Is YHWH unbalanced without a wife?
I recently had a conversation with a number of Pagans and Christians that was very helpful for me in crystalizing my thinking on gender and God and why Pagans and Christians often end up talking past each other on God and gender issues. I now think a significant piece of the puzzle is the way Pagans and Christians draw on sacred marriage motifs in very different ways. About half way through the conversation I summed it up this way:
Try this as a summary. As I see it one of the crucial points of difference between Paganism and Christianity is that Pagans employ the sacred marriage motif “horizontally” whereas Christians employ the sacred marriage motif “vertically”.
The Pagan understanding leads Pagans to speak of balance between gods and goddesses (in a way that conflicts with the deepest principles of monotheism). The Christian understanding leads Christians to speak of the coming together of humanity and divinity as a kind of wedding feast (in a way that conflicts with Pagan understandings of justice, divine immanence and the direction of history or lack thereof).
An important challenge we Christians face, I think, is coming to terms with the power relationships suggested by this vertical use of the sacred marriage motif, living, as we do, within a culture that emphases male-female equality, which is a very different situation to that which the writers of the Bible found themselves in. As part of this I think it is important to recognize that, within the terms of this vertical usage, all divinities (including goddesses) are effectively masculine and all people (including men) are effectively feminine. So, we are not talking about literal gender here, only metaphoric gender within the terms of one metaphor. Even the most patriarchal Christians generally recognise that. As the husband-wife metaphor is one of many metaphors that Christians have at their disposal for exploring divine-human relationships I do have to question whether we’d be better off bringing altenative metaphors to the foreground in our context. The parent-child relationship is an obvious alternative from scripture that is not nearly so intrinsically gender based. That is something I would throw up for further discussion.
Later I followed that up with these comments:
The marriage metaphor is just a finger pointing at the moon. What is being pointed to is more important than the metaphor itself, which is why I am suggesting that Christians need to explore alternative metaphors in an egalitarian age like ours where this one doesn’t communicate so well, and why Pagans need to allow us the space to do so.
Your confusion here [this is something which was explicitly expressed by the person I was responding to] is a case in point. God as husband has great explanatory value in a patriarchal culture, where vertical understandings of marital relationships are taken for granted. God as husband is an utterly confusing metaphor in an egalitarian culture where they are not, where marital relationships are understood more horizontally. It leads to communication breakdown. It leads to unintended and incorrect messages about how we [Christians] understand God. It leads to conclusions that a monotheistic God needs a Goddess wife and so forth. The finger is no longer pointing at the moon.
Now, the confusion you are experiencing above [there was a question about whether Jesus was the bride and God was the groom] is a consequence of mixing metaphors. Taken separately they work. God as husband, Israel as wife. Christ as bridegroom, Church as bride. Church as temple, Christ as foundation. Christ as vine, Church as branches. Christ as head, Church as body. They all speak of living community and life source.
Where the confusion comes in is where you introduce the metaphor God as father, Christ as son. That speaks of an entirely different relationship, of God eternal relating to God incarnate, of YHWH above us relating to YHWH among us. The metaphors break down instantly when you try and mix them together like that.
Crucial to any attempt to relate these two sets of metaphors – the God-God metaphors and the Creator-Creation metaphors – is the introduction of a third set of metaphors. Being both fully divine and fully human, Jesus embodies the divine marriage within himself. Within the terms of this metaphor Christ is both husband and wife. Forget that for an instant, then forget the whole exercise of trying to integrate it all.
No doubt this will leave some of you with your heads spinning, so I’ll return to my earlier suggestion: we need space to allow alternative non-gendered metaphors to come to the foreground when discussing Christian understandings of God. Personally I like “messianic community as temple, messiah as foundation”. Temples generally only have one foundation. There is no compelling need to invoke a second “opposite-gender” one. The gender of the messiah is quite incidental within the terms of this metaphor. The messiah could be male or female without it changing the essential relationship. It allows much more space to talk of the God we know through Jesus in gender neutral ways. The other one I like, and which I suspect may work better in conversations with people like yourselves, is Christ as vine, community as branches.
Now, I am not sure how many of you follow that but my basic argument is that the sacred marriage is not the most helpful framework for explaining the Christian understanding of God. It is not intuitive for egalitarians, it is not where they’re at, it is not Christianity 101. Understanding it requires a reasonable grasp of biblical context and Trinitarian theology. Being scriptural it’s not something Christians should shy away from, but it’s a more advanced teaching that we should treat with more caution. Very interesting in light of the fact that many emergents seem to be blogging on Song of Songs at the moment.
So to return to the original question, is YHWH unbalanced without a wife? My answer is, YHWH is balanced within himself, YHWH’s primary relationship is with his people, and if ancient marriage metaphors aren’t helpful for seeing that, find another metaphor that is.