Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Shortly before the start of the Second Vatican Council, former Commonweal editor John Cogley filed a column from Rome outlining what two recent dinner companions, both theologians, wanted to come out of the Council. One hoped for an expansion of the Church’s ecumenical and interreligious outreach. The other wanted what would come to be known as theological ressourcement and aggiornamento: a representation of the perennial truths of Redemption in the idiom of modern people. Cogley endorsed both visions, but, more immediately, he wanted the Council to make it easier for Catholics to be honest—to make them less hesitant to speak up for fear of violating orthodoxy. 


While early editors of the magazine tended to play it safe with theology, subsequent generations were more willing to challenge doctrine. In the decades following the close of Vatican II, Commonweal regularly featured the work of theologians who came of age in the post-conciliar Church and boldly subjected long-held and closely guarded Church teachings to examination. These theologians provided welcome evidence that a living theological tradition not only supports free inquiry but demands it.


Such voices articulated what Dennis O’Brien has described as a theology adequate to history. Situating their scholarship firmly within the Catholic theological tradition, these new writers—including Gregory Baum, Joseph A. Komonchak, and feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ—revitalized Catholic theological discourse and, in the process, helped make Church teaching clearer, more inclusive, and more responsive to the concerns of the age.


Amplifying these voices was an essential part of the magazine throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, as forces within the Church sought to downplay or even reverse the reforms of Vatican II. Defending post-conciliar Catholicism against its reactionary critics has been a preoccupation of the journal for half of its history. And it became a particular concern in the 1990s, when many Catholic intellectuals had turned toward the Right. Under the direction of Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, the magazine’s first woman editor, Commonweal published theological essays that continued to apply and develop the teachings of Vatican II, insisting that these teachings really did represent a significant shift in the Church’s attitude to the modern world, and to liberal democracy in particular.


Unwilling to substitute one rigid orthodoxy for another, however, the editors continued to offer a space for a variety of theological perspectives in the same spirit of free engagement that has come to define the magazine. “Instead of advancing an ideological program or institutional interest,” the editors wrote for Commonweal’s seventy-fifth anniversary, “the magazine has tried to develop an ‘approach,’ a way of bringing Catholic convictions, reasoned reflection, and, above all, fair mindedness in argument to the assessment of the issues of the day.”


Here, on the occasion of our centennial, we present Elizabeth Johnson’s 1993 essay “A Theological Case for God-She,” which articulates an expansive theology “adequate to history” and in keeping with the richness of the whole Catholic theological tradition.

A remarkable thing is happening in contemporary theology. God is moving back to the center of attention, accompanied by vigorous debate over the right way to speak about the divine mystery. This situation is not entirely new. In the late fourth century Saint Gregory of Nyssa recorded how his contemporaries, high and low, seriously engaged the question of how to speak about God. Their issue, in a culture awash with Greek philosophical notions, was whether Jesus Christ was truly divine or simply a creature subordinate to God the Father. The question engaged not only theologians or bishops but just about everybody. "Even the baker," wrote Gregory, "does not cease from discussing this, for if you ask the price of bread he will tell you that the Father is greater and the Son subject to him.”

In our day interest in how to address and speak about God is alive and well again thanks to a sizable company of bakers, namely, women who throughout history have borne responsibility for lighting the cooking fires and feeding the world. The women's movement in civil society and the church has spotlighted the exclusion of women from public discourse and decision making, and their resulting absence from the formation of cultural and theological symbols. This exclusion has had a decided effect on how we do--and do not--speak about God. 

While theology has consistently acknowledged that God is Spirit, and thus beyond gender identification, the church's daily vocabulary for preaching, worship, catechesis, and evangelization broadcasts a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, and "he" is more fittingly addressed as male than as female. 

Today, women and men in a variety of settings are questioning our exclusive reliance on male metaphors for God. In prayer and study they are rediscovering female imagery for God long hidden in Scripture and tradition. Feminist artists, poets, composers, and theologians are fashioning new images and idioms for God out of women's embodied experience. Language about God is expanding, even to the point of addressing divine mystery as "she." In this essay I would like to make a theological case for such language and argue that its development is of the highest religious significance. 

The starting point for this case is a discerning attention to women's experience of themselves and of God, today occurring around the world in a new way. Struggling to reject sexism with its limits on their self-worth and self-identity, women are affirming their own identity, not as nonpersons or half persons or "deficient males," but as genuine human persons. This rebirth, moreover, brings in its wake a positive judgment about women's ways of being in the world. Female bodiliness, passion, modes of thought, love of connectedness, friendship, and a host of other historical characteristics are revalued as good rather than deficient or evil. Given the ingrained negative assessment of women' s humanity under patriarchy, women' s experience of themselves in this way is a powerful event, the coming into maturity of suppressed selves. In a religious sense, it is the experience of conversion of heart and mind. 

Insofar as the experience of self is profoundly intertwined with the experience of God, growth or diminishment in one conditioning the other, women's awakening to their own human worth is a new event in the religious history of humankind. It occasions an experience of God as beneficent toward the female and an ally of women's flourishing. Great images of the divine, Martin Buber observed, come into being not simply as a projection of the imagination but as an awakening from the deep abyss of human existence in real encounter with divine power and glory. Images with the capacity to evoke the divine are given in encounters that, at the same time, bring persons to birth as persons, as Thou's, in reciprocal relation with the Eternal Thou. Far from being silly, superficial, or faddish, language about holy mystery in female symbol emerges gracefully, powerfully, and necessarily from women's encounter with divine presence in the depths of their own blessed selves. Women's reality forms part of the treasury of created excellences that can be used to refer to God. 

Women are equally created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Christ, graced by the Spirit, called to mission in this world, and destined for life in glory.

Christian feminism expresses this by claiming the fullness of Christian identity for women as well as men. Women are equally created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Christ, graced by the Spirit, called to mission in this world, and destined for life in glory. They are, furthermore, not only imago Dei but also imago Christi, reborn through baptism into the one body of Christ and transformed into icons of Christ through the power of the Spirit. It is a mistake akin to heresy to locate the imago Christi in sexual similarity to the human male Jesus. Being conformed to Christ is not a sex-specific gift. It consists rather in embodying Jesus' compassionate, liberating manner of life and the paradox of his dying and rising through the power of the Spirit. Using a physical metaphor, Paul recognizes how this same Spirit shapes individuals into members of the body of Christ who, together with their head, form the whole Christ. The lives of all the baptized are so transformed into Christ's image (2 Cor. 3:18) that traditionally they have been called other Christs. The historical form of Christ may be male or female, christa or christus. Theologically the capacity of women and men to be images of Christ is identical. The recognition of women's human dignity as imago Dei, imago Christi, justifies the use of female symbols when speaking about God. Since women are theomorphic and christomorphic, their humanity offers excellent metaphors for speaking about divine mystery, who remains always ever greater. 

The first step in the case for God-She has attended to the conversion experience of vast numbers of women in our day and the theological insight that sees this experience revealing new symbols and language for God. This theological case gains strength from a second step, consulting the basic resources of Scripture. 

Numerous biblical texts offer potent female images of the living God: God as a woman in labor, giving birth, midwifing, nursing, and carrying a child; God as an angry mother bear robbed of her cubs; God knitting, baking, washing up, searching for her money; God as Woman Wisdom creating, ordering, and saving the world. The figure of Wisdom provides one of the earliest interpretive frameworks for Christology, Jesus even being called the Wisdom of God. In a special place is the symbol of the Spirit, God's moving presence and activity in the world, often presented in female metaphors. When Scripture is read with a feminist hermeneutic, such images provide a treasure trove of new yet ancient ways to speak about God. 

For some literal-minded believers, however, the Christian community is not free to expand its language about God. They argue that Jesus himself spoke to and about God as father ('abba) and that he taught his disciples to do likewise. Such an argument sets its sights too narrowly. Jesus' language about God, far from being exclusive, is diverse and colorful, as can be seen in the imaginative parables he created. A woman searching for her lost coin, a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, a bakerwoman kneading dough, a traveling businessman, the wind that blows where it wills, the birth experience that delivers persons into new life, an employer offending workers by his generosity: Jesus used these and many other human and cosmic metaphors for divine mystery, in addition to the good and loving things that fathers do

In the light of Jesus' own usage, the difficulty with restricting our language about God to "father" alone is readily apparent. Speech that was originally pluriform, subtle, and subversive gets pressed into an exclusive, literal, and patriarchal mold. This does not do justice to Jesus' own language nor to his understanding of God. Furthermore, it fails to examine the deleterious effect that relying almost exclusively on the father symbol has had in Christian history. Diverse images of God, including female ones, are not only plausible; they are necessary, and scripturally justifiable. 

The way a faith community speaks about God indicates what it considers the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty.

Retrieving biblical female symbols of God requires another critical move. Since even these symbols are embedded within a text, a culture, and a tradition shaped by sexism, they cannot be merely lifted and plunked down whole like the prophet Habakkuk. They must first pass through the fire of feminist hermeneutics and be used by a community struggling to be a community of the discipleship of equals. Otherwise they will remain supplementary, subordinate, and stereotyped symbols within a traditionally dualistic male-female framework.

Turning to Catholic classical theology is a third step in this argument. While limited by its androcentric anthropology, this tradition nevertheless contains salutary insights that further our case. These include God's hiddenness or incomprehensibility; the play of analogy in speech about God; and the consequent need for a plurality of ways to address God. All are positive factors that open the door to inclusive speech. 

In essence, God's unlikeness to the finite world of matter and spirit is total. Human beings simply cannot understand God. No human concept, word, or image can ever circumscribe the divine reality. Nor can any human construct express with any measure of adequacy the mystery of God who is ineffable. As Augustine says, "If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God." This applies even to the language of revelation. Rather than remove divine mystery, the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ deepens it, moving it far beyond any philosophical notion of incomprehensibility. 

Speech about God, therefore, can never be literal but is always analogical. This means that images and concepts are taken from the created world and said about God indirectly. In a threefold movement of the mind they are affirmed, negated, and reaffirmed in a transcending movement: God is good; God is not good in the limited way creatures are good; God is good in an excellent way as source of all good. Saying this, the human spirit passes from light into darkness and thence into brighter darkness, intuiting an unspeakably rich and vivifying reality while God, nonetheless, remains hidden. Words about God, therefore, point rather than enclose. As Aquinas noted, "All affirmations we can make about God are not such that our minds may rest in them, nor of such sort that we may suppose God does not transcend them.”

This being so, we must use many words to speak of God. Since God created the world by giving it a share in being, every created perfection points to the One who is the source of it all. Every fragment of beauty, goodness, and truth in the human and natural world reflects the Creator. None of these alone, or even all taken together, exhausts the reality of divine mystery. But our speech about God is less inadequate the more we include a variety of created excellences as starting points.

There is always the danger of forgetting the nature of speech about the hidden God, and absolutizing particular expressions. Introducing female symbols has the effect of purifying Godtalk of its direct, even if unintentional, masculine literalism. Used inclusively, these symbols create a greater sense of the mystery of God who is beyond all telling; restore our understanding of analogy; and add a wealth of created excellence from the lives of women to our storehouse of the names of God. Not only is the theological tradition open to the use of God-She, but the tradition itself is better served by doing so. 

A final step in the case for female symbols of God comes when we consider the existential and practical effects of God language on the church. A faith community's imagery of God is its lodestar. This imagery helps it interpret and understand life, experience, the world. The way a faith community speaks about God indicates what it considers the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty. This language, in turn, molds the community's corporate identity and behavior as well as the individual self-understanding of its members. A religion, for example, that speaks about its God as a warrior and extols the way he smashes his enemies to bits would likely promote among its adherents aggressive group behavior. On the other hand, images of a beneficent, loving God who forgives offenses have the power to turn a faith community toward care for one's neighbor and mutual forgiveness. The symbol of God functions. It is neither abstract in content nor neutral in effect, but expresses a community's bedrock convictions. This being so, the fact that the Christian community ordinarily speaks about God in the image of a ruling man is a problematic practice. For reformist feminist theology, which includes a remarkable spectrum of diverse theological opinion, the difficulty does not fie in the fact that male metaphors are used. Men as well as women are created in the image of God and may serve as points of reference to God. The problem, however, is that these male images are used almost exclusively, which results in their being taken rather literally. Furthermore, the specific male images used reflect a patriarchal arrangement of the world, casting God into the mold of an omnipotent, even if benevolent, monarch. 

This exclusivity and patriarchy are apparent in concrete images and abstract concepts. Recall Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting of God as an elderly, Caucasian gentleman with a flowing white beard calling into life a single younger man in "his" own image. Historically in the West, metaphysical descriptions of the divine nature and attributes have betrayed a similar bias. With implicit stress on solitariness, superiority, and omnipotent power, they present the divine mystery as an isolated, privileged male who is set off from and above others. The exclusive use of patriarchal images and concepts of God has a two-fold negative effect. First, it reduces the divine mystery to a single, reified metaphor of a ruling male. Once reified, a symbol no longer points beyond itself to ultimate truth. Instead it becomes an idol, eclipsing the mystery of God. Second, images and concepts of God modeled exclusively on ruling men (fathers, lords, kings) support and justify the dominance of this one group over those who by sex, race, or class are not part of their privileged group. In particular they prevent women from identifying themselves as imago Dei, the image of God, which profoundly affects their personal and religious identity. 

In sum, exclusive use of male God language is both religiously idolatrous and socially oppressive. It does damage to the truth of the living God and to the dignity of women made in her image. Given the lodestar quality of a community's image of God, it results in a community bent out of shape by the relations of patriarchy. What is at stake in this question is not only the truth" about God but the identity and mission of the Christian faith community itself. One remedy used by a number of contemporary scholars and liturgists is to speak about and address God simply as "God." This has produced some positive results but is, in the end, unsatisfactory. The persistent use of the term "God" clouds over the personal or transpersonal character of divine mystery. It hampers not only the sense of personal presence but also the insights that might occur were female symbols of God allowed to guide our thought. In a serious way it papers over an assumption that needs explicit scrutiny, namely, that women's reality is fundamentally inadequate to represent God. 

I would argue, to the contrary, that women, created in the image and likeness of God, bear excellences that reflect the being of their Creator. Using female imagery of God has many advantages. It effectively points to the personal character of holy mystery. In doing so it challenges the literal-mindedness that clings to exclusively male images, thus making us mindful of the mystery of God. Demonstrating a profound respect for the humanity of women, it calls into question their marginalization within patriarchy. Finally, it suggests an understanding of community characterized by relationships of mutuality and reciprocity rather than by the sacralized dominance of one group over another. 

If the experience of God in our day is summoning up female symbols; if Scripture and tradition are open to this development; and if there are negative effects from not using inclusive language and positive effects from so doing, how shall we proceed? For Christian theology, speaking about God involves reflection on the one triune God made known in creation, incarnation, and grace. Female symbols act as a corrective not only for sexist distortions of God-talk in general, but for Trinitarian symbols in particular. To wit: the Spirit is virtually forgotten in the West, being faceless, with no proper name; the Christ is distorted through assimilation to the framework of male dominance; and God's maternal relation to the world is eclipsed through concentration on the paternal metaphor: "You forgot the God who gave you birth" (Deut. 32:18).

Exclusive use of male God language is both religiously idolatrous and socially oppressive.

Incorporating female patterns of speech puts all of these notions back in play. We speak about the vivifying Spirit, forever drawing near and passing by. She is the giver of life who pervades the cosmos like a mother bird hovering over the primordial chaos (Gen. 1:2). She shelters those in difficulty under the protective shadow of her wings (Ps. 17:8), and bears up the enslaved on her great wings toward freedom (Ex. 19:4). Other images deepen our understanding of the Spirit's work: like a woman she knits new life together in the womb (Ps. 139:13); like a midwife she works deftly with those in pain to bring about the new creation (Ps. 22:9-10); like a washerwoman she scrubs away at bloody stains till the people be like new (Ps. 51:7). We can also speak about Jesus-Sophia, Wisdom made flesh in a particular history. Writing of Wisdom Augustine noted, "But she was sent in one way that she might be with human beings [as Spirit]; and she has been sent in another way that she herself might be a human being [as incarnate in Christ]." Not only does the use of this female symbol remove the male emphasis in Christology that so quickly turns to androcentrism, but it evokes Sophia's gracious goodness, her life-giving creativity, and her passion for justice, all key elements in understanding the person, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. 

We can also speak about God as the Origin without an origin, the Mother Creator of all that is seen and unseen. Since it is women whose bodies bear, nourish, and deliver new persons into life and who, as society is traditionally structured, most often carry out the responsibility of raising children into maturity, language about God's maternity is easily assimilated. In her, as once literally in our own mother, we live and move and have our being, as some of our poets now say (see Acts 17:28). 

We can also speak of the Trinitarian mystery itself in female images. The mystery of mutually related, radically equal "persons" in a community of diversity can be named as unoriginate Mother, her beloved Child, and the Spirit of their mutual love; or as Wisdom' s self-reference, her personal Word, and her overflowing Energy, moving in an encircling embrace. This language is analogical and indirect. It depicts the threefold character of the one God hidden in the fullness of her power, eternally uttering the distinct word of herself, and pouring forth her personal love. 

What is modeled in these and other such symbols is the exuberant, life-giving dignity and power of women, applied analogically to the divine persons. The eternal friendship that is the triune mystery opens to encompass the whole broken world, awakening in those who are willing the experience of her compassion and freedom. Modeling the triune symbol on relations of women's loving and speaking of it in Wisdom metaphors offers a promising antidote to the exclusive male imagery of the classical model and the hierarchic patterns of relationship that attend it. 

Such symbols are but modest starting points for a more inclusive God-talk. As the history of theology shows, there is no "timeless" speech about God. Rather, symbols of God are cultural constructs, entwined with the changing cultural situation of the faith community that uses them. Developing these symbols today is a theologically central task for the whole church. In the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas dealt with the legitimacy of such historical development. He noted that since Scripture does not use the term "person" to refer to God, some had objected that we should not use the term either. But, Aquinas argued, "person" can be used with confidence about God since the perfections the word signifies, namely, being, intelligence, etc., are in fact frequently attributed to God in Scripture. Furthermore, if our speech about God were limited to the very terms of Scripture, we could speak about God only in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Aquinas defended the use of extra-biblical language on grounds of historical need: "The urgency of confuting heretics made it necessary to find new words to express the ancient faith about God." Finally, he exhorted his readers to value these new expressions: "Nor is such a kind of novelty to be shunned; since it is by no means profane, for it does not lead us astray from the sense of Scripture." 

Aquinas's arguments provide a useful framework for evaluating new patterns of speaking about God in female symbols. In light of the longevity and pervasiveness of sexism in culture and religion, it is imperative to find more adequate ways of expressing the ancient good news. The present ferment about imaging, naming, and conceptualizing God in female symbols is a contemporary manifestation of the fact that, as in every epoch before us, we as a faith community are involved in an open-ended history of faith seeking understanding that is not yet finished. 

No language will ever adequately encompass the unquenchable mystery toward which we make limited hut necessary gestures. But the living God and the vitality of the faith community require that a more inclusive way of speaking about and to divine mystery be developed. God-She can breathe new life into religious language and symbols that bear the ancient responsibility of conveying what is most holy, loving, merciful, just, and wise. 

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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