“Womb of All Creation Flowing?” Progressive Christian Feminism Today?
Far be it from me, a man, to critique feminism. That’s not a personal confession; it’s what I’ve been told by both women and men. Namely, that, as a man, I have no right to critique feminism.
I simply don’t buy it. I think men and women on this planet are interdependent and both sexes have the right to ask questions and critique as well as support the other.
As a Christian theologian I have made a many-years long study of Christian feminism which has also led me to study secular and neo-pagan feminisms. One thing I tell my students is that “feminism” is not a monolithic concept.
However, underlying all the diversity I find one common idea and I call it (borrowing from one of the best known and most influential Christian feminists) the feminist critical principle. It is “Whatever diminishes the full humanity of women cannot be true or right.”
I agree with that.
So for you doubters, let me lay my relevant cards on the table.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I have long promoted in my teaching and writing the full equality of women and men in every respect. I call that “egalitarianism;” some would call it feminism. Due to the academic definitions of feminism and the fact that I live in an academic world, I tend to shy away from calling myself a feminist simply because I don’t quite fit the ideological model.
However, if someone wants to call me a feminist I take it as a compliment—so long as they allow me to make some qualifications—to the increasingly common and popular view of “feminism” in academic circles.
I have been a member of three Baptist churches pastored and led by women. My current church membership is in a Baptist church and our pastor is a woman and so is our worship leader and youth pastor. I have taught feminist theology for many years and wrote about it in some of my books. I have gone out of my way to hear leading feminist theologians speak and have at least attempted dialogues with some of them.
In my teaching I promote women’s full equality with men—in society, in church, and in the home. I have here said publicly that I wish for a woman president of the United States; it’s way past time. I have for many years encouraged women called into ministry to allow no limits to be placed on them. If they feel called to pastor a church, I say “Go for it” and do all I can to help them.
I admit, however, that I have some theological qualms about some feminist “resymbolizing” or “reimagining” of God. I teach my students that God is not male (to say nothing about the fact that the male is not God!). However, I have also been wary of reimagining God as female because of Mother Goddess religion which really does exist. It isn’t always called that, but it is any idea, common especially among neo-Pagans, that the supreme being, the creator of all, our loving, judging, saving God is a feminine deity who created by giving birth such that the world, creation, is somehow always part of or an extension of God/ess.
Many years ago now, at the height of the controversy over use of “inclusive language” for God in worship, prayer, sacraments, and liturgies, I read some articles by a woman theologian named Elizabeth Achtemeier. And I attended a retreat-conference where she led the chapel services and spoke. Achtemeier taught at several mainline Protestant seminaries and was Presbyterian. She died in 2002. She was known for many accomplishments, but was an outspoken critic of “radical feminism” especially within the churches.
Achtemeier’s argument against resymbolizing God as female (e.g., “Mother”) was that such symbolizing God, and the language to which it gives rise, inevitably leads minds to think of creation as part of God—a pagan idea. In other words, God’s transcendence is at stake.
Of course Achtemeier did not think God is male and, to the best of my memory, had no qualms about using feminine imagery of God, drawn from the Bible, to describe God.
I learned from my theological mentor (although I never had the privilege of actually studying under him) Donald G. Bloesch to pray to God as “Our father who is also like a mother….” I have done that in public worship many times.
I’m a Baptist and so I’m especially sensitive to Baptists who move in the direction I have described above. (I can also say with confidence that I also oppose Baptists who demean women by not allowing them to participate fully in the life of the church at every level or who demand that they submit to men. But I don’t live in that Baptist world. I live in a more progressive or at least moderate Baptist world.)
So why am I talking about this here now?
Recently I was teaching a class about feminist theology. I encouraged the students to choose and read for themselves books, chapters, articles by feminist theologians and gave them some names if they wanted to choose from them: Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell, Elizabeth Johnson and others. I opened the class session by showing an interview with Elizabeth Johnson. But I also showed them a video of a Baptist church’s choir singing a hymn entitled “Womb of All Creation Flowing.” I want to make clear that I have no personal quarrel with the hymn’s author or the church whose choir sang the song; I have no animosity toward them. However, the hymn confuses me. I want to know what Elizabeth Achtemeier would say about it. Might she say “I warned you?” I suspect she might.
To me, this hymn is the farthest reach of the tendency Achtemeier warned against that I have ever encountered. It is by an influential Christian feminist who has spoken at numerous Christian churches and institutions and herself graduated from a Baptist seminary and is ordained within a Baptist denomination.
I have very seldom stood up and walked out of a worship service (except to go to the restroom). Let me give two examples of when I did.
Once, not long ago, I visited a fairly large Baptist church on Mother’s Day. The whole service was devoted to a kind of “Queen for the Day” exercise. (For those of you who aren’t very old, “Queen for a Day” was a 1950s television program.) The sermon was about raising children and the pastor advocated “beating” children to “break their will.” I stood up and walked out to my car and left.
Another time, also recently, I visited a large Baptist church where the pastor preached about Deborah, the Old Testament judge, and said that the Bible says God only allowed her to be a judge of Israel to shame the men—especially Barak whose name he would not even pronounce because, he said, it’s the name of a politician we don’t like here. (This was during the Obama administration.) I stood up and walked out.
I’m afraid that if I found myself in a church, any church, where “Womb of All Creation Flowing” was sung I would have to stand up and walk out. To me, it reeks of paganism. To me, it sounds like a song Mother Goddess worshipers would sing. I cannot detect anything Christian about it.
Help me, please. Kindly, gently correct me if you think I’m wrong. Explain why. Support me (also with civility and generosity of spirit) if you agree. Explain why. Please keep responses civil, whatever they may be. I will not post “flames” here.
Be sure to watch and listen to the Baptist choir singing the hymn; on Youtube the lyrics appear with the sound. You will have no trouble finding it if you use key words such as the complete title of the hymn (viz., “Womb of All Creation Flowing”).
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