In She Who Is, Elizabeth A. Johnson writes that any approach to knowing a God who is beyond imagining must start with things that are known through human experience. For most of Judaic and Christian history, the names and images used for God have been masculine and patriarchal. God as Father, as Lord, as divine king or ruler, all these names are gender specific and therefore cannot help but affect believers’ mental images. Despite abstract formulations that the deity is beyond gender, a male identity is implied in most God-talk. This means that women see themselves as created in the image of God only by denying their own sexual identity. The consequences go beyond the effect on individual women or even on all women: The Catholic Church also suffers.

Johnson points out that traditional speech about God draws its imagery and concepts almost exclusively from the world of ruling men. The concept of theism was developed by medieval and early modern thinkers in opposition to atheism, polytheism, and pantheism. It stresses divine transcendence, and the traits it ascribes to God are modeled on the pattern of an earthly absolute monarch—a being who is omnipotent, unmoved, and more interested in praise and obedience than in relationship or succor. Insofar as this model remains normative in Christianity, it is an idol. Like all idols, it obscures the glimpses of holy mystery that might be granted to people. It also works against the quest for a more just and peaceful human order.

After establishing the need for feminist rethinking of the names and images used to talk about God, Johnson considers how the task might be done. She rejects the solutions of some—to discard the term “God” entirely, to add “feminine” traits or dimensions to the existing list of usages for God, to reemphasize the role of the Holy Spirit and endow it with female qualities. Another solution, using male and female images equally in referring to God, Johnson supports in theory, but warns that both male and female imagery must be taken from the full reality of both genders’ experience and show male and female as powerful in both public and private spheres. She doubts that any equivalent imaging of God will be possible without a long and hard effort both to find female symbolism applying to God and to use it un-self-consciously.

The rest of the book is a pioneering effort to do just that. The first source Johnson uses is women’s own interpreted experience, with an introductory statement that human experience has always been used as a basis for theology. Among the diverse components of women’s experience, she identifies the common one of conversion, which involves coming to recognize one’s worth as...

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Sources for Further Study

Halbertal, Tova Hartman. Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Halbertal discusses strategies for living with dissonance practiced by Jewish and Catholic women.

Joy, Morna, and Eva K. Neumaier-Dargyay, eds. Gender, Genre, and Religion: Feminist Reflections. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995. Feminist insights into various world and tribal religions. Articles from a symposium.

Moses, Paul. “Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: A Nun Vies God as ’Our Mother.’” Review of She Who Is. Newsday, July 20, 1993, p. 43. A review of Johnson’s work that discusses her desire for images of God as a woman and her receipt of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 1993 for this book.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. A companion volume to Johnson’s work, this includes more historical and biblical details as well as feminist reimaging of Jesus and Mary.