The Sacred Marriage in Pagan and Christian Dialogue

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.

9 thoughts on “The Sacred Marriage in Pagan and Christian Dialogue

  1. This is a very helpful and insightful overview of the struggles with using the marriage metaphor, Matt. Thanks so much.
    It leaves me thinking about all the things that flow, in Christian practice and theology, from that one metaphor – the Christian view of marriage between two people, for example, and the huge resistance in Christian circles (both pro and anti-) to using this term for the union of two people of the same sex. The whole “wives submit to your husbands” thing is another one.
    I can’t help but wonder what other metaphors might be more helpful today. I struggle with your temple one simply because it is too inanimate and structural for me. I prefer something organic – not sure what it would be, though.
    Thanks for a great bog.


  2. John,
    I think the vine and the branches metaphor is fairly organic. I prefer the temple and foundation metaphor because of the suggestion of gravity, but that’s just my personal preference, not what I anticipate as being the most effective. Another organic one I can think of is the tree of life, which shelters and sustains life. Actually, going back to the foundation metaphor, that can also be linked to the omphalos stone / world navel / world tree metaphor which I have found flys ok in occult circle. There are many correspondances to be explored here.
    And yes, the wives submit to your husbands directive is an obvious trail to follow here, and one that is difficult, but I think there is a few things we can speak back into it. First of all, when we read the household codes in full a message that comes through fairly strong is that from those who have much power, much empowerment is expected. So, in a sense, the more responsibility men are expected to have, the less excusable mysogeny actually is if they claim to be Christ followers. So, irrespective of where Christians sit on the egalitarian / patriarchal spectrum, tyranical family leadership is clearly out.


  3. Matt I have to agree. I’ve always felt that we miss something in the God as husband metaphor that has simply been lost to cultural evolution. That’s not easy to say in an evangelical context! It’s clear from (some of) the early Hebrews’ ready willingness to assume that Asherah was God’s wife that we simply cannot see things within the same framework.
    LIke John, I long for a relational metaphor, and though sometimes the parent child picture isn’t quite sufficient, it’s the easiest for me to work with.


  4. Matt, I totally agree with your conclusions about the wives/husbands directives. I like your linking of power with empowerment – it’s an obvious connection that had somehow eluded me (at least in this explicit way) until you mentioned it.
    I like Cindy’s word – relational – for the metaphor we use for God. While the others, particularly vine and branches, may be organic, or offer other benefits, I always find myself somewhat dissatisfied by them as a primary metaphor. Perhaps my quest for a primary metaphor is misguided, and it would be better to rather develop a more eclectic set of metaphors to use when talking about God, but I still find myself moving toward a particular image through which to encounter the divine.
    I like the way you have outlined the relational language struggles that we face both within the Godhead and within human relationships with God. I guess the other specific issue that you raise is communication between Christians and pracitioners of Pagan religions. As I think you indicate, this kind of communication poses different challenges for our metaphors than when we work within a specifically Christian framework only.
    Thanks for the stimulating thoguhts.


  5. Yes, I am suggesting a more eclectic set of metaphors. I believe all metaphors to be partial and subject to failure when pushed too far. To be honest I think we face similar problems with the God as king metaphor, living in a centuries old democracy as we do. But I agree the truth that God is relational is something we need to communicate somehow.


  6. Thanks Matt,
    I appreciate the comments on marriage and Christian/pagan conversations. A few years ago I helped to set up a New Age and Neo-Pagan Spiritualities course at Ripon, near York in England. It was a fascinating and sometimes humbling experience as a Christian to realise how little I knew about Neo-Paganism in Britain. I had the privelege of spending time with a Pagan co-operative in Leeds whose principled activism and rich community life put many Christians to shame.


  7. Try the AI is God metaphor. One spirit (program) in many members (transhumans). A unique relationship between the AI and each person, but also a broader understanding of the whole (by the AI). The AI manages the health of the entire system, giving commands to each person as to what they should do, and passing judgments.


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