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God and Woman

God and Woman

Chapter II
from Woman in the Church
by Louis Bouyer, translated by Marilyn Teichert,
published by the Ignatius Press, San Francisco
1979 and reproduced here with the usual permissions.

The mystery of woman, precisely because it is the mystery of creation redeemed, completed and espoused by God himself, presupposes the mystery of God and cannot be understood without reference to him. However, the mystery of God is not at all, for all that, simply the reverse side of the mystery of humanity. To put it better, it encompasses the mystery of man (homo, man and woman) as well as of vir (the male), but it surpasses it and in such a way that the mystery of woman in particular finds its source there, a source wherein one might say it is reflected, but, as in every reflection, reversed. We must begin by sorting out, as much as possible, this paradox to which we are driven by the properly Biblical knowledge of God, in order to see the mystery of woman in proper perspective. Thus the ministries of man and of woman both will be seen in their proper places. It is sometimes said, and it is true in a sense, but only in a sense, that God, the God who has spoken to us through Biblical tradition (as opposed to the ancient Near Eastern divinities who were so heavily sexualized), appeared to transcend the division of the sexes. It is suggested, too, that he unites in himself the most exalted characteristics of both woman and man. This is not without some justification, but nevertheless it cannot be admitted as a truly satisfying expression of his revelation.

Many of the great gods in pre-Columbian America and other archaic civilizations are said to have been seen as both “fathers and mothers” of humanity—indeed, of everything. Certainly the same Hebrew prophets who paved the way for the New Testament revelation of the divine Fatherhood did not hesitate on occasion to compare God, in the solicitude and the intimacy of his love, to a mother who would never abandon her children, so much is children’s being of one flesh with their mother’s. But never did the Bible go so far as to say that God was “our father and our mother,” and it is impossible for anyone who is familiar with what one could call the gist of his whole revelation to believe that this is a chance omission or simply a momentary stage before the revelation reached its fullness or was explained by the Church. The God of the Bible is “Our Father,” and even more is he “The Father,” “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father,”(1) so much so that his Son, in becoming man, made us also “sons,” as St. Paul says, or “children” of God, as St. John puts it. (2) But Jesus has no other mother than a woman, the Virgin Mary. And if we ourselves, by virtue of our natural adoption, have a mother who is our mother more truly than Eve, the “Mother of the living,” (3) this can only be the entire Church, represented, or rather, as we shall see later, realized par excellence in the same Virgin Mary, the only one who is both Jesus’ mother and our mother.

It is perfectly true, on the other hand, that if Mary realizes this motherhood which is not only proper to a creature, but in which all her possibilities are realized, beyond her, yet in the trajectory of her creaturehood, God is not simply the perfect expression of an essentially human fatherhood, extended as we might imagine it. He is Father in a completely different way than any man could be, so much so that, far from fatherhood appearing to be an essentially human state in the sense that motherhood is, it is, in man, on the natural plane, at most only an incomplete image, indeed, one subtly contradictory to that which it is in God. And when it is a matter of attributing supernatural fatherhood to a man, despite the warning of Jesus, (4) one must certainly not forget that such fatherhood is not a property of those by whom it is exercised, but a simple representation in them of the divine fatherhood. In this sense, they are the bearers or conductors of it, but not really the owners of it.

As St. Athanasius observes, (5) being a father is never, on the part of a man, more than one quality among others, and it is only momentarily that even he who becomes a father exercises the role in fact. On the other hand, the divine Person who is the source of divinity itself, and as such the sole first cause in the most radical sense, not only exercises his fatherhood eternally, but defines himself by this fatherhood which is always in act. In the case of the heavenly Father, fatherhood is much more than a function: it is a subsistant relationship by virtue of which everything subsists which ever shall subsist.

This already is tantamount to saying that that which is most truly divine in God, if we may put it this way, is expressed in man (homo) by the polarity between man (vir) and woman, yet nevertheless surpasses and transcends man just as much as woman, to the point that man (vir) as such seems incapable of becoming complete in himself. This is, in fact, true in two senses. On the one hand, the fatherhood of man cannot be realized without woman, not to say in woman. But on the other hand, he is not distinguished from her or opposed to her in the relation by which they complete one another, except by this representation of one greater than he; he is himself nothing more than a touchstone and he will never do better than to evoke, without ever truly assimilating, the fatherhood which is only properly realized in God. For fatherhood, in its whole and true sense, can be nothing other than divine, since it is the quality of being a source—the source of all beings as of one’s own being—and therefore of pure being, always in act. Even masculine spousehood itself, we shall see, as it derives from the association of creature to creator which is brought about by the divine Word alone, is only fully and primarily realized in his incarnate person.

More simply and profoundly, as St. Gregory of Nyssa (6) saw so clearly, the divine fatherhood, the only true fatherhood worthy of the name, is essentially virginal. In other words, far from presupposing a complementarity—the joining of man and woman—God’s fatherhood is anterior to this distinction. But, it must be added, if there is nevertheless some analogue to this fullness, expressed in the distinction of the sexes and surpassing them, we do not find it in man (vir). Just as with fatherhood, so virginity in man can only be predicated in an approximate, imperfect sense. On the natural, created plane, it is only woman who can claim true virginity. The unmarried woman, in fact, contains, in herself, at least potentially, all future humanity, both masculine and feminine, for it will never come to being if not by an interior development in the feminine being which the male does nothing but set into motion, playing, again, only a representative role, at most as a transmitter of the creative initiative which remains purely divine. Even if this initiative happens to pass through him, one can never say it belongs to him, whereas in woman, on the contrary, the creativity received from on high is carried, and at the same time is exercised within her and remains with her. It follows that in woman physical integrity has a completely different meaning and a different reality than in man. What one might improperly call virginity in man is only a matter of not exercising a potential fatherhood, which, even when he is called to exercise it, still does not truly belong to him, for it is in him always a matter of a single instant in which he still does not become the source, but rather a momentary channel of fatherly creativity. In woman, on the other hand, this integrity is the unmitigated fullness wherein exist all the possibilities of human developments in potentia, since they will simply be developments of her being.

We already see, therefore, that God, inasmuch as he reveals himself supremely as the unique Father, appears in certain regards as a masculine being, and not feminine: no more bisexual than asexual, although the masculinity of man only expresses itself in man as a trait not only derivative but borrowed, and never wholly realizable in him. Even on the physical, natural plane, to say nothing of the supernatural, man will never be more than a father by proxy, in a sense, nor will the whole—even what is in fact essential—of fatherhood ever be in him. There is only one father who is entirely a father, and that is God.

Here we must make more precise what has been implied thus far. That is, that if man is capable of being more truly a spouse, in the sense that he effectively realizes and completes himself in union with his wife, he only does so in dependence upon, or, as it were, within the archetypal union of the eternal Word with divine Wisdom, accomplished through the marriage of Christ and the Church. This wisdom, in fact, is none other than the plan of God for his creature, and for the union of the creature with him—for which it was created. This is why it is in creation itself that this wisdom is truly realized, from beginning to end: first in the Virgin Mary, lastly in the entire Church. But woman, and each woman in particular, as woman, not only represents but realizes in her virginity something of that same integrity which is proper to the Virgin at the origin (and as the creaturely origin) of salvation history, and which will be that of the Church when it has achieved its completion in time. In the same way, as spouse, each woman realizes in herself something of the feminine spousehood, the fullness of which is the Church. And as mother, her motherhood is that motherhood whose perfection is Mary.

There is, therefore, in the masculinity of man, something incomplete and incapable of completion except in the Son of God become man. Even Christ’s masculinity is not complete, except by virtue of the fatherhood from which he proceeds; but Christ as man nevertheless exceeds and transcends humanity, even divinized humanity. We must therefore say definitively that man, the male, is not truly man except in the heavenly Man, (7) the Son of God. Further, the only true and integral fatherhood is, strictly speaking, neither masculine nor feminine, since it belongs exclusively to the only Father who is solely and integrally father, though he realizes in an equally transcendent fashion that virginity which finds its earthly, human image only in woman.

As paradoxical as this all may seem, it already shows us in what sense sexuality is transcended in God, or rather anticipated, not in asexuality —even less in bisexuality—but in a fatherhood and sonship which transcend the opposition of the sexes and to which masculinity is like a shadow and femininity like a reflection.

This last point is borne out, in relation to the Father, in feminine virginity, the only creaturely integrity in which limitless potentiality responds to the total actuality of the uncreated; and it is borne out again, in relation to the Holy Spirit, in motherhood.

We have already mentioned the fact that in Hebrew, Aramaic and Syrian, as well as in other Semitic languages, the word “spirit” is feminine. The writings of the Syrian fathers, particularly Aphrates,(8) rightly emphasize that this fact is not insignificant. This linguistic affinity reveals precisely what we have characterized as a reflection, but a reversed reflection. Let us reiterate that it is the role of woman to encompass in her motherhood all that is human, masculine or feminine, just as we can say it is all pre-contained in her virginity. We can find no other analogy in the created order for the relation of the Spirit to that which it inspires. However, the analogy here, in contrast to that which we drew between human and divine fatherhood, is not so much a question of incompletion or imperfection as it is of inversion. This is doubly true. In fact, in the case of the Spirit, it is the inspiration which seems to be within the inspired, while the child is within the mother. Moreover, the proper development of the child takes place only in its tending toward separation from the mother—the leaving of the womb. Even though he remains dependent upon her who gave him birth, the child must, to be truly himself, leave the mother’s womb and let the umbilical cord be definitely cut. In the case of the Spirit, on the contrary, the perfection or consecration of the one inspired presumes not some kind of independence from the one who inspires, but on the contrary, the total and unreserved consummation of their union: what William of St. Thierry calls the unitas Spiritus—unity even more than union.(9) And this, borne out as true by human experience of the Spirit, can, of course, be verified only in a transcendent sense in the subsistence of the Spirit in God himself, in the womb of the Trinity. The fatherhood of the Father is not perfected, nor the sonship of the Son consecrated there, except by this proceeding of the Spirit from the Father, coming to rest forever in the Son.

Now, perhaps, we begin to glimpse the profundity of the paradox which encompasses all the analogies which permit us to represent in some way, not an entirely misleading one, however inadequate it remains, the life and being of God in relation to our created life and being. Thus we begin to discern how God, under one aspect, is not properly speaking masculine, but reveals himself first, certainly, in the axis of a masculinity that transcends itself. And at the same time, in that which constitutes the perfection of his Trinitarian life (i.e., the processions of the Spirit), he contains in himself no less what we have called a reflection of woman in her proper perfection, which is also the perfection of humanity, indeed of all creation. But this reflection, like all reflections, is inverted. Or rather, if you prefer, there is in God, as it were, the antitype of what is reflected in reverse in the motherhood in which alone woman is wholly revealed, in particular a virginal motherhood. It is in this sense, certainly very subtle but also disconcertingly profound, that God is neither man nor woman, though he encompasses from the beginning all that humanity will ever bring to realization. He goes beyond masculinity in the only fatherhood worthy of the name, and is at the same time, in his eternal virginity, the antitype of all motherhood.


1. See the salutation of most of the letters of St. Paul.

2.1 John 3:1

3.Genesis 3:20.

4. Matthew 23:9 and parallels.

5. Athanasius, Contra Arianos I, 18-19; 1st epistle ad Serapionem, 17 and Contra Arianos II, 29-31

6. Gregory of Nyssa, De Virginitate, II; PG 46, col. 321 C.

7. I Corinthians 15:45 f.

8. Aphrates, Demonstratio 18:10; Patrologia Syriaca, v. 1, 839.

9. Epistula Aurea, II, cha. II, part 11.

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