A Christian Feminist Scholar Says No To Mother
Last week, I talked about two major arguments against calling God Mother, from Old Testament scholar Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier. She made a big impact on the Christian world in the 1990s. As a respected Biblical scholar, woman, and an egalitarian, she told the church what it (mostly) wanted to hear, that God is masculine/male.
Her ideas pop up even now when someone wants to say it is wrong or unBiblical to call God “Mother.” These God-is-male/masculine articles are shooting out of the blog-o-sphere as we speak, due to the movie, The Shack.
Does Feminist Theology Equal Pantheism?
I addressed Achtemeier’s arguments about the title of “father” being revelation and not just a metaphor, and that God is a father but only like a mother, in last week’s post. This week, I want to take on her idea that calling God Mother always leads to a pantheistic theology (the belief that God and creation are the same).
Achtemeier writes in The Hermeneutical Quest, “If a female deity gives birth to the universe…it follows that all things participate in the life or in the substance and divinity of that deity–in short, that the creator is indissolubly bound up with the creation [italics hers]. And this is exactly what we find in feminist theologies.”
A God who is Mother must give birth to her own substance, goes her argument, and so the world and God become one, in such a theology. A woman is then, also, divine.
It’s true that a self-described pagan feminist like Starhawk writes, “The Goddess is also earth–Mother Earth, who sustains all growing things, who is the body, our bones, our cells….” Yet, Starhawk is not trying to describe a Christian theology; Starhawk rejects Christianity.
Dr. Achtemeier’s straw women are the feminists who have left Christianity altogether. She quotes Carol Christ as saying that the Goddess follower “‘…will no longer look to men or male figures as saviors.'” This, of course, implies that Jesus is on the outs. But He doesn’t have to be.
Mother Doesn’t Go There
So, what happens when we keep the mother metaphor within Christianity, as the OT writers and prophets and Jesus and the early church fathers did? Do we still end up with God and the earth as one? Achtemeier writes as though the metaphor of mother must nosedive into a literal belief that God is physically mother of, and one substance with, the world.
But the mother/child metaphors fail to build such a case. Every mother knows that her child is not the same as her. That’s only more true with the months and years that pass. Each are unique gene sharers bound together by love. So there is no need for the mother metaphor itself to lead to pantheism, even if we take the metaphor of mother extremely literally.
Misrepresenting Biblical Feminism
Yet, some of the Biblical feminists who Achtemeier quotes she also misrepresents as pantheists. For example, when Virginia Ramey Mollenkott says that Naomi “incarnated” God for Ruth, Achtemeier calls this pantheism. Yet, having read Mollenkott’s book, I know that she is not saying that Naomi is divine on her own, as Achtemeier suggests. Ruth did not know Yahweh because she was a Moabite. She would have worshipped gods and goddesses. The closest Ruth came to the invisible God of love was this visible, flawed-yet-loving woman, Noami.
And Ruth devotes herself to Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16) only on the basis of Naomi herself, as far as we know from the text. (Ruth’s husband and brother-in-law are not mentioned). Mollenkott writes, “Naomi with all her limitations remained for Ruth the image-bearer of the undivided One God who births and breast-feeds the universe.”
It’s very clear that Mollenkott is not advocating pantheism, but simply that God lives within believers. Believers sometimes remind others of God. That includes women, and mothers, who reflect God’s image.
Mother God is Not Her Creation
To call God Mother does not require us to believe the earth or all humans are divine. We don’t have to leave Jesus behind to call God Mother, either. Mother is a metaphor, not reality. Even if we take the mother metaphor quite literally, it puts up an easy, natural divide between the Creator and creation due to the obvious difference between mothers and children.
Perhaps if Dr. Achtemeier were living today, she would see the Biblical alternatives to masculine language for God. Perhaps she would understand the importance to Jesus-followers to joyfully use feminine language for God. In any case, it’s important to think carefully about the arguments against God as mother that she left us with. They are cropping up again like weeds in the evangelical landscape.