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Divine Feminine or Divine Feminist?

by Jeannine Hill Fletcher 

Engendering Interfaith Dialogue

As a feminist theologian intent on bringing to light discourses and practices that compromise our fully human becoming, I am reluctant to participate in discourses that essentialize the binary oppositions of ‘male-female’ and ‘women-men.’ Thus, I generally drag my feet into discussions of the ‘Divine Feminine’ when invited (as my title for this reflection suggests, I’d be more comfortable in conversations on the Divine Feminist).

And yet, if theological reflection emerges from human experience, and our contemplations of the divine take root from out of our everydayness, in all its particularity, then embodiment in social locations that have been designated as ‘male’ or ‘female’ do make a difference in our theological production. More to the point, if the subject-position that has come to be identified as ‘woman’ or ‘female’ gives rise to experiences that produce particular ways of thinking about God, and these experiences and the theologies that emerge from them have heretofore been excluded, then my work does find a home in such conversations as this.

I enter this discussion through the metaphor of motherhood, and the question that I ask is whether the experience of mothering and the subject-position of motherhood give rise to new metaphors for considering the human, the divine and the relationship between them. Casting a wide net, my new book Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue, asks these questions of feminist theologians from across a range of religious traditions to investigate whether feminist theological reflections might sustain the use of motherhood as metaphor. I write,

“Selecting motherhood [as metaphor] entails two simultaneous gestures. First, it recognizably offers symbolic expression rooted in the lives of actual women. A critical approach to theology demonstrates that what has counted as normative for humanity and has been offered as theological anthropology was conditioned by the social location and contexts of male theologians….Motherhood as a point of departure might illumine new realities of the human condition. Yet at the same time, as metaphor, ‘motherhood’ does not see the biological role of mother as requisite for all women or ‘motherhood’ as inherently female.

“Here is the second point, equally important: While the symbolisms may be rooted in subject-positions gendered female, the experiences they describe are not bound by gender or biology. The actions and relations engaged as mothers provide content that can be applied to human beings regardless of biology and gender. While articulated in symbolic language rooted in women’s experience, motherhood is more widely applicable – by invitation – to humanity at large.” (Motherhood as Metaphor, 45)

Returning to the project of constructive, Christian theology, I envision the possibilities for new theological reflections on God and humanity as radically relational, as committed to the well-being of the least, and as multi-tasking under a calculus of concern for self and the many others with whom one is in relationship, interpersonally and globally. Through the metaphor of motherhood, I revisit classic Christian texts to explore the possibilities of rethinking the tradition to include the creative mothering of Eve, God in the mode of mothering the second child, Jesus, as breast-feeding mother, Christian tradition as a movement of mothers. In this creative work, the theology I propose learns across religious lines from conversation with feminist theologians from a variety of religious traditions, and offers a proposal about God and humanity from out of women’s experiences.

These conversations are important, I think, not because God holds within Godself attributes of the ‘Divine Feminine’ that are specially designed for those marked as ‘women’ or as ‘female,’ but because there may be distinctive experiences arising from those who have been socially marked as ‘female’ or ‘women’ which might add to our contemplation of the mystery that Christians call ‘God.’ A relational God calls forth relationality and care for the least, not for women, but for all human beings. A sacrificing mother-God calls forth mothering-sacrifice not for women, but for all human beings. And a God who weeps as mother of a broken world, does not weep for women alone, but for all human beings. 

Jeannine Hill Fletcher is Professor of Theology at Fordham University, Bronx NY. She is author of Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue (Fordham University Press, 2013) and Monopoly on Salvation? A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism (Continuum, 2005). On April 3, 2014, Fordham University will host an academic conference designed to test the viability of ‘motherhood’ and ‘maternity’ as metaphor in Jewish, Christian and Muslim contexts. For more information, contact Jeannine Hill Fletcher at hillfletche@fordham.edu.