How to Catch God in a Butterfly Net: Lesson #4, Elevate Masculinity over Femininity


"The character of the love of God depends on the respective weight that each group gives to the matriarchal and patriarchal aspects of religion." -Erich Fromm

The fourth thing to do if you want to kill the butterfly that you have caught in your net, and perhaps the most overlooked of all catching-and-killing tactics as we are often blinded by tradition and language we have never dared to question, is to elevate masculinity over femininity in describing the Godhead—to insist that God is somehow male, though each of us knows God most likely does not have a penis. Isn’t it interesting how disruptive it is to the ears when God is referred to as “She,” even though none of us would dare insist that God pees standing up or has a reproductive system that produces cosmic sperm? Isn’t it interesting how disruptive it was to mainstream Christianity when "God the Father" in The Shack was portrayed as an African American woman? The disruption says a lot about our culture, especially Christian culture and what it views as bedrock doctrine. Now, it should be said as a caveat that referring to God as “He” is not a bad thing. Gender is foundational to our understanding of the human experience, and giving God a gender personalizes our experience with the divine. Any language personalizing the God-experience is generally a good thing, reflecting the intimacy of the experience. But to say God is one gender and not another is a bad thing because it makes a conceptual idol out of our gendered god—boxing up a god of our own culture’s making and blinding us from all the beautiful traits of how God’s character (and Her experience with us) reflect the sacred feminine. Only teaching and preaching and learning based on a masculine God kills the butterfly we have caught in our nets. While using a gender can bring out more personalized language, it does not take long for this inspiration to birth an idol of understanding, which produces gaps in the mind—that’s why it’s called an idol. God most likely does not have a gender and is therefore not female, either, but to color in the conceptual gap and expand our view of God, we must awaken more to an understanding of God as Mother, for this feminine nature of the divine is what has been neglected. We project what we know onto reality, including our spiritual reality. As inspired as the biblical authors might have been—and I believe they were—their God is still inevitably a projection of their own culture. It was the men who went off to war and conquered their foe. It was the men who hunted. And it was mostly men who held positions of power, in government and in religion. Our ancestors wanted a powerful, conquering God who was in control (and perhaps we still do), who sat on his king-like throne and shouted orders—laws and commandments—down to those below, for structure and stability. And it is very likely that this was the type of God they needed at the time! A mystic, in fact, might not have been all that helpful! Yet now we need the mystics to help us dethrone the conceptual idols of our culture, idols that have been used to justify power, arrogance, and oppression. As Meister Eckhart prayed, “God, rid me of God.” Were the biblical writers wrong in their understanding of God? No. Are we more correct in our understanding of God? No. What’s most important is that our understanding of God keeps expanding. Once the expansion stops, idolatry begins. As Thomas Merton says, "Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.” We see the world as we are, not as it really is. And so, in a patriarchal culture, you will inevitably end up with a patriarchal God, which is still unfortunately the case. The biblical writers understood their reality to be a three-tiered universe with God up above; and now we understand the universe to be ever-expanding, increasing in unity, complexity, and depth, as Rob Bell says in “Everything Is Spiritual.” Our new understanding of the universe, likewise, says a lot about our understanding of God. Leaps and bounds have been made since then to shed ourselves of the patriarchal ways that have mostly plagued human civilization; but, our culture is still patriarchal, even if it’s sometimes subtle. It was not that long ago, only three generations before, that women gained the right to vote in our country. Political positions are dominated by those who have historically been in power in this country from the start: white men. In my grammar classes growing up, I learned that the dominant pronoun when talking about someone whose gender was not important to identify was “he.” We’re still catching up to true equality. And it’s not just women who suffer from these trends. So do men. Growing up, culture implied that real men didn’t cry, that emotion was bad, and that counseling was for people with “problems”—it’s no wonder I spent many of my adult years suppressing my problems and in emotional turmoil. As one of my best friends says whenever she can tell that I’ve spiraled into a reckless masculine state of accomplishing, striving, or proving, “You just need the power of the sacred feminine, Steve.” As for Christian culture, things are far worse. I attended a church as a kid where it was apparent that only men were allowed to be priests. I attended another church as a teen where it was apparent that only men were allowed to be pastors. I remember a peer once innocently telling me that he wasn’t sure if a woman was allowed to do baptisms. I remember legitimately looking down upon a female Bible professor just because Paul said that he would not “permit a woman to teach”—it made me feel good to question someone’s legitimacy based on the Bible. As embarrassing as this is to admit, it does show just how toxic and dehumanizing biblical literalism can be and how attractive certainty is to the formative mind. Christian culture also fed me the lie that a man’s job was to lead a woman, which only gave men, including myself, even more of a false sense of superiority; which I admittedly, and perhaps unconsciously, took full advantage of! Is any of this a surprise when the theological starting place is a masculine God? Returning to the brokenness of men, maybe a starting place with a more feminine God would actually give men, in particular, permission to explore what Carl Jung called the “anima,” the unconscious feminine side of a man, a feminine energy that Jesus seemed to epitomize. Feminine energy is the language of the Trinity and is the energy we have failed as a culture to explore. God is Mother from the start, giving birth to all creation and longing for intimacy with the object of Her affection. Whereas the masculine mind gravitates toward performance, winning and losing, hierarchy, and tangible results, mothers know that abiding intimacy is far more important than control, advancement, or winning. As for Spirit, ruach—a feminine Hebrew word meaning breath, wind, or spirit—is ultimately what brings Adam to life in the Genesis poem. There are plenty of other linguistic examples just like this one! And, just as Mother God gave birth to creation, Mother Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ. Without divine Motherhood in the biblical narrative, there is no creation, and there is no Jesus. It is easy to see why Jesus was so agitating to a patriarchal culture based on power and dominance when you consider his rich feminine qualities: his ability to experience the breadth of his emotions (which was rarely anger, by the way, an historically masculine emotion), his radical humility, his redemptive nonviolence, his disregard for status, his disinterest to defeat his enemies (though the Jewish people wanted him to be a conquering savior), and his simple message to his followers to love and abide—a return to the divine womb, the Garden of intimate belonging after the religious elite made spirituality all about being right, a very masculine thing to do! Christ's radical message of love and humility was so maddening that the religious and governmental empires—controlled by men—partnered to crucify him. He didn’t belong. And then God used women to discover the empty tomb. Yet then, we turned this humble servant and suffering savior who washed the feet of his disciples into a victorious conqueror anyway because winning is all we know, and it feels so good to win. The Christian church, frankly, should be leading the way in demonstrating the “power” of the feminine, as the sacred feminine is literally breaking through their sacred text, time and time again (even in a culture that was more patriarchal than ours), yet our power structure as a church is deeply broken. The church has a lot to learn from corporate America and recent political trends! It’s important to accept that we, as a church, are often more of the oppressive empire than culture is—the kind of empire that Jesus critiqued and the kind of empire that ultimately killed him. And in killing God as Mother, we have formulated a starting place that has set people, women and men, up for failure. Unleashing the sacred feminine is where healing begins. We have not yet learned to explore the feminine energy that is animating each of us at the core. We have not yet dared to explore how more of a feminine disposition could heal so many wounds societally and religiously. It is time for us, like Mary, to give birth to a God in the wombs of our minds—a God that, like Jesus, shatters every construct, critiques every empire, and inspires us to be born again and experience something new. By Stephen Copeland

This essay was first published on www.copelandwrites.com.

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