Sexist theologian worships Christ as mother

The great theologian, Anselm, was sexist. As  carefully  points out in a post at BLT not just a sandwich. The passage he refers to from the Monologion is indeed really interesting, and indeed sexist.1 Yet there is more to it than this simple account.

Here is chapter 42 of the Monologion:2

I should certainly be glad, and perhaps able, now to reach the conclusion, that he is most truly the Father , while this Word is most truly his Son. But I think that even this question should not be neglected: whether it is more fitting to call them Father and Son, than mother and daughter, since in them there is no distinction of sex.

For, if it is consistent with the nature of the one to be the Father, and of his offspring to be the Son, because both are Spirit (Spiritus, masculine); why is it not, with equal reason, consistent with the nature of the one to be the mother, and the other the daughter, since both are truth and wisdom (veritas et sapientia, feminine)?

Or, is it because in these natures that have a difference of sex, it belongs to the superior sex to be father or son, and to the inferior to be mother or daughter? And this is certainly a natural fact in most instances, but in some the contrary is true, as among certain kinds of birds, among which the female is always larger and stronger, while the male is smaller and weaker.

At any rate, it is more consistent to call the supreme Spirit father than mother, for this reason, that the first and principal cause of offspring is always in the father. For, if the maternal cause is ever in some way preceded by the paternal, it is exceedingly inconsistent that the name mother should be attached to that parent with which, for the generation of offspring, no other cause is associated, and which no other precedes. It is, therefore, most true that the supreme Spirit is Father of his offspring. But, if the son is always more like the father than is the daughter, while nothing is more like the supreme Father than his offspring; then it is most true that this offspring is not a daughter, but a Son.

Hence, just as it is the property of the one most truly to beget, and of the other to be begotten, so it is the property of the one to be most truly progenitor, and of the other to be most truly begotten. And as the one is most truly the parent, and the other his offspring, so the one is most truly Father, and the other most truly Son.3

So, what do we make of this sexist medieval theologian? I made brief reference to this passage in my recent book Not Only a Father. Some things seem to me striking, indeed perhaps more so than his sexism, which was surely not unusual for his time (around the turn of the first millennium CE). Anselm is clear that sexual categories do not apply to the Godhead. In this he is thoroughly orthodox, and he was also capable of drawing highly orthodox but unusual pastoral consequences from his orthodoxy.
In his “Prayer to St Paul”, Anselm develops a warm and tender meditation on Christ as mother. (See my Christ as Mother in the Middle Ages. For example he compares Christ with Paul and other apostles thus:

You have died more than they,
that they may labour to bear.
It is by your death that they have been born,
for if you had not been in labour,
you could not have borne death;
and if you had not died,
you would not have brought forth.
For, longing to bear sons into life,
You tasted of death,
and by dying you begot them.
You did this in your own self,
your servants, by your commands and help.
You as the author, they as the ministers.
So you, Lord God, are the great mother.[6]

In truth Anselm’s sexism, like ours, is a product of his time, and his willingness to consider the full richness of theological and devotional opportunities orthodox thinking allows was perhaps bolder than ours!

  1. Finally concluding that God is more fittingly called Father and Son than Mother and Daughter because father is the first cause of offspring and a son better corresponds to a father than a daughter does. []
  2. From: Anselm, St. Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo. CCEL, 1958. []
  3. Bold emphasis added. []

3 comments on “Sexist theologian worships Christ as mother

  1. J. K. Gayle

    Thank you for the link, Tim. I like the way you bring this out in your book:

    “So Christ is mother of these other mothers, and as mother bears the pains of childbirth on the cross. This is the heart of Anselms thought of Christ as mother. Anselm centres his faith on the cross. By his death on the cross Jesus offers new life, rebirth. His pains on the cross are the pains of labour, birth pangs of the new humanity. Next, Anselm recognises that both Paul and Jesus are fathers as well as mothers. Here he is clearly pre-feminist.”

    My cobloggers bring out this point too, in comments, the one quoting Anselm on Jesus, as a mother, and the other calling Anselm a “proto-feminist.”

    Please understand that I’m calling Anselm’s logic sexist. His prayers may be feminist. Some read his letters and wonder if he is gay, although this is not a point I was exploring in the post.

  2. tim b

    I don’t really think feminist is an appropriate description, I think he was pre-feminist and also in a similar way his sexism is also pre. He was sexist but at that time and place everyone was. I suspect he was less sexist than most.

    Concerning your throwaway remark about wondering if he was gay, I have not read him widely enough to really comment further, but suspect that such a determination would be unlikely to be more confident about, as one is bound to be reading more than was intended.

  3. J. K. Gayle

    I suppose English words we use today, such as “gay” and “sexist” and “feminist,” may be anachronistic. But as long ago as 1923, Frederick Adam Wright combed through what he called, “Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle,” noting the rampant sexism of literary Greek men in general so long ago but the particularly prejudicial sort that Aristotle seems to established, as a man of his day but as more of a leader of the pack, looking back. On Anselm, I suspect some days he was more sexist than others, but again I really want to stress not that this man was sexist but that some of his writings are sexist and do use phallologocentric argumentation. (Others of his writings, to some, make him possibly gay: http://rictornorton.co.uk/anselm.htm.) But again, I’m interested more in the ontology of his writings and their argumentation, which varies from piece to piece, than I am in calling Anselm himself anything.