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The Trinity, Postmodernity and the Mistake of Male Omnipotence

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If God is male, then the male is God.”

This quote by Mary Daly serves as the backdrop for this post. I have recently become fascinated by feminist theological approaches and want to flesh some of my thoughts out here. For the record, it is my firm contention that woman and men are equal and in no way is male superiority consistent with a trinitarian understanding of the primal interrelatedness of all things.

I recently read a book by Anna Case Winters entitled: God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges. I also read Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father and Charles Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. These readings led me to the conclusion that a definition of divine omnipotence, so long as it is defined by males in power, and is defined within metaphysical or absolute categories as “power in the mode of domination and control,” serves to subvert woman and remove the responsibility for social and ideological change that is represented as paradigmatic throughout Heilsgeschichte.

Misogynistic Destabilization

Another word used alongside Post-modernism to describe our current historical context is Post-structuralism. Post-structuralism argues that there are countless truths and that structures must bleed, and that human constructs and categories must become destabilized and decentered.

The prefix “post” in both of these words is used to signify that the culture is moving, or has already moved, past or beyond both modernity and the confines of authoritative/dominating/hierarchical/oppressive human structures.

In this submission, and the one to follow, I am challenging my readers to move past, and decenter along the way, the structures of male dominance that are so prevalent in theism in general, and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular. I also want to challenge the readers to move past, and decenter along the way, the definitions used in the Christian vocabulary of divine omnipotence that imply “power in the mode of domination and control.”

Both of these faultily notions, male dominance and the strictly metaphysical/Hellenistic definition of divine power, are antithetical to both the concrete actualization of Jesus Christ, the God-human, and to the mutual coexistence in the divine life of the Triune God.

For those who do not know me, I am a male. Yet, as a person who has a particular theological orientation to both the Word of God and the Trinity as methodological starting points, I often find myself asking the following question.

feminism

The Problem of Omnipotence

What do we think when we hear the word omnipotence? Are our ideas of omnipotence the product of patriarchal (misogynistic?) structures? Do we automatically associate the concept of divine omnipotence with absolute male power? What does divine power look like when viewed through the lens of the cross or the particularity of the manger? What does divine power look like when we use feminine imagery to understand the I/Thou relationship between God and the world?

The answers to these questions will vary tremendously – depending on a person’s race, socio-economical status, gender, sexual orientation and cultural context – if indeed an answer is attempted at all.

Many people in today’s Christian culture will accept as a given the traditional, dualistic, strictly metaphysical, male understanding of omnipotence without ever considering the Trinity and the relationship of the God-human to the created world. Others, like the current author, will call for a reassessment of the definition of omnipotence, and the deconstruction of the idea of male dominance in the Christian church in light of several factors that undermine both of these male structures. I list six below, but there are others.

1.) the incoherency of the theodicy problem (intellectual inadequacy)

2.) the doctrine of the Trinity (revelatory inadequacy)

3.) the lack of agreement in theism about the meaning of omnipotence (semantic inadequacy)

4.) the religious viability and incoherency of strict metaphysical/Hellenistic omnipotence and human agency (existential inadequacy)

5.) the oppression of people who have historically not been in positions of power, namely, women and minorities (more existential inadequacy)

6.) and a narration of the life of Jesus – in particular a narration of the manger scene, the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and the cross (more revelatory inadequacy)

When these 6 points are taken into consideration it becomes evident, in our post-modern context, that we must redefine omnipotence and seek new ways to talk about God’s power. More importantly, we must also change the way we create dualistic structures that subvert women and minorities as a result of our understanding of inherited Hellenistic definitions of omnipotence.

  • Thinking Christologically, woman are created co-equal with men (Gal. 3:28); therefore, we must destabilize, and decenter along the way, our faulty inherited tradition of male superiority and dominance.
  • We need new language for God. Language that in not so easily co-opted in systems of control and does not perpetuate domination over others, in particular domination over non-white-males.
  • “If God is male, then the male is God,” writes Mary Daly. Thus we need to make use of more female biblical imagery of God (Isa. 42:14; Num. 11:12; Isa. 49:14-15; Isa. 66:12-13; Isa. 46:3-4; Dt. 32:18; Hosea 11:1-4; Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28; Lk. 15:8-1.
  • Can we move, as Mary Daly’s book title suggests “Beyond God the Father”? Can we lay aside our images of God that give rise to a theistic attitude of subjugation and control? Can we supplement “Mother” for “Father” to swing the language pendulum in the direction of gender equality?
  • How is it that one of the salient features of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the prophetic voice against oppression yet, almost categorically, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been oppressive to women?

These are a few ideas I have been considering recently as a result of my exposure to feminist theologies.

This is no easy task that I am calling for. Our entire system is built upon maleness. To destabilize and decenter this system, one needs to change more than just the language we use, we need new images too. Female images of the Trinity giving birth to the created universe have been helpful in this regard for the current author.

Instead of conceptions of God as an all-powerful mighty warrior who is vengeful and able to do whatever/whenever, I prefer now to use images of God as Mother and make use of the concept of the “divine womb” giving birth and caring for creation like a mother bird cares for her chicks.

The Hebrew word for womb is rehem which comes from the root rahum which means “merciful”. In a number of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it (Trible God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 447).

In the white male system that all Western Christians are a part of, omnipotence and power are falsely envisaged as a “zero sum” issue. “Things have to be either this way or that. One must be either superior or inferior. One must be either one-up or one-down…One is either controlled or controlling, depending on where one is in the hierarchy” says Keller. It’s time for males in the Church to give up their need to be in power.

We need to decenter and redefine our definitions of God’s omnipotence as “dominating” and “controlling” because these conceptualization give sanction to more male superiority and run counter to the way God has acted in the economic Trinity.

The Triune God is powerful insofar as God is relational with God-self and the world. The Triune God is a God of mutual empowerment and erotic power who gives life to all things. “Erotic power is the power of connectedness” says Rita Nakashima Brock  (Beyond Jesus the Christ: A Christology of Erotic Power).

Those who cling to biblical literalism and male power would do themselves a great theological service if they would realize the beauty of conceiving the Triune God and humanity’s primal interrelatedness through the lens of the Mother/child relationship.

I think Daniel Migliore best represents my point in this post: “The power of the Triune God is not coercive but creative, sacrificial, and empowering love; and the glory of the triune God consists not in dominating others but in sharing life with others…”

Ask yourself, “Does my conceptualization of omnipotence fall under the category of male dominance and control, or does it fall under the category of creativity, sacrifice and empowerment? After considering this question, think about which one of these best represents a narration of the life of the second person of the Trinity.

In the next post, I will employ Max Horkeimer’s critical theory and focus primarily on #2 and #5. I will also explore a broad range of themes in Trinitarian and feminist theology, considering the critiques they have made of traditional Christian doctrine of omnipotence, the constructive alternatives they both proposes, and the effect they have on the life of the people of God today.

7 thoughts on “The Trinity, Postmodernity and the Mistake of Male Omnipotence

  1. Good post. When reading this, I think I probably have mixed feelings. Personally, I think balance is the key to any theological understanding. We need to avoid extremes. I think we would find ourselves in the same faulty position if we were to swing the pendulum all the way to an extreme feminist hermeneutic. I think we need to move past polarizations; patriarchal hermeneutics and feminist hermeneutics are both imbalanced. If we want an accurate understanding of the Triune God, then we need to take all of God’s revelation of himself into account. This includes all the various allusions to and images of God in the text, as well as accounting for all of God’s actions throughout human history. God’s self-diclosure of himself transcends the limitations of both feminist and patriarchal categories. In short, I think we need synthesis; an accurate depiction of who God is lies somewhere in between these two polarizing extremes.

    *Sorry for any typos. I was in a rush*

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Ryan. It means a lot coming from you. I agree that we need to strive for balance. However, in this case, the feminist one, males in positions of power have had center stage in the theater of Christian theology for over 2,000 years. Feminist theology, as a theological discipline recognized in the academy, has only been around for about 25 years. I don’t think the feminist pole is the chief end, however, in this blog project context, where I am assuming most of the readers and contributors are fairly conservative (patriarchal?), I felt like it was necessary to push in that direction to help others see the system for what it is. My current view is that in order to find balance, one must first swing the language and symbol pendulum radically in in the opposite direction before it balances back out at a neutral position. Just curious, does your seminary have female profs teaching Bible and Theo?

    1. Yeah, that is completely understandable. I was thinking that this was probably where you were coming from. A corrective, by nature, is usually going to be a little unbalanced. Kierkegaard’s corrective of both Protestant scholasticism and certain trends within enlightenment thinking is an example that comes to mind.

      Yeah, at ATS, we have female professors in biblical studies, ethics, and a variety of other departments. I think it is important. The female voice has definitely been ignored within much of our theological heritage/history.

  3. God has nothing to do with the need to dominate and control. God is God. We all are capable of preaching and teaching the word of God. Inclusiveness is God’s will.. People who need to dominate and control are acting out of fleshly desires. Grant it someone has to be in charge males and females are capable of brutish behavior.There has to be a balance. I think of God as a power and source of great love; sometimes he is father and sometimes she is mother. depending on what I need at the time. Learning how to change a mindset is diffilcult and frightening. Women will continue to shatter the glass ceiling in theocracy and everyplace else. The elders will retire, their mindset with them. Openmindedness will replace exclusiveness.Christ will prevail.

  4. I agree with your statement,”God has nothing to do with the need to dominate and control. God is God.” So much of what has been common place in Christianity is fear based.

    When this topic comes up I am reminded of what is recorded for us in John 20:11-18. Our Lord on His resurrection chose a woman (Mary) to be the first evangelist of the NT. not the guys who were slow on the uptake until the day of Pentecost.

  5. Not only did God choose a woman to be the 1st evangelist, but God also chose a woman to be the 1st Christian. If we define a “Christian” as one who receives Christ, Mary, the Theotokos or Christotokos, literally received Christ in the most radical way in her womb.

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