I still remember the moment in my early twenties when I stopped wearing a cross as jewelry. As a PK (preacher’s kid), an active youth in my church, and then leader of youth groups in college, I had worn variations of cross necklaces or rings much of my life. While a chance encounter with Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Mary–The Feminine Face of the Church had piqued my Protestant interest not only in Mary but in ideas about the divine feminine, it was in reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade that I set aside my cross and became a feminist theologian.
Eisler’s observation that archaeologists who excavated the remnants of our civilization thousands of years hence might likely conclude from the abundance of crosses left behind that Christianity was a death cult astonished me. Of course, this remark largely supported her central claim that cultural assumptions against recognizing the divine as female had contributed to the interpretation of scores of female images and figurines as objects associated with a “fertility cult.” Eisler asserted that these figurines more likely represented the Divine Goddess from a period When God Was a Woman, as Merlin Stone had argued a decade earlier.
My adult life has been marked by my desire to reimagine God as female, beyond gender, beyond human, and, quite frankly, as anything but a divine father. In fact, one of my first published pieces was on “Embracing God as Goddess.” I argued that female sexuality and the fundamental mutability of women’s bodies through menarche, menstruation, gestation, lactation, and menopause offered an important starting point for theological reflection about the nature of God that has been overlooked in two thousand years of male theological discourse creating God in their image.
And yet, as we seek to reimagine God, I am not sure that the corrective to the damage that has been done by the understanding of God as Father is to replace that with an understanding of God as Mother. After all, the religious and cultural expectations that predominate under a patriarchal father God for women to mother are already extreme. Not only are women expected to want and have children, the deeply rooted cultural expectation that women who get pregnant have a moral obligation to continue their pregnancy is deeply rooted in Christian tradition. Expectations that women’s role is to mother can be traced to both Eve’s depiction as the “mother of all living” and to the Christian tradition’s veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the paragon of true womanhood.
Mary has been lifted up and crowned with the ultimate female power of the patriarchy—she is both a virgin and a mother. In this position, Mary garners the benefits of the sacred purity of virginity, thus avoiding any association with the sinful act of sex, while simultaneously fulfilling women’s sacred role as mother. The theological (and social) construction of Mary as both virgin and mother is a remarkable feat. In elevating Mary to this status and labeling her as “theotokos” or “God-bearer,” Christian women are offered an unattainable model of feminine virtue that literally embodies contradictory ontological realities. Practically speaking, women who give birth are not and cannot be virgins.1When measured against Mary as the perfect woman, all of us fall short.2
The last thing we need is an image of a Mother God being used to reinforce established cultural tropes promoting motherhood as women’s true calling and destiny. As we saw during the Victorian era, while the cult of true womanhood was stultifying for white women, urging them to be “delicate, refined, and chaste” and “perfectly suited to the home,” where she served as mother and wife, these same images were used to vilify and demonize black women. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts describes how these attributes were exactly the opposite of those used to characterize black women who were marked as the bearers of “incurable immorality” and considered unfit to be mothers. Whether that “unfitness” is defined as hypersexuality, negligent mothering, dominance and control, or dependency, there is a long history of racist attitudes about black women’s mothering.
Thus, I am wary of how a Mother God might function in a world and a religious tradition that remains patriarchal, misogynist, and racist. If, however, we were to reimagine God and Divine Motherhood in ways that reflect and affirm the experiences and struggles of real women grappling with the responsibilities of motherhood, well then, maybe we could develop a more complicated and approachable God.