In my previous post I introduced one of the issues modern theology has sought to address: the predominantly masculine language and imagery for God that Scripture and tradition has handed us. As western culture has sought to display greater sensitivity and inclusiveness toward women, the language used when speaking about God has also undergone somewhat of a shift in many circles. While its more radical versions have resulted in some expressions of the faith that can hardly be called orthodox by any traditional standard, most modern theology has sought to find a middle way. This middle way attempts to communicate as clearly as possible that God is not male or female in a biological sense, while avoiding creating the implicit assumption that God is more male than female.
For the record, I am not entirely opposed to this moderate position on every level. I do believe that we must be clear that God is neither male nor female in a purely biological sense. I think we also should not shy away from the variety of metaphors used for God in Scripture. The image of God in human beings involves both maleness and femaleness. In Christ, any sort of hierarchy of the sexes is done away with, as Paul says (Galatians 3:28).
Still, I want to consider why Scripture tends to use the masculine in the way it presents God, namely as Father. While I can understand the hesitancy some people feel toward this language, I believe that when properly understood, it is not as problematic as the spirit of the age suggests. My thinking on this is still partial, but for now, I understand the masculine language for God as part of the way Scripture 1) aims to reveal God’s “otherness” from humankind, and 2) helps us frame ourselves in relationship to the people of God in the world.
The Bible reveals God to be fully independent of creation and wholly “other” from us, yet still intimately involved with us. God is the originator of all that exists, and through his Word (the Logos), all things come into being (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1). When God reveals himself to Moses on the mountain, he is revealed not as a God that can be found in nature or depicted with natural imagery, but as “I am who I am/I will be who I will be” (Exodus 3:14). God’s relationship with his creation is independent, and for that reason, any relationship it has with him depends on God initiating the relationship first.
I believe this truth about God is at the root of the predominantly masculine language about God in Scripture. I do not think it is merely the reflection of the patriarchal culture the human authors of Scripture were products of (though at the same time I do recognize that Scripture has been misused in various ways to deny women their full place in the church and culture. That is something we need to repent of).
The culture in which God revealed himself, both to Israel and in Jesus, was not averse to the idea of female deities. The Babylonians, Greeks, Canaanites, Egyptians, and Romans all had deities that were female and played highly important roles in the way they viewed the world. It doesn’t make much sense to suppose that the Israelites simply had an aversion to the idea of God having some feminine principle, because it was everywhere in their world.
The fact that God reveals himself as completely “other” from humankind and creation yet desires intimate relationship, does make masculine imagery for such a God more helpful in maintaining this creator-creature distinction. The reason for this is because, ideally, that is the way fathers relate to their children in human culture.
The relationship that a child has with its mother is much more intimate on many levels than with the father. The child grows in its mother’s womb, is nurtured by her own biological systems, and is reliant on the milk her body produces for quite a while after birth. I have heard that it takes several months before an infant can even conceive of itself as separate from the mother. The bond of intimacy is just there, biologically, and psychologically.
With the father, however, the bond must be made of the father’s own free will. The father has an essential part in the origination of the child, but the father really has no absolutely essential biological responsibility to the child after the initial procreative act. The relationship of intimacy and love between a father and child depends on the father’s willingness to take the responsibility to create that bond with his child.
When we understand God as the one who is the originator of us and also the one who freely chooses to love and be in intimate relationship with us, that makes the masculine language for God a bit less problematic. In fact, it can be quite helpful. God’s rule over creation and his people is the ideal “patriarchy” (Father-rule) in a very technical (not oppressive) sense. God’s free, self-initiating love for people is the ideal picture of what every human father should strive for.
Us and the Church
The Father/patriarchal imagery for God is complemented in Scripture with the imagery of Israel and the church as God’s bride. For example, Song of Songs has a long history of interpretation in both Judaism and Christianity as an allegory of God’s love for Israel or the Church. The gospels, Paul, and John regularly make use of the imagery of the people of God (the church) in the language of a bride.
This can help us, I believe, understand the importance of the church for us. It is more common for Catholics to speak of the church in the language of our “mother,” but I believe that this imagery is actually very helpful for Protestants who generally have a very loose view of the church’s importance.
The church, the bride of Christ, is our mother in the sense that it is where we are nourished in the faith, corrected, and taught how to live as the kinds of people God made us to be. In baptism, we are sealed as God’s people using the outward sign of water. This is a physical sign of the inward reality of being “born again,” and this is an act that requires the church (one cannot baptize oneself!).
Of course, the church (the bride) is made up of us, collectively. As individuals, however, I believe the imagery of the church as mother is quite helpful.
I would conclude this by noting that it is important to recognize that these images are utilized to convey the idea of God’s intimacy to us and our place in God’s people (the church). The failures and sins of earthly fathers and mothers understandably make it very difficult for many people to think of God as a good Father, or the people of God as a mother. Indeed, for a lot of people, the behavior of the church is often bad enough to never associate it with anything positive!
That is why it is important to remember that this imagery is a form of divine accommodation to what we can understand. The infinite God has to use finite concepts and human language to reveal himself to us, his finite creatures.
Rather than being an exaltation of maleness as more divine than femaleness, the language of paternal intimacy is a highly effective way of simultaneously relating both God’s otherness and his love for human beings. This imagery does not legitimate patriarchy in an oppressive sense, but, understood correctly, actually challenges it and subverts it to look like the God who loves the creation that is made by, yet separate from him.