Theology, thealogy, theⓐlogy, thexlogy: the limits of metaphors
Although in my teen and college years, for the most part, I was a hardcore Evangelical Christian, I had always felt uneasy about the idea of “Father God.”
Think of my own father, the only thing I can really remember about him was that he was an abusive man prone to sudden outbursts of anger. Fortunately, he was largely absent from home because of work and God-knows-what-else. But on weekends when he was home, he was in his underwear, lounging around and watching baseball on television all day long, while chain-drinking a copious amount of beer.
“Father God” therefore wouldn’t have been an apt metaphor for my childhood mind.
Some may argue, quoting the Bible (Psalm 68:5), that God is “the father of the fatherless” and thus a faith in God fills one’s deep-seated psychological need for a father figure.
Yet, by the time I was 22 years old, I have studied both biblical exegesis and Jewish rabbinic traditions -- and what I had learned made me more open to the idea of God that is not necessarily patriarchal or masculine. I read various articles critical of several Mainline Protestant women staging the “Re-imagining Conference” in 1993, in which Jesus Christ was ostensibly replaced by Goddess Sophia and conducted an alternative sacrament. I had a fortune of living close to one of the largest public libraries in the nation and also near a major university library within a walking distance, so I’ve devoured books written by feminist theologians as well as former Christians or Jews who embraced Goddess spirituality.
Around the time I turned 29, I became aware of an obscure British sect that believed in a monotheistic feminine Deity -- with its own scriptures and liturgies. At the time, only a few fragments of their documents were available online and several books and magazines written by or about them in the 1980s and 1990s were out-of-print. But I devoted myself to this teaching (albeit the utter lack of organized congregations in the United States) until about 2012.
The idea of a feminine God indeed appealed to me and made a far better sense to me at the time -- and until fairly recently. I’ve considered myself a Goddess-worshiper since I left Christianity for the last time in 2007.
But as my thexlogical and personal consciousness expands, I’ve come to reassess all this.
On the personal level, I used to be very much personally invested in the idea of myself as a feminine-female-woman (not to be confused with the notion of being a queer femme). I was secure in that sense of identity and therefore -- I suppose, in retrospect -- I yearned for a Deity that was like me. But now that my consciousness is leading me to a direction in which I know that I cannot possibly be neatly pigeon-holed into the patriarchally constructed gender binary, I am also beginning to see God as something that cannot possibly be put into the binary boxes that are creations of human culture.
The idea of worshiping a God that looks like oneself is a widespread phenomenon among human societies. Many African-American Christians believe Jesus was a black man, but ask a member of the Ku Klux Klan and he will tell you Jesus was a pure white “Aryan.”
(Of course, this does not explain why fundamentalist Christian women are so passionate about worshiping Father God and his son Jesus Christ, but when I was part of them, I’ve heard of many women who referred to themselves as “Daddy’s girls” for God. This would be a different phenomenon altogether, but at the same time, white Evangelical Christians generally do not think of their God as being black.)
The point of this discussion is that anything that we humans do in order to “describe” the Deity is merely a set of metaphors -- and it is extremely limited and limiting in its ability to encompass the depth of the Divinity.
Theology -- a combination of Greek words Theos (God) and logos (word) -- is just that: human words being used to talk about God. Because our words are products of human culture and often rooted in our specific ethnolinguistic, historic, socioeconomic, and other influences, a theology for you may not be the same as a theology for me. Yet, historically, theology has functioned as an ultimate arbiter and regulator of “universal” doctrines. The famous theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Thomas Cranmer, and others (depending on their denominations) still regulate the ways typical Christians are supposed to believe regardless of what country they live in or what language they speak. Those who don’t are ostracized as heretics and apostates.
The idea of “Father God” is based on a patriarchal worldview in which only men could possibly be respectable leaders. The attributes of God -- such as strength, power, victory, glory, honor -- are generally the same qualities the prevailing patriarchal cultures attributed to men. The sexist cultures of the time saw masculinity as strong and powerful, while femininity as being weak and subservient. Theology merely reinforced and reified the cultural beliefs in sexist gender norms.
The feminist theologians since the 1970s tried to deconstruct the sexist theology by re-imagining God as feminine -- nurturing, kind, compassionate, motherly -- yet, the problem remains the same: ironically, many feminist theologians still adhere to the rigid binary gender norms that attributed certain qualities to men and others to women -- and simply pulled God out of one box labeled “male” and put it in the other box labeled “female.”
As a result, the modern Goddess-worship movement (including some Christian feminists, as well as Neo-Pagans and many New Age female-empowerment lifestyle women) has left unchallenged one of the most fundamental problems of patriarchy: the relegation of the female and feminine as mere baby-makers, who are also supposed to be emotional, empathic, anti-intellectual, gossipy, intuitive, friendly, and so on (basically, all the misogynistic stereotypes -- “smile, baby!”). These days, there is literally a multi-million-dollar market for this niche, called the “Female Empowerment Lifestyle Brands” (FLEBs; the term was originally coined by a feminist cultural critic Kelly Diels). There’s a lot of money to be made from the unquestioned internalized sexism.
The contemporary Goddess movement gives an excessive focus on female reproductive functions. The popular “red tent,” “moon circles,” and similar groups are entirely premised upon this idea -- which is also heterosexist -- while many Neo-Pagan and Wiccan practitioners uncritically subscribe to and support a toxic metaphor invented by a British man named Robert Graves: the Goddess as maiden, mother, and crone. (In other words, females do not have a constant, life-long identity -- and are defined merely by their reproductive cycles. As Confucius famously said, a woman has no home in three worlds: as a maiden, she is owned by her father, as a mother, she is owned by her husband, and as a crone, she is owned by her son.)
Scholars such as Merlin Stone, Marija Gimbutas, and Monica Sjoo authored books in an attempt at proving that God was “female” before the proto-Indo-Europeans overtook Europe and imposed a patriarchal religion (the Kurgan hypothesis). These books became popular feminist classics and inspired many women. Yet, as I have come to see it, they do not provide a “proof” that God was “female” in the primordial time; rather, it only proves that human cultures had a metaphor of God that says they felt God was like a woman.
Thexlogy is actually a study of human cultures as they relate to their metaphors and beliefs about the Supreme Being and the cosmos -- and social and moral values human cultures construct as a result. Thexlogians research metaphors and attempt to systematically understand how human cultures emerge from the metaphors of the Divine reality.
As a metaphor, “Mother Goddess” is just as deficient as a metaphor of “Father God.”
And it’s a metaphor that can be harmful to non-heterosexual and/or non-binary individuals, as well as to any womxn who opt out of the heterosexist social expectations and womxn who cannot participate in them because of disabilities or medical conditions.
This having said, however, I do not purport that metaphors are useless. As long as we are humans whose experiences are limited by our finite understanding of the universe, we have to have metaphors to make sense of the ultimate unknowable “who existed before the beginning of existence and is beyond being and unbeing.”
And in this current society in which patriarchy runs rampant and misogyny festers unabated, the metaphor of a feminine God is quite apt. The challenge, however, is how to uncouple it from both heterosexism and from implicit sexist gender biases. Insights from queer thexlogians can prove to be instrumental in charting the future of thexology.
The late Dr. Marcus J. Borg once said: “Show me the God you worship and I’ll show you what kind of person you are.” (This was supposed to be part of a novel he was writing toward the end of his earthly life before he and his wife Marianne Wells-Borg moved out of Portland. I’m not sure if he had ever finished writing the novel.)