THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
It was my first year of college. Easter. Even though I hadn’t been to church since starting at Boston University–glad to be rid of the Southern Bible Belt I had left behind–I still felt a twinge of guilt. A need to go to church for Easter, if nothing else.
So I corralled one of my friends into adventuring into Trinity Church, the beautiful Episcopal parish in Copley Square in Boston. I’d seen it often in my forays to the Boston Public Library, which was my personal sanctuary in the city, and decided that if I was going to guiltily slink back into church for Easter Sunday, it might as well be in a visually stunning place.
And stunning it was. I gaped as we went inside, staring up at the soaring stained glass windows and the Easter lilies dripping from the balustrades. A full ensemble of woodwind and brass players sat at the front, producing fittingly angelic music.
All this was nothing, however, to what I felt when the service started. The minister came out to the podium and began to speak–and she was a woman.
I had known intellectually, of course, that some traditions ordained women. I had known they must exist, somewhere, out there–the same way you know platypi and narwhals are real, even if they seem fantastical.
This was the first time, however, I had ever seen a female religious leader in person.
And that mattered.
It was later that year, writing for one of my religion classes, that I would be told I didn’t have to refer to God with capitalized, male language. My advisor circled all the “He”s and “Him”s in my paper (words I’d been conditioned to use from years of Baptist preachers and Catholic services ingraining into me that God was Lord, Father, King), and he asked me if I’d ever thought about using non-gendered, non-capitalized language for the divine. That it was okay for me to do so.
A burden I hadn’t even known existed was lifted.
Suddenly, God no longer had to be a man. Suddenly, God could be she, mother, sister, goddess. Suddenly, God became so much more infinite than any deity I’d ever imagined in the pews of my childhood.
Soon after, I discovered Unitarian Universalism, a spiritual home that opened up even more possibility and freedom. My minister at Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church was a woman. Our intern ministers were women. These female mentors encouraged me–another young woman–to explore my call to ministry.
Indeed, in Unitarian Universalism, the majority of our clergy are women. Some scholars of religion call this trend of a growing female clergy “the feminization of the divine.” More women are in pulpits, leading prayers, giving a new perspective on how we can think about God. One of my professors here at Claremont School of Theology, an ordained clergywoman, remembers being told back in the 1980s that she couldn’t preach because her womanly voice “didn’t sound like God’s”–yet in the worship and preaching classes I’ve taken with her today, the students have mostly been female. It’s a tidal change in leadership–and in language.
What does it mean, after all, to think of the divine as feminine?
I think of a recent skit by comedian (may we call him theologian in this instance?) Louis C.K. He says:
I think that if there is a God, I don’t know if it’s the one in the Bible, because that’s a weird story. He’s our father and we’re his children. That’s it. Our father who art in heaven. Where’s our mother? What happened to our mom? What did he do to our mom? Something happened. Somewhere in heaven there’s a porch with a dead lady under it. Somebody’s going to check the trunk of God’s car for bleach and rope and fibers. Well–how can we not have a mother?
And it’s a legitimate question. Where is the mother? Where is the divine feminine energy? Where is the womb, the childbirth, the act of creation every human mother who has ever lived brings forth?
I think of a class I’m taking at the Academy for Jewish Religion California, taught by a female rabbi. How she was talking about the Hebrew word for human–adam–and how it shares the same root as adama–the word for earth. “People translate adam as ‘man,’” she said, “but I like to think of it as ‘earthling’–a being of the earth.” She told us how some Jewish mystics, indeed, see the earth as mother, and humans as the offspring of a divine union between Earth and God.
I think about how that idea is echoed in many world mythologies. About the pantheons of goddesses across the globe and stretching back through human history. About how I felt standing at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth this past summer, looking at the dozens of Marian devotions from around the world portraying the Virgin as everything from avenging warrior to fertile mother in a myriad of races and cultures. About how that representation matters.
Of course, as freeing as it was, six years ago, to be told I didn’t have to refer to God as “He,” God is also not limited to “She.”
In my theology, the divine is infinite, unknowable, vast. God transcends genders–indeed, as a recent United Church of Christ image proclaimed, God is Transgender. Perhaps God has qualities of both genders (though that strays dangerously close to gender essentialism)–or perhaps the divine, the Spirit of Life (to use a Unitarian Universalist term), completely disbands our social constructs of gender altogether.
And isn’t that beautiful? To see the divine as something that embraces and is all of us, in all our expressions and diversity? To understand that trans* and queer and intersex and agender and female and male voices could all be the voice of God? That each of us could be the face of God?
That God is trans. That God is us–all of us.