What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

Category Archives:Images of God

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 uses the metaphor with a motherly action of God. Other times, God takes the first person voice through the prophet, 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.

 

 

 

Flying High with God as Mother

Trusting Mother God more is helping me to take risks. I spent time on the Facebook group, Portland Autism Moms, today. One thread was about flying with kids with ASD. Marshall is scared to fly. Anxiety precedes agitation for him and a lot of his peers. The anxiety could unfold into all kinds of melt-down scenarios in a busy airport or stuffed plane. So, we haven’t been out of Oregon since I was pregnant with Marshall.

Every mom who responded has lots of backups when she flies—electronics, new toys, candy, etc. One woman writes a little explanatory message along with a bag of candy, and hands it out to passengers. She also asks for people’s help. The mom said people really respond well to that. They want to help.

Also, a mom said she always flies JetBlue. They have a program in various cities where kids with ASD can get used to flying in a simulated environment. The pilots and stewardesses/stewards receive training to understand and respond well to our kids.

So, we could fly JetBlue to Buffalo and then drive to Toronto to see Joel’s family, finally.

I could choose to see randomly checking out Portland Autism Moms as a coincidence. Or I can see it as encouragement from Mother God. Go ahead: take a risk. Fly. And let this trip be the first of many.

Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way that we would all find it easier to have God not exist. God’s existence means She does respond to our prayers. Answers to prayer make us responsible to do something when our prayers are answered. This is scary. But it is scarier to hold back.

Life is about trusting God. And when I think about trust, and God, when I throw “Mother” in there, I can do it. Mother is near—she doesn’t leave. For some people whose mother did leave due to death or abandonment, or become untrustworthy due to abuse, it may be God as Grandmother, Auntie, Sister, Daddy, Father or Foster Mother that makes the most sense. Or maybe, as in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, God needs to be identified with an animal: a lion or a dog (like the funny bumper sticker, Dog is My Co-Pilot).

Whoever has been faithful to love us when we were young or vulnerable is the most reliable metaphor or set of metaphors for God. As often as not, I wrongly think that God, even God the Father, wants to take something good away from me for God’s own good and glory, instead of bless me for the sake of love. But Mother God is the Giver of all good gifts. She creates love and a desire to glorify Her, through Her giving heart.

For many, this is just akin to blasphemy. That’s why we have to keep actually reading our Bibles. Mother God and Father God are the same God, because God is spirit (John 4:24), neither male nor female. Men and women are made in God’s image, says Genesis 1:27, so doesn’t that say something about the spirit of God including feminine as well as masculine characteristics?

So since calling God “Mother” gives me courage, and helps me journey on in an attitude of trust in God, I am going to keep calling God Mother. And you can, too.

God the Lenient Mom

Yesterday, Marshall wanted to know about his dad’s experiences of being parented as a child in the 1960s. Behaviorism was the norm back then; a lot of kids were expected to do chores on threat of punishment, and spanked or hit for disobedience.

Marshall said, “Is God like that?” His words echoed in the spiritual air.

“No, God is not like that,” I said. “That’s what Jesus came to show: a God who doesn’t condemn, but restores” (e.g. John 3:17).

God doesn’t really fit in today’s parenting climate, either. I guess if Mother God’s actions as a metaphorical parent were analyzed, she’d be labeled as one of those moms, you know, a Lenient Mom. She gives her children all this freedom, and in response, they hurt each other and don’t trust Her.  Mother God gives rules, but complete freedom to reject them. She even gives up the right to judge, allowing Her Son Jesus to do that, at some future date (John 5:22-24). I can’t imagine She’s all that happy with the situation, despite having the end all planned out.

Of course, the big books of theology have God in the category of “Never Takes Celexa” (because God’s emotions, if She has them, don’t affect God, or so the story goes). But I don’t know; some days She’s got to feel discouraged and angry, just like Jesus did about the Pharisees (e.g. Mark 3:5) and the people of Jerusalem (e.g. Matthew 23), and his own followers (e.g. Luke 9:37-56). For example, how could the recent shootings in Florida, or before that, Paris, not affect Her?

They must, yet She refuses to get Her children under control. She is only frustratingly present at all times, in all kinds of suffering. Frustratingly, because She suffers with us, but doesn’t always stop the pain. She nurtures by listening, by giving gentle guidance, by answering prayers in the way we want sometimes, and even bringing healing. She is unrelenting in forgiveness and kindness. We are most likely to feel Her presence through Her followers who reach out hands to help.

She’d get a lot of criticism, I suspect, if she were a human mother. Parenting by proxy?

That’s how God as Father parents, too, of course, but we let fathers get by with more. We expect less.

What do you think? Would you be less lenient, if you were Mother God?


The Lord is my Shepherdess

Margaret Feinberg writes about her time with a shepherdess in Oregon in Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey. I don’t think I’ve ever said the word, shepherdess, out loud. I’ve always assumed shepherds were male.

Turns out, she says, that even the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus were likely women, children or elderly men and women.

In ancient times, says Feinberg, it was the physically weakest members of the family who cared for the flock. They could be spared from the harder household labors. So, we see David as a child tending the sheep (Ps. 78:71), and Rachel is watering the sheep when she meets Jacob (Gen. 29:9,10).

So, could the Lord be my Shepherdess? The more I find out about sheep, the more shepherds and shepherdesses remind me of God as Mother. Sheep are absolutely dependent, like children are. Without a shepherd or shepherdess they will die. They need someone watch over them vigilantly to keep them safe from predators, and to make sure no one is sick. The shepherd/ess must cultivate a trusting relationship with the sheep so that they come when they hear their name, because following the shepherd/ess keeps them safe.

Mothers understand this kind of vigilance and the need for a child to trust her, to listen to her voice, to keep them safe. When Marshall was 2, he was running toward a large area of weeds in a park that looked safe to him, but that I could see led to a drop-off. I shouted from across the park, “Stop!” and he did. He knew my voice, trusted me, and was kept safe.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd is like the good mother keeping her children from want and need, giving them rest and protection, even to the point of laying down her life (John 10:11). It is interesting Jesus gave Himself a role allotted to those considered weak. He has never been afraid to identify with women or children.

When Jesus referred to himself as The Good Shepherd, he warned that there are bad ones, those in religious authority, who do not care for the sheep. We also know there are bad mothers who put their interests above their kids, or who abuse them physically and emotionally. But God created mothers to care and She did a good job. Despite all the talk about keeping it real about motherhood, there is a sense in which many of us cannot not care; and would give anything for our children’s safety and happiness.

We become mothers in a way through the extra doses of love hormones (oxytocin, prolactin) during labor and birth and through breast-feeding. And through the process of adoption. I’d love to know if adopting moms get more oxytocin, too! Someone should do a study.

When we let Love do its stuff we’re gonna be at least good-enough mothers (and if we’re not dealing with the stress of post-partum depression). The hormones that push us to be near our babies will often have the last word, instead of all those parenting books that think its fine if babies are left to cry. If we follow our own instincts, we’re going to comfort our babies, no matter how guilty we feel in the morning for failing to follow some guy’s sleep training program.

Likewise, we need a God who is in touch with us, not one who says, “Oh, let her learn to work out her fear and loneliness by herself. I need a break.” We need one who is present, aware of our needs, and always working to feed us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We need a Shepherdess who sees us as lost without Her, One who knows the sound of our cry even if we have spent more time wandering away than following.

And this is Mother God, our Shepherdess. To learn to hear Her voice is to be carried in loving arms.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Mother knows me and I know the Mother.” John 10:14, DFV

“Do You Trust God?”

When Marshall was 6 years old, we were in a park on one of those many one-off play dates. He hadn’t been diagnosed yet with Asperger’s/ASD, but social things were just not working.

I was standing there, talking to this mother from preschool while Marshall played on his own. A curly-headed little girl, about four years old, walked up to us. She looked up at me and said, “Do you trust God?” Put on the spot, I said, “I try.” And she responded, “I trust God with all my heart,” and walked away.

Well, even back then I’d learned to pay attention to such events, especially when they involved children and God. But it didn’t make me trust God right away. It just reminded me that I had an issue God and this little girl were aware of.

In fact, all my life I have hesitated to trust God. Even when I have heard or felt a message, like “leave this place and go to the next,” like Sarah and Abraham did, I have stood around thinking about it, and refused to decide at all. So I have ended up a spiritual nomad.

I can see now that my image of God was all wrong. My gut feeling was that my best interest was second to God’s. The image of God as Father left me with too few harbors to go for emotional safety. Father God would send me out to sea, endlessly, on some errand of his own design, like he did Jonah.

So I created my harbor in choices which felt safe: not leaving, not taking opportunities, or even not saying a hard, “No.”

With new glimpses of God as Mother, I understand now what the little girl at the park did. I understand how deeply God wants to delight me. How She generously gives opportunities I can grow from, and provides support along the way. She wants me to set sail, but with a strong boat and companions on the way.

I have learned this by the repeated connecting of my own mothering with God’s. What wouldn’t I do to give my own sons a beautiful life? Oh, and ah. This is how God hovers over me, longing and working to create beauty and safety for me. But paradoxically, the safety in life is found in trust, the kind that says, “Yes” and “I will go.”

I wish I’d learned this long ago, but I am grateful to be learning it now. Mother God is a giver, not a taker. Just like the Holy Spirit, the giver of all good gifts (Gal. 5:22-23).

 

The Physical Comfort of Mother God

“Just as God is truly our Father; just so is God also truly our Mother. A mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest. This office no one person has the ability or knows how to or ever will do fully but God alone.”

Julian of Norwich, Swallow’s Nest, p. 227

I am beginning to experience God as Mother God more of the time. Today I got a luxurious twenty minute time to lay down and snuggle down under a warm blanket in the middle of the day. I felt like Mother God was comforting me, caring for me in the same way I would Marshall or Sam. In the past, even when I have reached for Abba/Daddy-God, I have never felt God so concerned about my physical comfort.

Mother God is “ready to serve” as Julian of Norwich said. She waits on us at our bedside.

I want to give Marshall this experience, too. The other day he said he felt unsafe with someone and he said to me, “I wish I could keep you physically near me always, some way we would always stay connected.”

I replied, “So you’d feel protected always.”

I didn’t mention God, Mother God who can actually live in his body, never leaving or abandoning, always tending to him.

Maybe I kept quiet by habit of circumspection. Leaning on Jesus “safe and secure from all alarm” isn’t exactly fool-proof. Our own anxiety or pain can crash and thunder so loud that it seems the realest thing there is, that not even God is bigger.

But Mother God might be bigger, at least what I am experiencing in flashes. The feeling is that this new mother-metaphor is giving me a physical sense that God loves me.

A mother’s love is, well, what I am doing now as I write. My sixteen-month old baby boy is lying across my lap, just having finished comfort-sucking, now deeply asleep, head resting on my upper arm.

I am mother because I am here physically. This is what God is becoming to me as She becomes Mother and not just Father.