“It seems natural to assume that Christian people, eager to transmit the Good News that the Creator loves each human being equally and unconditionally, would be right in the vanguard of those who utilize inclusive language. Yet a visit to almost any church on Sunday morning indicates that alas, it is not happening that way. Whereas a ‘secular’ publisher like McGraw-Hill has insisted on inclusive language for almost a decade, the language of Christian preaching, prayer, and hymnody is still laden with exclusive-sounding references to men, man, brothers, sons, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the pronoun for that God is ‘he.’ As if to assure us that the lopsidedly masculine language is intentional, the leadership in local congregations and national church organizations is also lopsidedly male. Despite the fact that many women and men have already exited from Christianity because of such gender and sexual imbalance, the exclusiveness continues.”
These words that Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote in 1983, in the introduction to her book The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female, are still true for the majority of churches today.
Since the early 1970s, Dr. Mollenkott has been challenging the church toward greater inclusiveness. She served on the translation committee of the National Council of Churches’ Inclusive Language Lectionary and was a stylistic consultant for the New International Version of the Bible (NIV). She says that she did what she could on the NIV “to lighten the male God and human focus,” but that she couldn’t do much because of the translators’ conservatism. Also, for almost 40 years she has been writing and teaching about human equality, not only in her college classrooms but also in church conferences, seminaries, and guest lectureships.
Dr. Mollenkott has authored or coauthored 13 books, including Women, Men and the Bible; The Divine Feminine; Godding: Human Responsibility and the Bible; Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response; Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism; Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach; and Transgender Journeys. In 1973, Dr. Mollenkott spoke at the first conference of evangelical feminists at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver. In 1974, she gave the first women’s liberation speech at Malone College in Ohio; she was picketed by the students there “who brought newspapers to the chapel, opened them, and loudly rattled the pages” while she was speaking. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, and has delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization since then. In addition, she provides leadership every year for two conferences at Kirkridge Retreat Center: Christian People of the Rainbow and Sisterly Conversations.
Virginia describes herself as a “progressive evangelical,” who was “raised in Protestant fundamentalism.” She recounts: “I grew up in a fundamentalist family and a church where women could not ask questions during a Bible study, let alone teach anything to other participants. God was male, and therefore men were the heads of home, church, and society. When I began to read feminist theology and first tried to call God ‘She,’ I was terrified.”
In an essay in the book Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion, she writes: “For the first thirty-some years of my life, the Christianity I learned from my Protestant fundamentalist family was enough to strangulate my desire to celebrate my own particularities and thus to embody God in just the way She had created me to do. But during those same years, the keys to my eventual liberation were also being provided. Although many right-wing Christians despise what I have done with the keys they put into my hands, the fact is that the same Bible that deeply oppressed me has also been the most vital element in setting me free. It is not an overstatement to claim that I have been radicalized by the Bible.”
Her Ph.D. in literature helped her discover female imagery of God in the Bible, and she began writing articles on this imagery for the Christian feminist journal Daughters of Sarah. These articles eventually became her book The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female.
Shortly after the publication of The Divine Feminine, Dr. Mollenkott received an angry letter from a woman who wrote, “How dare you refer to God as female! Don’t you know that God is HOLY?” Virginia asked the woman to “please consider what she was saying about herself, about me, about women in general. If we are made in the image of a God who is holy, are we not also holy?”
Others have tried to discount Dr. Mollenkott’s work on inclusive language. “Various women and men have told me how ‘trivial’ the language issue is, but their flushed faces tell a different story.”
While serving on the Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee, Dr. Mollenkott and other members of the committee received death threats. And Bob Jones University, where she earned her undergraduate degree, calls her a “’demon’ whom they hope God will ‘destroy.’” Bob Jones University’s hatred, she suspects, “is more about my lesbianism than my God-language, but they are interrelated since both undercut male supremacy.”
Undaunted by threats and angry attacks and discounts, Dr. Mollenkott continues her work as a powerful, passionate voice for inclusive language and theology. “We do not even grasp our own experience until we have language for it. For instance, I did not understand my own discomfort in wearing a skirt or dress until I learned the term ‘transgender.’ As long as our references to God are always to male or else to neutral imagery like ‘rock,’ men will continue to seem more in God’s image than women. And world-wide abuses of women and girls will continue because females will be viewed as less god-like and less human than males.”
Virginia gives specific, helpful suggestions for bringing language inclusive of all genders to the church. “Make no mistake: gender-neutral language for God does not dislocate assumptions about male primacy. It takes overt feminine pronouns and female or transgender metaphors for God to shock the mind into seeing the Holy One as anything but male, since the word ‘God’ is male-gender in the first place. Simply using the masculine term ‘God’ with the feminine pronoun ‘She’ already includes people who consider themselves neither entirely male/masculine nor entirely female/feminine but somewhere in between. But it is also important to point out the biblical fact that Adam was both male and female before Eve was divided off from ‘his’ side, and that God made both male and female in Her/His image and appointed both of them to be caretakers in charge of creation. When speaking of human beings, it is important to say ‘people’ rather than ‘men and women’; but if you want to use the latter, you should say ‘women and men and in-betweens,’ or ‘women and men and transgender people.’ Alternating male and female God-imagery is the best we do, but it is also helpful to point out that God gives birth. And while the humanly divine Jesus is rightly referred to as ‘he,’ once Jesus has ascended and becomes the Christ within the Godhead, ‘she’ becomes appropriate as an aspect of the Divine Feminine. We women are part of Christ’s Body just as much as men, and our language should reflect that.”
Gender-diverse language for the Divine brings many beneficial changes to the church, Dr. Mollenkott believes. “In the few places where diverse God-language is used regularly, women and transgender people are empowered to become more active leaders, and men are empowered to express their emotions and act on their generous desires to serve others. So everything looks and feels more Christ-like.” This diverse language, she says, will also “tend to break down either-or hierarchies such as clergy/laity.”
Dr. Mollenkott enumerates gifts that come to Christianity through expanding our understandings of humanity as well as divinity. “By revealing the dazzling diversity of creation’s sex/gender continuum, the transgender movement is changing society’s concept of what nature is, who or what God is, and what authentic human experience looks like,” she writes in the chapter “Trans-forming Feminist Christianity,” in New Feminist Christianity, edited by Mary Hunt and Diann Neu.
In “Affirming Queer Spirituality in a Sometimes Hostile World,” an article on her website, Dr. Mollenkott explains that those “who do not or cannot conform to society’s false gender roles and rules are reclaiming ‘queer’ as a word about diversity that was previously used as a slur,” and she names other gifts that queer people share with the world. “By the circumstances of our queerness we have been forced to do a lot of introspection about the interconnectedness of sex, gender, justice, and spirituality. . . . One of our greatest queer gifts to society is to help people overcome the gender stereotypes that alienate men from women, alienate almost everyone from their own bodies, and oppress women and girls all over the world. As the somewhat masculine mother of a son whom I dearly love, I resent that boys are still told that ‘real men don’t cry’ and ‘real men are always in control of every situation.’ What nonsense! And I grieve over the fact that around the world, women perform most of the hard labor but often receive only whatever food is left after the men have eaten. In Africa, thousands of women are dying of AIDS because they have no right to refuse unprotected sex with husbands who are HIV+. Such facts reveal that the binary gender construct does not merely differentiate men from women, but also elevates men above women. But because we queer people combine male and female traits in a multitude of ways, we offer society some visual and embodied assistance in putting aside such unjust perceptions and practices.” (See article for fuller discussion)
Dr. Mollenkott continues to challenge our perceptions and expand our experiences. She gives this expansive definition of “transgender”: “most liberated people, heterosexual or otherwise, are transgender because they do not match society’s traditional expectations for men and women.” In Transgender Journeys she writes: “the deepest oppression I have known stemmed not simply from being female, nor even from being lesbian, but from being a gender transgressor,” meaning that as a “masculine woman” she “undercuts society’s binary gender construct.”
Gender inclusiveness is closely connected to peace and social justice, Virginia asserts: “Only people who are at peace with themselves and their community can truly contribute to world peace and justice. But by being divisive in its language and policies, the church has (inadvertently?) become one of the most unjust and discord-producing aspects of modern society.”
Because she “cannot stand the exclusively male God-language,” Dr. Mollenkott does not attend church regularly. Instead, she finds her faith community in Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus (EEWC) and through other conferences and workshops. She says that her “greatest ongoing experience of community has come” from EEWC.” She also affirms: “I consider myself a member of the universal church of Christ’s body, in whom I live and move and have my being.”
Dr. Mollenkott envisions a hopeful future for inclusion of the Divine Feminine and all genders within the church. “The future looks bright, but it may be a long time getting here. Our work is to keep on sharing what we have learned without letting ourselves get too attached to immediate results.”
And Dr. Mollenkott is doing just that: keeping on with her prophetic teaching and writing. At the most recent EEWC conference she presented an inspiring plenary address in which she referred to God as “She” throughout. And she continues to write for EEWC and other publications.
I also highly recommend Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s website for more of her creative, prophetic work.