Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Male brides of a female Christ

Caroline Walker Bynum, in Jesus as Mother, outlines how 12 th century cloistered male saints began to understand themselves as mothers who were the male brides of the mother/father Christ. As these saints expanded the Gospel of Matthew’s imagery of Jesus as a mother hen (23:37) and wrote about the breast feeding Christ who was a mother, they were not implying that Christ was female. Rather, they believed that the male Christ’s humanity was dependent upon the simultaneous nature of Christ’s mother/fatherhood. Unlike the binary sex roles of our contemporary culture, “Medieval authors do not seem to have drawn as sharp a line as we do between sexual responses and affective responses or between male and female.”1 This fluidity of gender went beyond the belief that men could be feminine to the idea that men could take on physical characteristics of the female body while still remaining male.

It is possible to read the works of these saints as reinforcing patriarchal assumptions by giving males not only the ability impregnate but also to birth and breastfeed. It is also possible that they were expressing gender freedom by expressing the language of divine androgyny that they read in scripture. While I reject the former as patriarchal, I lift up the latter. Bynum also argues that works of these 12 th century saints are rooted the Hebrew Bible’s naming of the male God(dess) who “speaks of himself as mother, bearing Israelites in his bosom, conceiving them in his womb (e.g. Isa. 49:1, 49:15, and 66:11-13)”2 and the Wisdom of God(dess) as the divine feminine (Ecclesiastes 24:24-26).

Anselm of Canterbury is one of the first of the 12 th Century saints to write about Jesus (and Paul) as mother/father who nurses an individual’s soul with his breasts.3 Anselm named both Jesus and Paul “fathers by protection, mother by compassion.”4 Bernard of Clairvaux uses female/mother imagery for Jesus, Moses, Peter, Paul, prelates and abbots when he writes extensively about how their wombs nurture, conceive and shelter while their breasts pour out instructions like breast milk.5

Guerric abbot of Igny, takes the mother imagery a step further when he calls the male abbots mothers who give birth to Christ, just as God(dess) the father becomes pregnant with our soul in his bowel for the sake of our salvation.6 Eventually it becomes commonplace for the cloistered male monks and abbots to speak of each other as mothers.

By calling Christ and each other mother, these saints sought to highlight the erotic nature of their union with Christ and to highlight their own humility. While the former is quite queer, the latter is deeply rooted in the patriarchy of the time. By referring to themselves women, they were highlighting their own weakness and need to be nurtured and supported. This comes directly from the assumption that women, by their very nature, were weak. While the male saints considered this a positive description at the time, it is nothing less than patriarchal.7

And when we take a closer look at the queer reading, it too is entrenched in heterosexist assumptions. While the freedom of gender they express can be liberating for queer readers, it should also be noted that the gender trans-formations came out of a desire to avoid the appearance of queer sexual orientation. Bynum notes that the desire to avoid erotic same-sex language when speaking about their sexual unions to Christ. This may be why the saints referred to their souls as “brides of Christ,” instead of “coming out” about the physically erotic relationship that was occurring between a physically male saint and the physically male Christ.8

Postmodern readers who strive to free themselves from dualistic and binary assumptions of male and female may relate to the language of Christ as mother/father. However, instead of believing that the physical and metaphoric motherhood/femaleness of Christ enhances the fatherhood/maleness of Christ, postmodern readers should strive to envision Christ as gender queer. If we were able to see Christ as truly gender queer then the femaleness of Christ would not negate her maleness of Christ, just as the maleness of Christ does not negate his femaleness. Like the 12 th century cloistered male saints Christ’s ability to be a father should be read as dependent upon his status as a mother. But, a queer reading would reject patriarchal privilege that comes from Christ’s maleness, just as Christ often rejects privilege to be with/for the poor, sex workers and tax collectors in the Gospels.

When queer readers name Christ as a gender queer mother/father it is not done out of fear of linking Christ to a queer sexual orientation. If Christ is both male and female, then it is impossible for a Christ to have an opposite-sex relationship. And if it is true as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ we too are no longer male or female, then it is also impossible for any Christians to have an opposite-sex relationship.

1. Bynum, Caroline Walker, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, University of California Press, 1982, 162.

2. Ibid, 125.

3. Ibid, 113.

4. Ibid, 114.

5. Ibid, 115.

6. Ibid, 120-3.

7. Ibid, 138-9.

8. Ibid, 161.