Chapter 12: Obituaries for a Patriarchal God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 12: Obituaries for a Patriarchal God

From the 1970s, female scholars began to unveil what should have been obvious all along but had not been: that the champions of traditional theism were males championing a one-sidedly male image of the divine. Genesis 1:27 may have proclaimed that God created humankind in God’s own image, and created us “male and female,” but somehow the word failed to get around that both male and female were created in God’s non-gender-specific image. The God who transcends distinctions of gender was nevertheless burdened with characteristics that were predominantly male.1

So we move directly from a consideration of the death of God overall to inquiries into the demise of a God of strictly male qualities, whose obituaries point the way forward to a more encompassing grasp of the fullness of Who God Is. A vast body of work has emerged from women theologians, often though not always termed “feminist” thinkers, and reaching far beyond the specific focus of this chapter on supplanting male-dominated understandings of God with more fecund investigations into the divine mystery of power and love. Thus it has been necessary here, in the selection process, to omit many voices perhaps equally deserving of attention.2



Mary Daly (1928–2010) provided important pioneering work in her Beyond God the Father in 1973, calling attention to the fact that indeed the God who had been pronounced dead was precisely God the Father.3

The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in “his” heaven is a father ruling “his” people, then it is in the “nature” of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.4

A tremendous portion of Daly’s work was aimed at surfacing the consequences of male-dominated thinking about God for women’s day-to-day experience.

The widespread conception of the “Supreme Being” as an entity distinct from this world but controlling it according to plan and keeping human beings in a state of infantile subjection has been a not too subtle mask of the divine patriarch.5

Out of her own experience of diminishment by males, she unflinchingly wrote of “castrating God” and “cutting away the Supreme Phallus”6 as an important part of the process of transforming the collective imagination.

Daly’s counterproposal was to de-objectify God as a being, following Tillich, and render God instead as a “verb”:7 “the God who is power of being acts as a moral power summoning women and men to act out of our deepest hope and to become who we can be.”8 God endlessly unfolds, and develops. God is “a power of being which both is, and is not yet.”9

The re-creative work that followed Daly essentially assumed the clarion call of the traditional Father’s death, so that the rest of this chapter will pursue the work of her female colleagues in developing evocative and propitious insights into the God who rises from the ash-heap of patriarchy. This activity has come to be known collectively as “feminist” [155] theology; it is, of course, so much more than just that. Many of the developments to be addressed here will also be seen in later chapters on love and relationality, since these themes both recur with refreshing frequency. So this is but a foretaste of what lies ahead.


Carter Heyward (b. 1945) blazed trails in American Protestant circles equal to those of the initially Roman Catholic Mary Daly. Heyward was one of eleven women whose ordination in 1974 paved the way for the recognition of women priests in the Episcopal Church. Her fundamental challenge to the dominance of patriarchy has been to move the issue of God’s relations to others to front and center in reconceiving the being of God. God is identified at the very beginning of Heyward’s first book, The Redemption of God (1982), as “power in relation” and “the power of relation,”10—or, as her subtitle implies, “the power and intimacy in mutual relation.”11 This was actualized, “in-carnated,” in Jesus as dunamis (power).12 Jesus’ exousia (authority) derives from his dunamis, not the other way around.13

Seven years later, following on the heels of Rita Nakashima Brock’s initiating of the theme of “erotic power,”14 Heyward observed that “to speak of the erotic or of God is to speak of power in right relation,”15 defining “erotic” as “the sacred/godly basis of our capacity to participate in mutually empowering relationships.”16

Our power is erotic because it is about embodying relational connections. This power is sacred because it is shared. It is transforming because it is creative. And our power is liberating because it moves the struggle for justice. By this power, in this power, and with this power, we find ourselves-in-relation, breaking out of the isolation imposed by silence and invisibility.17

Mutuality is a central focus for Heyward, critiquing the patriarchal God for having mutual relations only internally, in the interactions among the persons of the Trinity. She defines mutuality as “sharing power in such a way that each participant in the relationship is called [156] forth more fully into becoming who she is—a whole person, with integrity.”18

Two modes of being powerful are contrasted: power-with, and powerover. “Power-with serves to further empower all persons in a relationship. Power-over serves to further empower a few and disempower others.”19 This is an absolutely vital insight. To discern explicitly how divine power can come to be perceived as divine empowerment is absolutely central to the thesis of my exploration.

Heyward wraps up her revisionary understanding with a statement that is refreshing in its insight.

God is our relational power—our power in mutual relation. It is from this God that you and I draw our power to be in life in the first place, and to sustain our lives in relation. In sustaining and becoming ourselves in relation, we are giving birth to more of this same sacred power who needs us, her friends, to bring her to life and help nourish her life on the earth. She is being born among us, and yet she is seldom fully present, fully herself. To that extent, she is not yet but becoming. Where there is brokenness, fear, despair, or violence, the power may not be—yet. But with our help, she is becoming . . . It is a paradox: God is becoming our relational matrix insofar as we are the womb in which God is being born. This may be easier to comprehend if we substitute the word “love” for “God.”20

Switching the pronoun for God from “he” to “she” is liberating. It is part of the process of completing the obituary for the patriarchal God. It is not that God is “she” only, but that God is “she” also, in a way that gets to the very heart of God’s true identity. To call attention to the “womb” of God is not to lead us in the direction of a matriarchal replacement; it is rather to challenge us to find all the helpful female symbology for characterizing God that overcomes the previous patriarchal one-sidedness.


As the latest move in a highly varied and richly textured career of passionate scholarship, Rita Nakashima Brock currently serves as founding co-director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Texas. [157] Her award-winning first book, Journeys by Heart (1988), essentially blew the work of Anders Nygren on Agape and Eros out of the water by reversing the terms: God’s love is not agapic, but erotic.

Brock identified agape love with the wrong direction of classical (patriarchal) theism in championing “disinterested” love, “dispassionate” love that includes no dynamic interrelationship between Lover and beloved and leaves God utterly unaffected by the creaturely response to God’s love.21 Erotic love, by contrast, “connotes intimacy through the subjective engagement of the whole self in a relationship.”22

But what Brock really wished to do with this emphasis was to shift how we understand the nature of power: God’s power is erotic power, as the subtitle of her book proclaims. “Erotic power is the power of our primal interrelatedness.” It is an ontic category; “all other forms of power emerge from the reality of erotic power.”23 She went on to say: “Erotic power is the fundamental power of existence-as-a-relational-process . . . Connection is the basic power of all existence, the root of life. The power of being/becoming is erotic power.”24 This does not aim toward control, but connectedness. In fact, “erotic power denied and crushed” is precisely what generates dominance and control,25 as power perverted.


The day after Elizabeth Johnson was born in 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Perhaps that was something of an omen in the work of a Roman Catholic woman theologian who challenged the priorities and perspectives of a male-dominated world of achievement by force and “might makes right.” In her trailblazing She Who Is (1992), the title boldly confronting the reader like a 100-point headline on the front page of a newspaper, Johnson identified the death of patriarchy’s God emphatically.

Classical theism emphasizes in a one-sided way the absolute transcendence of God over the world, God’s untouchability by human history and suffering, and the all-pervasiveness of God’s dominating power to which human beings owe submission and [158] awe. Is this idea of God not the reflection of patriarchal imagination, which prizes nothing more than unopposed power-over and unquestioned loyalty? Is not the transcendent, omnipotent, impassible symbol of God the quintessential embodiment of the solitary ruling male ego, above the fray, perfectly happy in himself, filled with power in the face of the obstreperousness of others? Is this not “man” according to the patriarchal ideal?26

Johnson’s insights overflow extensively into other aspects of divine reality being explored throughout Part III. Her supplanting of masculine ways of thinking about God delve quite consequentially into the issues of divine suffering, the importance of relationality over against self-sufficiency, and the centrality of divine love.

From a feminist perspective the denial of divine relation to the world codified in the highly specialized scholastic language reflects the disparagement of reciprocal relation characteristic of patriarchy in its social and intellectual expressions. If the ideal is the potent, all-sufficient ego in charge of events and independent of the need for others, then to be connected in mutuality with others introduces “deficiency” in the form of interdependence, vulnerability, and risk. Genuine mutuality threatens any form of domination, including the paternalistic ordering of things. Thus it is not accidental that classical theism insists on a concept of God with no real relation to the world, even when this is interpreted as an affirmation of divine transcendence. Unrelated and unaffected by the world, such a theistic God limns the ultimate patriarchal ideal, the solitary, dominant male.27

She critiques classical theism for modeling divine being on the root metaphor of motion derived from the non-personal physical world. “A different interpretation becomes possible when the root metaphor is taken from personal reality that is constitutively relational. Then the essence of God can be seen to consist in the motion of personal relations and the act that is love.” Suffering now becomes not a movement from potentiality to act but “an expression of divine being insofar as it is an act freely engaged in as a consequence of care for others.” Divine suffering is now interpretable as “Sophia-God’s act of love freely overflowing in compassion.”28


Love is absolutely central. “She Who Is” is “the dark radiance of love in solidarity with the struggle of denigrated persons.”29 Furthermore, “The being of God that we are speaking of is essentially love. God’s being is identical with an act of communion, not with monolithic substance, and so is inherently relational.”30 God manifests a “power of suffering love to resist and create anew.”31 God is perceived as a “suffering SophiaGod of powerful compassionate love.”32

So also, the title is intended to signify “the creative, relational power of being who enlivens, suffers with, sustains, and enfolds the universe.”33 Johnson’s proposal for a feminist reshaping of the notion of omnipotence occupies only a page and half. “We seek an understanding that does not divide power and compassionate love in a dualistic framework that identifies love with a resignation of power and the exercise of power with a denial of love. Rather, we seek to integrate these two, seeing love as the shape in which divine power appears.”34 What is absent, however, is any investigation into how this reformulation can be constitutively understood, beyond notions of “power-with” and such phrases as “a vitality, an empowering vigor that reaches out and awakens freedom and strength in oneself and others . . . an energy that brings forth, stirs up, and fosters life,” a transforming of people.35

Johnson is cautious about overemphasizing the value of love because of “the attention traditionally devoted to agapaic or self-giving love,” without sufficiently equal regard for self-affirmation. Even so, “set within an inclusive context and continuously regulated by the value of relational autonomy . . . love may yet serve as a crystallization of the relational essence of God’s being.”36 She offers a formidable twist on Anselm in suggesting that God is no less than that one “than whose power of love nothing greater can be conceived.”37

This moves decisively in the direction my exploration desires to take us, toward a new unification of love and power at the very center of God in which love is allowed to redefine power. Johnson is pursuing “a resymbolization of divine power not as dominative or controlling power, nor as dialectical power in weakness, nor simply as persuasive power, but as the liberating power of connectedness that is effective in compassionate love. We can say: Sophia-God is in solidarity with those [160] who suffer as a mystery of empowerment.”38 This points excitingly toward an understanding of a wholly other way of being powerful, for God. It blazes new trails into a wilderness of the reflective imagination that we are are invited to explore further.


  1. Is it a coincidence that what we have been observing, that love has taken a backseat to power in traditional interpretations of God, reflects the dismissing of a “soft,” receptive side of God for the sake of a harder, all-sufficient, self-contained, overpowering side of God?
  2. For a brief but excellent overview of relevant resources, see Elizabeth
    1. Johnson, Quest for the Living God (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007), 110–12.
  3. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 12, and all of ch. 1.
  4. Ibid., 13.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid., 19.
  7. Ibid., 33ff.
  8. Ibid., 32.
  9. Ibid., 36.
  10. Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982), 2.
  11. Ibid., 11, emphasis original.
  12. Ibid., 31f. 41.
  13. Ibid., 41–43.
  14. Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1988). See the section on Brock, below.
  15. Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 3, emphasis mine.
  16. Ibid., 187.
  17. Ibid., 21.
  18. Ibid., 191. We will visit this theme more extensively in the chapter on “Overtures to a Relational God.” The conjoining of these two foci, feminists’ and “process” theologians’ understandings of power as relational, arises in the work of such scholars as Anne Carr, who wrote: “Feminist understanding of power in relational terms, as empowerment of the other, corresponds to process theology’s distinction between two kinds of power, coercive power and persuasive power . . . God’s liberating action occurs through human power and action that imitates the persuasive, nonviolent power of God, a power that, as human experience teaches and the symbol of the cross reveals, all too often fails in sinful human history. While women’s experience underscores the compassion and so the gentle power of God, a power in the world that is apparently helpless without human cooperation, it also heightens awareness of human freedom and responsibility.” Anne Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 151f.
  19. Heyward, Touching Our Strength, 192.
  20. Ibid., 24, emphases mine. The last sentence here was expanded that same year in a collection of Heyward’s essays and sermons: “God is revealed as Lover and Beloved and as the creative, liberating, and sanctifying Spirit that draws us together in right relation.” Heyward, Speaking of Christ: A Lesbian Feminist Voice, ed. Ellen C. Davis (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 69.
  21. Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1988), 40.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., 26, both quotes. Brock derived this notion from HaunaniKay Trask, Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 92-93: “In the feminist vision, Eros is both love and power.” (Quoted by Brock, 25.)
  24. Ibid., 41.
  25. Ibid., 36.
  26. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 21. See also Johnson’s later summary of this critique in her Quest for the Living God, 14–16, [162] and all of ch. 5 (90–112).
  27. Johnson, She Who Is, 225.
  28. Ibid., 265, all three quotes; emphasis original.
  29. Ibid., 244.
  30. Ibid., 238, emphasis mine.
  31. Ibid., 271.
  32. Ibid., 272.
  33. Ibid., 13, emphasis mine.
  34. Ibid., 269.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., 265, both quotes.
  37. Ibid., 268.
  38. Ibid., 270, emphasis mine.

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