What we're talking about when we talk about the feminine divine in Christianity
It has become a kind of dogma among many feminists interested in spirituality that Judaism and Christianity suppressed all female imagery of the divine. It is also assumed that it was women who created female symbols of the divine and that these symbols served to empower women. So, this line of thinking goes, female symbols for the divine were suppressed as a part of a patriarchal disempowerment of women. However, my own research, published in my book, "Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History" shows that all these relations are considerably more ambiguous.
Men, more so than women, probably shaped much of the classical images of the female divine in the ancient Mediterranean world and elsewhere. Such images served male and upper class interests, at least in their official expressions The feminine divine was seen as protecting men in power, probably because they were believed to be protecting men, like a great mother whose power is seen as nurturing rather than judgemental.
But in truth, female symbols of the divine were never entirely suppressed in Judaism or Christianity. Although they were marginalized, they continued to reappear in renewed forms--and are still with us today.
The root of female images of the divine in Christianity lie in what's known as the Wisdom tradition, which is found in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible, in such books as Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon. In those texts, Wisdom is described as a emanation of God: "Like a fine mist she rises from the power of God, a pure effluence from the glory of God... the brightness that streams from everlasting light, the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness" (Wisdom of Solomon, 7:25-26). Wisdom is seen as a companion of God through whom God creates the world, an orderer and sustainer of the universe, a mediator of divine revelation, the one who calls Israel's sons to repent of their folly and enter the study of wisdom. She is the means of good fortune, the bride of sages and the redeemer of souls. "Age after age she enters into holy souls and makes them God's friends and prophets" (Wisdom of Solomon, 7:27).
Wisdom as a feminine aspect of God was developed by scholar-sages in Jerusalem after the return from exile in the late sixth century B.C.E. Earlier Judaism had known of the Goddess Asherah, wife of the Canaanite God El. Since the Hebrew religion identified Yahweh--God--with El, much popular Judaism before the exile continued to assume that Yahweh had a consort, Asherah. Although the reformers of the tradition gradually suppressed this veneration of Asherah, a lingering memory of this tradition may have influenced the scholar-sages may as they shaped the idea of Wisdom as a feminine manifestation of God. Later Jewish mysticism would speak of the Shekinah (a term used to refer to the Presence of God) as the feminine consort of the male God.
Christianity shaped its understanding of who Jesus is through a synthesis of the two traditions of apocalyptic messianism--a belief in an imminently coming Messiah----and wisdom cosmology, the belief in Wisdom as creator of the cosmos. Significant ideas in our understanding of Christ--such as the preexistence of Christ as divine Word with God, the shaping of the creation through the Word, and its role as sustainer and redeemer of the universe and revealer of God's truth (Gospel of John 1:1-18)--all developed through the Wisdom tradition. Jesus is variously seen as a prophet of Wisdom, Wisdom's son, or Wisdom's incarnation. The New Testament preserves some references to the feminine personification of Wisdom manifest in Jesus, such as "Wisdom is justified by her deeds" and "Wisdom is justified by all her children." (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:35). But as the faith developed, the idea of Word (Logos, a male concept) started to be substituted for Wisdom (Sophia, the female concept). Word was identified with Jesus,a male prophet, tending to mask the feminine roots of the Wisdom idea in Western Christianity.
Eastern Christianity continued to place an emphasis on Wisdom, which is identified with Christ or Mary Theotokos (the Mother of God), Mother Church, or even as the sustaining ground of Being of the Trinity. This emphasis is clear in the name of the great mother church of Eastern Orthodoxy in Constantinople: Hagia Sophia, which is Greek for Holy Wisdom.
Although Wisdom as a manifestation of God was temporarily eclipsed in the West, fervent female symbols were cultivated over the years as expressions of the redeemed human individual and community in relation Christ. Particularly important are the ideas of the feminine soul as bride of Christ and of Mother Church as both bride of Christ and mother of Christians in whose baptismal womb Christians are reborn. These feminine theological symbols tended to merge in the figure of Mary, Jesus' mother, as the New Eve through whom Eve's fall is reversed. She is the Virgin mother through whom Jesus is born without sin, and the Theotokos, or Mother of God. In the later patristic and medieval period. theologians would elaborate on the ideas that she was assumed bodily into heaven at death and preserved from sin in her own conception.
Still, the theme of Wisdom as part of our understanding of God remained familiar to all Christians through the reading of the scriptures at Mass. And medieval mysticism--particularly through female mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) and Julian of Norwich (14th century)--would take these ideas even further.