“We can call God ‘rock of ages,’ ‘door of heaven,’ ‘key of David,’ ‘dove of peace,’ ‘tree of life,’ ‘father of the universe’ — but never, ever ‘mother,’” Sister Joan Chittister said. “What can that possibly be but blatant sexism, as well as bad philosophy, heretical theology and an edited version of the Scriptures?”
Chittister’s lecture at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy was called “The Divine Feminine: The Foundation of the Abrahamic World.” A Benedectine Sister of Erie, Pa., Chittister co-chairs the Global Peace Initiative of Women. She has written more than 40 books. “Numbers … distance us from the reality of what we are talking about,” she said.
One-fifth of women are sexually abused as children. Sixty-one million girls are missing due to infanticide, neglect and abortion. Ten thousand girls become child brides every day. Two-thirds of illiterate adults are women, Chittister reported. “And no, things are not getting better,” she said. The ratio has been stable for the past 25 years. “Who will speak for all these women?” she asked. She discussed “how it is that we have come to see, to accept the natural denigration of women as the will of God and what it is saying to us a so-called religious people.”
“What we think about the divine feminine will determine what we think about everything else in life,” she continued. For Chittister, there are two levels to the divine feminine: the theological and the personal. Four questions help to determine the nature of the inquiry of the divine feminine.
First, why is the concept of the divine feminine important? Chittister shared several anecdotes to illustrate. One, in which a tribal ruler explains the nature of love to a young man, and concludes with the lesson, “Who we become as persons depends on what we develop in ourselves,” she said. “What we do is what we become.” Science demonstrates this: Chittister explained that neurologists have concluded that experiences determine brain patterns, not the other way around.
She explained that children are taught to refer to large mixed groups using male pronouns, and male pronouns are the default when referring to a person in a general situation. “Clearly language affects what we see,” she said. “It signals the importance of a thing. As a result, women experience almost universal invisibility. ‘Her’ can always be collapsed into ‘him.’ ‘She’ can always be collapsed into ‘he.’” She also referenced the pronouns in the first chapters of Genesis, which read, “Let us make humans in our own image; in our own image, let us make them, male and female, let us make them.”
“That meaning is painfully clear, too,” Chittister said. “The names we give God, the way we see God, determines the way we see ourselves.” Part of the danger in erasing or ignoring the divine feminine is the potential to misrepresent God. “If we see God only as maleness, maleness becomes more godlike than femaleness,” she said. “Maleness becomes the nature of God and the norm of humankind, rather than simply one of its manifestations.”
She shared the story of a little boy who recently had lost his mother. After his nighttime bath, he declared to himself that his mother must be in God’s stomach at this point. At first perplexed, Chittister came to see the truth in his simple philosophy. “We are all simply swimming in the womb of God,” she said. The great figures of early Christianity discussed the feminine characteristics of God.
“In the end, the real depth of a spiritual life … depends on whether or not we nourish the feminine image of God in us and around us as well as we do the fatherhood of God,” she said. Churches, mosques and synagogues need to recognize and support the significance of female pronouns and characteristics in their holy texts, as well as to cultivate feminine characteristics within their congregations.
“Is the question of the divine feminine simply a current fad?” Chittister asked as her second question. No, she said; many religions, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Judaism, promote figures or ideas feminine in nature. The “I am who I am,” whom Moses encounters in Exodus 14, is “un-gendered, un-sexed, pure spirit, pure energy, pure life, ineffable,” she described.
Islam and Christianity forbid making images of God so as to not create God in the image of humans and thus project human ideas of what God should look like. “We may be confused about who God is, but God is not,” Chittister said. Throughout the Bible, God is endowed with feminine characteristics, from Isaiah, in which God “cries out like a woman in labor”; to Hosea, where God claims to be the mother of Israel; to Ezekiel, where God is a washwoman; to Genesis, where God is a seamstress and creates clothes for Adam and Eve.
Chittister’s third question was, “What signs do we have of the authentic role of the feminine in the spiritual life and economy of salvation? Who are the women, if any, that God raised up to show us the spiritual power of women, and what do they say to us today?” She cited several biblical examples, from the intuition of Moses’ mother when she sent him downriver toward the Egyptian princess, to the courage of the midwives who refused to kill the boy-children of Israel. Queen Esther, too, modeled feminine strength.
“It is the women, in other words, who save Israel,” she said. Her final question asked what the divine feminine has to do with the life of her audience. There are social consequences of the cultural ignorance of the divine feminine. “Men are so frightened of their feelings, and women are so uncertain of their strength,” Chittister said.
She said the elevation of the divine masculine distorts God’s image in that believers perceive him as all-powerful, but also distant, demonstrated by a lack of intervention in times of disaster, tragedy and war. “God our mother, by giving us free will, prefers to share power with us, rather than exalt that kind of power over us that renders us humans as cosmic victims and human responsibility nil,” she said. “The divine feminine in God leads us to understand natural evil.” Society, including religious institutions, casts emotion in a negative light, as a sign of weakness.
“It’s not what sexism says about women that is sinful,” Chittister said. “It’s what sexism says about God that is heresy. Doesn’t sexism really imply that God is all-powerful, except when it comes to women, at which point, the God who could part the seas and draw water from a rock and raise the dead to life, is totally powerless to work as fully through a woman as through a man?”
It was women who came and wept at the tomb of Jesus, she said, not the “reasonable men.” Women also helped to finance Jesus’ mission work during his lifetime. “Do you get it?” she said. “No women, no Jesus.” Chittister challenged her audience to be courageous. “The Talmud says if we had been holier people, we would’ve been angrier, oftener,” she concluded. “May God give you the grace of a burst of holy anger.” The audience gave her a standing ovation.
Sister Joan Chittister
Joan Chittister is an internationally known writer and lecturer and the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality.
She currently serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, particularly in Israel and Palestine. She was an advisor for the groundbreaking report, A Woman’s Nation, led by Maria Shriver (2009) and was a member of the TED prize-sponsored Council of Sages, an interfaith group that developed a Charter for Compassion (2009) being promulgated worldwide with all faith organizations.
She was a keynote speaker at the Asia-Pacific Breakthrough: Women, Faith and Development Summit to End Global Poverty as well as the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia last December. She wrote the book Beyond Beijing: the next step for women, after attending the Fourth UN Conference of Women in Beijing (1995) and the book: Heart of Flesh: a feminist spirituality for men and women.