Thursday, June 14, 2012

A More Loving God

When we were discussing the first half of Julian of Norwich's Showings in class today, one very simple point stuck in my head.  The God Julian spoke of was, according to her, very loving and compassionate.  We discussed a couple of interesting implications this had, but I couldn't quite place my finger on why this stood out to me more than anything else in fifty vividly descriptive chapters of bizarre visions.  Something that was pointed out was that Julian's writing was not as 'scholastic' as the writing of other well-known clergy who have had visions, with the distinguishing factor being that Julian was a woman while most other clergy who have claimed to have visions were men.  However, in thinking back to men like Augustine I remember that their depiction of God is much more focused in power and judgment.  God is there to remind you that if you wish to enter Heaven, you must live a good life and suffer for your sins.  And while Julian does mention fearing God, she does not mean it in the way of being scared of God.  'Fear of God' in her sense is closer to 'respect of God', because for all of man's sins aside, God is a loving being.

We tossed around some ideas of Julian's statements concerning God could be radical or forward-thinking for her time, but I started to think about what effects this simple change could have on a person's idea of God.  So, I started with the basic idea of God I was given through elementary and part of high school.  An omniscient, omnipotent being that created humans in his image.  God gave humans strict rules and standards that we are expected to follow, and if we stray too far we will be punished in the afterlife.  Something I want to note is that I am purposely referring to God as a male being.  And that is because most people, whether they realize it or not, refer to God as a man.  Which is consistent with the image of the all-powerful, ever watching and (depending on who you ask), judgmental God.  These traits resonate with a stereotypical image of an imposing father figure, someone to be feared, not questioned.

Thinking about this is when I realized why the idea of a primarily loving God stood out to me.  We are told that God loves us, but it usually somehow circles back to the idea that we should fear and serve him.  Reading a text where someone essentially says, "God loves regardless of sin" as opposed to "God loves in spite of your sins" was something very new to me.  So, I applied this new feature to the 'standard God' image I had in my head.  The first thing is that the idea of God being a strict rule-maker faded a bit.  As if the rules were still significant, but had room to make mistakes and learn.  Next, I started wondering about how judgmental God would really be, if God's ability to love could overpower the ability to judge someone for their sins.  This was actually a question raised in my religion class in Senior year of high school by Father William O'Malley.  As close as I remember, his quote was, "If God is a loving father of all humans, I can't imagine him being able to see his children suffer for a mistake."  His point was that while there are supposed to be punishments for sins, there are also supposed to be ways to repent that do not involved being damned to Hell.  This idea is present in Medieval Christianity, but it is shadowed by the idea that we will be punished greatly for our sins with repentance coming at a heavy price.

For any other trait of God I could think of, applying the idea of God being loving cause a consistent effect of making God less intense.  By this I mean that the God I envisioned became more nurturing.  For example, God's omniscience being a way of watching over mankind to help as opposed to watching for mankind to pass judgment.  The most significant distinction that I made in my mind without realizing though, is that I had categorized the 'original' traits of God as being masculine and the 'loving' traits of God as being feminine.  This is why I pointed out my use of the pronoun 'he', because Julian's God seemed much more female to me.  This had less to do with sex and more to do with gender attributes usually associated with femininity.  Even in stereotypical parental imagery, the father is seen as being the more imposing figure while the mother is seen as more nurturing.  While I do not think Julian was by any means trying to spread the idea of a female God, that was the effect her writing had on me.  The gender of God has always been curious to me as God is supposed to be a being beyond our human concepts of gender, sex or even physical form.  But, because of the way most societies categorize masculine and feminine traits, it is very easy to slip into the habit of viewing God as a man.  Very few texts have ever caused me to subconsciously think of God as a woman, but Julian's loving God created the image of a feminine, and therefore, female being.

For whatever reason, a female God seems not only more loving, but less imposing and judgmental than a male one.  Being male does not inherently make God incapable of love, but I don't think 'loving' is a very strongly represented characteristic in comparison to more stereotypically masculine characteristics.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Conner: I'm delighted that you were able to get so much out of the first half of Julian of Norwich's *Showings*. You may not have known it at the time, but this reflection on the often-gendered attributes of God perfectly foreshadowed our conversation in class today, whee we looked at Julian's use of feminine--and specifically maternal--metaphors, not only for God (something that appears occasionally in the history of Christianity) but also for Jesus.

    If you're interested in pursuing this line of inquiry further, there are a number of feminist theologians working today (including my Fordham colleague Elizabeth A. Johnson) who have explored deeply the significance of the way in which gender and God have traditionally been connected for ecclesial and social practice in the past and present.

    Thanks again for a great post!