Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Feminine Divine, Sophiology and Joseph Shaw

A standard way to write a blog post these days is to post a quotation from another blog, acknowledge that it makes a good point in some ways and then to explain why you disagree with it. Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society did this last week and I am going to offer a similar response to his post.

Joseph Shaw posted a comment from Sam Guzman on Catholic Gentleman:

Women are deserving of special reverence not because of weakness, but because of strength. In women, a man can intuit the presence of something that transcends his comprehension. It is in reality something of the divine, something that is somehow his to cherish, to serve, and to protect. Just what it is, and how best to respond to it, he will need to spend a lifetime trying to discover.


I am not going to get into the question of whether I agree or disagree with Sam Guzman's original point. I have absolutely no interest in debating the merits or faults of old-fashioned chivalry. What I am interested in is Joseph Shaw's theological response to this comment:

It should be obvious that the notion that women are superior to men in some moral or spiritual sense, that they have more of the 'divine' in them, is theologically insane, and finds no place in Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors, or the Magisterium. All these sources, in fact, are refreshingly candid about women's faults, just as they are about men's. Cuddeback's effusion has no connection with the Catholic tradition, but it isn't difficult to identify its source: it is the Romantic movement of the 19th century. It is this movement, reacting against the exaggerated rationalism of the Enlightenment, which created the angelic feminine ideal, against which Feminism reacted in turn.


On the face of it, Joseph Shaw would seem to be correct. Genesis 1:27 indicates that men and women are equally created in the divine image. In fact, Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: 7 could be interpreted to imply that women are created in the divine image only in a subordinate sense. However, what I want to argue is that women reflect the divine in a unique and distinctive sense which I think is to some extent captured by Sam Guzman's comment.

I do not know if Joseph Shaw is well acquainted with the Sophiology of Vladimir Soloviev and Sergius Bulgakov in Russian thought, but I would certainly direct him to it as a source of insight into the Feminine Divine. Bulgakov's Sophiology was much more developed theologically than Soloviev's, however, I think we can see in Soloviev a very vivid experience of Sophia as a lived experience. He claimed several encounters with Sophia, Lady Wisdom. In childhood, he was saved from being hit by a train by a woman, who he identified as Sophia. Later in life, he encountered this same woman in the deserts of Egypt, after being robbed and left for dead. It is easy to dismiss such visions as the result of trauma, yet they undoubtedly inspired the direction of his thought. Shaw connects the idea of the feminine divine with the 19th Romantic movement and I am sure he would rightly point out that Soloviev was thoroughly a product of 19th century Romanticism. He certainly was, yet 19th century Romanticism gave us much that is good and worthy. The Oxford Movement and Blessed John Henry Newman were also products of 19th century Romanticism. We can also compare Soloviev's Sophianic vision to Sophianic women figures that predate the 19th century, such as Boethius' Lady Philosophy and Dante's Beatrice. These women reflect a divine wisdom personified in female form. Soloviev and his dreams of a Catholic Russia also undeniably point us in the way of Our Lady of Fatima, who addresses that same theme of Russian conversion. In Our Lady of Fatima we see the true reality of Soloviev's Sophia.




The Biblical foundation of Sophiology is the figure of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. There is a strong tradition within theology of identifying Wisdom with Christ. This identification is often asserted as a sort of knee-jerk orthodoxy, probably to a large part because Christians otherwise don't know what to do with this strange Wisdom woman. Yet there are other traditions that identify Wisdom with both the Blessed Virgin Mary and with the Holy Spirit. For a number of reasons, I don't think we can interpret Wisdom as exclusively fulfilled in Christ. Firstly, Wisdom appears to be created. Secondly, some of the functions and activity of Wisdom seem closer to those of the Holy Spirit (arguably western theology has always had a difficulty assigning function to the Holy Spirit in distinction to the Word). Thirdly, we cannot treat it as insignificant that Wisdom is portrayed as a female figure. The writer of Proverbs could easily portrayed Wisdom as an angel, a male or neuter figure. What strikes me in Proverbs is that the symbolic figure of Lady Wisdom is paralleled by two more Earthly women; the mother of King Lemuel and the idealized wife and mother in chapter 31. Thus, the divine ideal of Wisdom is actualized in the virtue of real live women.

Less obviously, we can see the Feminine Divine in the activity of the Holy Spirit. While the Paraclete in John's Gospel is masculine in gender, Ruach in the Old Testament is feminine. Some theologians feel comfortable at times to refer to the Holy Spirit at times as 'she,' though I am undecided as to whether this is reverent or appropriate. I find it significant that a paraclete is an helper. Eve was created to be Adam's helper. Both the woman and the Holy Spirit play a supportive role. We also see a maternal side to the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit's power, Mary is able to conceive. It is by the Holy Spirit that life is imparted to the believer, by the Holy Spirit Christ is born in the believer. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was probably unguarded in his language when he used the terminology of incarnation to describe the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, but he certainly had a point. Leornardo Boff argued that while Mary is not an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, there is a permanent perichoretic union between Mary and the Holy Spirit, such that the fulness of the Holy Spirit is manifested and actualized in the Blessed Virgin.

I don't know exactly what Sam Guzman meant when he said that 'women, a man can intuit the presence of something that transcends his comprehension. It is in reality something of the divine,' but I think what I have outlined above shows how this can be true in an orthodox sense. Every woman potentially displays the divine wisdom that is at the heart of creation. Every woman is potentially a Spirit-bearer and can display the maternal side of God that we see in the Holy Spirit. Every woman can potentially manifest the divinized womanhood of the Blessed Mother of God. Whether that means we need to treat women with old-fashioned chivalry is a rather different question.

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