Plaskow, Judith; Christ, Carol 1989 Weaving the Visions,
Harper, San Francisco ISBN 0-06-061383-1
Also: Christ, Carol; Plaskow, Judith 1979 Womanspirit Rising,
Harper & Row, New York ISBN 0-06-061385-8
NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.
Sexism and God-Language ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER
See also: Asceticism and Feminism:
Rosemary Radford Ruether is Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology at the Garrett Theological Seminary and member of the Graduate Faculty at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She is the author or editor of twentyone books on Christian theology and socialjustice in such areas as feminism, Jewish-Christian relations, ecology, and militarism.
Male monotheism has been so taken for granted in Christian culture that the peculiarity of imaging God solely through one gender has not been recognized. But such an image indicates a sharp departure from all previous human consciousness.... Male monotheism reinforces the social hierarchy of patriarchal rule through its religious system in a way that was not the case with the paired images of God and Goddess. God is modeled after the patriarchal ruling class and is seen as addressing this class of males directly, adopting them as his "sons." They are his representatives, the responsible partners of the covenant with him. Women as wives now become symbolically repressed as the dependent servant class. Wives, along with children and servants, represent those ruled over and owned by the patriarchal class. They relate to man as he relates to God. A symbolic hierarchy is set up: God-male-female. Women no longer stand in direct relation to God; they are connected to God secondarily, through the male. This hierarchical order is evident in the structure of patriarchal law in the Old Testament, in which only the male heads of families are addressed directly. Women, children, and servants are referred to indirectly through their duties and property relations to the patriarch.' In the New Testament this hierarchical "order" appears as a cosmic principle:
But I want to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of'a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.... For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man. (i Cor. 11:3, 7)
Male monotheism becomes the vehicle of a psychocultural revolution of the male ruling class in its relationship to surrounding reality. Whereas ancient myth had seen the Gods and Goddesses as within the matrix of one physical-spiritual reality, male monotheism begins to split reality into a dualism of transcendent Spirit (mind, ego) and inferior and dependent physical nature. Bodiless ego or spirit is seen as pri-
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mary, existing before the cosmos. The physical world is "made" as an artifact by transcendent, disembodied mind or generated through some process of devolution from spirit to matter. Both the Hebrew Genesis story and the Platonic creation story of Timaeus retain reminiscences of the idea of primal matter as something already existing that is ordered or shaped by the Creator God. But this now becomes the lower pole in the hierarchy of being. Thus the hierarchy of God-male-female does not merely make woman secondary in relation to God, it also gives her a negative identity in relation to the divine. Whereas the male is seen essentially as the image of the male transcendent ego or God, woman is seen as the image of the lower, material nature. Although both are seen as "mixed natures," the male identity points "above" and the female "below." Gender becomes a primary symbol for the dualism of transcendence and immanence, spirit and matter.
THE APPROPRIATION OF THE GODDESS IN JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN MONOTHEISM
In Hebrew religious development, male monotheism does not, by any means, succeed in simply supplanting the older world of Gods and Goddesses or the cult of salvation through renewal of nature-society. Rather it imposes itself on this older world, assimilating, transforming, and reversing its symbol systems. Thus, for example, the ancient myth of the Sacred Marriage lives on in Yahwism, but in a reversed form that uses this story to exert the possessive and judgmental relation of the patriarchal God over the people of agricultural society. The patriarchal God, not the Goddess, is the dominant partner in the Sacred Marriage. The female has been reduced to the human partner as servant to God. In the prophet Hosea, the marriage symbol is taken over judgmentally as a diatribe against the "harlotry" of Israelites, who prefer Baal, the vegetation and rain God of the Canaanites, to Yahweh, the nomadic patriarch. Yahweh is depicted as the angry and threatening husband who will punish his unfaithful bride with summary divorce. But he is also described as winning her back and making her faithful to him by drawing her out into the desert wildness.... From archaeological evidence we know that Yahweh did not replace the Goddess in the affections of many people conquered or assimilated by the Israelites. Rather, for many people, Yahweh simply replaced Baal as the husband of the Goddess. Asherah, another form of the Canaanite Goddess, continued to be worshiped alongside Yahweh in the Solomonic temple for two-thirds of its existence.' Ordinary graves of Israelites show Yahwist and Goddess symbols together. The upper Egyptian Jewish colony at Elephantine worshiped Yahweh as husband of the Goddess in its temple.' Thus, behind the apparent conquest of
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Yahweh over Anath-Baal lies a more complex reality. It is not insignificant that most of the polemics against Canaanite religion in the Old Testament are against Baal, not Anath or Asherah. Yahweh does not do warfare primarily against the Goddess. Rather it is Baal, her male consort, who must be replaced. The Goddess is not so much eliminated as she is absorbed and put into a new relationship with Yahweh as her Lord. In addition to this transformation of the Sacred Marriage from a Goddess-king relation into a patriarchal God-servant wife, Yahwism appropriates female images for God at certain points. The male patriarchal image proves too limited to represent the variety of relationships to Israel that Hebrew thought wished to express. In certain texts Yahweh is described as like a mother or like a woman in travail with the birth of a child. These references occur particularly when the authors wish to describe God's unconditional love and faithfulness to the people despite their sins. They express God's compassion and forgiveness. God is seen as suffering on behalf of Israel, seeking to bring Israel to the new birth of repentance. As Phyllis Trible has pointed out, the root word for the ideas of compassion and mercy in Hebrew is rechem, or womb.' In ascribing these qualities to Yahweh, Hebrew thought suggests that God has maternal or "womblike" qualities.... In addition to these appropriations of womb-qualities to Yahweh, there is a second important use of female imagery for God in the Scriptural and theological tradition. In the Wisdom tradition the female image appears as a secondary persona of God, mediating the work and will of God to creation. The Book of Proverbs describes Wisdom as an offspring of God, being brought forth from God before the beginning of the earth, cooperating with God in the creation of the world, rejoicing and delighting in the work of creation. In the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is the manifestation of God through whom God mediates the work of creation, providential guidance, and revelation. She is the subtle power of the presence of God, permeating and enspiriting all things.... The wise man, represented by Solomon, takes Wisdom as his bride and brings her to live with him so she can give him good counsel (8:2, 9). Behind this powerful image of Wisdom lies the Goddess who was traditionally characterized as Wisdom. But in Hebrew thought she has become a dependent attribute or expression of the transcendent male God rather than an autonomous, female manifestation of the divine. In Christianity the idea of a second persona of God expressing God's immanence, the presence of God in creation, revelation, and redemption, was taken over to explain the divine identity of Jesus. While the passages in Hebrews, chapters i and 2, and elsewhere in the New Testament echo the Wisdom tradition, the word Logos (word) used by the Jewish philosopher Philo is preferred to Sophia (wisdom). The roots of
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the Logos concept in the Wisdom tradition are evident at many points. Paul says, "We are preaching a crucified Christ ... who is ... the Wisdom of God" (i Cor. 1:23-24). Several of the Christological hymns substitute the word Logos for the word Sophia. Theologically, Logos plays the same cosmological roles as Sophia as ground of creation, revealer of the mind of God, and reconciler of humanity to God. But the use of the male word Logos, when identified with the maleness of the historical Jesus, obscures the actual fluidity of the gender symbolism by appearing to reify as male a "Son of God" who is, in turn, the image of the Father.... All speculation on a female side of God was not cut off despite the adoption of a male Logos symbol. The figure of the Holy Spirit picks up many of the Hebraic traditions of the female Sophia and Hokmah (spirit). Many early Christian texts refer to the Spirit as female. This is found particularly in the Apocryphal gospels.... Female imagery for the Spirit continues to ferment under the surface of Christian theology, particularly in mystical writers.... A whole line of mystical thinkers, flowing from Jacob Boehme in the seventeenth century down into the nineteenth century, speculate on the androgynous nature of God. The eighteenth-century Shakers develop this concept in detail in new scriptures and a new vision of Christian messianism that includes a female Messiah who represents the Wisdom or Mother-aspect of God.' Do these traditions of the androgyny of God and the female aspect of the Trinity resolve the problem of the exclusively male image of God? Some Christian feminists feel they do. God has both mothering or feminine as well as masculine characteristics. The feminine aspect of God is to be identified particularly with the Holy Spirit. It is doubtful, however, that we should settle for a concept of the Trinity that consists of two male and one female "persons." Such a concept of God falls easily into an androcentric or male-dominant perspective. The female side of God then becomes a subordinate principle underneath the dominant image of male divine sovereignty. We should guard against concepts of divine androgyny that simply ratify on the divine level the patriarchal split of the masculine and the feminine. In such a concept, the feminine side of God, as a secondary or mediating principle, would act in the same subordinate and limited roles in which females are allowed to act in the patriarchal social order. 'Fhe feminine can be mediator or recipient of divine power in relation to creaturely reality. She can be God's daughter, the bride of the (male) soul. But she can never represent divine transcendence in all fullness. For feminists to appropriate the "feniinine" side of God within this patriarchal gender hierarchy is simply to reinforce the problem of gender stereotyping on the level of God-language. We need to go beyond the idea of a "feminine side" of God, whether to be identified with the
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Spirit or even with the Sophia-Spirit together, and question the assumption that the highest symbol of divine sovereignty still remains exclusively male.
GOD-LANGUAGE BEYOND PATRIARCHY IN THE BIBLICAL TRADITION
THE PROPHETIC GOD
Although the predominantly male images and roles of God make Yahwism an agent in the sacralization of patriarchy, there are critical elements in Biblical theology that contradict this view of God. By patriarchy we mean not only the subordination of females to males, but the whole structure of Father-ruled society: aristocracy over serfs, masters over slaves, king over subjects, racial overlords over colonized people. Religions that reinforce hierarchical stratification use the Divine as the apex of this system of privilege and control. The religions of the ancient Near East link the Gods and Goddesses with the kings and queens, the priests and priestesses, the warrior and temple aristocracy of stratified society. The Gods and Goddesses mirror this ruling class and form its heavenly counterpart. The divinities also show mercy and favor to the distressed, but in the manner of noblesse oblige. Yahweh, as tribal God of Israel, shows many characteristics similar to those of the Near Eastern deities, as mighty king, warrior, and one who shows mercy and vindicates justice. But these characteristics are put in a new and distinct context: Yahweh is unique as the God of a tribal confederation that identifies itself as liberated slaves. The basic identity of Yahweh as God of this confederation lies in "his" historical action as the divine power that liberated these slaves from bondage and led them to a new land. This confederation is not an ethnic people, but a bonding of groups of distinct backgrounds. A core group experienced the escape from bondage in Egypt that formed the primary identity of Israel. They werejoined by nomadic groups from the desert and hill peoples in Canaan in revolt against the feudal power of the city-states of the plains. Norman Gottwald reconstructs the premonarchical formation of this tribal confederation (1250-1050 B.C.E.). The identification of Yahweh with liberation from bondage allowed this diverse group to unite in a new egalitarian society and to revolt against the stratified feudal society of the city-states that oppressed the peasant peoples of the hills with taxes and forced labor.' The Davidic monarchy represents a capitulation of Judaic leadership to the city-state model of power, but the prophets of Israel continue the tradition of protests against the hierarchical, urban, landowning society that deprives and oppresses the rural peasantry. This established at the heart of Biblical religion a motif of protest against the
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status quo of ruling-class privilege and the deprivation of the poor. God is seen as a critic of this society, a champion of the social victims. Salvation is envisioned as deliverance from systems of social oppression and as restoration of an egalitarian peasant society of equals, where each have their own vine and fig tree and none need be afraid" (Mic. 4:4).... The New Testament contains a renewal and radicalization of prophetic consciousness, now applied to marginalized groups in a universal, nontribal context. Consequently, it is possible to recognize as liberated by God social groups overlooked in Old Testament prophecy. Class, ethnicity, and gender are now specifically singled out as the divisions overcome by redemption in Christ. In the New Testament stories, gender is recognized as an additional oppression within oppressed classes and ethnic groups.' Women, the doubly oppressed within marginalized groups, manifest God's iconoclastic, liberating action in mak"the last first and the first last." All women are not doubly oping pressed; there are also queens and wealthy women. But women's experience of oppression has begun to become visible and to be addressed by prophetic consciousness (very likely because of the participation of women in the early Christian movement).
THE LIBERATING SOVEREIGN
A second antipatriarchal use of God-language occurs in the Old and New Testaments when divine sovereignty and fatherhood are used to break the ties of bondage under human kings and fathers. Abraham is called into an adoptive or covenanted relation with God only by breaking his ties with his family, leaving behind the graves of his ancestors.' The God of Exodus establishes a relationship with the people that breaks their ties with the ruling overlords. As the people flee from the land of bondage, Pharaoh and his horsemen are drowned. God's kingship liberates Israel from human kings. The antimonarchical tradition inveighs against Israel's capitulation to the customs of the surrounding people by adopting kingship. These Old Testament traditions are developed in Jesus' teaching. It has been often pointed out that Jesus uses a unique word for God. By adopting the word Abba for God, he affirms a primary relationship to God based on love and trust; Abba was the intimate word used by children in the family for their fathers. It is not fully conveyed by English terms such as Daddy, for it was also a term an adult could use of an older man to signify a combination of respect and affection.' But is it enough to conclude from this use of Abba that Jesus transforms the patriarchal concept of divine fatherhood into what might be called a maternal or nurturing concept of God as loving, trustworthy parent? The early Jesus movement characteristically uses this concept of God as Abba to liberate the community from human dominance-dependence
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relationships based on kinship ties or master-servant relationships. In the Gospel tradition, joining the new community of Jesus creates a rupture with traditional family ties and loyalties. In order to follow Jesus one must "hate" (that is, put aside one's loyalty to) father and niother, sisters and brothers (Luke 14:26; Matt. 10:37-38). The patriarchal family is replaced by a new community of brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-2 1). 'This new community is a community of equals, not of master and servants, father and children. MatthCW 23:1-10 states that the relationship to God as Abba abolishes all father-child, master-servant relations between people within the ' Jesus community: "You are to call no man father, master or Lord." The relationship between Christians is to be one of mutual service and not of mastery and servitude. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that their relationship has now become one of equals. They now have the sanie Abba relation to God as he does and can act out of the same principles: "No longer do I call you servants.... but I have called you friends" (John 15:15). These traditions reverse the symbolic relation between divine fatherhood and sovereignty and the sacralization of' patriarchy. Because God is our king, we need obey no human kings. Because God is our parent, we are liberated from dependence on patriarchal authority. But the language used in this tradition creates an obvious ambivalence. It works to establish a new liberated relationship to a new community of equals for those in revolt against established authorities. This is true not only in the formation of Israel and in the rise of the Jesus movement; again and again throughout Christian history this antipatriarchal use of God-language has been rediscovered by dissenting groups. The call to "obey God rather than men" has perhaps been the most continuous theological basis for dissent in the Christian tradition. Throughout Christian history women discovered this concept of direct relation to God as a way to affirm their own authority and autonomy against patriarchal authority. God's call to them to preach, to teach, to form a new community where women's gifts were fully actualized overruled the patriarchal authority that told them to remain at home as dutiful daughters or wives.'o But once the new community becomes a part of the dominant society, God as father and king can be assimilated back into the traditional patriarchal relationships and used to sacralize the authority of human lordship and patriarchy. The radical meaning of Abba for God is lost in translation and interpretation. Instead, a host of new ecclesiastical and imperial "holy fathers" arises, claiming the fatherhood and kingship of God as the basis of their power over others. In order to preserve the prophetic social relationships, we need to find a new language that cannot be as easily co-opted by the systems of domination.
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THE PROSCRIPTION OF IDOLATRY
A third Biblical tradition that is important to a feminist theology is the proscription of idolatry. Israel is to make no picture or graven image of God; no pictorial or verbal representation of God can be taken literally. By contrast, Christian sculpture and painting represents God as a powerful old man with a white beard, even crowned and robed in the insignia of human kings or the triple tiara of the Pope. The message created by such images is that God is both similar to and represented by the patriarchal leadership, the monarchs and the Pope. Such imaging of God should bejudged for what it is-as idolatry, as the setting up of certain human figures as the privileged images and representations of God. To the extent that such political and ecclesiastical patriarchy incarnates unjust and oppressive relationships, such images of God become sanctions of evil. The proscription of idolatry must also be extended to verbal pictures. When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous. The Israelite tradition is circumspect about the verbal image, printing it without vowel signs. The revelation to Moses in the burning bush gives as the name of God only the enigmatic "I am what I shall be." God is person without being imaged by existing social roles. God's being is open-ended, pointing both to what is and to what can be. Classical Christian theology teaches that all names for God are analogies. The tradition of negative or apophatic theology emphasizes the unlikeness between God and human words for God. That tradition corrects the tendency to take verbal images literally; God is like but also unlike any verbal analogy. Does this not mean that male words for God are not in any way superior to or more appropriate than female analogies? God is both male and female and neither male nor female. One needs inclusive language for God that draws on the images and experiences of both genders. This inclusiveness should not become more abstract. Abstractions often conceal androcentric assumptions and prevent the shattering of the male monopoly oii God-language, as in "God is not male. He is Spirit." Inclusiveness can happen only by naming God/ess in female as well as male metaphors.
EQUIVALENT IMAGES FOR GOD AS MALE AND FEMALE
Are there any Biblical examples of such naming of God/ess in female as well as male metaphors that are truly equivalent images, that is, not "feminine" aspects of a male God? The synoptic Gospels offer some examples of this in the parallel parables, which seem to have been shaped in the early Christian catechetical community. They reflect the innovation of the early Christian movement of including women
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equally in those called to study the Torah of Jesus. Jesus justifies this practice in the Mary-Martha story, where he defends Mary's right to study in the circle of disciples around Rabbi Jesus in the words "Mary has chosen the better part which shall not be taken from her" (Luke
10:38-42). In the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven the explosive power of the Kingdom, which God, through Jesus, is sowing in history through small signs and deeds, is compared to a farmer sowing the tiny mustard seed that produces a great tree or a woman folding the tiny bit of leaven in three measures of flour which then causes the whole to rise (Luke 13:18-2 1; Matt. 13:31-33). The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin portray God seeking the sinners despised by the "righteous" of Israel. God is compared to a shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to seek the one that is lost or to a woman with ten coins who loses one and sweeps her house diligently until she finds it. Having found it, she rejoices and throws a party for her friends. This rejoicing is compared to God's rejoicing with the angels in heaven over the repentance of one sinner (Luke 15:1-10) These metaphors for divine activity are so humble that their significance has been easily overlooked in exegesis, but we should note several important points. First, the images of male and female in these parables are equivalent. They both stand for the same things, as paired images. One is in no way inferior to the other. Second, the images are not drawn from the social roles of the mighty, but from the activities of Galilean peasants. It might be objected that the roles of the women are stereotypical and enforce the concept of woman as housekeeper. But it is interesting that the women are never described as related to or dependent on men. The small treasure of the old woman is her own. Presumably she is an independent householder. Finally, and most ' 'ficant y, the parallel male and female 'mages do not picture divine
signi I I action in parental terms. The old woman seeking the lost coin and the woman leavening the flour image God not as mother or father (Creator), but as seeker of the lost and transformer of history (Redeemer).
TOWARD A FEMINis,r UNDERSTANDING OF GOD/ESS
The preceding Biblical traditions may not be adequate f'or a feminist reconstruction of God/ess, but they are suggestive. If all language for God/ess is analogy, if taking a particular human image literally is idolatry, then male language for the divine must lose its privileged place. If God/ess is not the creator and validator of the existing hierarchical social order, but rather the one who liberates us from it, who opens up a new community of equals, then language about God/ess drawn from kingship and hierarchical power must lose its privileged place. Images of God/ess must include female roles and experience. Images
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of God/ess must be drawn from the activities of peasants and working people, people at the bottom of society. Most of all, images of God/ess must be transformative, pointing us back to our authentic potential and forward to new redeemed possibilities. God/ess-language cannot validate roles of men or women in stereotypic ways thatjustify male dominance and female subordination. Adding an image of God/ess as loving, nurturing mother, mediating the power of the strong, sovereign father, is insufficient. Feminists must question the overreliance of Christianity, especially modern bourgeois Christianity, on the model of God/ess as parent. Obviously any symbol of God/ess as parent should include mother as well as father. Mary Baker Eddy's inclusive term, Mother-Father God, already did this one hundred years ago. Mother-Father God has the virtue of concreteness, evoking both parental images rather than moving to an abstraction (Parent), which loses effective resonance. Mother and father image God/ess as creator, as the source of our being. They point back from our own historical existence to those upon whom our existence depends. Parents are a symbol of roots, the sense of being grounded in the universe in those who have gone before, who underlie our own existence. But the parent model for the divine has negative resonance as well. It suggests a kind of permanent parent-child relationship to God. God becomes a neurotic parent who does not want us to grow up. To become autonomous and responsible for our own lives is the gravest sin against God. Patriarchal theology uses the parent image for God to prolong spiritual infantilism as virtue and to make autonomy and assertion of free will a sin. Parenting in patriarchal society also becomes the way of enculturating us to the stereotypic male and female roles. The family becomes the nucleus and model of patriarchal relations in society. 'ro that extent parenting language for God reinforces patriarchal power rather than liberating us from it. We need to start with language for the Divine as redeemer, as liberator, as one who fosters full personhood and, in that context, speak of God/ess as creator, as source of being. Patriarchal theologies of "hope" or liberation affirm the God of Exodus, the God who uproots us from present historical systems and puts us on the road to new possibilities. But they typically do this in negation of God/ess as Matrix, as source and ground of our being. They make the fundamental mistake of identifying the ground of creation with the foundations of existing social systems. Being, matter, and nature become the ontocratic base for the evil system of what is. Liberation is liberation out of or against nature into spirit. The identification of matter, nature, and being with mother makes such patriarchal theology hostile to women as symbols of all that "drags us down" from freedom. The hostility of males to any symbol of God/ess as female is rooted in
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this identification of mother with the negation of liberated spirit. God/ess as Matrix is thought of as "static" immanence. A static, devouring, death-dealing matter is imaged, with horror, as extinguishing the free flight of transcendent consciousness. The dualism of nature and transcendence, matter and spirit as female against male is basic to male theology. Feminist theology must fundamentally reject this dualism of nature and spirit. It must reject both sides of the dualism: both the image of mother-matter-matrix as "static immanence" and as the ontological foundation of existing, oppressive social systems and also the concept of spirit and transcendence as rootless, antinatural, originating in an "other world" beyond the cosmos, ever repudiating and fleeing from nature, body, and the visible world. Feminist theology needs to affirm the God of Exodus, of liberation and new being, but as rooted in the foundations of being rather than as its antithesis. The God/ess who is the foundation (at one and the same time) of our being and our new being embraces both the roots of the material substratum of our existence (matter) and also the endlessly new creative potential (spirit). The God/ess who is the foundation of our being-new being does not lead us back to a stifled, dependent self or uproot us in a spirit-trip outside the earth. Rather it leads us to the converted center, the harmonization of self and body, self and other, self and world. It is the Shalom of our being. God/ess as once and future Shalom of being, however, is not the creator, founder, or sanctioner of patriarchal-hierarchical society. This world arises in revolt against God/ess and in alienation from nature. lt erects a false system of alienated dualisms modeled on its distorted and oppressive social relationships. God/ess liberates us from this false and alienated world, not by an endless continuation of the same trajectory of alienation but as a constant breakthrough that points us to new possibilities that are, at the same time, the regrounding of ourselves in the primordial matrix, the original harmony. The liberating encounter with God/ess is always an encounter with our authentic selvrs resurrected from underneath the alienated self. It is not experienced against, but in and through relationships, healing our broken relations with our bodies, with other people, with nature. We have no adequate name for the true God/ess, the "I am who I shall become." Intimations of Her/ His name will appear as we emerge from false naming of God/ess modeled on patriarchal alienation.
1. Phyllis Bird, "Women in the Old Testament," in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. R. Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 48-57.