A few years ago John Piper created some controversy over his declaration that Christianity had a masculine feel. The claim raised several issues, one of which was the way a divorce of theological reflection from Christian tradition leads to a lopsided and impoverished theology. The impoverished theology of a “masculine feel” undercuts a Christian view of human sexuality.
Christian tradition employs masculine and feminine ideas about God and the soul in a variety of ways that suggest both are necessary complements that correct one another. Admittedly, feminine ideas about God are not as prevalent, but they remain threaded into the fabric of the tradition, popping up sometimes in surprising places.
One need only take notice of the Syriac tradition, which viewed the Spirit as mother from the second century until at least Ephrem the Syrian in the fourth century. This image of the Spirit became fused with the church as mother and the waters of baptism as womb. Under the Spirit’s power, these waters teem with life and grace since the Spirit of creation, who hovered over the primeval waters, is also the Spirit of salvation. The priest serves as the midwife who delivers the new-born child of God into the world.
This same idea flows like an underground current through biblical texts in which the Spirit is the one who gives birth to believers. Many Christians miss this feminine symbol behind regeneration because it is a “dead” metaphor. Nevertheless, to proclaim with the NT that one must be born of the Spirit is to underscore the Spirit’s role to give new life just as a mother does. Every evangelical who declares, “I’m born again,” implicitly points toward a feminine idea, and this is not peripheral to evangelical theology.
In the twelfth century Bernard of Clairvaux reflects on Jesus as mother. For Bernard, Christians nurse at the breast of Christ through the Eucharist. In this event, they drink the milk and honey of the Promised Land as they receive his life into their lives. When Julian of Norwich declares that Jesus is a mother in the fourteenth century, she is picking up on a stream of spirituality that goes back at least to the early twelfth century.
Even more than this, however, a spirituality of love emerges in Christian tradition that treats the soul as feminine and Christ as its lover. The images of the church and the soul as the bride of Christ draw upon allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs to point toward the ultimate fulfillment of eros in God. Such a spirituality goes back at least to Origen in the third century, finding its biblical warrant in a fusion of the Song of Songs, Pauline ideas, and the bridal imagery of Revelation.
Holiness is about the soul beautifying herself for Christ,
her lover. The ultimate end of this beautification is, according to William of
St. Thierry, to become “one spirit with God, beautiful in Beauty, good in
Goodness.” There is an evangelical manifestation of this trend in the Wesleyan
holiness movement in which bridal mysticism comes back into prominence as a
fusion of the soul’s ascent to God and the church’s preparation
The use of these metaphors for God and the soul does not mean that salvation involves a denigration of the biological and psychological differences between men and women any more than it means God is male or female.
Rather, taken together these multiple symbols speak to the contingency of sexual acts and thus the purpose of sexuality. As mystics in the church have understood, the erotic dimension of the sexual life will be taken up into ecstatic union with God. The appetitive urges behind sexual acts evince intense longings for intimacy that speak to a deeper union.
Even as ecstatic intimacy is but a foretaste that cannot be sustained this side of the End, so the passion of eros offers a momentary glimpse of something more to human existence. The moment of abandon in love, when persons pledge their entire lives to one another, offers only a faint whisper of selflessness.
When the wave of eros crests, as it must, persons can succumb to the void that remains without the support of charity’s vow, which translates the whispers of amor into an enduring pledge. The effect must be cumulative so that amor is taken up into and stabilized by caritas. Those who idolize eros find their commitment waning, choosing instead to see the problem as a lack of passion either on their part or their lover’s. In either case, the result is a dehumanization of the other, a reduction of the person to mere pleasurable object.
The sacramental understanding of marriage calls for a re-ordering of sexual desire that ultimately points away from sexual acts, as strange as this may seem in a late modern culture of sex. This is one reason why the unitive and procreative dimensions of the sex act must be held together, whether conception actually occurs or not. The procreative end of sex signifies its contingency in the same way that masculine and feminine images of God and the soul do. Procreative and unitive, as male and female, form complementary pairs that balance and correct.
It is an antidote for the over spiritualizing of sex (and the idolizing of eros) to the point that one seemingly cannot be human unless one engages in it, and frequently at that. To be sure, Christian tradition has often leaned in the other direction because of a failure to maintain the tension between the goodness of human sexuality and the contingency of sexual acts. Proclaiming that Christianity has a “masculine feel” breaks the tension in a way that undermines female sexuality in favor of male prowess by implying the former is less than human.
To make the masculine supreme is to sacrifice the human. Not only does this lead to a devaluing of the person in the sexual act, it also opens the person to eros’s seduction that the whispers of passion can produce a lifetime of loving. Indeed, the two usually go together.
By proclaiming that in heaven there will be no marriage, Jesus signaled the end of sexual acts as a means to facilitate union between two persons and the beginning of a new order of human relationality. The use of masculine and feminine metaphors for God and the soul within Christian tradition points toward the latent potential for more within the image of God as male and female. It undermines Christianity to say that it has a “masculine” feel. Instead, Christianity has a human feel.