by Nick Cox
Gender is everywhere
—isn't it amazing? On Wednesday I had a surprise encounter with it during a seminar on Ethics
, the magnum opus of 17th Century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza. In it, Spinoza makes the controversial claim that "everything that is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived of without God," whom he conceives of as "a being absolutely infinite." This idea was so controversial in its time in part because it went against the dominant understanding of God as a creator. Creation, as it is commonly understood, requires the creator
and that which is created to be two separate entities. If the world simply exists in
God, it could not have been created
by God—and, indeed, Spinoza explicitly argues against this paradigm of God as "creator."
As I thought about these two seemingly irreconcilable understandings of God's relationship with the world, it occurred to me to ask: so, what if God is a woman? Does that change anything? As I thought about the prospect of a female God, I was immediately struck by how much more sense it made than the Judeo-Christian patriarch we're accustomed to. In the Bible it says that God—the male God—created the world. How does a man go about creating something such as, say, a house? First he draws up the blueprints, then he gathers the materials, and then, using his hands, he builds the house on the site that he selected. At no point during the whole process is there ever a question of where the man ends and his creation begins, and he is in control the entire time. If God is male, then he must have made the world more or less in that way, because that is the way men make things.
Obviously, women can make things in that way just as well as men can. But women can also make things in a way that men cannot and (let's be realistic) probably never will: women can bear children. Bearing a child is nothing whatsoever like building a house: there are no blueprints, no tools, and no control
—not directly, at least. More importantly, the ontological status
of the mother with respect to her unborn child—that is, the extent to which the mother and the child qualify as separate existences—is a point of contention. All the furious controversy over abortion ultimately reduces to disagreement over this ontological
question. The other sort of creation does not cause this sort of confusion.
Now answer this: what is the world more like, a house or a child? The world is not a rigid, static structure such as a carpenter might have built—it is constantly changing and developing just like a living organism. In light of this, the idea of a female God giving birth
to the world rather than creating
it—which appears in many non-Western religions—makes a whole lot more sense. It also is much more in line with Spinoza's scrupulously de-anthropomorphized understanding of God, a "substance of consisting of infinite attributes" that contains the whole world.
People who believe in Intelligent Design often cite the complexity
of the world as evidence supporting their belief; the world, they say, is too complex and perfect to have arisen on its own, and must have been designed by someone. This erroneous argument rests on a ludicrous overestimation of design. It seems to me, if anything, that the opposite
should be true: the complexity of the world suggests that it must have developed organically. Creationism's confidence in the omnipotence of design betrays a hidden sexism: it trusts design, traditionally the domain of men, over and above the sort of creation that only women are capable of. If the God that Creationists believed in were a woman instead of a man, they might not find the idea of evolution so problematic. It's interesting to think about what else might be different, in philosophy and elsewhere, if God were allowed to be a woman.