The Common Good
January-February 1996

The Image of God's Goodness

by Rosemary Radford Ruether | January-February 1996

How language reflects our understanding of God.

Wisdom shines bright and never fades: She is easily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her she is found. She is quick to make herself known to those who desire knowledge of her....

For in Wisdom there is a spirit intelligent and holy, unique in its kinds, and yet made up of many parts; subtle, free, lucid, pure, clear, invulnerable, loving what is good, eager, unhindered, beneficent, kindly toward all, steadfast, unerring, untouched by worry, all-powerful, all-knowing, and permeating all intelligent, pure, and delicate spirits....

Like a fine mist she rises from the power of God, a pure effluence from the glory of the All-mighty. She is the illumination that streams from everlasting light, the flawless reflection of the active power of God and the image of God's goodness. - Wisdom 6:12-14; 7:22-23, 25-26

In the Christian churches today, there is deep conflict over language for God, particularly gender imagery for God. Many Christians, women and men, are deeply disturbed by the exclusive use of masculine images and pronouns for God. They see exclusive use of terms such as Father, Lord, and All-Mighty as falsifying the nature of God and God's relation to us. The predominance of such language in the worship of the churches has become for them a barrier to prayer. They feel they cannot pray in such language, and some even feel they have to leave the church altogether because they cannot abide such language for God.

However, many other Christians feel equally vehemently that they can only pray in the traditional language about God as Father, Lord, and All-Mighty. They feel offended by the use of terms that are intended to be gender inclusive, such as Mother and Father, Parent, or Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, rather than the traditional terms for the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some even assail those who use inclusive or explicitly female imagery for God as un-Christian, as not worshiping the biblical God. They insist that any other terms for the trinity than the traditional ones are heresy.

For example, when women have involved the image of Sophia, or Divine Wisdom, critics have assailed it as a pagan goddess. The vehemence of this attack on the image of God as Wisdom is surprising, since it is a term found in both the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. Hebrew scripture employs several female metaphors for God: God as birthing mother; God as Ruah, or Spirit, a feminine term in Hebrew; and God as Sophia or Wisdom. The images for God as Wisdom are particularly elaborated in the Wisdom literature, such as Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, although the New Testament also speaks of Jesus as manifesting God's Wisdom.

WHAT ARE THE ROOTS of this conflict in the churches? Why do some Christians feel themselves nourished and affirmed by feminine images, such as Wisdom, while others are outraged at such a term?

My own sense is that the roots of this conflict are fear. Behind the fear lies a certain model of male dominant power in the universe that ratifies systems of male dominant power in society. To use feminine images for God is to undermine this model of dominant male power.

Others evaluate this crisis in exactly the opposite way. They see this model of dominant male power, ratified by the exclusively male language for God, as the problem that needs to be overcome. In their view, there are two interrelated problems with speaking about God only as Lord, Father, and All-Mighty, both the use of male-only language and also a certain model of power embedded in the particular male language.

When male-only language is used for God, and any feminine images rejected as inappropriate for God, it suggests that in some sense God is literally a male, and that only males image God and represent God. Women are considered a lesser form of humanity who cannot exercise authority or be independent persons, but exist only under male authority. Women are thought to represent the body, the emotions, the creaturely realm, but they cannot represent God. The relation of male and female then should be analogous to the relation of God to creatures.

Second, we have tended to use particular power models for God that image divine power as like that of a monarchical ruler, or a military general who crushes all who oppose him. The model of power assumed here is one of competitive power: all-powerful over those who are powerless; all-good over those who are worthless; domination over subjugation. Such a concept of divine power sacralizes the same kind of totalitarian power in male human hands as "god-like."

Feminists are seeking an alternative understanding of power: power as mutual-empowerment, power that does not dominate, force, or coerce, but heals, reconciles, and transforms. In the presence of such power, we are not demeaned or rendered vile and unworthy, nor made helpless and called to submit; rather we are called into healthy self-esteem, into the power of one's own creative agency that can affirm the good potential and creative agency of others.

Healing power dissolves the competitive model of power relations where one side's power is the disempowerment of the other side; where one side's victory is the defeat of the other side. Healing power repents, forgives, and transforms relationships so that both sides of former conflicts are enlivened, made whole, and enabled to rejoice in one another's well-being. This is the appropriate understanding of the power of God, not models of power drawn from human relations of domination, war, and violence.

Those who ask for inclusive language are asking for changes in concepts of God modeled on top-down relationships. They wish to have images for God that include women and men as human equals. If women are fully human, if women are made in God's image, then we need to be able to use images for God drawn from female as well as male activity, mothering as well as fathering.

Gender inclusive language should not be understood as moving from masculine images to neutral generics, such as changing Lord to Sovereign or Father to Parent. Such neutral generics tend to be abstractions that lose the poetic concreteness of religious metaphor, while exaggerating the qualities of dominating power.

Rather, we need a plurality of images drawn from women's and men's experiences, not only with each other but with the creative power of nature as well: God as fire, bread, breath of life, mountains, and waters. We need to create transformative metaphors that give both men and women the sense of their wholistic potential, and don't just duplicate gender stereotypes on the divine level. God can be loving father who carries the little child in his arms and strong mother who, like the mother eagle, pushes us from the nest and teaches us how to fly. Interestingly enough, all these images are already present in the Bible.

We need to think of divine power as the kind of power that we find healing, nurturing, and transforming us - bringing us into loving mutual relationship. The biblical imagery for God as Wisdom is very much an understanding of God as that kind of loving, healing, and transforming power.

Wisdom may well cause us fear indeed, if we realize how far we have strayed from the true redemptive Wisdom of God in our fixation on militaristic power falsely identified with the nature and power of God. But divine Wisdom also is the knowledge and power of God that we need to know today, that can lead us sternly yet gently from our idolatries to that true sense of God with us.

God language is always heavy-laden language. To speak of God is our ultimate sanction for what is right and good, but this also means that God language becomes dangerous when it is used to sanctify what is evil, unjust, and dehumanizing. When we speak in Wisdom of God, we need to find the words that transform, not the words that deform, the words that heal, not the words that harm.

In the words of the ancient psalmist: "She is...the image of God's goodness. She is one, but can do all things. Herself unchanging, she makes all things new. Age after age she enters into holy souls and makes them God's friends and prophets" (Wisdom 7:26-27).

Rosemary Radford Ruether was a Sojourners contributing editor and Georgia Harkness professor of applied theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, when this article appeared.

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