Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Don't Make Mary the Feminine Face of God

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Don't Make Mary the Feminine Face of God

Article excerpt

In recent years a number of religious thinkers have begun to speak of Mary as the feminine face of God. Whether they appeal to the history of religions, to psychology, to the Christian history of Marian piety and theology, or to current Latin American and Hispanic devotional practices, these thinkers seek to remedy one of the problems of male-dominated religion by stating that God has a feminine dimension, which is made known through Mary.

The basic argument goes like this. God has both a masculine and a feminine side. In the Incarnation, the divine masculine side is revealed in Jesus Christ, in his preaching and mighty deeds and his love even unto death. Being male, however, Jesus could not fully express through his human life the divine feminine side. Thus divine feminine characteristics, such as mothering and nurturing and being intuitive and sensitive, become clear in Mary, his mother. She functions as the maternal face of God turned toward the world. The honor that people give to her allows the feminine to enter into their religious consciousness. Since the source of this femininity is in God, a balance is introduced into what would otherwise be an overly masculinized view of the divine.

While I thoroughly disagree with this approach, it does have two appealing points. For one thing, it gives a positive religious value to qualities such as mothering, compassion, and nurturing and even seeks to root them in God. This is in welcome contrast to a long tradition that disparaged such women-associated characteristics and saw them as lesser in value or even as negative when compared with so-called masculine traits of reason, justice, and rendering judgment.

A second attractive part of this theory is how well it enables one to interpret traditional Marian piety. The post-biblical image of Mary has borne a wealth of divine qualities, so that in devotion to her as the approachable, powerful Mother of Mercy, who would not let one of her children be lost, whole generations and cultures have experienced divine saving power in a female configuration.

This figure of Mary indeed possesses characteristics very akin to the God whom Jesus called Abba. But while the official symbol of God in a patriarchal church remains Father, Son, and Spirit--and thus at least subliminally masculine--there is compensation in turning to this female figure who knows about birth; is not overly disturbed by human weakness; expresses a different, consoling, and even subversive world of powerful, merciful care.

Why, then, oppose the idea of Mary as the feminine face of God?

The positive parts of this theory are more than outweighed by the damaging effects it has on the doctrine of God, the true reality of Mary, and the effort of women and men today to form a community of the discipleship of equals. The major objections to the idea of Mary as the feminine face of God follow:

1. This theory stereotypes masculine and feminine characteristics, and therefore also men and women. I do not deny that there are real differences between the sexes. But the traditional categories by which differences have been defined took shape in a patriarchal culture and are marked by a powerful prejudice. Who is to say that women are not capable of a full measure of rationality while still remaining women? Who is to say that men are not capable of powerful nurturing while still remaining men?

At this point of cultural change, to describe character traits as masculine or feminine simply short-circuits the quest for wholeness on the part of both sexes. It also carries a strong political subtext. The supposedly feminine traits are designed for domestic and not public spaces, and this has the effect of maintaining women in subordinate roles. The entire use of masculine and feminine categories within a dualistic framework is not liberating.

2. This theory does not resolve the basic problem of male-dominated imagery for God but ultimately leaves it intact. …

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