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.1Of course, in a medical world of in vitro fertilization this is possible, but this is beside the larger historical point of how the virgin/mother/whore trope has functioned throughout nearly two-thousand years of Christian history. When measured against Mary as the perfect woman, all of us fall short.2While Protestants may not venerate Mary in the same way that Catholics do, the cultural expectations for womanhood that derive from Mary hold for all Christian women because the roots in these attitudes in the early church mean they have deeply shaped Christian traditions shared by Protestantism.
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. To imagine what this might look like, let us consider what we can learn about motherhood and potentially about Divine Motherhood from some of the most reviled women and mothers in our culture—women who have ordinary abortions.3Given the gendered nature of this forum topic and the fact that current data indicate that 94 percent of abortion patients identify as heterosexual, 4 percent as bisexual, less than 1 percent as lesbian, gay, or homosexual, and 1 percent as “other,” I will refer to abortion patients here as women. Clearly more research on sexual minorities as abortion patients is needed. While PRIM (prenatal health, rape, incest, mother’s life) abortions are tacitly approved by wide margins of the general public in the United States, they represent only 25 percent of all abortions. The majority of abortions in the United States are what legal scholar Katie Watson refers to as “ordinary abortions,” women who are not deemed as having “justifiable” reasons for their abortions. Largely poor, young, and women of color, women who have ordinary abortions are deeply villainized in our culture as selfish, callous, and irresponsible. These women are certainly not recognized as responsible women making morally significant decisions that honor the sacred responsibility of mothering.
However, there is ample evidence that these same women are morally serious, deeply informed by a realistic understanding of what mothering requires, and thoughtful about both their existing moral obligations and their personal, fiscal, and emotional limitations as they consider their pregnancies. Sixty percent of them already have at least one child and most of the rest will go on to have a child later in life.4Eighty-six percent of women in the United States will have a child by age forty-four. Studies consistently show that women who have abortions weigh a wide variety of factors as they consider what to do when faced with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.5In fact, 89 percent identified at least two factors of concern, 72 percent at least three, and the median number of contributing factors that women reported evaluating in considering whether to continue their pregnancy was four.
The task of mothering is arguably the most important social task and moral responsibility that humans undertake. In most cultures it is mothers who are responsible for teaching children how to be human—how to eat, crawl, walk, listen, talk, share, communicate, love, be loved, and a host of other moral and material tasks. While fathers are also capable of sharing these responsibilities (and are increasingly doing so in some spaces and places), for most of human history and in most households today, it is mothers who shoulder the lion’s share of this moral, emotional, and physical labor. In fact, while recent time studies of working mothers and fathers in the United States found that fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend caring for children since 1965, the same study found that mothers parenting time remains double that of fathers.
Most of the women who have ordinary abortions do so precisely because they take the moral and social task of mothering very seriously in considering whether they are willing and able to continue a particular pregnancy. This is also true of women who choose not to have children. There are a growing number of women (and men) who do not want to have children, who do not feel called to the sacred task of parenting, or who do not feel that the world needs more children given our growing population. Recognizing the real power and sacred value of mothering means that pregnancy and motherhood cannot be forced on women or on God. If we truly honor mothering as a sacred task and we would like to consider how understanding God as Mother might help us develop a more complex and approachable God, motherhood must be something that God—and women—are able to freely choose.
In saying no to a particular pregnancy, women who end a pregnancy are also saying “yes” to other visions of wholeness and abundant life—sometimes for existing children, sometimes for families or marriages, and sometimes to a vision of a whole and abundant future life for themselves. In considering how these women think about the responsibility and task of mothering, they offer insight into how we might think about the kinds of qualities we desire in a Divine Mother.
In imagining God as a Divine Mother, we cannot simply replace all the “Father Gods” with “Mother Gods.” We need a whole new God. After all, the term “God” is no more gender neutral than man or mankind.
A Divine Mother might be nice, but what I really want is a Goddess.
If we could learn to think of the divine as generative but not (necessarily) as parent, it might also help us value those who do not want to be parents at all. As a woman without children I have never felt that the depiction of God-as-mother did much to validate the value of women as those who should hold power in the public sphere. And it had the effect of communicating the one avenue for being godlike for me was one I rejected.
I’ll tread lightly here: Might we also reduce the social pressure to become a mother and, therefore, (possibly) lower the emotional stakes for women who want to become mothers but cannot? This is a genuine question. I do not know if lower social pressure to become a mother would make infertility less painful. I don’t know because (1) I’ve never wanted to bear a child genetically related to me and, (2) I’ve never lived in a society that gave women space to be good-and-not-a-mother.
Great post! Very enlightening. The church’s need for Mary to be a virgin and mother simultaneously is fascinating to me. The NT seems to be open to interpretation regarding Mary’s virginity (did Jesus have biological siblings or not, depending on translations of adelphoi?).
Related to these thoughts: I am reviewing responses to an anonymous Google survey I sent out about mothers and mothering. In one question I ask “Do you see God as a mother?” So far, a slight majority offer unequivocal “no’s” but the rest either do, or are open to the idea, or see any gendering of God as complicated. This range of responses is not surprising to me, given my context in a wealthy white suburban church.
I am also thinking now about “God” as not being gender neutral. I guess my attempts to replace male pronouns in prayers or liturgy with that name are not as fruitful as I assumed.
I just recently co-facilitated a workshop called Uncovering Patriarchy in Women’s Spirituality. We discussed God as mother, and some of the women resisted and were more comfortable with the concept of God simply as feminine or as woman. God as creative force can be embodied as feminine which includes procreative potential and maternal instinct without necessarily being a child-