FROM EVANGELICALISM TO CHRISTIAN FEMINISM


In September 1988 I started attending a local college.  For the first year I commuted from home, and I continued going to my regular fellowship.  Then I decided to take advantage of the college housing.  In September 1989, I moved into the dorms.

I now lived too far away from my old fellowship to go there every Sunday, so I began attending an Christian and Missionary Alliance church near my school. I really enjoyed the worship there; it was very Christ-centered.

But one Sunday in December the pastor preached a sermon on the Virgin Mary. True to form, it was not about her faith, or her obedience, or her humility; it was about how wrong the Catholic Church (allegedly) was to believe in her Immaculate Conception. Amid ample pot-shots at Catholicism, the pastor argued that Mary did not need to be sinless in order for Jesus to be sinless, because Jesus did not receive His Humanity from her!

Citing (and misinterpreting) First Corinthians 15:47, "The first man is of the earth, earthly, the second man is the Lord from heaven", he said that God had created a new Humanity for Jesus in heaven.  The Virgin Mary just bore this new humanity in her womb, but did not give Him a human nature from her own substance.

Many people in the congregation seemed impressed by this teaching, but I was horrified. His novel interpretation of that passage flatly contradicted a number of other Bible verses, like Hebrews 2:14, "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he (Jesus) also himself likewise took part of the same..." and verse 16, "For verily he (Jesus) took not on him the nature of angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham."

If Jesus' humanity were created in heaven, He would be neither the seed of Abraham nor a partaker in our flesh and blood, as the Bible clearly says He was. This pastor was openly teaching the heresy of Docetism from the pulpit! He had essentially revived the Docetism of Valentius, the second-century Gnostic heretic who taught that Jesus' humanity was created by God, and that Jesus passed through Mary "Like water through a pipe", taking nothing from her.

What I once thought was "revived New Testament Christianity" was starting to look like a revival of ancient heresies.

By early 1990, after nearly five years in Evangelicalism, I was growing very dissatisfied.  I saw too many problems, too many false teachings within this very divided subculture.  It was becoming harder and harder for me to dismiss such contradictions by saying "Well, as long as we all believe in Jesus it doesn't matter if we disagree on Bible interpretation", because some people's interpretations were blatantly heretical.

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Leaving Evangelicalism

During this time I was working in the college library to pay my for room and board. I came across a new book entitled Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory by Randall Balmer. The book briefly discusses the history of Evangelicalism in America, showing how it was influenced by historical events such as the Civil War, the Temperance Movement, etc.

This really opened my eyes; I had always thought that Evangelicalism was the restoration of pristine, first century Christianity. Now I saw that it was just an American religious movement, which was influenced as much by secular history as was the Catholic Church. This did a lot to destroy my ties to the movement which I had once thought was the true "New Testament Church" revived.

Another reason why I knew I could not stay in Evangelicalism was that I was simply "growing out of" that shallow religious system.  I was now in college, and had met several older women who provided me with very positive role models for my maturing womanhood - something Evangelicalism had never given me.  One was a female rabbi who taught one of my classes, the second was another female professor, and the third was a Catholic nun who was counseling me at the time.

So I knew I could not stay in Evangelicalism, but did not know where else to go. Though I had read some Catholic apologetics materials, and had long ago given up the "Catholicism = Whore of Babylon" idea, I still disagreed with some Church teachings, and so did not think I could ever return.

I started reading books about Quakerism, and considered becoming a Quaker for a while. I even attended a meeting house one Sunday in February 1990. The silent prayer was nice and relaxing, but I was turned off by some pro-abortion and pro-homosexual literature I saw by the door as I left. This was not the original Thomas Fox-Quakerism I had read about in books, but the liberal faction which had formed during the mid-1800's. I never returned to that meeting house.

During my sessions with the nun/counselor, the topic of our discussion soon turned to religion, and I started dumping on her all the things I thought were wrong with the Catholic Church. I ranted about the animosity between traditionalists and progressives, the concept of papal infallibility, transubstantiation, the fact that the Church required its members to believe in the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption and other teachings which I considered "trivial".

Sister listened calmly, occasionally answering my charges. In some ways she embodied the calm certainty which I had always seen in the Church. She said, "Yes, Catholics have human failings, but you have try to see Christ in the Church, behind all the problems. I think you should give the Catholic Church another try."

I still didn't think that I could, in good faith, return to a faith with which I disagreed in so many areas. So she suggested, "Why don't you return as a seeker? Tell God 'I don't think I can believe all the teachings of the Church, but I am returning as a seeker. Please show me your Truth; if the Church's teachings are true, please show me'".

Her words impressed me, so I did just that. I returned to the Catholic Church with a heart open to God, to show me His truth. Eventually, I came across the book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians", by Karl Keating. The book explained Catholic teachings like papal infallibility, and refuted Evangelical charges against the Church. The book answered a lot of my remaining questions about Catholicism.

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The Need for a Mother

But there was something else going on in my life which would soon send me on a detour-of-sorts. For a number of months I had felt a growing spiritual hunger inside me: I longed for a "mother in heaven"! I had always known and worshipped my Father in Heaven, but now I wanted - no, needed - a loving spiritual mother.

I knew from experience that Evangelicalism would never satisfy this need1, since my youth leaders had been so adamantly opposed to calling God "Mother". So this was yet another thing which made me realize that I could not stay in that subculture.

Now, you might think that this desire for a heavenly Mother would have led me straight into the arms of the Holy Virgin.  Sadly, that did not happen.

You see, although I was beginning to accept many of the truths of Catholicism, I found it hard to shake some of the attitudes which Evangelicalism had drilled into my brain over five years.  One such attitude was a tremendous fear of "Mariolatry".  I was beginning to believe that Marian devotion was okay, but was unsure what constituted "excessive" devotion to her.  In the back of my head I still worried that I could possibly "cross the line" I couldn't see, and honor Mary "too much", thus putting her "above Jesus".

In retrospect, I can see that Mary was trying to get through to me back then.  You see, during my teens I never had a boyfriend, though I really wanted one.  For years, I prayed to God to sent me the right person, but He did not seem too anxious to answer that prayer.

As an Evangelical, I had come across some Catholic literature which claimed that Mary is the "Mediatrix of graces", who receives from God whatever she asks for.  This concept offended my Evangelical sensibilities; but I must confess that I was tempted to ask her to send me a boyfriend, since I was so desperately lonely.  Yet I boldly fought off that "temptation" for years.

Finally, in March 1990, a month after returning to the Church, I decided to give it a try - just as a test, that's all. So I prayed something to this effect:  "Mary, if you are what some Catholics say you are; if you really are the 'Mediatrix of graces', to whom God refuses no request, then please ask Him to give me a boyfriend".  One month later, I met a devout Catholic man whom I would eventually marry.  It was as though God was waiting until I was humble enough to ask Mary's help before answering my request.

Yet I still kept her at arms length for fear of "Mariolatry". I said the occasional "Hail Mary" but not the Rosary (I thought that Hail Holy Queen was too "excessive"!), and I did not venerate any image of her or display one in my house (though I did have a crucifix on my wall; I wasn't entirely against images.).

Well, as the saying/cliche goes, "Nature abhors a vacuum".  Since I did not allow Mary to fill my need for a spiritual mother, it was inevitable that I would try to fill it with something else.  That something else was the concept of "God-as-Mother"2.

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Embracing Christian Feminism

I soon discovered some books in my college library which discussed "feminine imagery of God"3 in the Bible and Christian writings.  This concept excited me since it seemed to refute all those depressing things which my youth leaders had told me years earlier.  Maybe God really is "Mother", I thought; maybe that's biblical, not a heretical concept.  Maybe I really am made in the image of God as a woman! (The "Mother-God" concept had clearly become intertwined in my mind with the question of whether or not I reflected God's image.)

This concept seemed to affirm the value of my womanhood, as well as satisfy my longing for a spiritual mother.  So I scoured the college library and read every book or article I could find on the subject (most were written from a "Christian feminist" perspective).  Their notes and bibliographies led me to even more material from other sources.

I was so spiritually hungry; absolutely starving for a Heavenly Mother, that I soon gathered an extensive collection of information about different feminine images of God from the Jewish and Christian traditions, such as Holy Wisdom, Jesus-as Mother, the Shekhinah, and the "Holy Spirit Mother" teaching of ancient Syrian Christianity.  I was only interested in Jewish and Christian images of God-as-Mother.  Though some books I read mentioned a "great goddess" I shunned the concept; it was clearly idolatrous and utterly foreign to Christianity.  I also avoided the Gnostic "Mother Sophia", or any other heterodox notions.

My research proved very fruitful.  I discovered that some early Christians used feminine or maternal images for God, even sometimes calling God "Mother" in certain contexts4.  Most of them also considered the Old Testament figure of "Wisdom" (clearly a feminine entity) to be identical with the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity (though a few identified her with the Holy Spirit).  This identification of Wisdom with Christ has remained strong; in fact, one of the cornerstones of Saint Louis de Montfort's spirituality is devotion to "Jesus Christ, the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom".  Montfortian literature sometimes calls Him "Jesus-Wisdom", and I soon adopted that term.  I also studied extensively the comparison of Jesus to a "Mother", found in medieval writers such as Blessed Julian of Norwich.

Ancient Syrian Christians such as Aphraates and Macarius spoke of the Holy Spirit as "our Mother" (in part because the Syrian word for "spirit" is feminine).  And Judaism used the feminine term "Shekhinah" to refer to the Cloud of Divine Glory which overshadowed the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  The New Testament identifies this cloud with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 17:5), so "Shekhinah" seemed to be a feminine title for the Holy Spirit.

I soon incorporated these feminine images of God from within the Judeo-Christian tradition into my prayer.  I called the First Person of the Trinity both Father and Mother, I prayed to the Second Person as both Jesus and Wisdom, and I wrote poems to the Holy Spirit as "Mother" and "Shekhinah".

Let me reemphasize here that I intended to pray only to the One True God, the God of the Bible, under these feminine titles.  I had no intention of worshipping any false deity.  Also, though I heard about "WomanChurch", I never got involved in it.  I read the book WomanChurch by Rosemary Radford Reuther, in which she refers to God as God/ess.  This automatically turned me off.  I also intensely disliked the "goddess sophia" concept which was just beginning to gain ground back then.  Wisdom is Christ our God, not a "goddess"!  Because of that heterodox misuse of the word sophia (Greek for "wisdom"), I preferred to refer to Holy Wisdom as Sapientia (Latin for "wisdom"), so that no one would mistakenly think I believed in the feminist "goddess sophia".

My tireless search soon uncovered a centuries-old Russian Orthodox ikon of "Holy Wisdom".  Ikons of this type portray the Eternal Wisdom of God as a winged feminine figure enthroned in the midst of saints and angels (view an offsite example).  As I gazed prayerfully at this amazing ikon, something stirred in my soul.  I had a powerful sense that I do indeed reflect the image and likeness of God.

Looking back on that experience, I must question whether that was a proper use of the ikon.  I doubt that the iconographer wrote it centuries ago in order to boost anyone's "self image".  Yet perhaps God did choose to use the ikon that way for me, since I had been so deeply wounded by false teaching in a disfunctional religious system.  Perhaps I needed that experience to teach me something on a very deep level.

In his letter On The Dignity and Vocation of Woman, Pope John Paul II wrote that Scriptural texts which attribute masculine and feminine qualities to God "indirectly confirm the truth that men and women are created in the image and likeness of God"5.  In my case, a sacred ikon served that purpose as well.  Through it, God healed the emotional wounds inflicted on me by well-meaning but misguided Evangelicals.  After having seen God portrayed in art as an old man all my life, the Hagia Sophia ikon confirmed to my soul that women truly are made in God's image.

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The Cracks Begin to Show

Yet I would soon discover that feminine images of God, whether verbal or artistic, have their limitations.  The three women who had been positive role models for me eventually left the college, and I felt the need for another female "role model" to take their place.  I no longer looked to other women for this affirmation; rather I looked to God-as-Mother, Holy Wisdom, or the Shekhinah.

You see, I had bought into the Christian feminist idea that belief in - and worship of - God as "Mother" is absolutely necessary for a woman's self-esteem and well being. Feminists argue that women have a psychological need to be able to "relate to" God, to "identify with" the One whom they worshipped. But how could a woman possibly identify with "God the Father"? or God as King? Lord? Master?  These are all male images to which no female could ever "relate". Constantly hearing such terms used for God (the feminists claim) makes women feel powerless, disenfranchised, like second-class citizens in the "kingdom" (there goes a male term again!) of God.  Only images of God as "Mother", "Queen", "Lady", etc., can heal this psychological wound.

I can now see that this philosophy is wrongheaded. The Bible does not tell us to "identify with" God; it tells us to worship Him. We don't need to be able to "relate to" Him in order to adore Him; in fact we can't possibly identify with our Infinite Creator! We are finite creatures, called into being by His lovingkindness and omnipotence. For that reason alone He deserves our supreme worship; whether or not we can "relate to" Him is utterly irrelevant.

(Nowadays I also strongly question the feminist insinuation that males can "relate" to God under masculine titles. Any honest, spiritually-minded man would recognize the infinite difference between himself and God the Father.)

Yet at the time I believed the feminists, so I looked to such feminine images of God to "affirm" my womanhood.  But I soon found that they could not do that. Why? Because they are just images of God, not real women. They are not truly female.  God is neither man nor woman; the Eternal Wisdom of God and the Shekhinah Glory are "feminine" images of a Being Who essentially transcends sex and gender.  I, on the other hand, am a flesh-and-blood woman, with a female body which performs special female functions such as menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and lactation.  God is Spirit (John 4:24) and does not have a female body.

In fact, the Logos, the Eternal Wisdom of God, became incarnate in a male human nature. All the feminine imagery in the world will never change the fact that God has never hypostatically assumed a female body.  Scripture seems to occasionally portray God's creative, life-giving activity in terms of childbirth6, but God still does not physically give birth as women do.  Feminine metaphor and physical womanhood are far from identical.  I may reflect God's likeness, but God is quite unlike me.

I suspect that other women who "seek the feminine face of God" eventually confront the same problem.  Perhaps this is why some of them embrace panentheism, the belief that God is "embodied" in all of creation and "suffers" with it.  Perhaps they feel they can "relate" better to a Mother God enfleshed in Mother Nature/Mother Earth7.  Many others turn to pantheism, fabricating a "great goddess" whom they identify with the "feminine energies" of the cosmos8 (whatever they mean by that).

But are these concepts of divinity really any better for women?  Even if such entities did exist, could a deity enfleshed in all of nature really compare to a woman enfleshed in a female human body?  Would impersonal "feminine energies" correspond to a human person better than does a personal God?

Perhaps this is why thealogy, the modern feminist study/worship of "the goddess", teaches that there is ultimately no goddess apart from women themselves, since the "feminine energies" it identifies with "the goddess" are ultimately personified and embodied in every woman9. Neo-pagan feminists bless one another during their rituals with the words "Thou art Goddess". Is this thealogy's "statement of faith", equivalent to the Christian Credo, the Jewish Sh'ma or the Muslim Shahada10?

The search for a deity one can "relate to" ends in worship of oneself11.

The grace of God preserved me from that path.  But I soon noticed a distressing pattern.  It seemed that every single "Christian feminist" I read started out discussing feminine imagery of God, but inevitably, over time, slipped into neo-pagan goddess worship.  This was the case with Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Daly, Miriam Therese Winter and many others.  Once I discovered a book on "Sophia" written by three Methodist ministers.  It began by giving lots of great information on the portrayal of Holy Wisdom in Sacred Scripture, but by the end of the book it was calling "Sophia" a "biblical goddess"!

This disturbed me greatly.  As I said above, I never believed in the so-called "goddess" of thealogy; I only wanted to worship the One True God.  But I couldn't help observing that "Christian feminism" seemed unable to remain truly Christian.

This was eerily reminiscent of my experience in Evangelicalism.  They, too, had had a hard time sustaining their orthodoxy in their rebellion against Catholicism.  The facade of "Christian feminism" was beginning to crumble before me.

(Return to Part I or proceed to Part III: From Feminism Into the Arms of Mary?)


WORKS CITED

1I was unaware at the time of the existence of "evangelical feminism", which is more accepting of feminine images of God.  Yet, had I known of it, my general dissatisfaction with Evangelicalism would have still caused me to leave.

2I refer, of course, to the use of biblically-based feminine imagery for the one true God, not Gnostic or neo-pagan "goddess" worship.  Thealogists (feminist goddess-worshippers) deny that their "goddess" is identical with the God of the Bible.  Some of them even mock feminine images of God, calling it "yahweh in drag".

3Since some feminists object to the term "feminine", they prefer to use the term "gynomorphic images of God".  But since "gynomorphic" is not a very well-known term I have opted to use "feminine" in these articles.

4Of course, none of the ancient Christian writers who called God Mother ever denied that He is Father. Unlike many modern feminists, they did not consider God's Fatherhood in conflict with Maternal characteristics.

5Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) 8.

6Deuteronomy 32:18; Job 38:8; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 42:14; 45:10b; 46:3 DV and James 1:18 all seem to portray God as "giving birth", although some of them are questionable.

7Two examples of panentheistic feminine divinities are the "goddess Sophia" and the "cosmic Christa" fabricated by Miriam Therese Winter.

8Rusty Unger, "Oh Goddess!" New York Magazine (4 June 1990) 41.

9As one thealogist puts it:

To be truly whole, we must recognize that there is no goddess beyond ourselves and the rest of creation. We are part of that great natural whole. It may be helpful in our movement to wholeness to refer to a female divine force, but only if we remember that it is a step in our process of reclaiming our own divinity as part of the vastness of the natural world.
[Hallie Inlehart, Womanspirit, a Guide to Women's Wisdom (New York: Harper, 1983) 97.]

10The Shema begins with the words "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one". The Shahada is "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah".

11G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy:

"Of all the horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within...That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones worships Jones...Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards but outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine Captain"
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