Catherine Madsen

If God Is God She Is Not Nice

by Catherine Madsen


I have just returned from another conference on women and spirituality, and my ears are full of phrases like “imaging God” and “God the Mother” and “the feminine attributes of the Divine.” I am surprised to find that this leaves me feeling disaffected from all religion, orthodox or feminist, God-centered or Goddess-centered. I have the feeling that I am being lied to, or that some of the women in search of the feminine divine are somehow lying to themselves, or that there is a lie somewhere in this approach to thinking about God.

            It is not the concept of a Goddess that I mistrust. I am not attached to any of the orthodoxies as a member, and I am as much at home among neopagans as anywhere else; I have no stake in preserving the authority of a patriarchal God. None of the manifestations of the Goddess – mother, crone, personified wisdom, miraculous virgin or whore – seems to me unlikely or unworthy to be an image of God. If one cares to speak of God in human terms at all, then each of these human possibilities must be an aspect of the divine image.

            But throughout the conference I heard only about God the Mother as nurturer, healer, caretaker, peacemaker, as though no other attributes were permitted God once she was fitted with a female pronoun. Rather than expanding the idea of God to include women’s knowledge – the knowledge of unending responsibility, of the ambiguity and necessity of relationships, of being surrounded by people but at the same time far from help – these definitions narrow God’s role to the traditional feminine virtues: as though the Goddess were God’s wife and our mother and her job was to clean up after all of us, and console us too.

            Many of the women who offered such definitions seemed to come from mainstream Christian churches; some were nuns. They had been raised in a religious tradition which pronounced that God was good without any argument, and that the believer’s chief task was to bend her will to his. Now that they have understood how damaging this is to the believer (and, in particular ways, to the female believer), they can no longer accept their churches’ definition of God; they cannot bend their will to a God who seems to desire the suppression of their bodies and the suffocation of their minds. But their answer to this is to try to discover a God they can bend their will to. Having been told that God is good, and discovered that “he” is not, they still hope that “she” may be. They are unwilling, or afraid, or perhaps it has simply not occurred to them, to match their will against God’s. They are still in search of a God they can approve of.

            It is certainly true that the revelation of how deep the opposition to female authority runs in patriarchal religion has left many women profoundly in need of comfort. But it has left them in even greater need of truth. To project the attributes one trusts and approves of onto a Goddess, in order that one may still have something to worship after the betrayals of the Father God, is to underestimate what is possible in the relationship between God and the individual soul. It is to maintain a dependent and docile relationship to God, and to assert that gender is the factor which makes dependency on the Father God intolerable and dependency on the Goddess permissible. It is also (for some women) a kind of insurance that one’s God will never get out of hand, never appear unbearably different from oneself. It can be a kind of evasion of one’s own authority.

            But why is it necessary (and how is it possible?) to have a God one trusts and approves of? I say this not as someone who has only known the Father God, but as someone who has known the world: its droughts and floods, its extremes of climate, its strange combination of tender bounty and indifference, and the uneasiness of human society with its descents into savagery. However certain one may be that one is loved by some presence in the universe – and it is possible, at moments, to be very certain of that – that same presence will kill us all in turn, will visit our lovers with sudden devastating illness, will freeze our crops, will age our friends, and will never for one moment stand between us and any person who wishes us harm. Does the Goddess so care for us, if she is not moved by our pain? Does she nurture us when she blasts our fields with unrelenting sun? Did she, in some secret laboratory of vulnerable flesh, work out the mutations of the AIDS virus?

            Did she who made the Lamb make thee?

            The image of a nurturing Goddess involves us in the same difficulty as the image of a good God. There is no escape. We may remove all barriers to women’s participation in religion, all sense that femaleness is contaminating. We may refute the notion of God as a punishing presence, always remote and forbidding. But, those obstacles gone, we come face to face with the essential dilemma, the vertigo, the horror of all ethical theism: we are more ethical than God. Given the power to make a world, we would never have made this one.

            To establish a Goddess in place of the Father God accomplishes nothing if we try to make her good. To substitute feminine virtues for masculine powers is impossible, either in divine or in human terms; in the world, virtues and powers are entirely mixed, so that no good act takes place (even nurturance, even comfort) without its undercurrent of danger; and no evil act takes place but through the intermediary of the body, the physical reality we love. If we are made in the divine image, that is what we are up against: the inseparability of good and evil. If we long to separate them anyway – if we have eaten the fruit of some tree, which makes us restlessly conscious that we are “as gods” and would rather not be – we are on our own: we are doomed to try to alter God’s image, to refine it and discipline it and reshape it, and not with God’s benign encouragement but even against God’s will. We must try to become what we wish God was.

            Is it so strengthening to have an image of God who nurtures us? How much more strengthening to have an image of God we can stand up to: whom we can argue with, whom we can exhort, to whose face we can insist upon justice and nurturance and wisdom and every great thing we want to be capable of. How much more strengthening to strive with God. The story of Jacob and the angel may look to women’s eyes like just another masculine tussle in the dust, but it contains this truth: that it will not destroy us to strive with God, that we can wrestle and prevail, that even against God’s will we can exact a blessing.

            Or let us have no image of God at all, and learn to trust each other.


Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion v. 5, no. 1, Spring 1989


© Catherine Madsen 1989