God created human beings in his own image
In the image of God he created them.
Male and female he created them.” (Genesis chapter 1 verses 26, 27)
This splendid piece of theology goes out of its way to insist on the equality of man and woman in the purpose of God. Indeed if we want to know what God is like, we have to take man and woman together. Although the text uses the masculine pronoun for God, it authorises the use of both masculine and feminine terms to describe the Creator, with the proviso that this language only expresses an image, a simile, of a God whose being is beyond language and comprehension. God is not male or female nor is he both male and female but through the distinctive natures of man and woman, and in their partnership, God’s nature can be imagined by human beings.
Of course, the Bible was written in a patriarchal society; much of its language and imagery reflects this bias, as do many of its basic assumptions. But there are clear exceptions to the prevailing bias; as in the stories of Miriam and Jael, Abigail, Hannah and Ruth; the characterisation of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs; the feminine imagery used to describe God’s creativity in Isaiah; in Jesus’ acceptance of women as disciples and his defence of their equality in the marriage bond; in the tradition that women were the first witnesses and heralds of Jesus’ resurrection; and in Paul’s clear statement that in Jesus Messiah there is neither male nor female.
It’s true that in spite of these pointers to equality, the church over centuries favoured the authority of men over women and many denominations remain opposed to, or at least ambiguous about, sexual equality.
Feminist theology has challenged believers to reappraise the scriptures and the traditions of the church, to recover texts that advocate equality or use feminine language of God. Women theologians have explored the image of God as mother or more controversially as strong woman. There are hymns in common use that encourage worshippers to use these unfamiliar images as expressions of their own faith.
In the history of religions we can see that even a strongly patriarchal culture such as classical Greece maintained a balance in its pantheon in which the Goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, and Hera play important roles albeit under the authority of Zeus. Throughout history and today, the worship of many Gods allows more scope for woman as an image of the divine, than the worship of one.
Shaktism, a form of Hinduism which sees all the gods as images of the one divine mother, comes closest perhaps to a monotheistic faith in one Goddess. Popular Buddhism often depicts the Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara as female. As Guan Yin, she is depicted and worshipped as the Goddess of Infinite Mercy in China. In these instances, however, there is a subtle awareness uncommon in monotheistic faiths, that human beings make their images of the divine, and that new or imported images may suggest aspects of God that have been neglected.
The Abrahamic religions have been resistant to this idea. For them God is revealed, by his own choice, through prophets and chosen leaders in Judaism and Islam, uniquely through his Son Jesus in Christianity. God’s image therefore is given to human beings and is not to be altered by them. Indeed, alteration of God’s image is held to be the most serious crime in these traditions. Certainly this theology protects the recalcitrance of God whose goodness and justice may not be to the taste of human beings but is nevertheless their true salvation. There’s no doubt that this can be valuable: the opposition of the Confessing Church in Germany to Nazism was expressed by the Barmen Declaration in which Jesus Christ is described as the “One Word of God, to whom only we must listen, whom only we must obey.” Their exclusive theology encouraged their heroic witness.
Is Jesus’ image of God as “Father” to be held as unalterable by Christian believers? Some have argued that it just needs to be complemented by the image of God as “Mother” presumably because this image is different from that of “Father”. But if it is different, would such believers not be suggesting that Jesus’ faith was mistaken or at least incomplete? But then again, does faith mean that believers are obliged to accept Jesus’ language about slaves which is so offensive to modern ears that it’s nearly always mistranslated as “servants”? Can they not say that Jesus was wrong?
How can believers obey their tradition, while also believing that it can be reformed?
I can’t give a coherent answer but can only defend my own practice. For me all talk about God should begin with the statement: all Gods are invented by human beings. People have invented these Gods as attempts to express fundamental truths about human life and the universe; some inventions indeed point beyond all universes to One who cannot be described except as s/he reveals her/himself. But Gods and images of God are human inventions. This means they can be altered. Christian faith itself is a great alteration of Judaism. The faith of the Christian Church inspired by the Holy Spirit is a great (some would say too great) alteration of Jesus’ faith.
Although I think we should be conservative in our handling of tradition, I am convinced that where there is clear evidence of a fault to which our eyes have been opened, we must put it right. The failure of the tradition to promote male/ female equality in worship, organisation and theology is one such case. I mean, I think it is. And there’s the difficulty. I am aware that even if my basic argument is right there must be rules which help believers judge whether and how the tradition of faith can be altered. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth; but how do I know it’s the Holy Spirit and not bees in my bonnet?
Faced with such questions I can understand those who say that the dangers of altering the tradition at all are greater than the dangers of simply holding to it. But if that means denying the equality of women and denouncing homosexuality, I cannot agree with it.