Is patriarchy idolatry?

Is patriarchy idolatry? July 27, 2012

I’ve been reading feminist theology lately and learning to view Christianity from angles that I never even imagined. Take, for example, this quote from Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk: 

Israel is to make no…graven image of God; no pictorial or verbal representation of God can be taken literally. By contrast, Christian sculpture and painting represents God as a powerful old man with a white beard, even crowned and robed in the insignia of human kings or the triple tiara of the pope. The message created by such images is that God is both similar to and represented by patriarchal leadership…Such imaging of God should be judged for what it is–as idolatry, as the setting up of certain human figures as the privileged images and representations of God.

Ruether claims that this idea of idolatry–that viewing any human image as a literal description of God rather than as an analogy that aids human understanding and breaks earthly power structures–must be extended to verbal imagery as well.

When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous…The revelation to Moses in the burning bush gives as the name of God only the enigmatic “I am what I shall be.” God is person without being imaged by existing social roles. God’s being is open-ended, pointing both to what is and to what can be.

Ruether’s words challenge Christians to think about what images (visual or verbal) of God we are using, and why we are using them.

Do we call God our king as a way of declaring that our allegiance is not to the flag of an imperial state? Or do we call God our king, and then form God into a tyrant whose decrees sound an awful lot like our own beliefs?

Do we call God our father in order to undermine the patriarchal authority of men who seek to oppress wives and daughters? Or do we call God our father and then insist that mothers (and other women) have no authority in the church, because Christianity has a “masculine” feel?

Many of the verbal images of God we find in the Bible were meant to be taken as analogies that empower us to “obey God rather than man.” They were not meant to be seen as literal ideas of who God is, what God looks like, and especially which of us humans get to be the most god-like.

Behold, white Jesus!

Our images of God should challenge oppressive power structures, rather than simply providing a mirror for them to gaze into. Those images of God should free us to speak and to serve and to love, not simply entangle us further in the chains that society has already placed upon us.

When our images of God simply become a way of making God look just like oppressive men and husbands and fathers and kings and popes and pastors and white people, and, in turn, making those people look an awful lot like God, maybe we need to repent of our idolatry.

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  • Wow…interesting. I love looking at things from new and fresh perspectives. This makes a ton of sense. Thank you for sharing! I might look up this book…

  • That is a fascinating way to look at the father and king metaphors. I never thought about how you can view them in 2 different ways like that.

  • Rod

    I can somewhat agree with your view that we spend too much time insisting on making God in our image but we also need to acknowledge that much of the Hebrew and Greek text uses masculine terms, even though feminine or neutral terms were available. We run as much risk of missing the point if we concentrate on “correcting” peoples mental pictures of who God is. That view can and often will change as an individual lives their life and allows God to work in different areas.
    I do take exception to your last paragraph and am hoping your intent was not what comes across. Your statement implies that ALL men or pastors or popes or fathers or white people are abusive and oppressive. Granted some are but they are by far theinority.
    I myself, as a father, am trying my best to exhibit unconditional love and forgiveness to my children based on the love I have felt from my heavenly Father.
    We need to be concentrating on that far more than gender bashing.

    • Jerome

      Hi Rod. Of course Sarah can answer for herself, but I can’t imagine anyone intentionally communicating that all men are abusive/oppressive. For myself, I really appreciate both Sarah and Rosemary holding up a mirror for us to see ourselves from another angle. As someone once said, “We don’t know who first discovered water, but we know it wasn’t fish!” In similar fashion, it’s really difficult to get a clear view on our own spiritual dysfunctions from within the thinking that got us there.

      And for me, the step to genderize a non-gendered God is inherently problematic. Thousands of years removed from the biblical writers, we are just now beginning to recognize our languaged bias toward masculinity as a default, a flawed default that necessarily marginalizes women. The biblical writers did the same, perhaps as a cultural necessity and accommodation to that time. An understanding of progressive revelation allows to cut the ancients some slack, realizing that much of the redemptive nature of the gospel occurred over the entire span of salvation history…and continues even now.

      Personally, as a man and former pastor, I welcome the grace that allows us to see the “water” that we’re swimming in and continually correct our flawed perceptions of God, of ourselves, and of His redemptive work in the world.

    • Rod,
      I’m not sure how you can take an limiting adjective like “oppressive” and turn it into a universal descriptive. Did she write “look like men (all of whom are oppressive)”?

      No? Ok. You don’t have to defend yourself. That’s just silliness.

  • I take exception to the point made that “much of the Hebrew and Greek text uses masculine terms.” It would take too long to begin to show how many references especially the Hebrew text uses to speak of God in female terms. The reason we do not see this in our Bibles today is because in many instances the translators chose to use more neutral words. Did you know that God’s creative womb is mentioned in Jeremiah 31:20, and Job 38:29? Also, the image of God having breasts has been all but obliterated in our present scriptures, El Shaddai came from the root word Shadu meaning breasts. In Genesis, the term, El-Shaddai, is used six times, and five of these refer to fertility! The comforting, nourishing, life-sustaining love of God is a feminine image we must not abandon.

    • THIS!

    • I’ve only recently heard that. It’s awesome and stunning and beautiful and kinda, for this male growing up in scary male domination land, kinda thrilling and scary.

    • Kellie,

      Your points are so interesting- I could listen to you go on and on with information like this. I’d love to hear more and find out some of the stories beneath society’s many layers of self protection- and also would love to hear what your favorite sources are. Do you have a blog or website??

      • has a Women in Ministry series that I love reading each week. Christians for Biblical Equality(CBE) is a great resource for all kinds of reading. Two books I just finished reading are BEING FEMINIST, BEING CHRISTIAN, by Jule and Pederson. THE RESIGNATION OF EVE, by Henderson. Very insightful books. My husband and I wrote a marriage book entitled, NOT YOUR PARENT’S MARRIAGE. I did have a blog but right now just enjoying visiting all the amazing ones out there. This topic is worth pursuing!

        • Kellie,

          Thanks for the info and references- can’t wait to look everything up (including your own book). I appreciate your response, as this subject is so interesting and is especially so in our current political climate. In fact, it’s all pretty fascinating!

  • Finally catching up on my reading and I LOVE that you’re enjoying Ruether! 🙂

  • A friend sent me in the direction of your blog today. I have to say I agree 100% with everything you’ve said here. EVERYTHING.

    And your reference to the Newsweek “White Jesus” – had me laughing and recalling one of my favorite scenes from “First Sunday”.
    LeeJohn: Hey Durrell! He keep looking at me?
    Durrell: Who?
    LeeJohn: White Jesus! Everywhere I go, his eyes go with me. White Jesus!

    I always would call that into question if one of the congregations or people in our congregation had a painting of a “White” Jesus in their home. Not that I’m of color or anything, but it always seemed very disingenuous to me as a child that our very Jewish savior was…. Aryan, to say the very least about the images.

    I find it hysterically timely that I fall upon your blog, precisely one day after I sat and wrote out a blog post about the recent controversy here in Germany – “our” (technically my husband’s, but I’ve lived here almost 6 years so I guess I can claim her too) Family Minister is in the cross-hairs because she referred to G-d in a neuter/neutral form that implies G-d is without/above gender. The news here is that her Christian Party Members are “rabid” that she “neutered G-d”…

    As someone who is Messianic Jewish, raised in a very patriarchal IFB/SBC background until I was 19, lived at home until I was 26 (same mentality at home, same crappy theology as well) – this is hysterical. I know what the Bible says in Hebrew about G-d being without form and us made in his image, both male and female he made us, and how He references “himself” as both mother and father and also non-living materials to make a strong image in our minds within a Jewish context as to what G-d is to/for us.

    All I can say is, total G-d thing. We might not understand it all right now, and that’s ok. Like Jacob we need to wrestle. Eventually we’ll come out on top. We might be a little bruised or damaged from the fight, but we can overcome. And in the end, as the song says, “we’ll understand it by and by”. If there are any hymns that should comfort me from my childhood, I find it interestingly hilarious that one just comes to mind at the most random of times. I’ve not darkened the doors of many churches in the last 10 years for various reasons, how we perceive G-d and women and children is certainly three of the major reasons why I have not. Spiritual Abuse is the other main reason.

    Timely, that’s about all I can say other than “Eyshet Chayil” sister. <3

  • caraboska

    Is patriarchy idolatry? Short answer: yes.