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She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse.

In this carefully researched, beautifully written, and persuasively argued volume, Johnson shows the consequences of the way we speak about God. Exclusive use of male imagery for God both oppresses women by implicitly denying that they are imago Dei, and supports idolatry by implicitly denying the depths of the divine mystery. Both Scripture and traditional theology, however, contain elements which a feminist analysis can retrieve for emancipatory language about God. Such language frees both women and theology from patriarchal oppression so that "the truth of the mystery of God, in tandem with the liberation of all human beings and the whole earth, (may) emerge for our times" (56).

J. objects to the distortions of God coming from classical theism, influenced by patriarchy, especially the view that God is not really related to the world, though the world is really related to God. She finds Aquinas the major culprit here.

J. brings her scholarship and reflection to bear upon the mystery of the Trinity. Her primary symbol for this reinterpretation is Sophia, Holy Wisdom, as a feminine metaphor for God. Sophia can be imaged in each of the three divine Persons, and in the Holy Trinity together. Beginning with the sphere of Christian religious experience, J. develops the image of Sophia-Spirit. In Jesus, Holy Wisdom becomes incarnate: Jesus-Sophia. Finally, the depths of the divine mystery is disclosed in Mother-Sophia.

In imaging the Holy Trinity together, J. wishes to avoid anything that is redolent of priority or subordinationism. She therefore avoids explaining the relations of the divine persons in terms of origins. Friendship and the ancient doctrine of perichoresis seems a way to do this.

Recognizing how classical thought has seen in the title of God "He Who Is" unbounded energy and creativity and not simply the metaphysical absolute, J. chooses "She Who Is" as an appropriate name for God: "In a word, SHE WHO IS discloses in an elusive female metaphor the mystery of Sophia-God as sheer, exuberant, relational aliveness in the midst of the history of suffering, inexhaustible source of new being in situations of death and destruction, ground of hope for the whole created universe ..." (243).

Finally, J. expounds the traditional problem of evil, but judges that no conceptual solution is possible. She deals with the matter by describing the suffering God in intimate compassion with human suffering. This is not simply God who loves in weakness, for that would reinforce unhealthy attitudes in women, but God whose power makes her suffer along with suffering humanity.

It seems to me that J. has in great part succeeded in her enterprise. But there are some questions. Surely, simple justice and the recognition that women are truly images of God should lead us to use female metaphors of God. If we ask further whether this leads us more deeply into the mystery of God, J.'s answer is certainly affirmative. But it becomes difficult to understand why she says this. The simplest view would be that women image God differently from men; but this would lead to saying that certain traits or attributes are more "feminine" than "masculine," and she wishes to avoid this, since language of "feminine traits" has been connected with the patriarchal oppression of women. She doesn't seem to conceive a complementary diversity, in which each sex serves the other, so that together they image God more fully than either one alone. But actually, J. frequently uses language that suggests that being a woman is a distinctive way of being human and thus of imaging God, such as, e.g., "Let us speak of the Spirit's actions, drawing attention to the affinity of such language with feminist values, highlighting as it does freely moving, life-giving, nonviolent power that connects, renews, and blesses" (133).

J.'s objection to the "unrelated God" seems not altogether well taken. No doubt the view of an "unrelated God" makes no sense to most of us today, but it did not originally wish to isolate God from the world but to avoid making him relative to a finite absolute. Aquinas regularly uses the words "ordo" and "respectus" and "habitudo" to indicate how God is related to creatures, for he recognizes that only as God's love and power are actually directed toward creatures can he know them and cause them (e.g. ST 1, q. 19, a. 5).

The unqualified denunciation of patriarchy seems excessive. Patriarchy as a social structure played an important and beneficent part in the early development of the human race. It was a primitive way to unite the tribe, to protect them from predators and enemies, and to provide food, shelter, and clothing. No doubt we are beyond patriarchy, and attempts to maintain it in ecclesiastical and political organizations today are evil; but this is because it means persisting in social immaturity, not because patriarchy is intrinsically designed to oppress and demean.

It is not clear how friendship and perichoresis can distinguish the divine persons, though it may help to understand their unity.

Finally, the problem of evil is the greatest cause of atheism in the world today. While no "conceptual solution" in a positive sense is possible, still it belongs to a Christian theologian to show that there is no inner contradiction in affirming the reality of an all powerful, loving God and the reality of the evil we experience in creation. The compassionate God is truly an important insight, but it is not by itself a sufficient response.

In spite of these questions, this is a major contribution to feminist theology, and we are all in Johnson's debt.
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Author:Wright, John H.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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