The Trinity, Postmodernity and the Mistake of Male Omnipotence
“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.
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.
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.