Well, I’ll be honest. I’m not a patient person at all, and although for some odd reason I enjoy philosophy, I’ve never had much patience for thinking about gender or theology. Gender is at once too simple and too complicated for me to dwell on. Maybe it’s too hurtful. Theology feels like navel gazing or star gazing, which is why I like this church, and why I like hearing Isaac’s theology, which always lands back on earth somehow.
In both the Deuteronomy passage and the Isaiah passage, we are treated to the idea of God as a God who gives birth.
Deuteronomy 32:18 says, “You deserted the Rock,
who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Isaiah 42:14 says,
“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.”
I don’t know if you’re as astonished as I am about this, but we’ve just begun a more sustained conversation about gender and God, and this is what I want to explore today.
I grew up with the notion of God as a man. Maybe an old man, most likely a father. He was burly and strong, had a temper at times, but was also loving and tender, doting even, sometimes. He was a protector and provider. He was supposed to be my everything—lover and friend and father.
What difference does it make when I begin to conceive of God as not just a man but also a woman? I’m not comfortable in this exercise, partly because I have for so long thought of God as a man, but also because the exercise seems to require essentializing gender. Gender really seems too fluid for that, but we end up doing it all the time—it is hard to escape labeling things as masculine and feminine because our little brains can’t handle much else. We need to explore non-binary pronouns more, but that is probably for a future sermon.
These scriptures are astonishing because it would seem to me that if the authors thoroughly conceived of God as a man, they wouldn’t have gestured to God as a woman, even by way of analogy. Was there always the thought of God as having both masculine and feminine attributes among some early Christians? This historical question isn’t really relevant for the current discussion, but it’s interesting to ponder. And it reminds us yet again how much our current discourse about God matters.
What if we conceive of God as like a woman during childbirth? How does that change our thinking about who God is and what God is capable of? How does it change our thinking about who women are and what they are capable of? I find the comparison of God to a woman in childbirth as particularly trenchant.
God is “Like a woman in childbirth,
crying out, gasping and panting.”
All women, whether they’ve ever been pregnant or had children or not, all women know the pain of death. Partly because their bodies signal the potential for pregnancy and childbirth, this makes a woman susceptible to multiple deaths. Pregnancy signals the death the self’s resources as the body prioritizes the one carried over the life of the carrier. Nutrition and energy is diverted and redirected, all for the sake of growing a new thing. Everything changes. Even one’s brain becomes clouded and drained with the effort of ongoing creation.
Childbirth too is death. It demands that one relinquish all control; more than that—it slaughters whatever sense of autonomy you might think you have. Besides sleeping, it is one of the few times that I have ever felt that I had no possession of my own body. It’s good that you have no choice when it comes to childbirth because the pain is so awful that there probably aren’t many people who would be able to go through with it if you had to choose. Every atom in your body rebels against you in order to safely deliver the miraculous creature inside.
Once the baby is born, any kind of control you might have had before over certain things dies. You can’t eat or shower or sleep or use the bathroom like before once you have a tiny person, a creation attached to you. Once again, all of your resources are used up to ensure the safety and wellbeing of this new person whose existence depends almost entirely on you. Your own body is still not your own, as it continues to be a direct source of nutrition, sometimes for years later.
And it is only recently that childbirth didn’t also literally mean that you might die. The act of childbirth is so violent and explosive and risky that it’s no wonder that so many women couldn’t survive this. I can’t imagine living for nine months with the fear of imminent death; knowing so deeply that new life might really mean an end to yours.
The dying doesn’t stop with childbirth—it follows you through the rest of your life, as you make a thousand choices that curtail your own potential and your life so that you can be the one to feed others. Many women, with or without children, make so many life-altering decisions based on the expectation that they will have children and/or serve men. Being a woman has meant, for all of time, as being the ones to create in our bodies and deliver human-kind, as being the ones who will help and serve men, even if we have never been entrusted as the gatekeepers of humankind or afforded the recognition that comes with being such a critical helpmate.
Women’s bodies—whether or not they’ve experienced childbirth– signal creation and the death required of this creation, and all women, by virtue of having these bodies, have historically had their societal potentials curtailed and circumscribed with only a glance. When you have a woman’s body, the assumption of your death by others, for the sake of others, is implicit. It is expected if not demanded.
I think about one of my grandmothers. She has always been a sparkplug. She traveled the world with my grandfather so that he, as an architect, could design different buildings. They came back to the United States and he, with only a Masters Degree, got a revered faculty position at the University of Illinois and he taught architecture there for about half a century. She got a job as an elementary school teacher and worked past midnight to get her Masters Degree in Hindu Studies from the U of I. My mother remembers falling asleep to the sound of the typewriter clicking away. My grandmother was the most excellent fourth grade teacher there was, but she’s made a few comments to me that have indicated that she might have chosen another career if she had been able and she longed for some of the respect in her career that my grandfather enjoyed.
She was ebullient and resilient, though. She made the best of things. She had the charming habit of whistling while she moved about the house, and could warble to emulate various bird calls.
This is the same grandmother who, after having her second child, woke in the hospital to find that the staff had given her a hysterectomy without her knowledge. The whistling, I’m told, stopped. For years. A man in the hospital had made a decision to destroy one of the only potentials she had that society had smiled upon. Her own body was not her own.
For much of history, we women have forged ahead, tried to be good mothers and wives and helpmates, tried to be submissive to the family’s “head” as the Bible taught us, tried to reconcile our given place in the world with our own glowing personalities. The trailblazer women, those who haven’t fit into neat categories, know on another level the million deaths they’ve suffered in the name of their own painful and groundbreaking creations. Women know labor pains.
Even the women of today, we who have so many more freedoms than our ancestors, we too have died a thousand deaths. Being a woman has meant that we are intimately familiar with the darkness and void of death.
It is this death that allows life. Of course, life-giving potential is what gets talked about more, probably because it’s more positive and cheerful. But the lives of so many others—men and children and other women–are made possible because of all of these deaths that women die every day.
When I first saw the reference to God as one who gives birth, I found it amazing and odd. It is such a decidedly feminine reference, and I’m not used to seeing that. Isn’t God a man—in control, in authority, with muscles and a booming voice? What does it mean for God to be a woman, panting, out of control, on the verge of death?
But now that I’ve thought about it, I find it odd that we didn’t see God as a woman before. If there is any story central to Christendom, it is that life comes only from death. The story of Jesus is the story of how losing the self is the only way to gain it, and of how the thing that will save us is letting go. It is the story of how love is the only thing that matters in this life. Love and life don’t exist without death. They are only made possible through death. Women know this on a deeply experiential level more than anyone.
The beginning of Isaiah says, “For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.”
When I first read that, I thought of my father, who has been dying for some time now.
I am sad when I think of him, but also, I am confused. I am confused because I was never all that close to my father. I never really knew him. He was as good of a father as he knew how to be—I believe that—he tried (and didn’t have the best role model himself)—but my father is an enormous mystery in my mind and my relationship to him is as undefined as the perimeters of space. And so the grief I feel is attached to this confusion. I wonder, what am I losing? What am I losing? I don’t know. There is something of a vague black void, sometimes throbbing, when I try to gather my losses. It’s like blindly trying to grasp the air with an open hand—you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for, but you’ll come up empty.
Because of their bodies, men have been able to be distant and silent. They literally have been allowed to write history books and anthropological studies labeling and categorizing the world while wives bring them lunch. Because they don’t carry creation inside of themselves and because their bodies don’t signal self-death they’ve been able—more than women—to hold themselves back from others, even from their own creations. They have been granted societal permission, for a long time, to maintain silence if they want to.
I’m not really sure what made the change for God in Isaiah, but God goes from being silent and holding back to being as a woman in childbirth, utterly out of control and gasping from pain. It is only then, after God is like a woman in childbirth that God gets to work.
An outpouring of activity follows:
“I will lay waste the mountains and
and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.
17 But those who trust in idols,
who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
will be turned back in utter shame.”
My point in all this is not that one must experience childbirth or have a woman’s body to know the deep mystery of our faith. My point is not to rag on men or to undermine the ways in which many men make life-long sacrifices for others. I also don’t want to overlook the fact that traditional gender roles and identities are radically shifting. Neither men nor women need to experience childbirth to be creative, selfless human beings, capable of death. We know that women are capable of distance and silence and abandonment and that men are capable of the many deaths required to care for their own progeny and for other people. Men and women both are capable of selfishness and selflessness. We’re all in this together, and we’re more alike than we are different.
My point is that Christendom has been dead wrong to not consider all the ways that God is also like a woman—when we only conceive of God as male, we miss so many potentials for our faith that have been right beneath our noses all along—in our homes, in our lives—wherever there are women.
I’ll be honest—switching up pronouns for God and doing the hard work of trying to think of God as also female makes me squirm. It’s oddly uncomfortable for me because it’s so unfamiliar. But reading this passage and thinking about God as a woman in childbirth made me wonder how I never saw this before. The center of our faith—the one thing holding all of it together—is the belief that death is what allows life. All women, simply because of our bodies, whether we really want to or not, we know this fact intimately. It seems to me that if we really want to explore the truth of death and resurrection more, if we want to understand God as a creator, we can start by allowing our conception of God to be as dynamic as she and he was supposed to be.