National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 30, 2003

"Wouldn't it be great if Dolly Parton were God?"
-- WENN/Dardis Mcdonnell
Dolly Parton, and other feminine images of the divine

Fresh metaphors from women’s embodiment can give us a new way to see God as internal


Sneaking out early for a long-awaited Dolly Parton concert, my office-mate -- a bright and sensitive man regularly depressed by the ransacking of the environment, the persistence of bigotry and the legacy of war -- suddenly brightened.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “if Dolly Parton were God?”

It would indeed, I agreed.

But I didn’t take him seriously until I met Cheryl Lawler. A psychoanalyst married to an Episcopal priest, Lawler wants to discover feminine images of the divine. Maybe not Dolly as God with cleavage, but divine images that are female in their essence. It sounds so simple.

But according to Lawler, it’s virtually impossible.

“The very structure of monotheism comes out of male experience and male embodiment,” she explained “Men have a male God, an ideal role model conceptualized in their own image. That God is singular, celibate and perfect. He creates the world solo, bringing order out of chaos, and he remains external to the world he creates: all-powerful, pure spirit, immortal.”

Everything left over -- the flaws and frailties of the flesh, its vulnerability and receptivity, absence and need -- has been used to define women. “We have no female God with whom to identify, no divine female genealogy,” says Lawler. “Christians have the mother of the divine son -- who is therefore not sexual -- or the Magdalene, the prostitute who lives at the margins. What a choice. To identify sexuality in opposition to spirituality! It leaves women very torn.”

I sputter a bit, wanting to say we’re fixing all that. We’re eradicating sexism and changing the pronouns; looking at the feminine aspects of the Holy Spirit; recruiting altar girls …

“We need a way to imagine woman as divine,” she said, cutting through my schoolgirl optimism like a knife through jam. “It’s premature to say, ‘Oh no, we know God as Mother’ -- that’s not enough. And women becoming part of the existing power structure isn’t enough. Stop there and we have foreclosed the possibility of ever finding out what we’ve missed.

“We still don’t have a model of difference,” she explained. “We have privileged and devalued aspects of the same thing. The definitions of male and female, masculine and feminine, all start with the male fantasy.”

Patiently, Lawler reminded me that the imaginative layer lies deep in the unconscious, and from it spring the conscious symbols of language, ritual and art; the discourses of law, science, medicine and politics. “Throughout Western civilization, women are defined by what they do not have, by void and negation. If I say I’m trying to be more ‘feminine,’ then I’m trying to be what men have constructed femininity to be. If a man says he’s getting in touch with his feminine side, he’s simply reclaiming a part of himself that was long ago projected onto women.”

I draw a deep breath.

“So where’s the real woman?”

“Imagining a truly female identity is nearly impossible,” she replied, “because the available symbols are not our own. We need fresh metaphors, metaphors that come out of women’s experience, women’s embodiment. The existing metaphors all began with men’s embodied experience. Men have an external sexual organ that they want to be all-powerful and independent, not limp and vulnerable. So we have a God that is all-powerful, external and independent.

“We need a way to think of the divine as internal,” she insisted. “Because as soon as I say the divine is separate, I abdicate any responsibility to birth God, to grow God within me.”

My head’s spinning. She goes on, talking now about ancient myths of a divine couple whose union conceives the world. For Christians, that’s inconceivable.

“To think of God as two is paganism. People have such an investment in monotheism, in God as One. We have kings, presidents, CEOs --”

Impatient, she waved her own words away.

“Those institutions are crumbling. It’s time for a new framework. Monotheism is the linchpin for our intolerance of difference,” she continued, and now I’m really shocked. In my naive, learned equation, monotheism is good. Reflection stops there.

“This insistence that there is but one God and he is ours and he alone holds truth -- that’s at the basis of every fundamentalist conflict in the world right now,” she said. “In monotheism, there is no space left open for the other.

“What kind of God would we imagine as women?” she asked suddenly, interrupting her own train of thought. Her voice softens, opening itself to possibilities I still find bewilderingly vague. “Is there room for more than one way of imagining the divine?”

I find I want to say yes.

Jeannette Cooperman, formerly Batz, is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003

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