What if God is not Father but Mother, or both? What if God is not even a parental figure at all?

If it is the case, as one account of the secular age in parts of the world sometimes called “the West” would have it, that belief in a domineering God has faded, other, varied forms of enchantment have flourished. From New Age spiritual practices to the enchantments purveyed by film and now social media to the sparkling, captivating promises of late capitalism, religion-like phenomena take many forms in our time, even as belief in a gray-bearded God may have receded. Some historically-minded scholars point to the relatively short period and relatively small region when and where a singular (and presumably male) deity reigned supreme. However, the European colonial project brought Christianity to all corners of the globe and with it notions of religious, racial, and cultural superiority, as well as a particular form of Christian patriarchy immortalized in capitalism. In the forceful and violent transformation of the world in the image of European Christianity, other practices, beliefs, and ideas were overrun, discredited, transformed, and pushed into the hierarchical structure of a world-religions paradigm. Responses to colonial domination included the embrace and internal transformation of diverse Christianities, projects to both conform and transform religious traditions and communities according to the European religion paradigm, and the search for and preservation of indigenous and precolonial traditions, as well as the refusal to define them as religious. As that era comes to a close, perhaps a more plural understanding of divinity becomes possible.

Stories of the entanglement of religion and patriarchy are multifaceted and depend to some degree on what counts as religion. Critiques of the absolute and institutionalized power of men as naturalized representatives of a domineering and all powerful male God continue to draw inspiration from feminist and gender justice concerns, as well as broader and intersectional commitments to social justice. Some such critiques focus on and engage specifically with religious hierarchies and institutions and claim the right to religious authority, but also the right to freedom from religion. They recognize that it was (and still is) elite men who imagined a domineering God and who disseminated this belief to societies that were already structured by patriarchy to cement their own power and rule. Man as vicegerent of God, they argued, meant that others, including women, could not access the highest echelons of power because they lacked the necessary divine qualities.

But if we look before, after, or underneath the stories told about religion by elite, Western men, according to this narrative we no longer find a perfect structural alignment of divinity and fatherhood, and we no longer find religion associated with domination. Rather, we find multiple stories about the inexplicable and the fabulous, about the tragic and the ineffable and the surprising. We find sacred stories—and images, and practices, and commitments—attached to weakness and strength, and making sense of the ease with which weakness becomes strength and strength weakness. Rather than securing hierarchies, religion (and the scholars who study it) is supposed to denaturalize hierarchies and to teach about vulnerability. This is feminist religion, and the feminist study of religion, it is claimed: pivoting away from secularized divinity toward the multiform spirituality of the margins. Already in our 2018 forum on divine fatherhood, we found that there are multiple and complicated notions of fatherhood associated with the divine, as a model for domination, yes, but also as a responsibility to nurture, an obligation to question and disrupt power, and as far more than a father or not-father binary.

And of the mothers? Does attending to various styles of conceptualizing and imaging divine motherhood offer a means to pivot away from domineering, patriarchal religion? Whether it is the language of divine motherhood around ecology or fairy godmothers, religious men depicted as mothers or proliferating images of the mother of God, whether it is in Hinduism or indigenous spiritual practices, attending to divine motherhood promises to refocus how we talk about religion and to do so in a way that follows a political and ethical imperative. In 1973 Mary Daly invited Christians to imagine “beyond God the Father”; in 2017 a pregnant Beyoncé performed at the Grammys costumed as a divine mother; and in the same year a pregnant Mona Haydar’s provocative song “Wrap My Hijab” went viral. Outside and on the underside of the Christian and post-Christian West, maternal spirits, prophets, and imaginings take myriad forms. Conceptualizing or performing divine motherhood would seem to open new forms of transcendence and immanence, religious intimacy and religious affect—or to scramble the meaning of those loaded terms.

But perhaps this line of questioning underestimates the power and persistence of patriarchy. Attending to the margins, or mothers, in a world (and academy) shaped in every respect by male domination may, of course, simply incorporate more religious subject matter into the frame of patriarchal religion. In some traditions, after all, motherhood is divinely mandated, a form of religious work. (Perhaps the patriarchal glue that binds sex, gender, and parenthood is a sort of secularized divine mandate.) It is not clear that abuse and even male domination are less common in New Age, ostensibly mother-centered spiritual practices than they are in, say, Episcopalianism. The evidence is equally inconclusive when we turn to sites of divine-maternal affinity before or outside the West. And Cinderella’s fairy godmother, at the end of the day, leads the marginalized girl to her Prince Charming.

Rather than posing a straightforward answer to Mary Daly’s implicit question of what lies beyond God the Father, perhaps the most generative way of engaging with divine motherhood is to ask how it might invite us to fundamentally alter what we mean by motherhood and what we mean by divinity. If motherhood cannot be reduced to secular culture without remainder, but also cannot be understood as part of a theological or secularized-theological vocabulary (another projection!), what are we to make of that paradox? In an era where motherhood is medicalized, on the one hand, and approached through an equally normative “natural” framework, on the other, can working the paradox of divine motherhood help us imagine otherwise? And might reflection on the varieties and ambivalences of mother-gods and god-mothers invite us to understand divinity as a site where projection and critique aggressively dance together?