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Orthodoxy and the Divine Feminine
By Clark Wilsonl

For a moment, put yourself into the place of a first-time visitor to our church. You walk through the narthex into the church proper. There are icons everywhere - huge ones, tiny ones, medium-size ones, icons in frames, icons painted onto the altar dome and the arch, and an icon on a stand. A tiny girl is lifted up and with a toddler's cheerful, unconcerned solemnity, kisses the icon. Then of course there is the service, with its resonances and fragrances and cadences, and the fellowship afterwards.

The words of the worship probably made a much greater impression on you by their music than by their meaning. And among the words, those perhaps least likely to have broken through to you will be the most abstract ones: incomparable, ineffable, inexpressible, invisible, incomprehensible. Yet it is these words, nearly lost in the riot of colors and the flow of the liturgy, that anchor and limit the imagery that made such an impression upon you. And these words tell us how we must answer some demands of the hour. Let us see how this is so.

Floor may be slippery

First let me put up a warning, like the little yellow sign in aisle 7 where a broken grape juice bottle has just been cleaned up. This is an essay. It is a personal piece of writing not meant to be authoritative. The original sense of "essay" was an experiment, a reconnaissance, almost a flight of fancy. It was contrasted with scholarly writing, which claimed to be exhaustive and authoritative, not at all fanciful. This essay is based on popular sources I have read, along with some ideas that came to me as I grappled with a question that was asked of me. I have not studied the academic basics in these areas. So take care, the floor may be slippery.

The question that set me off, the burr under my saddle, was about the divine feminine and Orthodox Christianity. Questions on this topic are much in the air -- there is The Da Vinci Code and the sources to which it refers, there are New Age seekers who worship Gaia and follow the Goddess, and there are established, major religions (such as Hinduism) in which goddesses are prominent. Among Christians there are many liturgists who replace "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" with gender-neutral terms, and a few who apply feminine names to God. I have seen, for instance, a photograph of a crucifix that instead of Jesus has "Christa," a woman, on it. So the World is asking us why Orthodox Christianity (from the World's point of view) undervalues the divine feminine, or is blind to the divine feminine, or lags behind other religions in recognizing the divine feminine.


Let us now return to the first-time visitor entering the church, seeing all the icons. Obviously, the visitor's mind will first encounter what is visible -- a variety of pictures of holy women and holy men and important events, with the huge icon of the Theotokos and the Christ Child most prominent. And just as obviously, it is a harder task to discern what is not present. Some of the principles of selection will be clear, such as the fact that many icons depict scenes from Scripture. Principles of omission are less clear to the eye. A visitor or the World may think and feel by analogy with art history, schools or artists, and museums, and with the principles that govern selection and exclusion of works of art in them. For many centuries artists painted angels and the nobility, then more often they painted regular people, then cans of soup, and so on. By this (unconscious) reasoning, to decline to add a new thematic area or emphasis to the themes already covered by icons may seem just surly stodginess based on social and cultural traditions. Such traditions change, and they can and do change in degree and emphasis -- they are not either-or, all-or-nothing things.

By this reasoning, asking Orthodox to add images or change emphasis wouldn't be like, say, asking Muslims to include people's faces in Islamic religious art, which is known to exclude such depictions by basic theological principle. We all know of Islam's absolute refusal to assign concrete or personal attributes to God -- it is the center of Islam's teaching on the nature and know-ability of God. They allow no images in mosque artwork, and all that. Likewise, many Protestant Christians do not allow pictures or statues or icons in their churches, based on their belief that icons and statues as they exist in the Catholic and Orthodox churches are a form of idolatry forbidden by Scripture. During the Reformation the Protestants went around knocking the faces off of sculptures and destroying Celtic crosses that had drawings of people on them (for instance, over 300 of them on the island of Iona) and so forth.

But such things certainly aren't a problem for the Orthodox, right?

Wrong. Orthodoxy shares with Islam and Protestant Christianity that deep, deep reluctance to allow images. We Orthodox did not decide once and for all that we could have icons until 842. Yes, we argued about it for more than 800 years and had two huge battles (725-787 and 814-842) in which icons were removed from churches by edict of the Emperor and Patriarch, pro-icon folks were persecuted, and all that. The basic deciding argument was that God had shown Himself to us in Jesus, and so it was okay to create visual representations of holy persons and events, as long as it was within the bounds implied by that principle. So we never show the Father (except as a hand coming in from outside the frame or as one of the three indistinguishable angels in the "Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah" icon). The Spirit is shown "as a dove." So although we have icons everywhere, Orthodoxy deep within itself carefully limits the imagery to those images that we see as given to us by God - from Scripture, core traditions, and the Saints. Orthodoxy has within itself that profound concern that it shares with the Muslims and the Protestants, namely, that God is fundamentally unknowable and Other, and hence that images - other than those expressly allowed by God - are outside the pale. And Orthodoxy is sensitized deep inside itself by those 800 years of sometimes extremely bitter dispute.

Now we have arrived at the principle for what is not shown in icons and not spoken of in worship. The principle lies in those abstract words that are so easily overlooked: incomparable, ineffable, inexpressible, invisible, and incomprehensible. We proclaim, over and over, the fact that God is radically unknowable, ineffable, beyond understanding, radically Other.

Let me give you now two extended quotations from the first edition (1979) of Ware's Orthodox Way.

The Otherness yet Nearness of the Eternal - What or Whom is God?

The traveler upon the Spiritual Way, as he advances, becomes increasingly conscious of two contrasting facts -- of the otherness yet nearness of the Eternal. In the first place, he realizes more and more that God is mystery. God is 'the wholly Other', invisible, inconceivable, radically transcendent, beyond all words, beyond all understanding. 'Surely the babe just born', writes the Roman Catholic George Tyrrell, 'knows as much of the world and its ways as the wisest of us can know of the ways of God, whose sway stretches over heaven and earth, time and eternity.' A Christian in the Orthodox tradition will agree with this entirely. As the Greek Fathers insisted, 'A God who is comprehensible is not God.' A God, that is to say, whom we claim to understand exhaustively through the resources of our reasoning brain turns out to be no more than an idol, fashioned in our own image. Such a 'God' is most emphatically not the true and living God of the Bible and the Church. Man is made in God's image, but the reverse is not true.

Yet, in the second place, this God of mystery is at the same time uniquely close to us, filling all things, present everywhere around us and within us. And he present, not merely as an atmosphere or nameless force, but in a personal way. The God who is infinitely beyond our understanding reveals Himself to us as person: he calls us each by our name and we answer him. Between ourselves and the transcendent God there is a relationship of love, similar in kind to that between each of us and those other human being dearest to us. We know other humans through our love for them, and through theirs for us. So it is also with God. In the words of Nicolas Cabasilas, God our King is

"more affectionate than any friend,

more just than any ruler,

more loving than any father,

more a part of us than our own limbs,

more necessary to us than our own heart."

These, then, are the two 'poles' in man's experience of the Divine. God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than anything else. And we find, paradoxically, that these two poles do not cancel one another out. On the contrary, the more we are attracted to the one 'pole', the more vividly we may become aware of the other. Advancing along the Way, we find that God grows ever more intimate and ever more distant, well known and yet unknown. [pp 13-14]

Why speak of God as Father and Son, and not Mother and Daughter? In itself the Godhead possesses neither maleness nor femininity. Although our human sexual characteristics as male and female reflect, at their highest and truest, an aspect of the divine life, yet there is in God no such thing as sexuality. When, therefore, we speak of God as Father, we are speaking not literally but in symbols. Yet why should the symbols be masculine rather than feminine? Why call God 'he' and not 'she'? In fact, Christians have sometimes applied 'mother language' to God. Aphrahat, one of the early Syriac Fathers, speaks of the believer's love for 'God his Father and the Holy Spirit his Mother', while in the medieval West we find the Lady Julian of Norwich affirming: 'God rejoices that he is our Father, and God rejoices that he is our Mother.' But these are exceptions. Almost always the symbolism used of God by the Bible and in the Church's worship has been male symbolism.

We cannot prove by arguments why this should be so, yet it remains a fact of our Christian experience that God has set his seal upon certain symbols and not upon others. The symbols are not chosen but revealed and given. A symbol can be verified, lived, prayed -- but not 'proved' logically. These 'given' symbols however, while not capable of proof, are yet far from being arbitrary. Like the symbols in myth, literature and art, our religious symbols reach deep into the hidden roots of our being, and cannot be altered without momentus consequences. If, for example, we were to start saying 'Our Mother who art in heaven', instead of 'Our Father', we should not merely be adjusting an incidental piece of imagery, but replacing Christianity with a new kind of religion. A Mother Goddess is not the Lord of the Christian Church. [pp. 42-43]

Now, if we reflect upon what I have called the "Muslim" or "Protestant" side of Orthodoxy -- the side that erupted as the iconoclasts in the 8th and 9th centuries -- we can see that Orthodoxy's very strong resistance to adding to or adjusting our stock of images of the divine comes not only from hidebound traditionalism (though Orthodoxy, like all human groups, has that!) but also from a deep awareness of, respect for, and humility before, the radical unknowable-ness of God. But unlike Islam and the most austere Protestants, Orthodoxy embraces with childlike solemnity the image-full revelation God has given us in the Incarnation, in the Church, in Scripture, and in the Saints.

This is, of course, not the entire story. Wait for the next episode, "Begin the beguine, define the divine."


St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images
John Baggley, Doors of Perception: Icons and their Spiritual Significance
Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis
Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (two vols.)
Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons
Michel Quenot, Icon: Window on the Kingdom
Jim Forest, Praying with Icons

The book by St. John of Damascus is from the iconoclast controversies. The others are from the twentieth century. Obviously, any of these would be a suitable course in the School of the Seventy.

The blog has entries relating to The Da Vinci Code, and it has a link to a book Women of Byzantium A "blog" in this case is just a web page that is a bulletin board onto which I post things. The most recent entries are at the top.

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