The Hormonal God

Yesterday I wrote about the sermon Walter Brueggemann recently delivered at ACU as a part of our Summit event. The sermon was over Hosea 11.1-11.

Beyond what I mentioned yesterday the other thing that struck me during Walter's sermon was his use of the adjective "hormonal" to describe God's pathos in Hosea, the strong and even excessive emotional reactions displayed by God in the book (and elsewhere in the Old Testament, and Walter also pointed to Jesus's weeping over Jerusalem).

Calling God hormonal is risky and subversive language. For a couple of interrelated reasons. First, hormonal is a reference to women and, thus, a description of God in feminine terms. And if that wasn't subversive enough the adjective hormonal is generally a pejorative feminine reference. Outside of medical contexts, calling a woman hormonal isn't a compliment. To call a woman hormonal is to say that she's being excessively emotional and unreasonable.

And this is exactly the meaning Walter had in mind in calling God hormonal. The emotions of God as witnessed in the prophets seem wild, unpredictable and unreasonable. So much so that we recoil and back away. A hormonal God is a passionate and emotional God that can't be tamed by theology or the church. A feminine God who cannot be captured by rationalistic categories and hierarchies of control.

And it's also risky for a man to use this language. In describing God as hormonal Walter is open to the criticism that he's reinforcing a negative stereotype of women. But I actually think the reverse is going on. By connecting a woman's hormones to God Walter is suggesting that there is something essential in the gritty physicality of women that reflects the Imago Dei. The church has always struggled with the bodies of women. The fact that hormonal is a pejorative term reflects this. To call a woman hormonal is to say that her body has taken over her mind--her reason, her judgment, her good sense. To call a woman hormonal is an attempt to shame a woman for having a body and for giving her body a voice. To call a woman hormonal is to reject the truth of the body, particularly the truths incarnated in female bodies.

Women love and think with their bodies. And that may make their love wild, unpredictable and unreasonable.  But that's a truth about love. Perhaps the deepest truth the church needs to learn. One of the reasons I don't think the church loves in the crazy, wild, and irrational way Jesus did is because the church has silenced women, particularly the love incarnated in the bodies of woman. You can't learn to love fully if you aren't paying attention to the way women love.

In short, the church isn't hormonal enough.

We need a hormonal church that will step into the risky and passionate love of our hormonal God.

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25 thoughts on “The Hormonal God”

  1. I cannot thank you enough for sharing this opinion regarding hormonal emotion and the Christian walk.  Thank you.

  2. This post seems to imply, perhaps unintentionally, that women think and love with their bodies and their "gritty physicality" in a way stronger and more fundamental than men do. That doesn't strike me as particularly liberating. Mimesis is important in rereading sexist traditions, but mimesis needs to do more to dislodge the assumptions it mimes in order to be effective.

  3. Hmmm... Isn't it only in the West that we've viewed men as unhormonal? It strikes me that elsewhere in the world and in history, strong, rather scary (to us) emotional reactions among men have been the norm Think of all the clothes that get rent in the Bible every time anything goes wrong! It might just be in our modern urbanised world that the explosive nature of male emotion has had to have a lid put on it - it'd be dangerous of people started wailing in torment on the Tube/subway/tram after all - but in a less crowded society male emotion is just as "unreasonable" as we've stereotyped female emotion as being.

    Your take-home point - that God is untamable and we need to go a bit crazy in loving those he loves - is a very good and challenging one. Just not sure we need to bring gender into it at all?

  4. This post ties, tangentially at least, into something that I've been thinking and reading about lately.

    One of the many downsides of being white, western and christian is that we tend to be stunningly ignorant about the amazing wisdom that is inherent in many native cultures. Especially native cultures that rightly respect and honor women (not all of them do). Do some research on the Moon Lodge tradition of Native Americans, for instance, and if you're anything like me you'll be left scratching your head at the way that a native culture, without the "bible", could get something so right and we, with the "bible", could get something so wrong.

  5. Why do you take "hormonal" to be a specifically feminine term? Maybe it's the direction Brueggemann was going. The idea of hormones over mind is certainly not something exclusive to women.

  6. You likely knew that Sophia (Wisdom) and arguably the Holy Spirit have been considered feminine in some traditions of Christianity, particularly Eastern.

  7. Please Please keep saying this again and again and again.  I want this to wash over me and make me new.  Oh my. Oh my. Do you understand the power of what you've just said?  Being silenced and distanced once a month since we were 12 and all of the sudden we are not wrong or weak, but made in the image of God.  Oh my, Oh my.

  8. It's a term that's rarely used to describe men, however, and most often used in exactly the way Dr. Beck describes: to disregard a woman as being overly emotional and unreasonable.  I'd even venture to say for most, the word hormonal has entirely female connotations.

  9. Maybe "hormonal" feminism is a productive way to look at it, provocative as it is. Anthropomorphic descriptions of God or gods are in themselves fascinating investigations across cultures in phenenology. The God of the Bible (Hebrew and Christian) can usually be taken for almost anything but weak and vulnerable or uncontrolable and emotional in the Christian West (what's left of it), but seeing God as a concerned, loving parent or grief-stricken husband, or lover touches many of us who realize how much we long for and desperately need these traits in the One also revealed as a Servant, wounded, suffering for those he loves. May we be and do likewise! If God has some of my mother in God....or even my! I'm way ahead! The Hosea analogy is a good place to start trying to negotiate intimacy and faithfulness as believers who are a lot less rational than we think we are.

  10.  Maybe the "traditional" image is so ingrained that it takes something harsh to dislodge, and wake up to even the idea that the traditional reading might need adjusting.  I know that to be true at the church I attend. 

  11. Even though you surface this danger, I think the turn you take still essentializes women as hormonal, rather than (a) deploying a category traditionally associated pejoratively with women as a positive descriptor of God while (b) interrogating the history of masculine deployment that renders women essentially hormonal and seeks to protect God from any such notion. That would retain the historic associations of the term, while using it creatively in a theological way, while both critiquing masculine usage and implicitly suggesting that males are "just as hormonal" -- because just as embodied -- as women.

  12. Hi Andrew.  In the Orthodox Church, the icon of Sophia is seen as a representation of Jesus Christ, at sort of a young teenage age presented as a fiery angel - ref 1Cor 1.24 - example here:

    The Holy Spirit, like the Father, is not understood as having gender.  Simply because a word is "feminine" in a language with gendered nouns does not mean the thing that noun names has "feminine" characteristics.  Ex:  in German, the word for fork is feminine, knife is neuter, spoon is masculine, child is neuter.  In some Orth. hymnography, as in some places in the OT, the Father can be understood as "giving birth," but that doesn't make him "feminine" any more than being called "father" makes him "masculine."

    Also, according to N.T. Wright, Wisdom was a way 1st century Jews could talk about some "aspect" of God as personified, without violating monotheism.  This was apparent especially in the Book of Wisdom, which Jesus probably knew, and which both Catholic and Orthodox include in the OT.  It has some fascinating passages that can be linked to how the early church - basically all Jews for the first number of years - understood Christ.  Jesus is portrayed in St Paul's letters as the one to whom Jewish Wisdom Literature was pointing, and who was greater than the Torah that contained the wisdom.


  13. I'd completely agree with Heidi - I've never heard it used describing men, and that's not simply a matter of me not being around enough and not catching it - every time I've heard it used, it is specifically, intentionally about a women supposedly letting invalid, shameful, embarassing, unchecked emotion reign. Is it any wonder then that when men are openly strongly emotional, they get accused of being effeminate?

  14. I think we do - there are plenty of men who culturally, as you said, think that men shouldn't be emotional, and a big part of that is because there's the stereotype that being "emotional" is a female thing, and a shameful thing. But if it's okay for women to be like that because they're expressing something that is only human and part of the image of God, then that frees men to think "Maybe, just maybe, I'm made that way too, and it's okay if I allow myself to let that out..."

    I don't think you actually disagree with me on anything, I'm more pointing out that it's useful to address the gender aspect, because in any given audience you're going to have people for whom that's been an issue in their lives one way or another, perhaps even without realizing it. And since the issue is there, may as well mention it rather than assume it's common sense enough that everyone gets it by now.

  15. Thanks. This is helpful.

    I do have a question. Do you have any ideas how to prevent the gynocentric imagery of God from having the same abuses as the androcentric imagery of God? I personally don't mind both--but I sometimes think about the way people I know have been abused by women's "hormonal" irrationality, alongside people who have been abused by men's "hormonal" violence. Do you embrace both dangers, or think that, for various reasons, only the female image is appropriate for God?

  16. I think we do both ourselves and god a disservice when we move into a discussion of gynocentric Vs Androcentric. I think the real heart of the issue is the urge to sterilize, categorize, or quantify god. We want to place god (and one another) in neat and manageable boxes in order to help us manage our anxiety. I love the imagery of god as hormonal. The hormonal nature of women has been reduced to insult for the same reason that oppression and objectification of women has occurred - to de-humanize women. This harkens back to what you, Richard have written about with regard to the physical, animal nature of our bodies and how it tweaks our death anxieties. If a woman's emotional nature can be shamed, or if her body can be objectified, she can be reduced to something other than a living, breathing, bleeding, crying, "hormonal" human being. If she is an object she no longer reminds us of humanity - of death. If we can objectify god we reduce our anxiety in the same way. And , to be fair to both sides, if women can objectify men and reduce them to a "wallet" , a "bank account" , a "provider" -- it's just easier.
    But not necessarily better

  17. I agree. The sentence that worries me is this one: "Women love and think with their bodies. And that may make their love wild, unpredictable and unreasonable.  But that's a truth about love." The phrasing makes this sound true of women universally and uniquely, and that's a problem. Maybe all love is bodily, but shall we say that all women think with their bodies? If we say that many men do not think with their bodies, then to say that all women do is probably dangerously inaccurate. It would be better to insist that men also always think with their bodies (since brains are parts of bodies), in which case it is true that women love and think with their bodies...but not notably so. And yet this sentence reinforces the connection, which, as previously commenters have stated, is essentializing.

    To Richard: I generally agree with what you've written, but the omission of men's embodiment is a problem. I would argue that posts like this one are dangerous and still rather sexist, albeit well-intentioned, if the post does not discuss how men are also bodily thinkers. (It would also help to discuss how lots of women do not feel like they love and think with their bodies.)
    And maybe you're ventriloquizing someone else's position. I'm down with that; irony's cool. But this does not sound like ventriloquism, so you might need to think about how you perform ventriloquism (if that's what you're doing). The thing about ventriloquism is the audience needs to know that that's what you're doing.

  18. " Simply because a word is 'feminine' in a language with gendered nouns does not mean the thing that noun names has 'feminine' characteristics. "
    That would be nice if it were true psychologically. This does not represent how people think, though. While people who speak languages in which the word for "bridge" is masculine are much more likely to use "strong" as a positive descriptor of bridges, people who speak languages in which the word for "bridge" is feminine are more likely to use "elegant" or "graceful" as positive descriptors of bridges (show studies). There is absolutely a link between how people think of objects and the gender with which their language represents the object. So while I take your point theologically, I don't take it psychologically, and this post is more about the cognitive models we use to represent God and women than about God and women themselves. It matters what gender we ascribe linguistically to the Holy Spirit.

  19. Clearly I'm late to this discussion, but I was impressed by the original post and all the comments that followed. As I read everything there were a few thoughts that crossed my mind:

    While our carnal existence is our frame of reference, it still seems inaccurate to describe the Creator who is entirely Spirit with a physical experience such as hormonal emotion. My personal opinion is that our theology should be less of "God is like me" and more of "I'm am created in God's image."

    It also seems that describing God's emotion or behavior as hormonal necessitates viewing the scene in Hosea almost like an episode of a sitcom when in reality it is one of the last parts of a centuries long effort on God's part to call his people back into obedience to their covenant. For hundreds of years Israel was consistently spitting in God's eye though their actions so it seems only natural that God's emotion would be displayed as a culmination of His centuries long relationship with Israel.

    On a very simplistic level, when it comes down to it, hormones fade over time and with age. Hormones produce fickle, unreliable, unreasonable behavior. God's love is driven by something far deeper and far more eternal. For those reasons I think it's not the best adjective for God or for the love we give to Him and the world.

    I don't mean to pick apart the lesson or the post. Those were just some of my immediate thoughts and reactions. 

  20.  But is that what Brueggemann was doing and meaning (dismissive and pejorative) when he refers to God as hormonal?

  21. So hormonal is "crazy, wild, and irrational"?  This isn't making sense to me.  I feel deeply and intuitively, but I'm almost always quite markedly rational and non-crazy even when I am most hormonal.  Indeed, until a chronic illness complicated my monthly cycles, I couldn't even say there were any significant mood swings to my months at all.  No one said, "Oh, it must be that time of the month" to me unless they were trying to downplay my appropriate emotions over a grief or some such thing (and typically wrong in assuming it was a time of the month) and that only a few times.  The times when I've gotten a bit irrational/crazy don't have to do with the time of the month but with seasons when I have been abused, gaslighted, and am struggling for the fresh air once again or the brief season as a teen when I had an eating disorder and was just acting funny in that need to control my person.  

    That may just be my story, but I take umbrage at defining hormonal that way for the women I know in general.  Some women live in a more irrational place than others, although they, again, aren't the norm but are women who have been cast into that role via expectations or power dynamics (looking at the family or culture's dynamics the roots are almost always apparent); or they are the ones with histrionic or borderline personality disorders.  I appreciate the attempt to recast that pejorative and to tie it to a revelation of God, but I feel like it is an at least partially failed attempt when hormonal is defined as crazy, wild, and irrational.  The Prodigal Father and the God of Hosea is over the top in His love and willing to be excessive in regard to all cultural norms, but this does not conflate with hormonal either, even if we women might LIKE it to conflate with hormonal (might like any of our emotionalism to run in the direction of generous love).    Additionally the Prodigal Father is just that, a father, and to cast a similar attitude to the backslidden in Hosea as feminine suggests to me that we are mitigating how emotional men can/should be in their love.  So in short, although I think referring to God as hormonal is potentially a positive exercise, both the weak application to Hosea and the insulting way that hormonal is being defined are limiting the usefulness of this exercise.  Now, the physicality of, "My heart recoils within Me; My compassions are kindled together" could certainly be reflected on from a feminine perspective, even a hormonal respective.  It almost feels like experiencing cramps in conjunction with a particularly difficult season, lol!  But I'd like to hear a different meditation than the one proffered for sure.  I'd add that for those who are feeling "emo" as part of their hormones, they certainly can take consolation in the prophets, especially Jeremiah!   

  22. Some further thoughts after discussing this with a friend....

    Since Hosea 11 is mostly about the parent child bond, we can acknowledge, I believe helpfully so, that hormones for men and women (and especially women) change when they have a child, change in a way that assists their commitment and bond. And we can might anthropomorphize God similarly, for I think He welcomes that in His mother images in the OT and His many Father images.  Additionally much could be meditated upon from women's experiences with pregnancy, the physical way they carry that love, and the physical tie of their parent-love. However, recasting pejoratives as positives b/c they reference God may help neither the socially maligned nor God's image and our understanding of Him. For those women who do feel more out of control b/c of their hormones, it may be anything but encouraging to envision God that way. 

    Additionally, who says hormones effect men less? They effect their image less in an androcentric society that views women as the deviating "other," but testosterone is starkly connected with anger and violence and risky behavior. And strikingly (in regards to the need for the need for leaders, including Christian leaders, to stay off the pedestal), when men (and women??... I'm not sure) are in positions of power, their testosterone shoots through the roof as does the testosterone of the women who come into contact with them so that both are very vulnerable to risky behavior (like a sexual affair with one another). Thus the man who has been faithful for 20 yrs but who becomes the CEO suddenly has a couple of mistresses who also thought they were the faithful type. 

    That's all to say that we're unpacking very broad territory when we attempt this particular theological subversion, and it would need to be done in a way that does not assume the woman as the hormonal one, as the deviant other, and that does not ascribe to God a nature more tempestuous or unwarranted than the holiness of His passion would allow. The more I think about this attempt at theological subversion, the more I think we are barking up the wrong tree. To the extent that we humans, male and female, may experience our hormones as gifts that help us to feel what we truly should be feeling such as that parental bond or the way they may drive some women to finally confront a tension in their marriage during their "time of the month" or a man to acknowledge anger and deal with it, then we have a point of contact.  But it's an awfully dicey one, and in the aforementioned language with which it is currently presented here, it is not helping to recast the woman as something besides the deviant other nor is helping our image of a trustworthy God.  

  23. are you done self-pleasuring all over the page? what's your point?
    all i see is a bunch of generalizations about women, and about god, no scriptural reference posted anywhere, a bunch of postulation and a smug, verbose tone. sorry, but i don't get what you're trying to accomplish with this article.

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