Transcendental masculine monotheism did not come easily to the people whose descendents now practice exclusively monotheistic faiths. Describing the Divine in feminine terms has occurred in virtually every culture on every continent and in every civilization. Everywhere in the world that people have tried to describe their encounter with the Sacred it has frequently been depicted in both male and female forms.

Several thousand years of history testify that people found purely male depictions of divinity neither adequate to describe their personal experiences nor persuasive to their hearts and minds.  In early pre-monotheistic Judaism God was accompanied by a Goddess.  She was named Astarte, Anath, or Asherah.  Raphael Patai writes: [1]

“there can be no doubt that the Goddess to whom the Hebrews clung with such tenacity down to the days of Joshiah and to whom they returned with such remorse following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, was, whatever the prophets had to say about her no foreign seductress but a Hebrew goddess, the best divine mother the people had had to that time.”

This point is well attested to in the Bible itself.  Israel is always falling away from Yahweh’s commands.  In Jeremiah 44 the prophet rebuked many of Judah who continue to make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, threatening them, and Egypt where they then lived, with death and destruction if they continued.  The women of Judah answered him:[2]

“We will not listen to the things you’ve said to us in the name of YHWH.  On the contrary, we will certainly do all that we’ve vowed.  We will make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, we will pour libations to her as we used to do – we and our ancestors, our kings and princes in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem – because then we had plenty of bread and we were satisfied, and suffered no misfortune.  But since we ceased making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by sword and famine.  And when we make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, is it without our husbands’ approval that we make cakes in her likeness and pour libations to her?”

There is no evidence Jeremiah’s prophecy of divine vengeance came true.  But threats like Jeremiah’s were standard operating procedures for those who would push aside all reference to the Divine except in the purely masculine image they themselves worshipped. To maintain their male-only view of deity monotheists repeatedly resorted to threats and, when they had the power, political and mob violence.  The Old Testament describes acts of genocide against Pagans and mass murder against Israeli polytheists. The Taliban act within a long tradition including many Jews and Christians as well as Muslims.

Carried on long enough and ruthlessly enough, threats and fear accomplished what reason could not, eliminating alternative possibilities, imposing on many an alien vision of spiritual reality, one denied by their own experience.  Those most taken in eventually become blind to the Sacred around them, and moved it off planet

The feminine was removed from the sacred as well.  The new monotheistic God was served by male priests alone, and actual women were explicitly subordinated to men, even to be murdered by them in accordance with divine command.  Again, the Taliban act in harmony with a tradition first advocated in scripture in Leviticus.

Even setting force and violence aside, a one-sided focus on masculine attributes in describing the Divine is bad for women and for men alike, although in different ways.  These images teach women that their own gender is spiritually inferior, a second-best, one further step removed from God than are men. St. Jerome observed that “When a woman wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and be called a man.”[3]  Their bodies are needed to ensure humans will persist in fleshly form, whereas spirit is not of the flesh.  Many men like to remind them of that.

Nor were Jerome’s words the most heartless.  Consider those of St. Augustine,   when discussing the rape of Christian virgins by the Christian Visigoths after they had invaded Rome:

“. . . even such faithful women, I say, must not complain that [God’s] permission was given to the barbarians so grossly to outrage them; . . . Moreover, it is possible that those Christian women, who are unconscious of any undue pride on account of their virtuous chastity, whereby they sinlessly suffered the violence of their captors, had yet some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into a proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them in the taking of the city. As, therefore, some men were removed by death, that no wickedness might change their disposition, so these women were outraged lest prosperity should corrupt their modesty. Neither those women then, who were already puffed up by the circumstance that they were still virgins, nor those who might have been so puffed up had they not been exposed to the violence of the enemy, lost their chastity, but rather gained humility . . .”

Augustine apparently never wondered about the “puffed up” pride and arrogance, required for him to write such things about women whom he had never met.

Martin Luther gives us a later Protestant perspective that was no improvement:  “God created Adam Lord of all living creatures, but Eve spoiled it all. Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear children. And if a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.”[4]

Luther is praised by Protestants for making it possible for ministers to marry, but his concern was apparently for the male ministers, not for those whom they married.  While women were sometimes better regarded in Protestant than in Catholic traditions, they were always considered appropriately subordinate to their husbands.  The only exceptions were some nonconforming sects more open to Spirit than text.

In Catholicism women at least had Mary and a degree of self-governance among orders of nuns.[5]  For women, conceiving God as masculine might enable them to see Him as Father to His daughters, and in terms of other loving and affectionate male relationships to females.  For nuns, Jesus is their husband. In this way, for some women a male deity is in some ways potentially more accessible to their heart than would be the case with men.

For men a male deity confirms the value of the masculine. In the absence of the Divine feminine, its excessively confirms it.  An unjustified pride is instilled in men for their not being women.  As Virginia Mollenkott observes, “our almost exclusive focus on male God-imagery has resulted in idolatry of the male.”[6]  But conceiving God as exclusively male also injects a distance between most men and God.  From a Christian perspective, Mollenkott suggests “It is quite possible that one reason so few men attend church regularly is that they are unconsciously repelled by being called towards intimacy with an exclusively masculine God.”[7]

I think it also explains why so many men, though certainly not all, who do attend church practice an overly masculinized religion steeped in hierarchy and domination. They find a loving connection to a purely male deity threatening. Perhaps this is why the most rigidly authoritarian monotheisms are also obsessed with the dangers of homosexuality.

Monotheism’s connection with forcible imposition has another dimension intimately bound up with its claims. Over time salvational religions differentiate into different interpretations of the message. There is no real connection between the god of the Catholics and the god of Calvin. The Quakers have a different one still. In practice, with freedom, monotheism develops into a polytheistic universe, each member of which claims sole legitimacy.  Monotheism is historically an unstable concept that necessarily relies on force and coercion to prevent fragmentation, as I explain in some detail in my online essay The Mirage of Monotheism. This project necessarily emphasizes boundaries and hierarchy, and so is toxic to the feminine and reinforces the masculine.

[1] Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd enlarged ed., (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990). 32.

[2] Jeremiah 44: 15-19, trans. Graham Harvey, from the Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraics Stuttgartensia, Stuttgart, 1967/77, p. 871.  Taken from The Paganism Reader, Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, eds., (NY: Routledge, 2004), p. 10.  Jeremiah prophesized that these “disobedient” Jews would be largely slaughtered and that the Egypt they lived in would be devastated.  Neither event happened, but the argument for why they should cease making offerings to the Queen of heaven is all too typical of Abrahamic theory and, when possible, practice: obey or die.

[3] Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, (NY: Knopf, 1976), 73.

[4] Martin Luther, Sämmtliche Werke, (Erlangen and Frankfurt, 1826-57) vol. 20:84.  Quoted in Merriy E. Weisner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 2nd. Ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000), 13.

[5] Charlene Spretnak, Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church, (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).  See also the account of Hildegard von Bingen in Thomas cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, (NY: Random House, 2006), 65-116.

[6] Mollenkott,, op. cit., p. 114.

[7] Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female, (New York: Crossroad, 1987), p. 11.