What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

Archive Tag:gender-neutral 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 have been reading translations that avoid the title, Lord, leading me to think more objectively about it. Is Lord 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Gender-Neutral Language Is Not Enough

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, my Sunday School theology tells me 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.

It’s true that language around gender is changing, thanks to the insights given by the LGBTQ community. However, we don’t really have a way to relate to a person who is a Spirit without also referring to that person with a gendered pronoun. (We could call Her “They” but that would evoke all kinds of theological broohaha). And 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 yet Biblically-rooted stand that God can be 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.