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Women want power to imagine and name God.

A feminist Christian re-imagining conference held in Minneapolis last November provoked considerable controversy. Attended by 2,200 women (1,300 others were turned away) and 83 men from all over the world, the conference embodied women's standing up as equal participants in the "naming game."

Throughout time, men have named the sacred from the standpoint of the male body and experience. It is no accident that the Genesis 2 account of creation has Adam "naming" all the animals. Naming is power, the power to shape a culture's way of perceiving and thinking. Thus, patriarchal Christian theology, as well as culture and history in general, have been male-reflective, truly "created in the image of him."

To stand on this power base as "namer" in the culture is to see oneself as a "subject" acting out of one's own initiatives and not acted upon as an object. One is a doer rather than the done-to. The male, in claiming such "subject power" for himself invariably has desired that his female partner not be the "namer" but the "named," not the "norm-maker" but the "normed-upon."

Within our Christian tradition, women were named from that male standpoint as inferior, evil, unclean and grotesque. Men have misused that power of naming, as Rosemary Radford Ruether has written, in a kind of "theological violence that many feminists feel has been the backdrop legitimizing violence against women."

Fight over naming

The issue at the re-imagining conference was not male-defined boundaries of orthodoxy, heresy and blasphemy but who should keep watch over such boundaries of orthodoxy and heresy and who has the right to define those boundaries.

Most men today seem magnanimously willing to include women as full participants in their male-clergy clubs. But many apparently are not willing to move over and share with women the decisive power of naming.

There has been perturbation about the use of some sensuous female references to God. But the sensuous bodily dimensions of the Godhead have never bothered male Christians when portrayed in their own male terms, as in the superactive and super-ethereal male sperm (Luke 1:35, 37) that impregnated Mary to "beget" Jesus. That sperm image resonated well with male sensibilities.

Likewise, the bodily dimensions of the Godhead were not considered heretical or blasphemous when, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo portrayed the creator of the universe as a very male patriarch with a long beard and bulging muscles. Instead, this imagining by Michelangelo became for centuries a visual icon for the theological axiom that "God created man in his own image."

Our language and our own theology reflect our life in Adam's world. Our words reflect uniquely male genital experiences: "the thrust of his thinking"; "a penetrating statement"; "a seminal book"; and even the word "seminar." Yet male consciousness, like the Washington Monument to "the rather of our country," has left us blissfully unaware of the frequently phallic nature of the sculpting of its monuments and of its words and doctrines.

Keeping control

We women want the power to name and sculpt the idea of God in our own image, as men have done for millennia. "How dare they," say our critics. Pat Rumer, general director of Church Women United, rightly named the controversy a problem of control.

In Adam, the males of the Christian tradition have named the prototypical and normative human. Adam is the one around whom that so-called generic language of "man" and "mankind" has been fashioned in a male-reflective consciousness that never perceived its own form of political correctness but instead saw only what it called "truth."

Always the decisive question is one of power: Who controls the myth system? Who is in charge of the social and religious construction of reality? Who has the power to name something as truth and, thus, orthodox? Or to name something else "politically correct"?

A poster on my wall reads: "Woman is as common as a loaf of bread and, like a loaf and bread, will rise." We are living today a turning point between the genders. For generations, women have seemed content, at home and in the church, to live within the male reality. But no more.

It is an awesome thing to find a voice within oneself to express one's own uniquely female experience.

There is a groundswell of feminist Christians (men and women) who are ready and, indeed, eager for women to rename to sacred. We continue to express and embody our intention to be fully "subject" in a Christian tradition we women are now going to help define, shape and direct. We feminist Christians have begun to claim and use our power to name the sacred for ourselves and to draw our own conclusions.

Do not expect this women's naming of the sacred to be like men's. The spirit flows freely as always, and I would advise denominations not to guard the bastions of control and tighten up the boundaries of heresy-naming because you will be blown away as the spirit moves now across a broader landscape of human experience.

A new naming of the sacred is being born in the community of women. To be part of this new community is like being with the women to whom the ressurected Jesus appeared on Easter morn or being present at Pentecost. We are speaking in tongues not yet understood. A new and alternative world of Christian meaning is being re-imagined today by a diversity of women around the globe. It will change everything for Christians, women and men, and not a moment too soon.

Elizabeth Dodson Gray is a feminist theologian who coordinated the Theological Opportunities Program at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Green Paradise Lost (1979) and Patriarchy as a Conceptual Trap (1983) and editor of Sacred Dimensions of Women's Experience (1988). She has two books to be published in 1994: The Sunday School Manifesto: In the Image of Her? and Naming is Power: A Feminist Analysis of Power.
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Title Annotation:feminist Christians
Author:Gray, Elizabeth Dodson
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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