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Only half the picture?

May 2006 | by Laura Nelson

The Da Vinci Code, the church, and the ‘Sacred Feminine’ –
are we missing out on the feminine face of the divine?

Writing fiction has always been a powerful way to convey a message, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia spring to mind, or even Jesus’ parables).

The readers often find themselves open to ideas they had not previously considered, as the characters and the narrative draw them in and appeal to their emotions as much as their minds.

Whether, in writing The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown had a particular agenda or just dug up some potent material to help him tell a good story, his sympathetic presentation of goddess worship is bound to have raised many questions in both Christian and non-Christian minds.

When we discuss the book with friends, it may not be enough to rehearse the arguments for the reliability of the four Gospels (utterly convincing though they are) over against the gnostic documents and theories favoured by Brown. In our post-modern world some friends may be just as interested in which set of beliefs is experientially more powerful and appealing.

Is historical Christianity missing something? Has it suppressed ‘the sacred feminine’ in favour of a purely masculine deity? Can such a faith truly appreciate both sexes, present their balance and harmony, and celebrate their union? Who has the richer and more liberating view of humanity — neo-paganism as sold to us by Langdon and The Priory, or historical Christianity as found in the Bible?

In my view there is no contest. In the God of the Bible we have the full picture (through a glass darkly, but still full) and however attractive the Priory’s religion might seem, it is they who are missing out — for the following reasons.

Beyond sex

Firstly, the God of the Bible is neither male nor female — he is beyond sex. According to Langdon and Co., historic Christianity presents us with a male deity that gives rise to an imbalance in the church and a tragic devaluation of all that is feminine.

However, in the Bible God is clearly revealed as being neither male nor female, because he is not like a human. Man is a physical being physically limited; God is spirit. Hence the Bible’s strict prohibition of all images of the deity:

‘You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below’ (Deuteronomy 4:15-18).

It is just as inappropriate to picture God using a male human representation as to do so using a female one, because God has no physical form. He is not a man and so does not have a gender, and it is idolatrous to ascribe one to him. The Bible’s refusal to associate God with sexuality was totally radical in the Ancient Near Eastern religious context, where sexually male and female deities were common.

In his image

Brown’s Langdon is right to explain that all ancient ‘pagan’ religions had sexualised their gods and goddesses. But the God of the Hebrews is uniquely spiritual. The Old Testament scholar Von Rad remarks:

‘For the historian of religion, what is most astonishing is Jahwism’s self-preservation vis-à-vis the mythicising of sex. In the Canaanite cult [the religion of Israel’s immediate neighbours] copulation and procreation were mythically regarded as a divine event; consequently the religious atmosphere was as good as saturated with mythical sexual conceptions. But Israel did not share in the “divinisation of sex”. YHWH stood absolutely beyond the polarity of sex [though not of gender!] and this meant that Israel could not regard sex as a sacral mystery’.1

The biblical authors are clearly at pains not to present Yahweh as another of the surrounding gods and goddesses, sexually capricious rather than sovereign and transcendent. Moreover, he is the source and creator of both genders and of all virtue, masculine and feminine.

Admittedly, God created humanity male and female, each in his image, but although each individual exists in God’s spiritual image, he created two genders (two ‘halves’) to reflect himself more fully. As creator, he must be the origin and perfection of feminine virtue as well as the paradigm of masculine virtue.

Male language

So the Bible is clear that God is not a man and has no sex. He transcends maleness and femaleness. However, we are still left with the overwhelmingly male language for God in the Bible.

If God transcends sex, why is God only father and not mother? And most significant of all, why does the incarnation reflect this male language in the human maleness of Jesus of Nazareth? Could it have been another way? And this question is not merely one of history. As Eric Johnson points out:

‘The Christian God took upon himself a male body, which in its resurrected form he has and will have for ever. He is the human Son of God. At the center of the Christian religion there remains a gender asymmetry that begs for an explanation’.2

Masculine, not male

That explanation lies in our second point of principle — the God of the Bible is revealed as masculine towards us, not male.

It is clear that God is to be addressed and described in male language but, on the other hand, this is not because he is a man or sexually male, any more than he is female. He is the creator of both and transcends them.

We struggle with the idea that masculinity does not necessarily imply male sex because the English language is ‘ungendered’. Hebrew and Greek, however, are both gendered languages, as are many modern languages.

Living in France and reading the Bible in French has made me realise the huge difference a gendered language makes. One ceases to equate gender with sex. Words associated heavily with maleness, such as La masculinité, surprise you by being grammatically feminine — and many important biblical concepts carry the feminine gender without any awkwardness of sexual association (e.g., in some translations ‘the word’ of John 1 is the feminine la Parole even though it is clearly speaking of Christ).

The original authors and readers of the Bible would not have jumped to the conclusion that its masculine-gendered language for God necessarily meant he was sexually male. The God of the Bible is presented in overwhelmingly masculine terms but it is absolutely denied that he is either male or female.

The bride of Christ

All ‘cornettos’ are ice-creams, but not all ice-creams are ‘cornettos’ (unfortunately!) So, although all males are masculine in gender, not all that is masculine is sexually male. That there is something beyond and bigger than the male and female sexes (and prior to them) is too subtle to have occurred to Langdon et al in their reading of the Bible, but it is all over the Old and New Testaments.

We see explicitly at a number of points that the human sexes were created as a scaled-down and very incomplete model of the kind of relationships we see within the Godhead — and also a model of the relationship God the Son has with the church, his bride.

God is masculine towards us, and we are feminine towards him. He woos us, sacrificially and graciously secures our love, and then leads and cares for us. He created the male sex (and specifically a male husband) to point to this glorious reality.

Lasting joy

In the end it is those who adopt Robert Langdon’s neo-pagan point of view who miss out. For God is the source of all that is good about masculinity and femininity. He is neither male nor female. He is beyond and more than both.

But the overwhelmingly masculine language for God in the Bible leads us to the extraordinary conclusion that there is a feminine ‘counterpart’ to God — and she is not Mary Magdalen. She is you and I, the church, the Bride of Christ.

It is in this relationship with our Creator-Husband that deep and lasting joy is found. Within that context, human sexual relationships are given enormous significance (as the model of an eternal marriage), yet are rescued from the unbearable weight of providing access to the divine.

‘Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready’ (Revelation 19:7).

1. Von Rad, OT Theology (New York: Harper & Bros, 1962), p.27.

2. Eric L. Johnson, Playing games and living metaphors: the Incarnation and the end of gender, JETS 40.2 (June 1997), p.278.