I just returned from a 12-day whirlwind study abroad trip to Wales and England with a group of Texas Wesleyan University students. It was a marvelous trip, full of adventure and new discoveries. Several places provided me the opportunity to think about the religion in a variety of contexts and cultures, two of which I’d like to share with you.
Last Sunday evening, as the cold, wet wind swept over the small town of St. David’s, Wales, and chilled me to the bone (despite my many layers, scarf, boots, hat and gloves), I entered the old cathedral eagerly anticipating Evensong. As the choir processed clothed in red and white robes, their inspirational singing reverberated beautifully, calling us to worship.
I listened expectantly, feeling connected to the multitudes of pilgrims who have travelled to this holy place over hundreds of years. Simultaneously, though, I felt a twinge of isolation and absence, the result of liturgy laden with exclusive language: man, mankind, he, and him. The words felt like a recurring assault punctuated with masculine language for God: “Father;” “Father;” “Father.” As the worship experience continued, my feelings of connection and inclusion retreated, filling me with a stronger sense of being an outsider. As a woman present in this place of worship, I was physically there, but had a stronger realization of being invisible.
A few days later in our trek through Wales and England, we visited Bath where, of course, there is a well-preserved Roman bath and temple. Making my way to this ancient gathering place, I took the opportunity to imagine what it might have been like to be a Roman woman entering the temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva. I sat down on the steps leading to the temple and gazed at her face. How would my perceptions of divinity change, I wondered, to be represented in the goddess figure, to be identified as connection to divinity without the degrees of separation that Christian women inherit as we are taught in so many ways that men are closer and better reflections of God than women are?
I thought about women entering Minerva’s temple, seeking healing or knowledge or inspiration and the differences between those experiences and mine seemed worlds away, the contrasts so thorough even my imagination left me longing for more.
In fact, the only thought I could identify was simply loss—loss on the magnitude that it seems almost impossible to recover. As Christians, women are taught in many ways that our relationship to the divine is through men: a masculine God-figure, male authorities, male preachers and youth leaders, male translators and theologians, spiritual leaders and authors of most books sold at any “Christian” bookstore.
As I pondered this reality while thinking of Minerva, I was struck by the numerous ways in which I have been complicit in this loss of Her.
When I was a graduate student getting my feet wet in the classroom of my advisor, I adopted her approach—one polished on a campus beholden to evangelicals—and there learned to speak of God without using personal pronouns as a mechanism to avoid masculine language for God. At that time and place, this approach made practical sense. It did not reinforce masculine notions of divinity and its subtlety afforded a good measure of personal accomplishment. In fact, numerous times at the end of a semester, I asked my students if they had noticed my avoidance of masculine references to God and their surprised faces quickly conveyed how little I had really accomplished. Sure, I hadn’t added to the idea of God’s maleness, but I also hadn’t challenged it.
My avoidance of masculine God-language did not in effect create real change.
But what my journey to Bath and to the goddess Minerva taught me is that I must be more intentional in using feminine language and images for God. The avoidance of doing this has resulted in an incomplete perspective of divinity, one still dominated by masculine imprints.
If we truly want to expand our ideas of God, we must be willing to use feminine language and feminine images. The Bible contains these facets of God even though they have been masked by translators and scholars, preachers and teachers. To embrace God we must learn to explore who She is in all Her wondrous Being.
Much like other trips I have taken to the mysterious island of Iona or the breath-taking wonder of Rosslyn Chapel in Edinburgh, Scotland, this year’s journey to St. David’s, Wales, and Bath, England, have served this pilgrim well. Like many who have traveled there before me, I encountered Her and am grateful for our divine Mother who loves us always.