Define The Divine
By Clark Wilson
Note: This article is a continuation of Clark's article on the Divine
The essay was sparked by someone asking me, "Why is Orthodox
Christianity "less accepting" of the divine feminine (God as mother) than some
other religions are?" The original example given was Hinduism. I'm quite grateful
for the question, because I've learned a lot trying to answer it.
In the first part of the essay, published earlier this year in the
Evangelist, I said that according to Orthodoxy, God is radically unknowable, and so we
can know God only so far as He reveals Himself to us; we have to accept that revelation
and work with it and within it. To make visible the limits of revelation, I used the
example of icons. The iconoclasts argued that because God is radically unknowable and
transcendent there should be no God pictures at all, and how Orthodoxy resolved that
there can be pictures but only of those things that God has chosen to reveal, most
notably through the Incarnation. I closed by quoting Bishop KALLISTOS to the effect
that in His revelation, God has almost exclusively used male imagery to denote and
describe Himself, and that this is not an arbitrary thing we can dispense with at
Today I want to lay out a simple idea, a too-simple idea. My knowledge
of Hinduism comes from a couple of popular (non-Hindu) sources, and I know even less about
religions other than Hinduism. But my notion is that this too-simple idea can be a kind
of intellectual weed-eater that you can use to clear away the underbrush and reveal the
real lay of the land (i.e., what the real issues are).
The simple idea is that we should compare things that are like each
other. Or, if we wish to compare unlike things, we should explicitly say that is what we
Here is an example: A person could say that in the Orthodox Christian
faith, there is only a male God, who stands in splendid isolation; while in Hinduism there
are gods and goddesses, and these gods and goddesses are often paired, male and female,
and the goddesses are often worshiped in their own right. So, the person could say,
Hinduism gives larger scope or greater acceptance to the feminine divine than does
I claim that in the example, we are comparing unlike things as if
they were like things. My reasoning goes like this:
In Orthodox Christianity, the realm of the divine (that is, what God is
and does) is at once huge and limited -- huge, because God created everything from nothing
and "is everywhere and fills all things," but also limited, because God is God and
everything else is created. Everything. Furthermore, His immanence (His presence in
our lives) is not a visible and local immanence like that of Hindu or ancient Greek
deities. He was local and visible for approximately 30 years in Israel two thousand
years ago. He has no peers or near peers -- He is not Zeus, who can have things hidden
from him by Athena, or a goddess who has a god as a husband or lover and who struggles
against other deities as well as against evil beings.
On the other hand, in ancient Greece or in modern India, there are gods
and goddesses who have peers, and who in some sense reside in a temple in a particular
place and even in statues of them. They have stories that tell how their positions or
states changed. They live and act in a universe that is somehow already in being. They
didn't create the universe; they are residents of it.
Hence the Orthodox Christian universe simply does not contain anything
that corresponds to a god or goddess of the sort I have been describing, and therefore
(within the scope of what we have said so far) it is meaningless to compare the Orthodox
Christian "divine" with the Hindu "divine."
So, there you are. There is the simple idea. Don't compare things that
aren't like each other; or if you do compare them, be aware that they aren't like each
Here is a second example:
According to Orthodox Christianity, the Theotokos is the pinnacle of
created things. We say that she is "more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious
beyond compare than the Seraphim." To put that into perspective, the traditional
classification system for angels has nine ranks, of which the bottom two are archangels
and angels. The topmost is Seraphim. And the Theotokos is "more glorious beyond
compare" than this topmost order of angels! But she is still created, not divine.
So far as I know, there is no created person or entity in Hinduism that has anywhere
near this exalted position in the universe, much less her unique role. There is no
meaningful comparison that can be made.
Now, I didn't say this simple idea is the ultimate tool to resolve
questions like the one I was asked about the feminine divine. I said it could be used to
clear away clutter and obstructions. What will happen is that people will not be satisfied
with the conclusion that you can't compare these two things, and they'll start to adjust
the definitions to try to come up with two things that can be compared meaningfully. So
perhaps they'd want to include within the "divine" the actions of angels carrying out
God's will. Or perhaps they want somehow to compare the feminine as embodied and acted
out by the Theotokos with the feminine as embodied and acted out by some Hindu goddess.
But if you've used the intellectual weed-eater to clear away the underbrush, you will
be clear about what it is you are actually comparing and won't be deceived by slippery
terms like "divine" or even "feminine."
And now that this article has cleared away underbrush, the third
article can turn to cases in which there is indeed a feminine divine, even using "divine"
in the narrow sense. Hint: What was the name of the greatest, most beautiful church in
all of Orthodoxy?