What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

The Wings of God

Last week, a friend on FB sent me a picture of a swan and her cygnets (babies), with Psalm 91:4 attached:

He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you may seek refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. (NASB)

My friend added, “All the translations use a male pronoun, but this is clearly a female.”

Clearly a Female

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott agrees in The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female. She says there are two mother-bird types of images in the Bible. One is the covering protection of the hen’s wings (Ruth 2:12; Ps. 17:8, 9; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 91:4; Matt. 23:27/Luke 13:34). The other is the empowering, adult-making wings of the mother eagle (Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11-12; Is 40:31).

Ramey Mollenkott points out that the King James Version and a few other translations use feminine pronouns, but, like my friend noted, all the others use masculine or neuter pronouns.

Here is Deut. 32:11-12 in the KJV: “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead Jacob….”

The birds in all the verses show the protecting, teaching behavior of the hens or mother eagles. They are not likely male birds. So, the Old Testament writers identify God with a mother hen or eagle. It’s a whole new category of feminine imagery for God. (And so I’ve augmented my page, Feminine Images of God in the Bible).

This matters. It mattered, to Jesus, too, when he used hen imagery for Himself (Matt. 23:27/Luke 13:34).

Eagle-Mothering

I especially appreciate understanding better the kinds of God-mothering that the two birds represent. We may have pictured God protecting us under-wing as a hen or other bird, but perhaps we haven’t thought about the way an eagle mothers her young.

It’s been said that an eagle mother actually drops her fledglings so they can learn to fly. If they flounder, she catches them on her wings. Those are the images we see in the Bible. But as this blogger writes, if you watch eaglets and their parents, you’ll see that eaglets who are big enough to fly are way too big to be dropped or caught.

In fact, the mother eagle nurtures her babies according to their needs. Some take a few weeks to fledge, others a few months. She simply stays with them as they practice hopping, flapping and landing. And she keeps feeding them even after they know how to hunt, as long as they are still in the nest.

Like Mother God, the mother eagle patiently teaches and waits. And the end goals are the same: competence and maturity.

The Eagle Empowers

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott notes that in this role, God (the eagle) is female and humanity (eaglets) is male, if given a sex (e.g. Is. 40:31-32 NIV). This reverses what women often hear, that women represent a feminine humanity that should submit to a masculine God, and so therefore, women should submit to their husbands.

And, says Ramey Mollenkott “…the mother eagle images depict a God who is actively trying to create equals by empowering the eaglets to take care of themselves. Hence these images do not encourage dominance and submission even in our relationship with our Creator, let alone our relationships with other human beings!”

Time to Travel

In August 2015, when The Mother God Experiment was still embryonic, we went to Siletz Bay, Oregon on vacation. We rented a house that only required a walk through the back yard to get to the bay. I wrote in my journal:

I was coming back (from a walk) and looked up to see a bald eagle landing on a branch above me. I heard my husband cry, ‘That’s a bald eagle!’ We gathered under the tree as it adjusted its wings in the wind and watched us and the land around us.

I took the eagle’s landing as a sign. Of what, I don’t know yet. Later, back at the house, thinking about the eagle I saw a sign that said “Endeavor” with a sailboat underneath. It seemed significant. I thought about my metaphor of discovering Mother God as safe harbor, a place to launch from, to go out and explore and take risks.

So, I know it’s time to move The Mother God Experiment to a new level. It has existed in my mind and on these notebook pages…but it’s time to move further into the ocean of people needing to know Mother is a fine metaphor for God, that it can lead to new heights of trust in God.

I hear the eagle’s high-pitched call now as I write.

It’s time to travel.

The Eagle Speaks

When I got home, I did a search for what eagles symbolize. I mostly read that eagles represent the stereotypical ideas we have when we see them: power, strength, domination, masculinity.

Perplexed, I didn’t think much more about our eagle-sighting or how important it seemed at the time. Until my friend wrote her FB post about the swan/cygnet picture and verse, and I began to think about this post. When Biblical writers used the eagle as a stand-in for God, or Her children, it was a symbol of nurturing empowerment.

Mother-Eagle-God was, indeed, telling me to fly.

Lady Julian’s Day

May 8 and May 13 are the feast days of Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She was the first woman to write a surviving book in the English language: Revelations of Divine Love

Julian was an anchorite, an early form of the Christian monastic. She lived in a simple room attached to the local church, receiving meals and participating in church services through different windows. Julian spent most of her time connecting mystically to God. Eventually, she also wrote and gave spiritual guidance to those who came to her.

When she was 30, God healed Julian of a serious illness. At that time she had a series of visions of Jesus on the cross. One writer said that Julian had what we might now describe as a Near-Death Experience, which I thought was an interesting idea. Her visions radically changed her and she spent the rest of her life writing down the things she learned from them.

Julian’s Vision of the Motherhood of God

I spent some time last night reading the most popular articles about Julian on the Internet. They seem to avoid mentioning her use of the metaphor of mother for God. However, this is an important aspect of Julian’s theology. She emphasizes the unconditional love and mercy of God. And she explicitly calls God, Jesus and the Spirit “Mother” as well as “Father.”

She wasn’t the first to do so in her time. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian reformer and abbot who lived a century before Julian, often used the metaphor of mothering for God and for himself in the tradition of St. Paul. Several of his followers did the same, as did the church fathers before them. (See my recent post on “Jesus as Mother: A Brief History“).

Here are some highlights from Lady Julian’s writings:

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

“The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life….The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side.”

“So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right except with your help and grace.”

“So we see that Jesus is the true Mother of our nature, for he made us. He is our mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself. All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.”

Still Grappling with the Mother Metaphor

Lynn Japinga, author of Feminism and Christianity, writes, “Julian’s work was preserved, but the church has only recently begun to grapple with the implications of her theological insights.” I’m not so sure they’ve even begun. Julian is one of the few women of church history recognized as having written theology, but the church still overlooks her use of the mother metaphor for the members of the Trinity.

Let’s use her feast days (May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran churches; May 13 in the Catholic) to remember both Julian’s work and the permission we have to call God Mother.

 

 

Jesus as Mother: a Brief History

“Do not wean me, good Jesus, from the breasts of thy consolation….”

The monk of Farne

Could Jesus be your Mother this Mother’s Day? Let’s talk about the history of the metaphor of mother for Jesus. It starts with Jesus Himself, and moves right on through the minds of church fathers and theologians, to the middle ages.

Caring for Children

Jesus began this tradition when he lamented about the unbelieving spirit he kept running into. In contrast, He said, He wanted to gather Jerusalem’s children together under His wings like a hen does her chicks, but they resisted violently (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34).

The apostle Peter went beyond Jesus’ metaphor of the protecting mother hen, to speaking of Christ as a lactating human mother. He attributed to Jesus the ability to give metaphorical breast milk to the church: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (I Pet. 2:3).

And the apostle Paul compared himself to a mother, with the same freedom Peter had to use the metaphor for Jesus. Paul said to the church at Thessalonica, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you” (I Thess. 2:7b). To the Galatians, he wrote, “My little children, with whom I again suffer the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you….” (4:19).

The Early Church Got It

Paul and Peter’s freedom to use the Old Testament mother metaphors for both male pastors and for Jesus continued among many of the church fathers. For example, the second century bishop Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies: 

He, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk, [because we were] as infants. He did this when He appeared as a man, that we, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.

Also in the second century, church father Clement of Alexandria gave a whole chapter in his book, The Teacher, to the metaphor of mother for God and Jesus. In this example, Christ is milk coming from the Father’s breasts:

Thus to Christ the fulfilling of His Father’s will was food; and to us infants, who drink the milk of the word of the heavens, Christ Himself is food. Hence seeking is called sucking; for to those babes that seek the Word, the Father’s breasts of love supply milk.

In the fourth century, preacher John Chrysostom wrote in Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, “Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with His own blood those whom He has begotten.”

Others who wrote of Jesus as mother during this period include St. Augustine, says scholar Tim Bulkeley in Not Only a Father. Augustine saw Jesus as wearying Himself for us as a mother, and nursing us.

The Revival of Mother in the Middle Ages

Julian of Norwich is known as the first woman to have written a book in the English language (1385). She writes often of God, Jesus, and the Spirit as mother, making her seem a marginal voice in today’s theological world.

However, the male religious leaders of Lady Julian’s time, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, had already written in a similar vein about Christ. Caroline Walker Bynum, author of Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, notes that Bernard uses “mother” extensively to “describe Jesus, Moses, Peter, Paul, prelates in general, and more frequently, himself as abbot.”

Others like him who wrote about Jesus as mother include Aelred of Rievaulx, Guerric of Igny, Isaac of Stella, Adam of PerseigneHelinand of Froidmont, William of St. Thierry, the monk of Farne and Anselm.

Anselm, the saint and influential theologian of the Catholic church in the twelfth century, wrote a prayer to “Christ, mother, who gathers under your wings your little ones…” and prayed, “But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother?”

He turned to the mother metaphor to make God more approachable, before Mary took that role in the church, says scholar Tim Bulkeley. Interestingly, Bulkeley notes that the veneration of Mary began to flourish in the monasteries of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, and after that, mother language for Jesus and God disappeared from the church almost entirely.

Jesus Still Nurses the Church

This is just a sampling of the freedom that church fathers, mothers, and medieval theologians had with the metaphor of mother for Christ.

That liberty should never have been squelched. As Lauren Winner writes in Wearing God, “The metaphor of nursing captured how Jesus sustains the church with grace and love.” It still can.

So think of Jesus’ mother heart toward you this Mother’s Day, as part of your communion with the saints of history.

 

The Two Marys Who Stayed

Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Joseph witnessed Jesus’ sufferings and death (Mt. 27:33) along with many other women. Then they emerged onto the scene as present in a unique way before and after Jesus’ resurrection. The women stand out from the men around them, in three ways, in Matthew’s gospel.

1. They Stayed

When evening fell…Joseph wrapped [the body] in fresh linen and laid it in his own tomb….Then Joseph rolled a huge stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. But Mary of Magdala and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb. (Mt. 27:57-61).

Though the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea had the courage to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, he came in the evening to place Jesus’ body in the tomb, and immediately went away under cover of night. There was danger and risk in being seen. Any one lingering could be identified as a follower to the religious leaders who spurred Jesus’s crucifixion.

The male disciples also disappeared, as Jesus predicted they would during the Last Supper (Matt. 26:31).

Yet, the two Marys stayed, and Matthew implies they stayed a while even past sunset, in the darkness, among tombs. The next day, the Sabbath no less, the religious leaders asked for a guard to be posted by Jesus’ tomb to keep the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body.

2. They Remained Standing and Listened

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary of Magdala came with Mary to inspect the tomb. Suddenly, there was a severe earthquake, and an angel of God descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, with garments white as snow. The guards shook with fear and fell down as though they were dead.

The angel spoke, addressing the women: ‘Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified…’ (Matt. 28:1-5)

In this passage, we see the Marys returning to the tomb at the end of Sabbath. Matthew points out that the male guards shake with fear and apparently faint due to the earthquake and the sight of the angel.

The women, however, remain upright. It’s to them the angel speaks, promising they will see Jesus in Galilee. Matthew writes, “the women hurried away with awe and great joy….” (28:8).

The women’s reaction is not to hide at home like Joseph or the male disciples, or fall down in fear before the angels like the guards. Rather, they joyfully respond to a new and deep understanding of the divinity of Jesus, as though this truth were, comparatively, all that mattered in the universe.

3. They Worshiped Him Without Doubting

Suddenly, Jesus stood before them and said, ‘Shalom!’ The women came up, embraced Jesus’ feet and worshiped. (Mt. 28:9).

Jesus Himself shows up, not to the male disciples in Galilee, but to the two Marys who are still on their way. He could have gone on to Galilee first, as the angel had said He was doing (“He now goes ahead of you to Galilee.” Mt. 28:7). But instead, Jesus finds the women as they journey to tell the good news of His own resurrection.

Why did He go to them even though that wasn’t the plan the angel had articulated? Jesus saw the women’s grief, courage and loyalty as they sat across from the tomb in the dark the night they watched him crucified. Did He want them to be the first to see Him in His new body?

Perhaps, just maybe, He was as excited as they were, as filled with “great joy.” Maybe He wanted to see them first.

Jesus encourages the women as the angel did, with “‘Don’t be afraid!’” He then gives them a mandate to tell the other disciples to “go to Galilee, where they will see me.” (Mt. 28:10). The Marys continue to have courage. They go “on their way” to do as Jesus has said (28:11).

When Jesus does appear to the eleven male disciples on a mountain in Galilee, they too fall down in worship as the two Marys did, “though some doubted what they were seeing,” says Matthew (Mt. 28:17). (Mark’s gospel shows Jesus “scolding [the Eleven] for their disbelief and stubbornness,” in Mark 16:14). In contrast, the Marys remain full of expectancy, hope and faith, from the first night after Jesus’ crucifixion, until their meeting with the resurrected Jesus. In fact, the two women were the first recorded to worship Jesus in his resurrected body.

The Two Marys Did Not Fall Away Because of Jesus

In chapter 26, Matthew has explained in length how the Twelve disciples failed Jesus in His most difficult moments (see last week’s post). They betray Him (Judas), deny Him (Peter), and fall asleep three times when Jesus nearly begs them to stay awake with Him in his grief. Then, for a time, they disappear.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph are the main actors after that in Matthew’s gospel. We do not hear about the male disciples again until Jesus appears in Galilee. They have, as Jesus said they would, “scattered,” perhaps doubting Jesus’ divinity to the point of  temporarily “falling away” as Jesus predicted (Matt. 26:31).

In every way, the two Marys who stayed at the tomb showed themselves stellar disciples of Jesus, and most of all, His loyal, faithful friends. 

 

The Mother-Love of Jesus at The Last Supper

We think of Judas as the black sheep of the family during Holy Week. He made a past-forgiveness mistake, right? So big that even Jesus pronounced “woe” to His betrayer (Matt. 26:24).

Under Jesus’ Wings

A closer look at Matthew 26 shows us that Jesus had Judas covered. In fact, Matthew shows that all The Twelve failed Jesus when He needed them most, and Jesus loved them anyway.

Jesus thought of them all beforehand with the love of a mother hen wanting to gather her chicks together, knowing they would soon scatter anyway, in the Jerusalem who killed her prophets (Mt. 23:37).

He loved them with longing, like a motherly father filled with compassion for a lost son, or like a shepherd in search of the one wandering sheep, or the woman looking for her coin (Luke 15).

Eating the Bread of Life with Jesus

Luke records that the religious leaders complained that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). The Pharisees and scribes could have murmured about that at the Last Supper, too.

Not even Judas truly wanted to hurt Jesus. (Judas seemed focused on money, like a tax collector, and perhaps Matthew-the-tax-collector was more sympathetic because of this). They would sin against him, anyway. But Jesus, knowing this, welcomed them. He ate with them.

While they were together anticipating a joyful meal, Jesus said, “‘The truth is, one of you is about to betray me.’”  At that point Matthew recalls, “They were greatly distressed and started asking him in turn, ‘Surely it is not I, Teacher?’”

Jesus said, “‘The one who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will hand me over’” (Mt. 26:23).

Jesus chose this symbol of eating together as friends to both prophecy Judas’ betrayal and to declare Judas’ redemption. The Last Supper would be the first communion, the final indication of the complete forgiveness that Jesus was about to provide through His death and resurrection.

Judas took bread, along with Christ Himself. Judas took the bread of life, the body of Christ (Mt. 26:26), which would nourish him beyond sin and death. And when Judas did repent (Mt. 27:3), there would be “joy in the presence of the angels of God” (Luke 15:10).

Drink From It, All of You

Nonetheless, Judas would face suffering for his actions, the overwhelming, weighty feeling of remorse that led both to Judas’ throwing the money back into the temple, and also to his decision to kill himself. Jesus predicted this when he said, “But woe to the one by whom the Chosen One is betrayed! It would be better for that one not to have been born at all” (Mt. 26:24).

But did Jesus mean that He wanted Judas to suffer or to be punished in hell? No. This is what He does after he and Judas eat together:

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them. ‘Drink from it, all of you,’ he said. ‘This is my blood, the blood of the Covenant, which will be poured out on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. The truth is, I will not drink this fruit of the vine again until the day when I drink it anew with you in my Abba’s kingdom (Mt. 26:27-29).

Jesus specified that he wanted everyone to drink from the cup, including Judas. He made clear he would drink wine again with all of them in heaven.

Every Disciple Needed (Needs) Jesus’ Mother-Love

And each of the twelve disciples needed the cup of forgiveness, though none of them felt that way while feasting with Jesus (Mt. 26:22, 25). Jesus prophecies: “‘Tonight you will all fall away because of me, for scripture says, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’’” (Mt. 26:31).

It’s not always clear how the others failed. But three times Jesus asked them to stay awake with him, and three times he found them asleep (Matt. 26:40, 43, 45).

This parallels Peter’s later denial of friendship with Jesus three times, even though Peter and all The Twelve had promised that they could die with Jesus if they must (26:35). Jesus expressed grief “to the point of death” (26:38) and yet the men abandoned him when He needed them most.

Jesus tells them: “‘Be on guard, and pray that you may not undergo trial. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak’” (Matt. 26:42).

He wants His friends to be spared any pain, and He knows they mean well. Their spirits were willing. Jesus does not condemn them. But like a caring mother, He warns them.

Like tired toddlers or hurt teenagers, they do not listen.

But Jesus had them covered under His wings already–Judas, Peter, the other ten men, and the many women who followed Him.

Jesus’ blood and His mother-love would not fail. 

 

You Don’t Have to Be a Pantheist to Call God Mother

A Christian Feminist Scholar Says No To Mother

Last week, I talked about two major arguments against calling God Mother, from Old Testament scholar Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier. She made a big impact on the Christian world in the 1990s. As a respected Biblical scholar, woman, and an egalitarian, she told the church what it (mostly) wanted to hear, that God is masculine/male.

Her ideas pop up even now when someone wants to say it is wrong or unBiblical to call God “Mother.” These God-is-male/masculine articles are shooting out of the blog-o-sphere as we speak, due to the movie, The Shack.

Does Feminist Theology Equal Pantheism?

I addressed Achtemeier’s arguments about the title of “father” being revelation and not just a metaphor, and that God is a father but only like a mother, in last week’s post. This week, I want to take on her idea that calling God Mother always leads to a pantheistic theology (the belief that God and creation are the same).

Achtemeier writes in The Hermeneutical Quest, “If a female deity gives birth to the universe…it follows that all things participate in the life or in the substance and divinity of that deity–in short, that the creator is indissolubly bound up with the creation [italics hers]. And this is exactly what we find in feminist theologies.”

A God who is Mother must give birth to her own substance, goes her argument, and so the world and God become one, in such a theology. A woman is then, also, divine.

Straw Women

It’s true that a self-described pagan feminist like Starhawk writes, “The Goddess is also earth–Mother Earth, who sustains all growing things, who is the body, our bones, our cells….” Yet, Starhawk is not trying to describe a Christian theology; Starhawk rejects Christianity.

Dr. Achtemeier’s straw women are the feminists who have left Christianity altogether. She quotes Carol Christ as saying that the Goddess follower “‘…will no longer look to men or male figures as saviors.'” This, of course, implies that Jesus is on the outs. But He doesn’t have to be.

Mother Doesn’t Go There

So, what happens when we keep the mother metaphor within Christianity, as the OT writers and prophets and Jesus and the early church fathers did? Do we still end up with God and the earth as one? Achtemeier writes as though the metaphor of mother must nosedive into a literal belief that God is physically mother of, and one substance with, the world.

But the mother/child metaphors fail to build such a case. Every mother knows that her child is not the same as her. That’s only more true with the months and years that pass. Each are unique gene sharers bound together by love. So there is no need for the mother metaphor itself to lead to pantheism, even if we take the metaphor of mother extremely literally.

Misrepresenting Biblical Feminism

Yet, some of the Biblical feminists who Achtemeier quotes she also misrepresents as pantheists. For example, when Virginia Ramey Mollenkott says that Naomi “incarnated” God for Ruth, Achtemeier calls this pantheism. Yet, having read Mollenkott’s book, I know that she is not saying that Naomi is divine on her own, as Achtemeier suggests. Ruth did not know Yahweh because she was a Moabite. She would have worshipped gods and goddesses. The closest Ruth came to the invisible God of love was this visible, flawed-yet-loving woman, Noami.

And Ruth devotes herself to Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16) only on the basis of Naomi herself, as far as we know from the text. (Ruth’s husband and brother-in-law are not mentioned). Mollenkott writes, “Naomi with all her limitations remained for Ruth the image-bearer of the undivided One God who births and breast-feeds the universe.”

It’s very clear that Mollenkott is not advocating pantheism, but simply that God lives within believers. Believers sometimes remind others of God. That includes women, and mothers, who reflect God’s image.

Mother God is Not Her Creation

To call God Mother does not require us to believe the earth or all humans are divine. We don’t have to leave Jesus behind to call God Mother, either. Mother is a metaphor, not reality. Even if we take the mother metaphor quite literally, it puts up an easy, natural divide between the Creator and creation due to the obvious difference between mothers and children.

Perhaps if Dr. Achtemeier were living today, she would see the Biblical alternatives to masculine language for God. Perhaps she would understand the importance to Jesus-followers to joyfully use feminine language for God. In any case, it’s important to think carefully about the arguments against God as mother that she left us with. They are cropping up again like weeds in the evangelical landscape.

 

 

Mother is Simile to a Metaphor: A New Look at an Old Argument

There’s a lot of talk now among Christians about the movie, The Shack, and whether it’s all right for Christians to even see it. Some are asking, “Is it okay that God is portrayed as a woman?” and even “Is it okay to call God Mother?” These are good questions at any time.

The usual answer is “No, it is not okay. Father is how God revealed Himself in the Bible. God might be like a mother, but is not a mother.” Let’s look more closely at both axioms.

Only a Masculine God

I remember in 1993 reading OT scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier’s article in Christianity Today, “Why God is Not a Mother.” I was integrating my new-found feminism with my old Christianity, and eager to read anything about the topic. Achtemeier’s thesis was that we should not use feminine language for God because He revealed Himself only in masculine terms.

And, she said we know this because metaphors are stronger than similes. God is a father, but only like a mother. You’ve probably heard the same argument. She writes:

The few instances of feminine imagery for God in the Bible all take the form of simile, not metaphor, as literary critic Roland Frye has amply demonstrated. That distinction is instructive. A simile compares one aspect of something to another. For example, in Isaiah 42:14, God will ‘cry out like a woman in travail,’ but only his crying out is being referred to; he is not being identified as a whole with the figure of a woman in childbirth. In metaphors, on the other hand, the whole of one thing is compared to the whole of another. God is Father or Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Thus the metaphor, as Frye writes, ‘carries a word or phrase far beyond its ordinary lexical meaning so as to provide a fuller and more direct understanding of the subject.’ Language is stretched to its limit, beyond ordinary usage, to provide new understanding.”

In my 20s, this argument floored me. And angered me. But I didn’t have a good answer to it. So for years, I resisted calling God Mother to stay true to what I thought was traditional, orthodox Christianity.

I’d like to discuss Dr. Achtemeier’s points from my perspective in 2017, after an M.Div. and two years of The Mother God Experiment.

Leaping from the Limits of Language

Achtemeier argues first that there is something special about “Father” that goes beyond metaphor itself. She says in the Christianity Today article, “‘Father’ is not a metaphor imported by humanity onto the screen of eternity; it is a name and filial term of address revealed by God himself in the person of his Son.” Well, actually, Father is a metaphor that Jesus used to describe His relationship with God, as a human male in a patriarchal culture, and as God’s unique “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

There are many other titles for God, besides Father, but they, too, are simply attempts to use language to describe the ineffable, beyond-language God. No single for-all-time title for God gets everything about God.

And that’s because not a single word of the Bible can escape culture and language. That’s why scholars spend half their lives working on exegesis and hermeneutics, chipping away at the true meaning of the text via what the text meant to certain people at a certain time and place, and from that point, what it means to us today.

To say that Jesus revealed a title for God that is set apart from its social context, eternally true and “correlative” about God in the term “Father” is just inaccurate. And flirting with heresy. Does God have genitals? Does God have a wife who bore Jesus? Does God have testosterone flowing through his veins? Does God need to eat meat three times a week and have sex every night? (Just kidding. Plenty of men don’t fit that description, but “Father” conveys many physical realities if taken literally).

As OT scholar Tim Bulkeley and Rev. Paul R. Smith both write, “Father” says something not true about God as well as something true in terms of Jesus’ relationship with God as God’s Son. Just like “Warrior” or “Shepherd” or “Rock” or the antiquated but well-loved term “Lord”.

In other words, Father is a metaphor and can be nothing else. It is not “revelation.” And in fact, the early church avoided using Father, as far as recorded prayers go. They preferred Lord and God in prayer, according to Paul Smith’s New Testament research.

And the early church fathers and medieval theologians reached out of their patriarchal cultures to draw from the Old Testament and Paul in using mother and breast-feeding imagery to describe God’s love. They would not have done this so consistently if Father was a sacrosanct, solitary way to think about God that precludes calling God Mother, too.

Changing up the Debate

Elizabeth Achtemeier’s second point still needs an answer, however. Does a metaphor about God convey a stronger, truer truth than a simile?

Whatever we conclude about the emotional, meaning-strength of a metaphor over a simile, the debate assumes that the Old Testament writers only used similes to talk about God as mother. However, a review of the texts reveals that they often used mother as a metaphor for God.

Sometimes the Biblical writer goes to the metaphor with a motherly action of God. Other times, God takes the first person voice through the prophet writing, and speaks as a mother. Yes, She takes on the entire persona of a woman to describe something about Her, in the first person.

The Evidence

Let’s look now for ourselves at the verses for the strength of the comparison between God and being a mother (or a woman). I put in bold the parts where either the writer-in-third-person or God’s own voice identifies God with the woman’s actions or voice:

“As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him. He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock…”–Deuteronomy 32:11-13

This passage starts out with a simile and ends with a metaphor. The pronouns are masculine. Anything else would be wildly out-of-place in a patriarchal religion and culture. However, the clear mother metaphors are so unexpected in such a culture that we should pay attention to them. See the next example for, again, a complete identification with “mother,” just a few verses away from the last example:

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”–Deuteronomy 32:18

There is no simile here at all. There are no masculine pronouns. God is the God who gives birth. That makes God a mother, metaphorically speaking. And here’s more:

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?”–Job 38:8-9, 28-29

Again, God is completely identifying with a woman, with a womb, who gives birth. That is a metaphor, not a simile. Let’s keep going:

“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.”–Proverbs 8:23-25

In this example, the voice is Wisdom’s, the offspring of God, the Mother, an implied metaphor.

Next, in Isaiah, the prophet gives God the first person voice as a mother who is promising to always be a mother:

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.”–Isaiah 46:3-4

And in the next passage, God again speaks in the first person, as both a mother and Someone like a mother:

“When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me….Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them….My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”–Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9

Other verses do use only similes, such as the following, but the comparison with a mother is a strong complement to the above metaphors:

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul within me is like a weaned child.”–Psalm 131:2

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”–Isaiah 49:15

“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”–Isaiah 66:12-13

New Testament Mother Metaphors for God

We have heard the phrase “born again” so often that we forget the Mother who is needed for the metaphor to work. Jesus clearly describes God the Spirit as a spiritual mother. There is no simile.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.'”–John 3:5, 6

And in the next example, the simile is for us, who are like God’s babies, but the metaphor is for God and God’s milk:

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”–I Peter 2:2-3

What’s a Meta Phor?

I hope this will help those of you who, like me, get taken by arguments that seem to make perfect sense but actually have inaccurate assumptions based on false evidence. The Old and New Testament have all the metaphors you will ever need to show that God identifies Herself as a mother, and not only a father.

As Professor Bulkeley says, it is the god Baal who is male, not Yahweh, the invisible God in whose image She made both men and women. He writes, “Paradoxically, if Achtemeier and [C. S.] Lewis, great defenders of orthodox Christian belief, win this battle, and we accept that God is in some sense male-not-female, then Baal wins the battle lost on Mt. Carmel in about 850 BC! Those who defend the notion that talk of God as mother should be similar to talk of God as father are not the dangerous heretics. They are rather, like Elijah, defenders of the true God against human idolatry. The idolaters are those who would make God male or father alone!”

It is god with a small “g” who can only be Father, only be King, only be Lord or any other exclusively masculine metaphor. A movie like The Shack is a prophetic push for more balance in our word pictures for God, whether intended or not.

In summary, calling or praying to God as Mother makes you more Biblical than using Father only. And you have the metaphors to prove it.

Experiment: If you’re used to listening to God’s voice, ask Her what She thinks about being called Mother. Or ask Him what He thinks about being called Mother, whatever you’re now comfortable with. Listen for God’s answer. And if you hear that God takes offense at being called Mother, ask God why.

No Word Picture Is an Island

“Bridle of untamed colts, Wing of unwandering birds,

Ship’s sure helm, Shepherd of royal lambs…

Christ Jesus, heavenly milk

from the sweet breasts of the bride of grace,

squeezed from your wisdom.

The childlike, with tender mouths,

are cherished, filled with the dewy spirit

of the Word’s breasts, sing together simple praises,

true hymns to Christ the King….”

–“Hymn to the Tutor (Christ)”, 2nd century

Trying to Picture God

Clement of Alexandria, an early church father (c. 150-230 A.D.), often used mother and breast-feeding imagery to talk about God. Above, he uses many word pictures, several of his own making, in this hymn to attempt to describe the Christ he loves so much. Clement compares and contrasts aspects of God whose varying characteristics stand out to us according to our need.

The Bible, too, has blessed us with word pictures for God. However, as Old Testament scholar Tim Bulkeley says, no one picture can stand on its own; they need each other.

John Chrysostom, a fourth century Greek church father, speaks of God as mother at times, here using some Biblical and extra-Biblical (e.g. sister) word pictures together to begin to create an adequate sense of God: “Father, brother, bridegroom, dwelling place, food, raiment, root, foundation…sister, mother.” Bulkeley notes that this list starts with “father” and ends with “mother.” Chrysostom mines the Bible, and his own imagination, for feminine references to God to create the fullest picture of God, even in the fourth century.

God is Not Exactly a Rock

We need many ways to image God to even begin to fathom the ineffable. For example, if God were only Rock, we would misrepresent God’s nature. Is God a thing? Is God hard? Is God unmoved with compassion? No. Rock is inadequate to portray God fully. It tells of God’s power to give refuge and stability–only.

So, we have another word picture, Shepherd. Oh…now we see God clearly. God cares about us like sheep, right? She’ll search for one of us if we are lost, She knows our names, and we know Her voice. But is that all God is? Someone who protects and feeds? No. Shepherd is inadequate to portray God fully, as well. It tells of God’s care for us–only.

As pastor Paul R. Smith writes, “To say ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29) is no more literally true than saying ‘God is our Father.’ Both analogies reveal some authentic truth about God, but both also say some things that are not true.”

God is Not Only a Father

And so, to speak of God as Father only will lead us to an inadequate portrayal of God. It will lead us down the path of idolatry, which the Hebrews were careful to avoid. As Bulkeley says in Not Only a Father, “While idols must be either male or female, neither male nor female alone can portray God.” This is why the Old Testament writers felt free to use mother language for God overlaid on the masculine language. It was Baal who was a male god, not Yahweh.

Yahweh was neither male nor female, surpassing sexuality, and could encompass both sets of (stereotyped) characteristics, similes and metaphors.

Jesus Is Not a Man’s Man (Or, Now, Even a Man)

Likewise, in the New Testament, masculinity is never an essential characteristic of Jesus. His human maleness is a given, but stereotyped masculinity is almost rejected by Jesus in the gospels. He exhibits balanced gender characteristics while he repeatedly confronts sexism and any exclusion of women as equal image-bearers and ministers.

And, we can be sure the second person of the Trinity does not currently possess male genitals. Jesus is Spirit, too.

A More Balanced Way to Picture God

To avoid the implication that God is a male god, and to avoid the idolatry of the male itself, using both masculine and feminine metaphors for God leads us to the fullest picture of God.

That’s why I keep referring to God as “She.” Believers are stuck in our word pictures, unbalanced toward a masculine-only God. The only way to even begin to bring balance is to over-use “She” and “Her” and “Mother” for a while, until those feminine pronouns and metaphors start to feel good and not feel so uncomfortable.

Then we can go back and forth like many of the early church fathers, using either gender according to the need, to picture the God who is both personal and a Spirit, entirely encompassing both genders, but who is without bodily sexuality.

In summary, God is Spirit (John 4:24), but we too often use only one human gender, the male one, to picture God. This is unbalanced and dangerous to a true understanding of God and a complete understanding of the worth of women.

To more fully see God, and not the male god of our own making, we need the feminine word pictures, too.

How are you doing in your journey of expanding word images for God to include the feminine? Is it still difficult and even impossible? Or is it opening up your understanding of God?

My next blog post: tackling the metaphor vs. simile debate.

 

 

 

Learning to Trust God

God and Happiness: Not an Oxymoron

The best part of learning to call God “Mother” has been that I now believe God wants me to be happy. Somehow I got that wrong a long time ago, believing God the Father always had some personal agenda (His glory, the salvation of every one around me, and when I was a teen, to marry some guy I didn’t like who’d save the world with me) that would overlook my happiness.

Now, God’s will and my own fulfillment are intertwined. She cares about me like a Mother and so is not looking out only for Herself.

I can look back and see how wrong I’ve been to mistrust God throughout decision-making points in my life. She was always speaking through my intuition, to avoid this setting, or go toward that one. But I couldn’t trust that voice.

Healing Through Calling God Mother

I started the Mother God Experiment two years ago. My book of feminine-language psalms lies open on my desk now. Today I read:

“Allelleluia! It is fitting and delightful to sing praise to God.

For El Shaddai builds up Her people, and gathers the outcasts in.

She heals the brokenhearted, gently binding their wounds.

She counts the stars and calls them by name!

How great is God, abundant in powerful love!

Her wisdom is beyond telling.”

–Psalm 147, Swallow’s Nest: A Feminine Reading of the Psalms, Marchienne Vroon Rienstra

I realized today that feminine renderings of verses like these, along with a fuller picture of God as Love and Light through reading about Near-Death Experiences, have healed me. When I think about taking risks that I feel Her directing me to, I feel afraid but willing, like my 11-year-old son who is learning to swim.

Trim Tab and Trust

I like to come up with a word or phrase for each new year. (This was another blogger’s idea, whose name I don’t recall, but the website My One Word has the same idea). My phrase for 2017 is “Trim tab and trust.” To trim tab a boat is to direct a boat with very little actual physical effort. I now see little movements as capable of changing my entire life direction, as big as that seems.

And the trust part is that the little efforts really will change my life. I’m not alone. I have a huge amount of power behind me in Mother God and Jesus, the Life and Light of the Universe. And so do you.

I’m Sailing with the Mother

So, I’m moving forward, with little efforts to follow through on my ideas and intuitions and desires, like starting a Facebook group for my neighborhood to break down walls between people living near each other. And I had a “Love Your Neighbor” Valentine’s Day Party on Sunday for the neighborhood. It wasn’t hugely attended, but all the same, I am trim tabbing, and trusting Mother God that something good will come of it.

Now instead of stalling in harbor, when I see an opportunity, I listen for Her voice, that inner sense of direction. And if all is well, I set sail knowing She is with me.

And, so, what about you? Has calling God Mother been a trim tab leading to bigger changes in your life? I’d love it if you’d take a moment to tell me about what this metaphor means to you and your ability to trust Her.

Parenting Like God

Meet a Motherly God

I’m reading a book called God and the Afterlife: The Groundbreaking New Evidence for God and Near-Death Experience by Jeffrey Long, M.D. I tend to be a believer, since science has not caught up with Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) yet and there is no conclusive materialist evidence for why they happen. The NDEs often change people; that much is undeniable.

And, though the gender of God is variable in people’s NDEs, the most salient characteristics of God seem motherly. In fact, the understanding I’ve gained of God through reading about NDEs can inform my life as a mother, and can help all of us parent better. So, what can we learn from Mother God from the people who have had NDEs, and how does that translate to how we parent?

Mother God Loves

The first thing we can learn is that She is love. When people go to heaven in their NDE, that’s what they often first realize: God loves me unconditionally. One says, “I have never felt loved by someone on this earth the way I felt loved by this being,” and another reports, “I felt someone was carrying me very lovingly–an unconditional love.”

Is this what our children know about us? Do they get that we love them and understand them, and accept them as they are? Is this what my kids feel about me?

When my oldest son was about 5, he reported to us, “You don’t love me like you did when I was first born.” And he was right. As he grew, love became subtly more conditional and based on his behavior, less and less freely given.

The priority of showing love to our children seems obvious, but it counters the popular wisdom about kids. We’re told, and often believe, that the most pressing thing they need from parents is discipline. They need not to be one of those kids that cause the problems.

But it’s acceptance, understanding, love and mentoring that help children grow up well. It’s not time-outs or losing video game time or even feeling cold at school because she forgot her jacket–again.

One NDEer recalls, “I understood the major superior being of love to be God, and I sensed God’s love for me and for all….I sensed that we are all on a path to that love and to God.”

Parents are on the path to learn how to turn our hearts to our own children (Mal. 4:6; Luke 1:17), to see from their perspective, to have empathy, and then to gently help them grow into all they can become. We are not on a path to learn to control their behavior.

She Doesn’t Condemn

The second helpful parenting wisdom I learned from NDEers is that God is fundamentally forgiveness. She doesn’t judge or condemn us. We judge ourselves. Another NDEer says, “The Light also knows everything that I’ve ever done and will do but loves me unconditionally….There is no fear, no judgment, punishment, blame, or shame. No ledger of good and bad deeds. Only warmth, peace, joy, happiness, forgiveness, and love in the Light.”

Most say they do review their lives with God, but God doesn’t stand beside them with condemnation. Instead, others’ perspectives become more obvious than they were, such as how someone we hurt felt when we hurt them.

How painful will it be to feel the exact emotions our kids felt when we punished them or threatened them or sent them to their rooms? And to realize they learned nothing but to mistrust us and to put up barriers between themselves and us? Feeling those feelings now through empathy, and remembering our own most painful moments as children, may help us stop hurtful acts that we normalized as child discipline.

Quantum Energy Requires Respect

The third NDEer-truth we can apply to parenting is that we are all made of the same stuff, all connected in love and sibling-hood. As one NDEer says, “I also had this knowing that the essence or spark of the Highest is in everything–every mineral, vegetable, animal, and human.”

For parents, that means we should see our children as fellow human beings first, with differing needs based on development. But basically deserving all the respect (if not freedom) we would give an adult friend.

We wouldn’t say to our BFF in the typical nasty tone we reserve for our kids, “How many times do I have to tell you, take your shoes off at the door?” No way. We’d have no more BFF.

Our kids feel the same way, but they can’t get rid of us. They’re powerless when it comes to enduring disrespect from us. And eventually, they come to feel, deep down, that they are bad. That they deserve our negative voice tones and many corrections throughout the day.

And later, as teens, they realize that we’re the ones at fault and get angry and shut down. We start to lose them, sometimes permanently. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Made in Her Image

When we want to become better parents, we can draw our inspiration from Mother God. She loves us (John 3:16), She doesn’t condemn us (John 3:17), and She sees our value and respects us (Gen. 1:31; John 10:34), no matter our age.

She’s the Mother we always wanted. And, made in Her image, we can become more and more like Her.