Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on May 18, 2015
I wrestle intellectually from time to time with the issue of god and gender. Maybe you do, too.
Over time, I’ve grown skeptical about the importance of gender to divinity, as gender seems like a human issue, whereas God, to me, is unfathomably beyond that.
Even if gender is “just” a construction, it’s an incredibly pervasive one with very real consequences that are felt across cultures. We have to talk gender when we talk God, because religion forms and influences cultures, and cultural norms and gender norms are interwoven.
Peter Wilkes’ effort to contribute to this conversation is his book, A Woman Called God, which employs stick-figure drawings and a children’s book structural model, and is directed at adult-children. In it, Wilkes centralizes the issue of the woman/man binary as a way of encouraging readers to seek the higher calling of unconditional love, which he is convinced can only come from the divine feminine. His insistence on a womanly gender for God reinforced my personal disbelief in the essentiality of gender to understanding the divine but it did not eliminate the more-general question of the importance of gender to religious discourse. In fact, it brought it to the forefront.
Wilkes’ little book – pointedly unapologetic and impishly Socratic – contends with the question of whether or not a shift in image and authority at the divine level, away from masculine and toward feminine, can achieve better results for humanity.
I like this question and I think it is evocative, but I don’t think the answer to the problems of power and of inhumane treatment can be found solely in gender. The answer, I believe, is to be found in deconstructing the gender binary and in destabilizing radically the constructed and mythical cult of manhood. The myth of the “Manly/Patriarchal God” perpetuates harmful forms of oppression and misogyny, but it doesn’t account for all manifestations of violence and oppression globally.
Calling God a woman is one way of challenging the power of the “Manly/Patriarchal God,” but more importantly we need to turn our attention to the core ethics behind the favorable behaviors we associate with “women”— behaviors that Wilkes points to in the book, and ones that I, in agreement with him, believe will benefit humanity more than those we’ve seen under the reign of a myth about a masculinist higher power.
Wilkes, himself, demonstrates that men can reject oppressive practices and embrace nurturing ones. He and others not considered women can, indeed, be nurturers. I don’t think it’s dependent on gender. But maybe gender is where it starts.
Wilkes holds a light up to the issue of god and gender in an accessible way, revealing it in terms that most everyone will be able to understand.
He insists on gender— on making God a woman, yet what his wish alludes to is simply the act of making God unconditionally loving. Many monotheists will find this offensive: the idea of making God something.
As someone who believes in a god that exists outside of the power of my imagination, I’m still interested in responding to the challenge that Wilkes’ book poses: for us to think outside of the patriarchal box when it comes to God. I believe there is much, in religious texts, that lends credence to the idea that God is not strictly patriarchal and is beyond gender.
Wilkes believes that the way to change humanity is through unconditional love and effusive nurturing, but I ask: aren’t we limiting God and ourselves by assuming that these qualities have to come from women? I agree with him that historically and on the whole, they do, but my hope, as I come away from the book, is that we can find a way for all people to become sources of unconditional love— my wish is not for a woman god but for a loving humanity that reflects a loving divinity.
Peter Wilkes himself is proof enough that unconditional love can come in the form of a man: the question, the book, and the entire project of “little books for big people” are demonstrations of unconditional love for an imperfect humanity.
Unconditional love has little to do with sex or gender; the problem is that we have been misled into believing otherwise. Expressions of love and affection have been mythically made a function of gender because of rigid gender roles that have ingrained in many of us the idea that men cannot possess loving, tender, vulnerable and forgiving qualities.
This is the myth that I wish Wilkes’ book had tried to undo: that men and that a god with masculine qualities cannot be nurturing and loving. Wilkes seems defeatist in his treatment of gender— convinced that men and a male god cannot be loving and that the only way to find unconditional love in God for humanity is through the model of womanhood: specifically, in attaching womanhood to the divine. I am not against this, but I don’t think it’s the final answer.
The question of the relationship between gender and divine power is not a new one, and many, especially in recent decades, have attempted to pose it in varying ways— and even to answer it. I conferred with my friend and fellow feminist scholar, Dr. Amy Carr, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, over the issue of God and gender, asking her about her view on the relationship of gender to God. She said:
Because God lacks a created body, God lacks or transcends gender. God is not a creature, not part of creation; God is that which transcends, creates, sustains, and redeems the created world(s). While Christians believe the second person of the Trinity became incarnate in the human being Jesus, God in all three Trinitarian persons transcends gender, and each person can thus be envisioned in male and/or female form.
Dr. Carr’s Christian orthodox belief is similar to, though more scripturally based and justified than, my own. Although this view is not one shared by all Christians, nor does it take into direct consideration other world religions, it is compatible with Wilkes’ proposition that it is acceptable and favorable to re-envision God in womanly form. I stop short of affirming Wilkes’ belief that we should invest in any kind of absolute gender identity for God, but I think his ideas point us in a healthier direction, away from the dominance of a male, strictly patriarchal, gender-based religious culture.
Wilkes takes on a childlike persona to accomplish his goal, urging us to lay down the pretences of our adult roles in order to talk as children, in simplistic terms, about the ways in which world religions address the issue of gender. For me, this was handled too simplistically and evoked some binaristic gross overgeneralizations that, while childlike, do not seem in the best interest of eliciting change. They are, however, in the best interest of eliciting conversation and debate.
What I found most provocative and interesting of all in my encounter with A Woman Called God were the insights that Wilkes shared in an accompanying interview in which he explained his choices and shed some light on what was behind the book. I was moved and delighted by his exuberant love for and support of women.
At one point during the interview, he paid homage to women, saying, “Imagine you are the first guy on earth. And you find out that this first woman you’re with can bleed without dying! Every month it happens, in concert with the moon and tides! Whoa, that’s impressive!” It is one of my favorite moments with Wilkes, because he was free from his defensiveness against religion— free to simply marvel at divine creation, making women central instead of arguing that they should be central.
The book begins with a couple of forewarnings, and while I fully understand where they come from, having myself been burned badly on numerous occasions by those speaking “on behalf of religion,” I feel they might be alienating to some who might otherwise have been persuaded by the book. Saying that “spiritual paths of discovery…are always scorned by any Religion because spiritual people…are not listening to any cleric” is problematic to me. The use of “always,” for instance, is childlike, but an adult audience—even those, like me, who identify with his position—might be uncomfortable finding themselves pinned down by it in some way.
I don’t want division for Wilkes. I don’t want it for any of us. I sense the pain. A lot of it. And I sense the hurt child. Wilkes is, as an adult man, admirably taking a risk by exposing the raw and childlike parts of himself, the parts that have been wounded and traumatized by religion and by the unloving and sometimes hateful actions of men, actions that were justified or driven by religion and/or an oppressive godhead. Wilkes wants what I want for him and for humanity: healing.
Ultimately, he seeks it in the transformation of a male god to a female god. I think Wilkes is onto something in assuming that humanity is affected and can be transformed by its conception of the divine. He knows how important religion is to the advancement of society, and he wants radical change. I do, too.
This is clearly a labor of love for the author. Proceeds from the book are going to fight violence against women, and the book’s minimalist style affirms its mission. Wilkes is willing to be an adult child, to wear his inner child on his sleeve, in order to try to make the world a more loving place. For Wilkes, that loving place is found in mother, in woman, in the divine feminine. I hope that someday that loving place will be found all around, across the gender spectrum.
Feature image for this post is “Guercino (Giovan Francesco Barbieri) – God the Father and Angel – Google Art Project” by Guercino (Giovan Francesco Barbieri) (1591 – 1666) (Creator, Details of artist on Google Art Project) – 9AEqk5sfVRMaQQ at Google Cultural Institute. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.