Picturing God: Female Bodies and the Divine

One of my best friends is a religion major, and we often find our conversations veering towards concepts of God. In a recent conversation she asked me, “What do you see when you picture a male god versus a female god?”

Naively, I hadn’t thought to compare the two before. (As an agnostic non-religion major, I don’t go around picturing God on a daily basis.) When I imagine a male god I see an old white dude with a beard, a round nose and cheeks – kinda like Santa? – and giant hands. He lives in the clouds, and his face emanates light. His voice sounds like the ocean. He doesn’t have a body. A female god is even less human. I picture the earth – the trees, the grass, the flowers. She has no body, nor a face. No arms. She is the wind. Her voice is the rustling of the leaves.

My friend said when most people are asked to picture a female god they picture only the body and hyper-sexualized, with large breasts and voluptuous hips. My concept of God defies this stereotype.

“But you’ve also lost something.”

“What?”

“The association of the female body with the divine.”

Re-examining this conversation in light of our readings, I thought immediately of the opening to Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight and her exploration of the mind-body dualism characteristic of Western theology. In the poem “The Heavy Bear,” the body is animal, run by instinct, slave to appetite. It is disgusting and primitive, keeping the self from the transcendence of “that which is not-body… the highest, the best, the noblest, the closest to God” (1). Historically, female bodies have been associated with infantile necessities – breastfeeding and nurturing – and these things served to justify the view of the female body as representative of daily drudgery and labor, unfit for mental challenges or spiritual transcendence. As Bordo recognized, “the body is the negative term, and if woman is the body, then women are that negativity, whatever it may be” (2).

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Just one of many images google provided when I searched for “female god”

In religious terms the female body is not only representative of an inability to approach God, but also a “seduction away from God” (3). The female body threatens the male devout, tempting him away from salvation to the corruption and damnation of lust. These views of the female body as deviant and inherently sexual “work to disclaim male ownership of the body and its desires” (4). As Rosemary Radford Ruether, a pioneer of feminist liberation theology points out, “Only by… severing the connections of mind and body can one prepare for the salvific escape out of the realm of corruptibility to eternal spiritual life” (5), and the displacement of male bodily control onto female bodies helps the male religious achieve that separation.

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The ideal de-sexualized nurturing mother figure: The Virgin Mary

So where does this leave my female god? On the one hand, my rejection of the hypersexual stereotype denies the notion that the female body can have value only as the epitome of sexual desire, that it can be worshipped only for how it is viewed rather than what it is capable of. On the other hand, depriving my female god of a body plays into the historical set-up of the female form as unfit for divinity. In addition, Ruether’s writings seem to indicate that the nature element of my female god is just as problematic as the missing body. According to Ruether, the scientific revolution established “nature as the realm of human knowledge and use… [the] scientific method abstracts ‘man’ as knower from nature as object of knowledge” (6).

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Despite Ruether’s point, I still identify with this Frank Lloyd Wright quote.

My friend doesn’t picture God at all. For her God is love: the ties that connect us, the web of relationships that one creates throughout their life. I’m at a loss for how to picture a god – of any gender – that doesn’t feed into centuries-old oppressive constructions. Maybe this not-picturing and instead finding God in people, is the way to go.

 

References

(1)  Susan Bordo. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993: 5.

(2) Bordo. 5.

(3) Bordo. 5.

(4) Bordo. 6.

(5) Rosemary Radford Ruether. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983: 79.

(6) Ruether. 82.

 

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2 thoughts on “Picturing God: Female Bodies and the Divine

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  1. Your comment toward the end regarding the nature-aligned female body reminded me of our discussions on Saartjie Baartman, the poem “The Venus Hottentot,” and the idea of managed difference from Sarah Banet-Weiser. I feel it’s notable that this attempt to manage the female body–whether it be through aligning it with nature, making it physical/corruptible, or piecing into manageable, study-able parts–is consistent across women divine and mortal. Part of the incompatibility of the feminine and divine seems to me to come from precisely that, the female body’s inability to escape long histories of perceived impurity and the violence associated with and caused by those histories. I was thinking of ancient Greek mythology and there are only two goddesses that come to mind–Athena and Artemis–who are valued not for their sexuality or nurturing, but their wisdom, skill, and strength. Still, even there, a lot of emphasis is put on Artemis’ vow to chastity and her being a virgin. I would be interested to know how feminine divinities are presented in other cultures and if any of them transcend the difficulties you’ve noted, existing and being valued for their holistic personhood, body and all.

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  2. This is really interesting and something that we didn’t even cover in the Judaism and Gender class I was in last term, probably because traditionally the Jewish god has a very masculine image. For part of my final paper, I researched the history of feminine aspects of God throughout Jewish tradition and found that ancient Judaism took very sexualized fertility goddesses and created a place for them as the main male God’s consort. My paper then moved to a current Jewish spiritual group called the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. Their website states, among other things, “Kohenet celebrates the sacred in the body, the earth, and the cosmos, holding the world to be an embodiment of Shekhinah— divine presence. Kohenet reclaims the traditions of women, from the priestesses and prophetesses of biblical antiquity to healers, dreamers, and seekers throughout Jewish tradition. Kohenet honors the ways in which divinity appears to us in female form: through our traditions, imaginations, prayers, dreams, ancestors, and role models. Kohenet is creating a paradigm of earth-based, embodied, feminist, Judaism.” Your post helps me realize now that many of the practices the Kohenet are reclaiming are extremely gendered and sexualized. There is an emphasis on embodiment and connection to the earth, a common religious symbol of fertility. Practices that they attempt to reclaim are also gendered. Feminism and modern-day Earth-based spirituality are often seen hand in hand, but it is a super interesting point you bring up that that can be sexist and limiting.

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