Elizabeth Johnson :: gendered language about God

In a passage exploring the difficulty of gendered vocabulary used in naming God, Elizabeth Johnson rejects as inadequate two approaches before moving forward within the parameters of a third. Neither attributing female traits or characteristics to God (who remains primarily “male”), nor speaking of a female dimension within God’s life is finally adequate. Rather, she argues that male and female images of God are equally fitting (and equally inadequate) and therefore ought to be used with greater parity, breaking the dominance of patriarchal imagery. 

Unexamined presuppositions about the doctrine of God itself raise a further theological question about this [preceding] approach [namely, identifying the Holy Spirit as a female dimension of God’s being]. In what sense can it be claimed that God has “dimensions,” let along the the dualistically conceived dimensions of masculine and feminine? Such an idea extends human divisions to the godhead itself. It actually ontologizes sex in God, making sexuality a dimension of divine being, rather than respecting the symbolic nature of religious language.

We must be very clear about this. Speech about God in female metaphors does not mean that God has a feminine dimension, revealed by Mary or other women. Nor does the use of male metaphors mean that God has a masculine dimension, revealed by Jesus or other men; or an animal dimension, revealed by lions or great mother birds; or a mineral dimension, which corresponds with naming God a rock. Images and names of God do not aim to identify merely “part” of the divine mystery, were that even possible. Rather, they intend to evoke the whole. Female imagery by itself points to God as such and has the capacity to represent God not only as nurturing, although certainly that, but as powerful, initiating, creating-redeeming-saving, and victorious over the powers of this world. If women are created in the image of God, then God can be spoken of in female metaphors in as full and a limited a way as God is imaged in male ones, without talk of feminine dimensions reducing the impact of this imagery. Understanding the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of the divine within a patriarchal framework is no solution. [1]

Johnson’s approach in this book does two things supremely well. First, she articulates God’s transcendence patiently and persistently. Thinking and speaking about God in exclusively male terms is not wrong because God is beyond all gender and totally outside the known. It is wrong because it imposes false limits upon the God who transcends created gender in a way that encompasses both maleness and femaleness and extends beyond typological confinement in one or the other. Johnson recognizes that the plenitude of God’s inner life extends beyond the boundaries of either maleness or femaleness, while both men and women are “true” images of God. 

Secondly, Johnson recognizes that patriarchal repression of women is an aberration in both thought and practice from the orthodox Christian gospel. Correcting this error, then, does not require an overthrow of the whole tradition and a rejection of the church’s rich theological heritage. It would be naive and simplistic to dismiss a tradition in which so many women have found genuine liberation and genuine self-expression for the reason that the same tradition has been used (perhaps with a great frequency) to subdue and silence them. Johnson recognizes that the language and symbols of tradition do not need to be cast away to start again with a blank slate, but demand to be enlivened  and expanded by filling them out with the suppressed language and experience of the church’s women. When we have understood our theological heritage more fully, we will understand that the dismissal and subordination of women cuts against the grain of the gospel. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remains YHWH’s first Christian name, the most prominent appellation for God given to the Church in both the New Testament scripture and subsequent tradition. Attempts to displace or discard God’s self-revelation in this form are misguided and unnecessarily divisive. Yet, there are other ways of speaking about God, appropriate for both the Church’s liturgy and theology, that rekindle the biblical practice of naming God in feminine terms as Mother, as Wisdom incarnate, as the Spirit who gives new-birth. The church’s language is impoverished and watered down where it neglects the full range of imagery available for its prayers and preaching.  

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 54. 

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