In the Judeo-Christian context, God has always been painted as distinctly, explicitly, and exclusively a man. This idea of an omnipotent male has been the bedrock of our beliefs—it is then deemed only natural that men lead, that men control, and that men define.
Women, on the other hand, are also labeled many things—wives, mothers, friends, daughters. Some cultures have even heralded the female as deities—but most certainly not in the present-day Philippines. Long marred by the structures established by colonialism, our culture has been shaped by tools used to get us to heel.
Religion plays a huge role in reinforcing this narrative and while our Christian faith is a defining feature of our country, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should take it as, well, gospel. Examining the intersection of religion, history, and culture, the time has come to answer the perennial question: “What if God is a woman?”
An unforeseen pilgrimage
To find the answers, it seems necessary to go back to the beginning. “[Pre-colonial] Filipino women, contrary to the Christian image of women, are not mere helpers of men but are leaders themselves,” asserts Eula Junina Blanco, professor of Philosophy at UP-Los Baños.
The system in which society operates is ultimately a product of history, and the same holds true for the Filipino perception of gender. “No society is inherently patriarchal in the same way that no sex is subordinate by nature,” she adds.
Blanco explains that prior to the arrival of Spaniards, the Philippines had significantly different social, political, spiritual and belief systems. As much as men took high ranks within their tribes, women themselves held important roles in politics, spirituality, and agricultural production.
Historian Chen Ramos explains, “Kumpara sa istruktura ng mga Kanluranin, mas nakatuon ang sinaunang istruktura ng lipunang Pilipino sa pagbibigay proteksyon at pagpapalawak ng nasasakupan nitong tao. Hindi naging hadlang ang kasarian upang magkaroon ng diskriminasyon.”
(Compared to the Western structure, the structure of the pre-colonial Filipino society focuses more on the protection and expansion of its land. Gender did not become a hurdle that would cause discrimination.)
Blanco mentions, “The arrival entails the devastation of our culture, and it transformed our beliefs and values including our image of men and women.” Highly respected—and oftentimes genderfluid—pagan priestesses called babaylans were stripped of their power and demonized to be aswangs in order to indoctrinate Christian beliefs. The subjugation of Filipino women then became, in extension, the subjugation of the Filipino people.
The divine descension
“The Spanish colonial era, with the Bible as its tool, transformed the way men and women are socialized,” Blanco laments. Ramos states that during the colonial period, “Walang karapatan ang kababaihan na bumoto,” outlining how Christianity and colonialism caused a shift in women’s roles in society. Ramos also adds that, at the time, only men were able to contribute to society—leaving no room for women to take jobs, attain education, or even manage their own money. This forced women to perform an idealized role of purity and passivity, shoved to the sidelines as mere footnotes in the triumphs of men.
(Women had no right to vote.)
With this exaltation of the image of women as powerless, submissive, and conservative also comes the reproduction of Eurocentric ideals through the likeness of Christ being imbued with European features. “As a result, we have a society that is male-dominated, sustained by male-controlled institutions, operating through a male-centered morality,” explains Blanco.
A God herself
Melani Del Mundo, a sister from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Catherine of Siena shares that, for her, “it is always a delight to hear God caring like a ‘mother’ to His people.” Fully accepting the possibility of God being a woman, Del Mundo shares, “I won’t wonder if God would also present Himself as ‘Herself’ to us.”
Though Del Mundo admits that the Bible has always characterized God as male, she believes this does not entail that a woman is viewed any less worthy. She explains, “I think the Bible doesn’t define and structure gender roles, for it is not the purpose of this Sacred Book.”
Del Mundo, however, does not negate the existence of gender inequality. “I admit and I can witness how patriarchy, particularly here in our country, is most felt even within the Church,” she bemoans. Still, she upholds that this is more of a product of human fallibility than of the religion itself, stating that the current situation “is not how God wishes it to be.”
Of unbalanced scales
Blanco, however, is of another mind. “There are several stories in the Bible which pivot on the concept of gender inequality, and there are verses which encourage, quite overtly, the dominion of men and the subservience of women.” These verses include Colossians 3:18, 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, Titus 2:4-5, among others.
It is important to note too, that the Bible has been translated many times over and the act of translating is not entirely free of bias and agenda. Furthermore, it is undeniable that the constructed meaning ascribed to the Bible and its teachings are perpetuated in the institutions of family, education, and government—informing our daily realities. As Blanco emphasizes, “To an uncritical and impressionable audience, the Bible, which is the basis of Christian belief and way of life, can then become a tool to sustain this inequality.”
But does this mean that we should reject our faith? Blanco explains that as this exclusive imagery of a male God creates a “paradigm for inequality,” choosing to see God as a woman (as popularized in Goddess theology) may provide the feminist perspective on religion some are more willing to accept. As for Blanco, she personally subscribes to the belief that God can only be understood beyond the bounds of established religion.
While it may be difficult to reconcile our beliefs with Christianity’s violent colonial past, it is imperative that we begin to unlearn what we’ve been taught and acknowledge religion’s role in the oppressive structures we contend with today. “What is essential here is the commitment to engage in critical practice—in the criticism and correction of our existing beliefs and practices,” she adds.
As scary it may be to challenge long-established narratives we’ve grown accustomed to, it also provides us with the opportunity to liberate ourselves and search for our own truths. As our forebears once looked up to the stars and saw the divine, so must we try to see grace and compassion in the context of injustice and oppression. Maybe in this, we can finally, truly, find the divine within ourselves.