What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

Category Archives:Language for God

We Love to Call Him Lord–But Why?

Lord has always been one of my favorite names for God. But as a part of The Mother God Experiment, I read translations that avoid the title, Lord. I began to think more objectively about it. Is Lord is a helpful and truly Biblical way to speak of God in the 21st century?

No More Lords and Ladies

It’s not just that Lord means something that no longer applies to our common culture among most English speakers. We don’t have a feudal system, and lords aren’t a part of our economic life. (The term is likely used more often by Brits, but still.)

It’s that Lord focuses narrowly on power, authority and rulership. And white power at that. A lord is always going to be caucasian (and upper class) in our image-banks.

Synonyms for lord from Oxforddictionaries.com include: magnate, tycoon, mogul, captain, baron, king, industrialist, proprietor, big shot, and (head) honcho. Those word make me think of Donald Trump. Is God simply someone extremely powerful and privileged, to be feared and obeyed? And do power-titles lead us to a better relationship with God or do we stand back a bit when we hear them?

The word is also intrinsically male, focusing on male power in particular. How do I know this about Lord describing a male? When I whip out the counterpart term Lady as a term for God, every one drops their powdered wig.

But Ladies had power, too, in the Middle Ages. (See my Lady God post here). The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament refers to God as The Lady at times. And it’s a real mind-blower, but in a healthy way. It has helped me finally get a realistic hold on how antiquated and male-centered Lord is. We need some re-education.

Why Do We Call God the Lord?

We tend to believe that the title Lord leaped from the pages of the Bible. But the original languages reveal some important truths about God that translators have missed. The Old Testament writers refer to God as Yahweh 6087 times! It’s the predominant way of speaking of God.

Yahweh provides the foundation of our pre-Jesus understanding of God, having its roots in God’s own revelation of Herself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Many have opinions on the translation, but ultimately the title Yahweh relates to primordial being: “I am who I am” and/or “I will be who I will be.”

The name Yahweh is not male-authority based. It is God-based.

Similarly, Elohim is the plural of El (god) and is most basically translated “God” or “gods.” Elohim appears 2340 times.

Finally, Adonai is used for God only 428 times. This term does mean “lord.” But throughout the Old Testament, English-speaking translators use “Lord” for Yahweh (though often in all caps: LORD, as my friend JoMae reminded me), and not only for Adonai. So the overwhelming feeling an English speaker has is that God’s primary, most revelatory name is Lord. But God has actually shown Herself through a name referring to foundational Being and Presence and not to male-only authority.

But What About Jesus?

Kyrios is Greek for “mister” and referred to the head of the household in Classical Athens. It appears 740 times in the New Testament. It was a natural Greek substitute for Adonai, which Jewish people have used to avoid speaking out loud the holy name of Yahweh.

Jesus preferred Human One (traditionally translated Son of Man) to speak of Himself. Indeed, he came as a servant to humanity (Luke 22:7) and called His followers His friends (John 15:15). He uses Kyrios sparingly–once to explain that “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5), and another time to speak about the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 7:21). He actually challenges those who call Him Kyrie (the vocative tense of Kyrios), but who do not do what He says (Luke 6:46), and implicitly warns that both the goats and the sheep call Him “Lord” but that their actions differentiate them (Matt. 25:31-46). And Jesus shockingly identified with Yahweh when He said, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

Nonetheless as Christians, when we say “Jesus is Lord” we are making an important statement of faith that Jesus is more than human. Jesus as Kyrios (the head, the leader, the master) was fundamental for the early Christians developing their theology, despite the fact that Jesus rarely called Himself this.

But there are other ways to say the same thing that do not use “Lord.” The introduction of The Inclusive Bible agrees:

The title ‘Lord,’ especially when it refers to Jesus, is hard to replace because it is confessional–that is, to call Jesus Lord is to both recognize in him a divinity and to make a commitment to him. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess, for example, Caesar is not Lord. To avoid sexist and classist connotations, we use substitutes for Lord that are meaningful in our own confession of Jesus, such as Sovereign, Savior and Jesus Reigns.

Even with the centrality of declaring Jesus as God, we do not have to use the English word Lord. Jesus is no longer a human male walking the earth, though His humanity mattered to Jesus. (His maleness did not seem important, however).

Jesus is Spirit. We may confess Christ’s divinity, and our commitment to do what Jesus says, without needing to emphasize gender.

El Shaddai

El Shaddai is one of seven titles for God that modern Jews continue to revere by never saying the names out loud. It refers to God only seven times in the Old Testament (but 48 times as Shaddai alone).

El means “God” but “Shaddai” is up for debate. English translators again always choose a power-title, God Almighty. However, the Hebrew root “shad” means breast, with the ending “ai” indicating two breasts.

Often when I see an article on feminine language for God, the writer will say that it’s “rare” or “unusual” for God to be referred to in feminine terms. But that’s not true, when one takes time to really notice every verse (go to my page for the evidence). An explicitly feminine title for God therefore seems reasonable.

One could take a risk and call God “The Two-Breasted One” sometimes. But as a more comfortable alternative, using the title Mother for God is one way to refer to God in English that avoids masculine power-centered words but has Biblical roots.

Moving Beyond Lord to Servant

The ineffable God is not attached to our antiquated words for Her. She sent Jesus to reveal a new definition of power, one that is about servanthood and love rather than “lord[ing] it over” others (Mt. 20:25).

It will take some courage, but we can leave “Lord” behind as our primary way of thinking about God. And we will have a clearer vision of God if we do.

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing Your Church to God as Mother

Church isn’t easy. There’s a lot to disagree about within Christianity, and within American (or Canadian, or your own country’s) politics. But still, some of you–pastors, leaders, lay leaders, and church members–will find that’s it’s worth it to take some risks to bring feminine language for God into church services.

You are the ones who know that to be completely supportive of women, we need to acknowledge the image of women within the Godhead. This starts with the words we use to describe God. To fully affirm that God made women in Her image, we must begin to change from worshiping an exclusively masculine god to an Invisible God who welcomes both male and female metaphors and pronouns to describe God.

If you are ready to begin the task of introducing your church to feminine language for God, here’s where to start:

One) Begin using it in your own prayer life.

This didn’t happen for me until I made up my mind to do my one-person experiment. I only used devotional books and Bibles that used feminine language for God until it started to get more comfortable to call God “Mother.”

I continue to use these helpful resources during my time with God:

Swallow’s Nest: a Feminine Reading of the Psalms by Marchienne Vroon Rienstra

The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament by The Christian Godde Project 

The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation by Priests for Equality

Two) Do a teaching or sermon series on the Biblical basis for feminine language for God.

There are many obvious references to God as mother in the Old Testament and some in the New. I used to stumble over the argument that God is a father but only like a mother. Recently I re-read the mother verses and discovered that most of the time the Old Testament writers use mother as a metaphor. In fact, often God is speaking in the first person as a mother (See my post here). Jesus himself uses mothering as an implied metaphor when he says, “Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).

It’s amazing what you and your congregation will discover as you unpack these verses that affirm the feminine within God.

Three) Discuss and introduce hymns that have inclusive language and feminine language for God.

It is often the lyrics to our hymns and worship songs that create sexist barriers and block full participation by egalitarians. Getting past the first few songs in a service can be a challenge with so many references to God as male, or to the “brotherhood of believers” or to being “sons of God.” Yet, great resources exist for bringing healing to women and men through music:

–Jann Aldredge Clanton’s hymn and worship song compilations.

–“5 Tips and Tricks for Being Gender-Inclusive in Worshipby Rev. Wesley Spears Newsome

–This great article for general guidelines for selecting inclusive hymns: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/making-hymns-inclusive.

Four) Occasionally, use “She” as a pronoun for God, and refer to God as Mother in prayer.

Expect push-back. And keep going. Rev. Paul R. Smith, author of Is It Okay to Call God Mother? Considering the Feminine Face of God, says when he refers to God as “She” members of his congregation tend to laugh or giggle. Eventually, your congregants will understand that it’s not a joke, and will start to get comfortable with the fact that the God who is a non-physical person will sometimes be “He” and sometimes be “She.” Check out Paul Smith’s amazing book as a possible resource as you respond to complaints and questions. A scholarly work to refer to is Dr. Timothy Bulkeley’s book, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible and Christian Tradition.

Five) If you are in a liturgical setting, alternate the use of “Father” and “Mother” in liturgies sometimes. 

One of my first breakthroughs in being able to call God Mother was during my husband’s home church services, where we alternated Father and Mother in the liturgy. Saying “Mother” out loud, and even better, “Mother Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” helped affirm to me that it really is okay to call God Mother.

Someone I knew balked at the term “Mother Almighty,” because in his mind “mother” could never be “almighty.” But that’s exactly the problem that we are trying to solve with changes in the language we use for God in church and society.

With the help of these new words for God, someday the church may see what God sees: the strength of women, who are made in the image of the Almighty God (Gen. 1:27).

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Why Gender-Neutral Language Is Not Enough

Why Not Just Stop Calling God Father?

God is spirit, Jesus told Photina, the woman at the well, in John 4:24. I’ve been reading snippets of Near Death Experiences, and consistently, people agree that God is spirit, electric with light and love. Not human, not male, not female. So why do we need to call God Mother? Why not just do away with Father and all the other masculine language for God, including masculine pronouns, and call God, “God”?

“I Hear The Word ‘God’…as Male”

Lauren Winner, author of the excellent Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, addresses the masculine-God-language problem by mostly avoiding gendered pronouns and nouns. She writes: “About four years ago, I made a conscious decision to try to set aside third-person singular pronouns for God, except when they appeared in prayers and hymns written by someone else or scripture translated by someone else.” That “except” would mean she would not be setting masculine pronouns aside very often.

However, she says this small act of curbing her own speech heightened her awareness of how her “community’s prayers, hymns, and sermons are saturated with masculine language.” She also noticed that “I tend to hear the word ‘God’ not as somehow beyond gender or as betokening the diversity of divine life; rather, I hear it as male.”

Winner almost thinks out loud in her book, as she suggests that the “antidote to this formation is…to sometimes use feminine pronouns and sometimes masculine pronouns.” It’s uncomfortable for her, she admits, but she tries it out now and again in her book, because she believes “the uncomforting is holy and blessed.” Good for her! Enduring the discomfort is the first step in changing the male God image to become female, too.

Like Winner’s gradual and subtle conclusion to her “Short Note on Gender and Language for God,” I, too, think there are good reasons for why we humans can’t keep God unbound by gender, despite the fact that She is a spirit.

The Personhood of the Trinity

First, God is a person. For example, Sunday School theology tells us not to call the Spirit an It, but rather a He, though it’s tempting because the Spirit seems neuter. And the basic reason we use a personal pronoun is that God is a person not a thing. And persons have a sexual distinction.

We don’t have a way to relate to a person who is a Spirit without also referring to that person with a gendered pronoun. Even if we manage to say God and Godself several times in a row instead of saying He or Him, the echo of the masculine pronouns we have always used speaks of an ancient man behind the scenes, like the Wizard of Oz behind the big voice and curtain.

We Reflect God

Secondly, sexed people reflect God. (And I am differentiating here between having a sex, which is the mechanics of being a woman or man that lead to differences, and having gender, which is all the societal stuff we take on making all girls like pink and fluffy stuff and all boys prefer blue and mud.) The author of Genesis (1:27) tells us that men and women alike are made in God’s image. God didn’t have to create a man and a woman. She could have found another way. The two sexes inform us of Her very being.

Bringing Down a False God

Third, we’ve already made God thoroughly male (and white, but that’s another post). It’s simply too late to neutralize the word, God. Thousands of years, and most religions, give God a basic masculine identity. It’s time to chip away at that false image, that false God. We have simply got it wrong about God. Jesus’ appearance on the scene was, in part, supposed to enlighten us to the feminine within God, but we didn’t get it.

It’s only taking the uncomfortable, unpopular stand that God can be a She, God can be Mother, or any number of feminine metaphors, that will begin to pull down our false male God and put up the True One before us, the one who is represented well by both female and male.