed to me that she had recently started to explore her identity as a woman in the church and that it had led her to think about the feminine side of God. She then asked me to not run away from the table because she was a heretic. I didn’t run. I smiled and told her that I had been thinking about the same things.

While my mainline friends shake their heads and tell me they have acknowledged the feminine side of God for years, this is still a big deal in the evangelical world. It’s a taboo that must not be violated; a subject that is not to be explored – at least publicly. But as my friend demonstrated, I am discovering that many evangelical women encountering the freedom and permission to ask questions within the emerging church conversation arrive at this topic sooner or later.

As women explore their faith and read about topics like “how (not) to speak of God”, they become concerned not only with their identity in the church, but with naming God rightly. They realize that all of our language for God is metaphor. The nature of language is that words are not the thing in itself, but a description or symbol of that thing. Words are finite and limited to our experience. So an infinite God cannot fully be defined by words. But God has been partially revealed in terms that we can understand through our experiences. Metaphors are used – objects, ideas, gender- to describe God. In using the metaphors we are saying that God is a bit like these things I am able to understand.

Problems arise when we latch onto one or two of these metaphors and call them theological absolutes. In doing this, we create an idol, a false image to worship that we equate with God. For many in the emerging church conversation that is where this conversation ends – acknowledging that our language for God is limited. But others, especially women, are questioning the idolatry of our gendered language for God. They want to push the conversation further.

Few people hear, God is my rock, and assume that God is physically a rock. No, we understand that there are certain aspects of God that are similar to certain aspects of rocks and leave it at that. But when we hear God called Father, we often create an idol of God in the image of a male. Combine that with a proclivity to only use a few metaphors for God (Father, Almighty, Lord) and we are left with a very limited conception of God that assumes God is male. Re-enforce that message enough over the years and it cements itself in our minds as true biblical doctrine, which is partially why this is such a controversial issue.

Such male-centered language not only implies that women aren’t created in God’s image, but it limits God. God is neither male nor female. We need to be reminded of Deuteronomy 4:15-17, therefore watch yourselves carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourself an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or woman…

The call to speak of God rightly has awakened in many women the need to reclaim the feminine metaphors for God. God is of course neither male nor female, but in the image of God both male and female were created. God’s image is reflected in all of us. To use feminine metaphors for God is not a call to swing the pendulum to the other side and think of God as exclusively female, as much of the Divine Feminine and Goddess talk has recently called us to do. It is merely a call to balance our perceptions and rightly name God.

Women are discovering that the use of feminine language for God is not without precedent. Scripture contains many references to God using feminine imagery, and writings from church history contain some beautiful feminine conceptions of God as well. As women study and explore the theology and history of the feminine side of God, it often leads into a journey of self-discovery. They see that our names for God should not exist merely as head knowledge, but that it needs to be translated into heart language and into action. If we have an intellectual understanding that God can be described using multiple metaphors, but we still continue to use our default gendered names for God, we are in essence shoring up the idols. It takes effort to broaden our language and let our words affect our faith practice. I’ve even heard it suggested that some people may need to “detox” from our male image of God by using exclusively female names and metaphors for a time. It is a process that takes being aware of how we address and refer to God and examining why we do so.

As women take the journey of seeking to know God and name God as correctly as they can, they find that they feel more at home in their faith. They feel an integral part of a family that loves and welcomes them as women. They can finally claim to actually reflect God’s image and not be afraid to do so. Contrary to what they expected, they have discovered that it is more heretical to limit God and create idols than it is to explore the multitude of ways we have to catch glimpses of the Divine.

Julie Clawson is a mother and an emerging church-planting pastor in the Chicago area. She enjoys being involved in Emerging Women activities, promoting social justice causes, and reading good books. She blogs at One Hand Clapping and she can be reached at


Pam Hogeweide said...

there was a day, not that long ago, when the idea of discovering the feminine side of God would have smacked of paganism and goddess spirituality and therefore i could not dialogue about it. The God of evangelicalism that I was acquainted with was uniquely male. Period. To suggest otherwise was practically heresy to my mind.

But in these times of change, changing mindsets and changed perspectives from dogmatism to openess, I have been thrilled to discover that God is not an Evangelical White Male with a seminary degree. I like white males with seminary degrees. Great people. But to limit God in this way crippled by ability to discover the bigness of God, his protective fathering heart as well as his nurturing mothering heart.

I am no longer inhibited nor insecure to discuss gender and the Godhead. I used to wonder if God was only male. Then I wondered if he was male and female....and then I read in the bible that he is Spirit, and is neither. Is gender uniquely a human quality? Does the Godhead possess both genders or neither? What about other spiritual beings like angels or demons. Are they genderless???

It is a fascinating subject and I am so glad you wrote about this, Julie. Thanks for contributing it.

Julie said...

Thanks for your comments. It has been a long struggle for me to even begin to think about this as well.

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