In the past most monotheistic religions have downplayed, if not totally ignored, the feminine side of divinity. To say that does not imply that its place should be exactly equivalent to the masculine, which many of those who want to restore it seem to believe, but it definitely does have a place which has been neglected. I have written about this before here and here, and I don't claim any full knowledge on this subject (any more than anyone else can), but I do have my intuitions and I will try to express them in this piece. As they coincide, more or less, with tradition and the book of nature I believe them to be relatively free of prejudice and cultural conditioning.
The fundamental duality of existence (and existence must be dual in order for it to be known) can be described as spirit and matter or God and Nature, Subject and Object, and in sundry other ways that are variations on this theme but which all boil down to something like Life and Appearance. In this duality the former is always, in practically every culture, masculine and the latter feminine. No doubt there are exceptions but they, as the saying goes, just prove the rule. Humanity has a basic intuition about this and it is correct.
Now it is interesting that the two are complementary but always it is natural to put one before the other. This is not just the way we are used to doing it. It is how it is. The masculine principle is always put first, even in Tantra in which this dualism is most developed and where it is described as Siva-Sakti. Does this mean that the first is the primary principle, Life/Spirit, and the second, Appearance/Matter, is that principle when it expresses itself which it has to do as a duality? Thus spirit and matter in manifestation are actually modes of Spirit since on the highest plane of reality there is only the Creator and spirit and matter are one, not yet sundered. So you can say that the second comes out of the first as its complementary principle in manifestation but you cannot reverse this statement and put it the other way round. I think this is exactly what it does mean and this points to a twofold relationship between these two principles which may be why so much trouble is caused in coming to a proper understanding of how they should interact, and their role vis a vis one another.
On the one hand, there is the complementarity. Where there is one there necessarily is the other and each is incomplete without the other. One cannot exist without the other and they need each other to grow and become more. This divine duality is the case in all the created worlds and in every situation or circumstance in which life is expressed in form. But, on the other hand, there is a hierarchy of sorts. Matter does come from spirit when it moves out into self-expression. The masculine principle does precede the feminine which is its opposite in manifestation and the worlds of duality. It is not just that in unmanifest oneness neither exist or both are dormant. If so, how would the externalising process ever get started? It is more that pure being, to reveal itself, becomes positive and negative though these words are slightly misleading because here the negative is not absence of anything but its own absolutely real principle. We are, after all, talking about God in whom and for whom everything is real. Perhaps a better way of describing this primary duality would be as active or initiating (God, they say, is Pure Act) and passive as in creatively receptive. Both are fully real but one exists to express and glorify the other not vice versa. You might say that without the Mother (Mater/matter/prima materia) the Father cannot create because it is only through her being, her substance, and in her space that his idea can take form and manifest. She is the second part of the duality in which the One manifests and without which it would remain unexpressed.
This is undoubtedly a difficult concept which is why we tend to seek refuge in a simpler scenario of either one alone being real or both being equally so. But neither of those ways of looking at the picture of masculine and feminine as they relate to the depths of existence is really satisfactory. The truth seems to be a mixture of the two. Complementarity and hierarchy. Perhaps one way of picturing this is to see that the sexes (as cosmic principles, first and foremost) relate to each other in two ways. One, on a horizontal level in which the masculine is on the right and the feminine on the left, and two, on a vertical level, in which the masculine is above (Sky or Heaven) and the feminine is below (Earth). This image will undoubtedly raise hackles today but it probably was the intuitive understanding of the past before our minds were clouded by materialistic humanism and atheism, not to mention too much education of a certain sort distorting our natural and innocent perceptions.
It is undeniable that this relationship along the vertical axis, in which the masculine precedes (in terms of the process of creation) the feminine, has been corrupted in the past, principally by taking it out of context and misapplying it on the horizontal level where it is not valid, but that does not mean it is incorrect. What it means is that spirit is the primary principle, and matter its expression in form, indeed its expression as form, but the two always go together to make a whole. Though with the proviso that spirit must be seen as the active principle and matter the receptive, and the additional understanding that the fact that the masculine hierarchically precedes the feminine in creation does not make man superior to woman, individually or collectively, in this world. The two have equal value as expressions of God but they also have their real roles which are not by any means the same and in some ways may even seem to be unequal.
I want to try to imagine the beginning of all things. What happens when God creates the universe? From within the eternal night of unmanifest being comes God the Creator. So the first thing is an act of Will, the will or desire to create. Now this cannot come from nothing so it means that God as Creator is already there. Obviously there must be a Creator before there is creation (I am discounting any materialistic hypothesis here) so the Creator must be there in the eternal night of unmanifestation and must precede anything else. The Creator is the acting, masculine principle, and this is the first of all things, present from before all things. But then 'the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters'. In order to create the Creator must have something in which and from which to create, something to give form to his idea. This is 'the waters' which is the receptive or feminine aspect of God and which becomes light once it is impregnated by the Spirit of God. As I envisage it God draws this forth from himself (where else could it come from?), or separates himself into two, and his resulting feminine side is both the womb and substance of creation. So for there to be anything there must be two things, both the masculine and feminine principles. Each needs the other in the creative process - as if we didn't know that! And in terms of the created universe each has always existed. There is nothing without the two of them interacting. However in terms of existence prior to creation the masculine principle was primary just as the Will of the Creator preceded Creation.
Another way to look at this is to see the masculine and feminine principles as giving and receiving or expanding and contracting. The two always go together as movements in a single process but the first is always first, the initiating or preceding stage. The second makes the movement of the first possible but the first is the instigating factor.
The idea that the feminine principle ultimately derives from the masculine is echoed in the story of Eve being formed from Adam's rib, and also in that of Sophia or Wisdom of whom it says in Proverbs that "The Lord created me the first of his works long ago, before all else was made." One can dismiss these stories as fairy tales or inventions designed to boost patriarchal power but I think they are mythologies, that is, symbolical presentations of truth. The same truth is enacted in Mary's acceptance of her role as the Mother of God, that is, of God in form. This involved humble submission to the Spirit of God (as Mary submits to God as matter should submit to spirit), and it plays out on a lower level what happened right back at the very dawn of creation. Mary, by her submission to God, eventually ascends to become Queen of Heaven, and one does not have to take this literally to see that Mary was indeed the perfect representative of this divine archetype.
We have seen that God becomes two in order to express himself but he is pure positivity to start off with otherwise he would be nothing. This is why there is a sense in which the masculine does precede the feminine in terms of being even though there is complete complementarity in the phenomenal worlds of becoming where the two are always ever present, each suggesting the other. Complementarity means that each has a role to play and neither should usurp the role of the other. That is not what is happening in our fallen world but those who are serious about the spiritual path have to look within themselves and try to gain a proper intuitive understanding of the roles of the sexes and the meaning of gender as it exists at the deepest level of creation. Divine order only comes about when masculine and feminine are in harmony. In our human terms that does not mean that men are just manifestations of the masculine principle and women are of the feminine. It's like the yin/yang symbol where each includes an element of the other. And, as human beings, which we are before we are men and women, we all contain the whole within ourselves. Nevertheless for women this should be in the context of femininity just as for men it should be within that of masculinity. At the moment the world is very confused, misled partly through the desire to correct past error but chiefly, I would say, through egotism ably stirred up, inflamed and given spurious justification by demonic incitement. All of which means that none of this discussion of the feminine aspect of divinity should be taken as support for modern feminism. In fact, the opposite is more the case. Feminism, as it stands today, is a distortion or perversion of this idea since it is largely based on the hatred of the feminine as the feminine and the desire to replace that with a pseudo-masculinity. Its devaluing of the role of motherhood is the plainest indication of that. Its refusal to see femininity in terms of receptivity, which it mistakenly sees as inferior, is another clear example that it is rooted in error.
I have been talking here about principles but the question then arises as to whether these principles are persons too. I think the answer must be yes, though what form they take, if form they have, is beyond our comprehension. In the Christian world view, to which I largely adhere, everything in the universe is, or is aiming to become, a person based on the supreme reality that is the personhood of God. Therefore all principles can be personified but what that really means is open to question. Man is created in the image of God but we must try to conceive spiritual realities in spiritual rather than material or worldly terms. Is God a person? Yes. Does he have a body? Not according to Jesus who said that God is Spirit. Not according to St Paul who in Colossians 1:15 described Jesus as the image of the invisible God. And not according to the understanding that sees the Creator as transcending his creation and a being that cannot be limited by form. I don't doubt that there are great spiritual beings who do appear in form, and maybe the Divine Mother is one of them as in the vision of Isis in The Golden Ass by Apuleius, but God as Creator of the Universe stands above his creation.
It might be asked where the Trinity fits into this or the Godhead, the Divine Darkness which is the ground of all being and about which nothing may be said for all words about it must fall back into silence? The latter can readily be equated with the Eternal Night which is both prior to creation and sub-stands it at all times. As for the Trinity, it may be that the Mother is the substance to its essence. It is the Mother who enables the Father to give expression to the Son and who enables the Logos to take form, both individually and cosmically. But really God is far too great and beyond our conception to be forced neatly into any ideas we might have about him. There may be different ways of conceiving him which are not contradictory but which focus on different aspects of the totality of what he is. This should not be a problem. We can look at the picture in different ways and this is one of them but I see it as more a symbolic description of reality than an absolutely true depiction. Nevertheless I believe that it does describe this reality in a way that does not misrepresent it on our level of understanding.
Note: God nowadays is often described as transcending any idea of gender. Either above masculine and feminine or else including both within himself. And, of course, this is correct if we are talking about the Supreme Principle, unmanifest spirit in its pure 'isness'. But if we are talking about the Creator, the one who created the universe, who created our souls and made us individual beings, the one who Jesus Christ called Father and with whom we can have a relationship, then what I have written above applies. Naturally the fact he is Father does not mean he doesn't contain all qualities within himself but still as the Creator he is Father.