For your breasts are better than wine

Here's something else I don't understand: why should men, who presumably want to feel loved by God just as much as women do, necessarily imagine God as masculine or male ("He") unless they imagine themselves as men loved (erotically) by a man or (as in the tradition of commentary on the Song of Songs) as a woman (sponsa) loved by her bridegroom (sponsus)?

I've tried for years to get my head round this, particularly after spending far too much of my time in college reading feminist theologians like Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether, who seemed convinced that having images of God as Father was almost by definition a Bad Thing because, you know, the only reason that all those men over the millennia imagined God as Male was to oppress women. How, exactly? If men are imagining God as male because they want an Authority Figure, doesn't this mean that they are imagining a God that will oppress them, too? Or is it just that they wouldn't take orders from a woman, sorry, Goddess? This seems the simplest (and usually assumed) explanation, but it's a tricky one for Christianity since, of course, it was other men (Pilate, Herod, Judas, Annas and Caiaphas) who arranged for God to be killed.

So maybe the problem is just that this is a story told by men about men--except, of course, for the fact that there are a number of women (all those Maries, including Mary Magdalene, pace Dan Brown) who figure so prominently throughout, giving birth to God, sitting at His feet listening to His teaching, being the first to whom He showed Himself after the resurrection (yes, that was Mary Magdalene, in the garden). So if Christianity, at least, is about putting women down by "suppressing the feminine," it's got some answering to do. But, you will say, "God is still Our Father. Isn't that all about patriarchy?"

I want to hunt down and throttle whoever came up with this argument. Because I'm not sure that it's actually answerable with anything other than sheer frustration. You know, like trying to answer the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" You can't. Answer, that is. Because you probably haven't been beating your wife in the first place. Most men don't.* Even more important, many men actually love their wives, otherwise why would Paul (that famous misogynist) use the image of (ahem) a marriage to symbolize the relationship between Christ and His Church (that is, all of humanity) in the first place?

And round and round we go. Because, of course, Paul both says, "Husbands, love your wives," and "Wives, be subject to your husbands." Who here gets the better deal? The wives are to be loved as the husbands love themselves but the husbands are only to be "respected." Christ, the husband, died for His Church to make her holy and without blemish and what does he get in return? "Respect." Not much of a bargain, if you ask me. But that's not the way modern feminist critics read this passage. All they see is the bit about how the Church, that is, the wives, should be subject to their husbands in "everything." Well, yeah, if He's gone and died for you. Do you think you could manage maybe to love Him even a little in return?

I'm not talking about institutions here. Yes, women should be priests (it was the Virgin Mary, after all, who first gave us the Body of God, not a priest); and women should be teachers and preachers and theologians and bishops and, yes, even popes. It seems to me in this respect that the tradition has made an egregious mistake and has not followed Jesus's example very accurately. But I do not think that the institution took the form that it did because God was imagined as masculine ("Lord," "Father"). Institutionally, men are perfectly capable of taking authority over the worship of goddesses, too, nor do queens necessarily have more female ministers than they might if they were kings. More bluntly, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that having a Goddess rather than a God would instantaneously cure all our institutional ills.

No, what I'm talking about here are images of love and what they mean for our understanding of God. God imagined as Father or Husband? Sign me up! I love the Song of Songs; if it isn't my favorite book of the Bible, it's certainly the one that I've spent the most time thinking about. If it isn't the most accurate description of God's love for us that we have, I don't know what is. But whose breasts (ubera) are these and who is speaking to whom? It would seem to be the same speaker in the first line of the book, who invites the kiss of the Beloved, so maybe the breasts are God's. But they could also be the soul's or the Church's or (in the medieval tradition of reading the Song) the Virgin Mary's. The one thing that is clear is that they are intoxicating ("better than wine") and that the speaker intends to drink from them.

But the Song of Songs is not the only image we have of God. There is also the image of Christ as a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings.** And there is the image of the Wisdom of God, His Word (Logos) but also His Mother, the Immaculate one with Him from the beginning of creation, set up before the beginning of the earth. God cares for us like a mother, desires us like a lover, longs for us like a woman awaiting her husband. What difference does it make whether we imagine Him as masculine or feminine when He is both--and neither--in His relationships with us? Am I actually better off as a woman thinking of God as a Mother than I would be thinking of Him as my Husband? Or as a hen than as a thundercloud?

The wonderful thing is, I can think of Him in any of these ways and still be right. But also, of course, wrong, because all of our language about God is inevitably metaphor. God is no more a fat Goddess with huge breasts than She is a bearded old man in the sky. And yet, somehow She is both because we are. It is we who persist in imaging that S/he must be either/or, not God. All God wants is to love us. We're the ones who keep trying to pin Love down.

*Which, of course, is not to deny the terrible reality that some men do. See how these questions more or less inevitably trap you?
**"Tastes like chicken"? Think again, all you carnivores who think it's okay to eat such caring animals because they're not red meat.


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