Thealogy 1: Christian Goddesses and Female Manifestations of the Divine

Divine Wisdom by Shiloh Sophia McCloud

I’m taking a class with feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. Needless to say, it’s fascinating. I thought I might do a series of posts sharing some of the highlights of the class with you.

According to Ruether, Christianity’s strongest claim to a divine feminine is through the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. Proverbs is the only book in our current canon that contains this Wisdom tradition – two other Wisdom books were displaced by Protestants to the Apocrypha, but the Catholics do retain them. (The Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach.)

The Wisdom of Solomon in particular gives a very robust vision of Wisdom as a divine female figure which enters into and shapes creation.   Wisdom is God as creator. Through Wisdom, God sustains the world, shapes the world, and acts as agent of revelation, communicating to humanity and reconciling humans to God.

Then at the time of Christ, Wisdom gets a sex change. Philo takes all the attributes and roles of Wisdom and applies them to Logos, otherwise known as “The Word.”  (Think book of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”)  For Philo, Logos was the essential inner spark of God in all of us. While Wisdom had been envisioned as feminine (Sophia), Logos was definitively masculine, and the Christian tradition wholeheartedly embraced Philo’s new paradigm, leaving Lady Wisdom, for the most part, in the dust.

While Logos is decidedly prominent in the New Testament, hints of Wisdom do remain. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza interprets Jesus as being Wisdom’s son, and Matthew 11:19 says, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Interestingly, in traditional Christianity, Wisdom never morphs into the Holy Spirit, which remains either non-gendered or masculine identified. This was a surprise to me since it seems clear that Wisdom functions much as we think of the Holy Spirit functioning.

Wisdom ultimately finds its fullest expression in the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus. In medieval thought, she becomes an expression of God’s Wisdom manifest in creation, and she becomes an important mediator, as a figure that is fully human but totally uncorrupted from the fall.

  • As Mormons, we believe in a feminine divine, though her thealogy has never been developed. When you think of her, do you associate her with Wisdom? with the Holy Ghost? with Mary? with none of these female or female associated figures?
  • Do you envy the Catholics, as I do, because they have such a prominent female figure  — Mary — to venerate, to look at, to touch, to think about as one prays?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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20 Responses

  1. Kate says:

    I most associate Heavenly Mother/the female divine with a Virgin Mary figure. However, I was raised Roman Catholic, so that has a lot to do with it.

    Generally speaking, I dislike the tendency to reduce the feminine divine to motherhood/procreation-related roles. In that sense, I think the idea of relating Her to Wisdom or the Holy Ghost much better.

  2. Corktree says:

    I love the description of the feminine divine from The Wisdom of Solomon.
    I think I tend to go back and forth on my view of the Holy Ghost as it could relate to Heavenly Mother. I have to go through the arguments for and against every time to see where my belief lies. But when I step away from logic, my heart pulls in the direction of believing she is closer than we have believed, and the confines that I gave Her before in my mind disappear, so I do find myself readily identifying Her as the Holy Ghost.

    I think I’m also beginning to see HM in nature much more. It was already easy to see God around me, but my definition is evolving. It wasn’t experiential for me before, but now when I feel connected to the earth and the moon and everything between the two, I feel connected to the spirit of creation and interconnectedness that we share with all life, and I do believe that is Her domain in a way. But the beautiful part of that is the lack of limits on what creation is. Not just pregnancy, but the inherent power in us all to create, and in this way, men too can relate to our Mother.

    Does anyone else wonder if tree worshipping as representations of HM is/was considered idolatry? And I don’t see Mary as representative of HM, but I do wish we focused on her regularly outside of December. Anything that increases our experience with women in the scriptures and in religious practice will set the stage for more insight and connection I think.

    • Corktree says:

      You know, I used to think that Her having a body made it impossible for Her to be all those other things described, but if I suspend my view of earth as a model for understanding God’s existence, I can see how She possesses the ability to be and do all that we imagine. I see her as limitless, which is what I hope for myself and my children in the eternal view of things.

    • Stephanie2 says:

      I was thinking about this post and comments when I was reading the OT last night. I read in 1 Kings 16 about Ahab who worshipped Baal. Verse 33 says: And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.

      I followed the footnotes, and there are several places in the OT that associate “making a grove” with idolatry. So, my answer to your question is that it sounds to me like tree worshipping as a representation of HM is idolatry.

  3. Alisa says:

    I usually viewed Her as very embodied, physical, and exalted. A lot like how Heavenly Father and Jesus look in First Vision pictures, but female.

    I also think of myself, or women I know, as exalted at some point in the future. That our perfected selves, our Queen/Priesess/Goddess selves are also what Heavenly Mother must look like because we’re Her daughters.

    On a more mystical side, I think about the divine feminine in nature, in wilderness, in the seasons, in the plants and trees, in the sunshine and water. In being grounded to the beauty of the earth. I usually call this Mother Earth, and this spirit is part of the divine feminine to me.

    I also see the divine feminine in Mary, but she’s also very earthly to me. When I learn from her submission and calling, I think of her as very human. When I think of the suffering she has endured at her Son’s crucifixion, she then becomes more than human to me–more of a divine soul that understands human, and female, suffering on a very deep level. When I think about her suffering over her Son, I feel a divine kinship with her because of the suffering and grief I have over my son’s issues.

  4. Hopeful says:

    The more I study the wisdom texts alongside our own cannon the more firmly I believe that Wisdom is one of the ancient names for our Creatress. Wisdom is a name that I feel very well encompasses how I imagine our Mother. I love discovering the remnants of Her story in our scriptures and was especially surprised when one day I came across this:

    Mosiah 8: 20 “…. Yea how bind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will neither seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!”

    That class sounds fascinating. Have you by chance read the works of
    Margaret Barker? She finds evidence for the Wisdom tradition in other areas of our translation of the Bible (such as Job 28 and Isaiah 50).

  5. TopHat says:

    I love learning about how the Divine Feminine shows up in scripture- as Wisdom, as “groves,” etc. I really love the wisdom idea- especially since our American culture doesn’t really value older people- and especially older women. You could say our Mormon culture values older people (Apostles, Seventies, etc), but those lack female-ness. So thinking of Heavenly Mother as a source of wisdom helps me even out the gender inequalities a little.

    I’ve started using more tree motifs in my home- for example I bought a little cupholder that is made of fabric with little trees on it. It’s just a little reminder.

    One of the most interesting symbol I found of the fertility goddess was of the serpent- it’s an interesting spin on the serpent in the garden of Eden story and that fertility didn’t exist until the serpent sent things into motion. I bought my son a wooden toy snake at Christmastime and now I can’t NOT think, “Oh! Fertility goddess!” when he plays with it. lol.

    Like Alisa above, the Virgin Mary feels earthy and mortal to me, but I’m ok with that. After all, we believe that we look like god(desse)s, and so I can definitely see the divine in her as well.

  6. IdahoG-ma says:

    I have dedicated this time of my life to trying to get a firm grasp on my view of HM or the female manifestations of the divine. This is a very enlightening post and I look forward to more.

  7. spunky says:

    Brilliant information! I also like Hopeful’s addition of Mosiah.

    I prefer thinking of Heavenly Mother as Widsom. The mothering/nurturing thing for me doesn’t work because not all women are mothers, and not all women nurture, and I think it weakens the role of divine feminine by making her “only” a creator, rather than an authority. I am also uncomfortable in assigning the act of nurturing to one gender as a divine attribute.

    I do wonder the degree of Greek influence in this philosophy? i.e. The characteristics of masculine and feminine, because Wisdom could be seen as intellectualism, which is an assigned female attribute. I rather like that because it does embrace the notion of a gendered society, but is more empowering than typical Christian manifestations of gendered roles.

    Looking forward to the next instalment!

  8. Katrina says:

    Great post and great comments. I will definitely need to spend some time thinking about the HM/Wisdom connection. I like it. I like also like connecting nature with HM, especially trees as TopHat said. I don’t think HM (as in HFs wife, if that is how it works) is the Holy Ghost, but I do think it is possible that that Holy Ghost is FEMALE instead of male as we typically imagine.

    As for Mary, she is an earthly figure to me, albeit one to be admired and respected. I also wish we spoke of her more… I wish we spoke of all the (few) women in the scriptures more.

  9. Caroline says:

    Kate, I agree that it’s problematic to reduce Heavenly Mother to a nurturing role. That’s why I too prefer to think of her as HG or Wisdom

    Corktree, have you read Janice Allred? She wrote an essay on God the Mother, in which she hypothesizes that God the MOther is able to lay her divine body aside and become a disembodied figure who is the Holy Ghost. I like her ideas. It makes sense to me that God the Mother would be part of the trinity.

    Alisa, I love your reflections about Mary. So beautiful. And I also love it that you and Corktree can find HM in nature. I would like to cultivate a relationship with her in that way as well.

    Hopeful, thanks for that Mosiah verse. That’s wonderful. It takes on such depth when we think of wisdom being our HM. No, I haven’t read Barker — I should check her out though, sounds great.

    TopHat, where are you reading about HM as trees and groves? can you give me a link? I’d like to learn more about that. I love your point about age and wisdom. It would be wonderful if we in the Mormon faith valued elderly women more.

    • TopHat says:

      In Kevin Barney’s article, “How to Worship Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated)” he talks about how the Hebrew name for the consort of Elohim is Asherah and in the KJV, when “Asherah” was translated, because there was no female god- it became “groves” because of some other Hebrew word that’s close. It’s mostly used when talking about idols because I guess people would have items to remind them of the fertility goddess and the people writing the Bible didn’t like that. Just do a search for “groves” in the KJV. Sorry I’m not very good at explaining. Read the pdf! It’s a great read.

    • Katrina says:

      i’d really like to read the stuff on HM by Janice Allred you mentioned!

  10. Caroline says:

    Idaho g-ma,
    I’m glad this post was helpful!

    Spunky,
    “I am also uncomfortable in assigning the act of nurturing to one gender as a divine attribute.” I agree that this is a danger. The ways that HM has usually been referred to by Mormon authorities ( the few times she has been mentioned) has often portrayed her as the ultimate nurturer. LIke you, I think this is reductive. But at the same time I find it ironic that Mormonism urges us to think of Father as an ultimate nurturer too. It’s nice to see him crossing gender boundaries like that, but I hate that it leaves HM nebulous and unnecessary. I prefer to think of HM as every bit HF’s equal in strength, power, and love. And I see the fact that we don’t pursue her as a product of our cultural context, a context which discourages us from finding her.

    Katrina,
    Yes, Mary to me is primarily an earthly figure as well. But like you, I sure do wish we talked about her more. She really is an amazing figure. I just taught a Gospel Doctrine lesson on her, and she’s a fantastic prophetic figure in Luke.

  11. shley says:

    I have always admired the description of Wisdom in the old testament. I always wanted to paint a painting what she would look like with her attributes.

    I also agree with the people who say the Earth is feminine. In the Pearl of Great Price it is mentioned that the Earth is female and that she despairs in ways over her children because of the things they are doing. The Earth has to female. One aspect of being female is bringing forth life, and only females can do that. The Earth brings forth life, so the Earth is female. I don’t know to what extent that the Earth has a spirit or whatever, but scriptures sure talk about it like it does.

    I don’t honestly think heavenly mother sits by and does nothing in our lives. I think she is there and she is active in our lives, she just isn’t mentioned. Women are very creative and are great problem solvers, so I can’t see the women out of all of us, our heavenly mother, our ancestors, us here on earth and the ones to come as sitting idly by while the Earth was created.

    I know we have often heard that heavenly mother isn’t mentioned very much because heavenly father wants to protect her. Like I said, I don’t think she sits by and is merely an observer in our lives. She is heavenly father’s other piece, she is his partner. If we are taught anything in our religion we are taught that our husband is our partner and the most important person in our lives. Why wouldn’t heavenly mother be the person heavenly father discusses decisions about us with? Why wouldn’t they be making joint decisions about our lives? I feel like I have a pretty good relationship with heavenly father, and I see him as very protective and very knowing. Maybe the thought of the people of Earth shouting vile things about heavenly mother and taking her name in vain really does make him very sad. I know if I loved someone so much, that I wouldn’t want to hear their name belittled. Heck, I get mad when people belittle people I don’t even know. So it would just be horrible to me if billions of people were belittling my spouse.

    I don’t associate our heavenly mother with the holy ghost, but I can see her being associated with wisdom, after all women can be very wise. I am not jealous of the Catholics for their Mary worship. Mary was a wonderful person and I would love to know more about her, but I’m not jealous that a whole religion worships her along with God and Jesus.

    In all honesty, I think the bashing of women from the world is all from Satan. Satan likes to try to put down those who can do the most good. Women can do a lot of good, women can make stuff happen, if not through their own means, they can influence men to make stuff happen. Eve was the one who made our world happen. Who knows how long Adam and Eve were in that garden before Eve decided to eat the fruit? I have heard conjectures anywhere between just a little while to over a thousand years. Eve was the one who made that decision. I know she isn’t as dumb as our bible missing its plain and precious parts portrays her as being. She logically figured out that she had to eat that fruit to start the human race. I am glad we understand Eve better than a lot of other religions. I remember this christian cartoon video we had growing up, Eve was portrayed as clueless, dumb, and basically a twit.

    One of the ways I also look at it, is that our church is one of the only christian churches that even acknowledges that there is a divine feminine being. Sure the Catholic church has Mary, but is Mary seen as a goddess? She is important to the religion, but is she God’s equal in their eyes? Other than the Catholic church, no other christian religion that I come across, yet, even acknowledges that there could be a divine feminine being. I have never heard a baptist, a Methodist, or a Lutheran say, “Oh yea, we believe God has a wife, or we believe Jesus could have had a wife.” Even though we don’t hear much about our heavenly mother in our church we are miles ahead of other Christian religions. Pagan and polytheistic religions are another story.

    • Alisa says:

      One thing I’ve become a lot more sensitive to lately is how Mormons can sometimes inadvertantly disparage other Christian religions. I think some Mormons are off base in thinking only we believe in a Christian God with a divine feminine component, with the exception of the Catholics and Mary. I have spent a good part of the last three years in a variety of churches, and I want to say that the divine feminine is acknowledged a lot more in other Christian faiths I’ve atteneded than in the LDS Church. In the UCC, for example, the congregation chooses to refer to both the divine masculine and the divine feminine. All of their hymns and congregational singing takes this into effect (i.e., She’s got the whole world in her hands… He’s got the itty bitty babies in his hands). There is such truth to acknowledging the divine nature of both men AND women to grow up to be like their parents, and it warms my soul.

    • Alisa says:

      I’m sorry to say that your desciption of Heavenly Father choosing to hide/protect Heavenly Mother makes me very sad. It doesn’t jive at all with the Woman and Mother whose divine nature I hold in my eternal DNA.

  12. suzann says:

    Thank you for opening this subject. I have enjoyed reading all the posts, and look forward to more articles from your studies in religion and feminism.

    I see God as Wisdom , and am grateful for the few times Wisdom pops up in the scriptures to remind us that the female divine has not been completely erased.
    Suzann

  13. EmilyCC says:

    Shoot! I never hit “Post comment” a few days ago. But, I love the idea of this series. And Ruether teaches a class AND you get to take it? How thrilling! I think I would be a little intimidated but in utter awe to be in a class of her’s.

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