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Define The Divine
By Clark Wilson

Note: This article is a continuation of Clark's article on the Divine feminine. -ed.

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 will.

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 are doing.

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 Orthodox Christianity.

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 other.

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?

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