I took a Theology of God class last year with Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse. During the end of the semester we had to read her book. Due to my reservations against contemporary feminism, I was leery.
Reading the first section of the book, which primarily talks about feminism itself, I was frustrated and annoyed by how Johnson often acted as if feminism was not only a movement for women’s equality but a movement to eliminate all forms of oppression. Besides how imperialistic this seems, I felt that it unjustly painted white men as the problem for all oppressed people. It wasn’t until Johnson’s lecture that I understood why she linked feminism with other movements for equality and justice.
She told us that most early feminist movements were birthed out of women’s advocacy for others. For example, Women’s Suffrage was birthed out of women’s advocacy for African Americans’ right to vote. In the process of fighting for others voices to be heard, they realized how much their own voices were disrespected or silenced. In their attempts to fight for others’ liberty, they realized how limited their own was. Therefore, they fought to emancipate their voices so that they might be more free to emancipate the voices of others. They fought for their liberty so that they might be equal partners in creating a more equitable society, not new masters.
While that motivation can’t be claimed by all feminists, or all waves of feminism, Johnson penned her book with a similar motivation. She explained it as a motivation to allow women to breathe freely in the presence of God, just as their brothers can. (Okay, maybe I’ve made her statement more poetic, but the essence is accurate).
As a good nun and a faithful student of theology, Johnson desired a thoroughly orthodox theology of God and man/woman. But in her studies of classical theology she found many theologians sympathizing with Dr. Bruce Ware: “it may be best to understand the original creation of male and female as one in which the male was made image of God first, in an unmediated fashion…while the female was made image of God second, in a mediated fashion… Just as the man, created directly by God is the image and glory of God, so the woman, created out of the man, has her glory through the man… Does it not stand to reason, then, that her humanity, including her being the image of God, occurs as God forms her from the man as ‘the glory of the man’?”
Johnson wrestled with this theology. She desired to be thoroughly Catholic but she felt strongly that this theology was suffocating, not only for her but for all women. What was at stake for her was not simply women’s liberty, or dignity, but women’s value before God and in relationship with men. That is why she explored her Catholic tradition more rigorously and read the Bible more closely. In the process discovered SHE WHO IS. Whom taught her that women are not in fact only human and made in the image of God in so far as they are made in the image of man but are equal image bearers. (The above argument being about as ridiculous as women telling men that men are only secondary image bearers of God because they play a secondary role in creating life, whereas women, like God, have a more active role in creating life).
Why am I sharing all of this with you? Didn’t I tell you that I can’t call myself a feminist? You might think I definitely sound like one right now. I promised last week that I was going to eventually touch on why it’s detrimental to think of Christianity as just masculine or just feminine. More is at stake than a holistic understanding and relationship with God, it also affects our relationship with each other and ourselves.
We need to celebrate God’s masculinity and femininity so that we may celebrate ourselves and each other as male and female. We need to embrace our equal role as image bearers of God so that we might all breathe freely and finish this race as God intended us to instead of collapsing blue in the face.
I’ve had good friends who are what I like to call manists* (men’s rights activists) and good friends who are feminists. I sympathize with both sides and agree with neither. They’ve been acting like this is a zero-sum game. Either men win and get to be the sole bread winners and primary image bearers or vise versa. It’s absurd and leads to so many abuses. Most of all, it leaves one or the other party feeling battered, deflated and worthless before others and before God. Understanding that God values and has imbued both genders with worth (which is implied by God’s gender-inclusive revelations of Him/Herself) restores our self-worth and acts as a bridge between the sexes.
Genesis two is not a weapon to be used against women, but a beautiful picture of how we complete each other. Adam was not whole without Eve, and Eve is not whole without Adam. Together they bear God’s image, for He/She is also made whole in community.