Why God Is Often a ‘She’ by Elizabeth Johnson

Theologically Sikhi is so far ahead of Christianity when it comes to teaching that Creator/Creation, the All-That-Is, includes female and male and everything else.

Meanwhile Christians are so far ahead of Sikhs in actually practicing gender equality and dropping the feudal, crazy, scary, authoritarian use of He, Him, King, Lord, Highest Lord, Lordy Lord Lord when speaking about the Beloved One. Wonder if there is a Khalsa Knight, or other Sikh, brave enough to call God “She” – outloud in public and inside -for a mere 6 months and report back to us what they experience? I rather doubt it.

Why God Is Often a ‘She’
The Scriptures abound with female imagery for the Deity. There’s no reason we can’t use it ourselves when thinking about God
Elizabeth A. Johnson, SCJ

Excerpted from Commonweal Magazine.

Today, both women and men are questioning our reliance on male language for God. They are rediscovering female imagery for the divine long hidden in Scripture and tradition. Feminist artists, poets, composers, and theologians are fashioning new images for God out of women’s experience. Language about God is expanding gender-wise, even to the point of referring to the divine mystery as “She.” I believe that there is a strong theological argument in favor of such language.

Numerous biblical texts offer potent female images of God. God as childbearer: giving birth, midwifing, nursing, and holding an infant. God as an angry mother bear robbed of her cubs. God as homemaker: knitting, baking, washing up, searching for her money. God as the female figure of Wisdom: creating, ordering, and saving the world.

In fact, the personification of God as Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs and elsewhere provides one of the earliest interpretive frameworks for Christology. Jesus is even called the Wisdom of God in the New Testament. Furthermore, the spirit is often presented in female metaphors.

For some literal-minded believers, however, the we are not free to expand our God-language in this way. They argue that Jesus himself spoke to and about God as father (abba) and that He taught His disciples to do likewise. Such an argument sets its sights too narrowly. Jesus’ language about God, far from being gender-exclusive, is diverse and colorful in its reference to the sexes, as can be seen in the imaginative parables He created: the woman searching for her lost coin (female), the shepherd looking for his lost sheep (male), the baker kneading her dough (female), the traveling businessman (male), the employer offending some his workers by his generosity to others (male). Jesus used these and many other human and cosmic metaphors (such as blowing wind), in addition to the good and loving things that fathers do.

A final argument for using female symbols for God arises from the practical effects of God-language on the church. Imagery for God helps us understand the world. The way a faith community talks about God indicates what it considers the highest good, the profoundest truth. This language, in turn, molds the community’s behavior, as well as its members’ self-understanding.

The fact that Christians ordinarily speak about God in the image of a male ruler is problematic. For feminist theology, the difficulty does not lie with the male metaphors. Men as well as women are created in the image of God. The problem lies in the fact that the specific male images reflect a patriarchal arrangement of the world, casting God into the mold of an omnipotent, even if benevolent, monarch. God’s maternal relation to the world is eclipsed.

Incorporating female-centered divine images reverses this. She is the giver of life who pervades the cosmos like a mother bird hovering over the primordial chaos (Genesis 1:2). She shelters those in difficulty under Her wings (Psalm 17:8) and bears up the enslaved on Her great wings toward freedom (Exodus 19:4). Like a mother, She knits new life together in the womb (Psalm 139:13); like a midwife, She works deftly to bring about the new creation (Psalm. 22:9-10); like a washerwoman, She scrubs away bloody stains of sin (Psalm. 51:7). These and other such symbols invoke the exuberant, life-giving power of women.

Such symbols are but modest starting points for a more inclusive God-talk. Developing these symbols today is a theologically central task for the whole church. But the living God and the vitality of the faith community require that a more inclusive way of speaking about divine mystery be developed. God reimagined in female terms can breathe new life into religious language and symbols that bear the ancient responsibility of conveying what is most holy, loving, merciful, just, and wise.

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5 Comments

Filed under Fighting Authoritarian Groups, Inspiring, Multicultural, Sikh Women's Movement, Sikhi

5 responses to “Why God Is Often a ‘She’ by Elizabeth Johnson

  1. Gurmit Singh

    Waheguru jee ka Khalsa Waheguru jee kee Fateh

    When we have somemore time to spare from our daily schedule, we should start reading Guru Granth Sahib slowly and thoughtfully.

    Akaal Purkh – God is neither He nor She. Hence we should avoid any such discussion, nor there is need to have any comparison with Christianity or
    any other religion. The Commencing Verse of the Guru Granth Sahib is very clear.

    With best wishes,
    Gurmit Singh (Australia)

  2. kamallarosekaur

    Hi Gurmit Singh,

    Obviously I love “Relgiious Studies” and “Comparative Religion” classes and discussiom. I think it is very good for people to compare religions and it is good for Sikhs to give praise to fellow devotees from other paths who are ahead of Sikhs in expressing “Sikh” teachings.

    There is not one Englsih translation of the SGGS that doesn’t use Lord and He/Him and Sikhs pretty universally call the Doer of Everything a “He”. Why?

    Did Sikhs change Guruji’s teachings since encountering the West? Or have Sikhs always pictured the “waheguru” as male?

  3. Anupreet Kaur

    Hi Kamalla,
    I’ve often heard of god in Sikhism being referred to as the bridegroom and its disciples as brides, esp when talking of sikh marriage. I’ve heard a sikh friend try to justify it by saying that its only used in the metaphorical sense. Well of course it is (you can’t actually marry god, god is a supernatural concept in the first place). Since god is considered the ideal patron, disciples are required to “submit” to god, just like women are taught to submit to men, and teach other women the same, I think sikhs have always pictured god as male. Sikh teachings might say that god is neither male or female etc., but why do they include these twisted bridegroom/He/Lord metaphors ? Its contradictory, and people don’t see through them. Forget for a while that the sikh gurus were embodiments of god (if you believe that), remember that they were all men. It is possible that god was conceptualised by them in their own image, which makes sense because sikhism aims at becoming one “with” god, not “finding” god as is sought by ascetics. And of course holy men are holy “men”, can you picturize a woman denying the existing order in those times and delving into meditation ? Can you imagine a woman in India leaving her family and joining the company of more enlightened people ? Who the hell would allow THAT to happen ?

  4. kamallarosekaur

    Hi Anupreet Kaur,

    Nice to meet you. Actually the Guru Granth refers to the Almighty as Mother, Father, best friend, lover, bridegroom as various metaphors for our relationship with the Beloved One. But actually the Divine is formless in Sikh teachings. Sikhs do not believe in a man with a beard sitting in heaven – not at all. You saying that Sikhs imagine the Creation/Creator is human with male organs? Why, given Sikh teachings?

    And sure. Of course Sikh women in India in the middle ages did not claim to be “gurus” or leaders in any way. How about Sikh women in this era, in the West? You tell me.

  5. Anupreet Kaur

    😀 gal I thought I just replied to the following questions –
    “There is not one Englsih translation of the SGGS that doesn’t use Lord and He/Him and Sikhs pretty universally call the Doer of Everything a “He”. Why?

    Did Sikhs change Guruji’s teachings since encountering the West? Or have Sikhs always pictured the “waheguru” as male?”

    And when I say god according to sikhs is a male, I’m not saying he has a penis, I mean god is called “he” because disciples surrender to him, just like women in that time and area surrendered to their husbands’ will entirely, in terms of everything. You’d have heard of the fact that husbands were called pati-parameshwar (husband-god). I am in fact saying that while sikhism says god is formless, it couldn’t keep itself away from conceptualizing god as male. Or as it strikes me, are you trying to say that the TRANSLATION of the granth into English is affected by non-sikh ideas of god’s “gender” ? Help me understand whether or not you’re saying that sikhs consider god a “he”. 🙂

    Oh and I think its more likely that sikh ideas got affected by hinduism rather than (or maybe only later by) western ideas. Hindu scriptures preach ideas that are far from egalitarian.

    And frankly I don’t know much about religiously involved sikh women in the west. But if you’re saying they’re doing well that way and are at the forefront of things, I’m glad cause they’ve lived in a more gender-liberal society to start with. 🙂

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