Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The God-dess

Western religion and philosophy of religion have been dominated by men. Obviously. But what is less obvious is that that should make any philosophical difference. Philosophy is supposedly governed by reason, and reason is supposedly universal, unbiased, standpoint-neutral. It shouldn’t matter who is reasoning; reason itself leads to its results. So it shouldn’t matter philosophically that philosophy has been dominated by men.

But it does matter, Cambridge philosopher Sarah Coakley (b. 1951) argues. If the feminist philosophy developed in recent decades were taken seriously, it could have far-reaching implications for the philosophy of religion.

Consider, for example, the concept of the self. Great emphasis has been placed on the individual’s utter autonomy, his ability freely to determine his actions. This emphasis derives from traditional responses to the problem of evil: God permits the evils perpetrated by individuals because that is the necessary price for granting them the greater good of free will. But feminist philosophers notice something interesting about this conception of the “autonomous self”: rather than being historically and gender neutral, a product of pure reasoning, it in fact traces directly to the visions of autonomy promoted by the 18th century Enlightenment--and reflects an ideal available and suitable only to males. For only males were “independent” and “autonomous,” capable of earning their own living, susceptible to the education which allows one to make genuinely autonomous choices, and so on. Women were dependents, financially, politically, intellectually, and otherwise.

That paradigm notion of the “free individual” turns out to be that of a man!

And the very conception of God also reflects this bias. From the earliest Greek philosophers the deity was conceived to be eternally unchanging, an unmoved mover with unlimited power and autonomy: that is, a magnified version of the male ideal just described. Moreover the attributes philosophers have for centuries attributed to God, such as power, wisdom, immutability, moral purity, and so on, are attributes traditionally stereotypical of men, while the attributes they’ve assigned to human beings so inferior to God, such as weakness, ignorance, inconstancy, and sinfulness, are those traditionally stereotypical of women.

It’s clear: we must reject the idea that the philosophy of religion has been “universal” and “neutral” in its pursuits--for how convenient that their very conception of the “transcendent” and “genderless” God in fact was that of a man!

It’s also clear: if God has ultimately been conceived as male, then maleness itself must be conceived to be divine.

As feminist philosophy slowly begins to make inroads into philosophy of religion we might expect to see shifts of emphasis and new ideas and arguments. We might begin to see less emphasis on this masculine notion of individual autonomy, the “unconditioned” self who dominates and controls his environment, and more openness to the perhaps feminine notion of a self involved in mutual dependence and relationship with others and her environment. So too we might begin to see changes in the masculine conception of God as autonomous, all-powerful, and all-dominant, outside of time and history yet controlling of it, and more openness to the perhaps feminine idea of a nurturing and loving God, one who is within the world, to whom we may be more than mere “subjects” and with whom we may be in active relationship.

We may not go so far as to insist that God just is a woman. But we can at least hope that philosophers of religion become aware of the male perspective and bias which ever so subtly influences their allegedly neutral, universal, “rational” reflections.

Source: Sarah Coakley, “Feminism,” in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro, eds., A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999).


  1. From a Christian's point of view the question of God's relation to men and God's relation to women has been sorted out in Genesis chapter 1: v 26-28.

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