There is a general tendency to go for the sources in order to find the original and true form of any tradition. Many long for the days when identities, including sexual identities, and everything else was simple and clear-cut like it has been since the time immemorial. For most of us, the time immemorial is the time of our grandparents because they tend to be the oldest persons that we have had close personal contact to in our families.
Lars Levi Læstadius and the breastfeeding Christ in the 19th century
There is a widespread longing for “classical Christianity” in conservative circles. For Mika, this implicit personal classical Christianity is found in the Laestadian revival movement, which is his family background. The revival is perceived as very conservative, generally not promoting women’s ordination nor letting them to preach, having wary relationship to phenomena related to the secular modernity. Properly classical – right?
Studying the early sermons of the founder, Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-61) , has therefore been a revelation. I knew from earlier that he preferred to present God gender-neutral, as “the heavenly Parent” when preaching of God’s love. He usually did not need to choose between he and she because of mostly preaching in Torneådal Finnish (Meän kieli), which does not have gender-segregating personal pronouns. What came as a surprise, though, was the ease in which he transgressed the rigid “classical” boundaries between sexes in his preaching. Breastfeeding in his imagery was not reserved to persons assumed female. He could refer to himself breastfeeding the congregants with the Word of God as well as Jesus breastfeeding the believers.
Breastfeeding and the fluidity of gendered rhetoric in the early Church
Læstadius was obviously just one, even though regionally immensely influential, early 19th century Swedish-Sami priest, and therefore not the apex of classical Christianity for most Christians. St Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) writings, however, are the bread and butter of Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity – and appreciated in the Eastern Christian tradition, too. Surprisingly enough, a similar image of breastfeeding Christ is found in him, as well. According to Augustine, Christ made himself milk for us, and he further asks: “What I am but a child suckled on your milk and fed on you” (Confessions, 4.1.1). He also refers to St. Paul as wet-nurse, who is feeding the new-born of the Church on his milk.
In this imagery, St Augustine was not alone, even if maybe more modest in his words than some other Christian authors. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215), for example, presents us with an image of milk flowing from the Father, who is nursing his faithful through Christ, who is the maternal breast of the Father. St Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-ca 395), a significant Greek-speaking theologian, used also the image of breastfeeding God. Divine milk is flowing from the breast of the Father – this ‘breast’ even identified by Gregory specifically with the bridegroom of the Song of Songs, Christ. Gregory further states that the Christian teachers should identify themselves as the brides of the Bridegroom and give milk in turn to be suckled by the infants – that is, the new-born of the Church – under their care.
Even if Augustine did not think himself as a breastfeeding mother, he was identified as such by others. Paulinus, bishop of Nola, in his letter to Augustine, urged Augustine to nurse him with his breasts of faith, and Severus, bishop of Milevita, claimed himself gathering strength from Augustine’s overflowing breasts. Indeed, the more Ville has read the early Christian pastoral writings, the more fluid and unfixed the gendered rhetoric has emerged. Moreover, there is biblical basis for this, as the image for breastfeeding God and teachers was based on the biblical passages like 1. Cor. 3:1-2 and 1.Peter 2:2-3. It is the modern age which yearns for rigid gender lines.
History, anachronism and personal moral responsibility
But should we actually be surprised of a breastfeeding Christ or God – or male spiritual leaders – in a religion whose central teaching deals with the Father who gives birth? The fluidity of gender roles and discourses is very much in the air always when Christians confess their faith.
What can we draw from these historical examples of “classical Christianity”? Would these theologians parade in the Gay Pride and support for a more fluid approach to gender and sexuality? You cannot answer such a question because it is anachronistic. It is futile to force historical sources (including the Bible) give direct answers to today’s pressing questions. Hiding behind the shoulders of a towering historical figure or text, including the Bible, is avoidance of personal moral responsibility. However, the above examples imply that gender binary was not such a fixed reality for these earlier theologians as some of us longing for “classical Christianity” would like to think.