God our Mother?

Can we talk about God being our mother? Can we use feminine pronouns to refer to God? Is there advantage in doing so, and what might the dangers be? This issue is currently making the news, with reports of calls for the Church of England’s liturgy to be altered to reflect this set of ideas.

As reported fairly widely in the press, members of WATCH (an influential Church of England pressure group) have recently argued that the liturgy needs updating to include more feminine imagery and the use of female pronouns because:

Orthodox theology says all human beings are made in the image of God, that God does not have a gender. He encompasses gender – he is both male and female and beyond male and female. So when we only speak of God in the male form, that’s actually giving us a deficient understanding of who God is.

As I blogged a few years ago, God is beyond gender and we need to realise this and get on with the adventure of discovering more about God and his plans for us. Writing on the Guardian’s website, Kate Bottley made the same sort of point (although she said it better than I did!):

We cannot describe the indescribable and for me that’s what it’s like when we try to use human language to describe God.

God is not a woman. And God is not a man. God is God. But we can only describe God in the terms we can easily comprehend, comparing God to something we know better.

I do want to take issue with one bit of Kate’s excellent article though. She writes:

the debate about gender-specific pronouns for the Divine is as dated as a fondue set and flares

julian-of-norwichHistoric use
Really, it’s about as out of date as kirtles, or doublet and hose. Julian of Norwich, writing in the 14th century in her widely influential book Revelations of Divine Love has quite a lot to say about God as mother. Writing in chapter 58, she talks about “our mother Christ” and says:

I understood that the high Might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great Love of the Trinity is our Lord

And in chapter 59, she talks about “Jesus Christ that doeth good against evil is our Very Mother” and concludes:

I understood three manners of beholding of Motherhood in God: the first is grounded in our Nature’s making; the second is taking of our nature,— and there beginneth the Motherhood of Grace; the third is Motherhood of working,—and therein is a forthspreading by the same Grace, of length and breadth and height and of deepness without end.

Actually, it’s even older than that (as out-of-date as togas?). Writing for the BBC, Stephen Tomkins notes that in the 3rd century a Syrian church referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘she’, quotes the mediaeval theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, praying to “Christ, my mother” and referring to God “the great mother”, and also quotes the Church Father, John Chrysostom calling Christ our “friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother”.

Biblical imagery
This isn’t really a surprise, because the Bible uses feminine imagery for God as well. And here it’s probably worth pausing to note that using the terms ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are deeply problematic anyway. Gender (unlike our biological sex) is not fixed, but is socially constructed. All sorts of social expectations are imposed on us, as for example, whether it is feminine to speak in public (which the Romans thought it wasn’t).

The Bible uses the feminine word ‘Wisdom’ to describe aspects of the righteous life and of God’s actions. Proverbs 3:13-14 (NIV) says:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.

Which then goes on to say (3:19), in ways which echo how John’s Gospel talks about Jesus the Word,:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
    by understanding he set the heavens in place

The Spirit is also a feminine noun in the Old Testament, although as all nouns are gendered in Hebrew it’s arguable about how much to read into this. But, there is also direct feminine imagery as well. Deuteronomy 32:18 put masculine and feminine imagery in parallel:

You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
    you forgot the God who gave you birth.

Isaiah 66:13 uses maternal imagery:

As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you;
    and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.

Jesus picks up this imagery and expands it (Luke 13:34):

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

The evangelical theologian, Roger Olson has written about how to make use of this imagery. He argues against “fully inclusive language”, and “abandoning language of God as Father.” I’m not sure what he means by the former, but I’d certainly agree with him that we shouldn’t abandon describing God as Our Father. However, I don’t think that’s what most people who argue for these sort of changes want. It’s much more about supplementing and expanding the imagery that is used, not removing the imagery that we already use. Olson argues that:

Addressing God as “Our Mother” raises the specter of pantheism as theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier never tired of pointing out. It points toward our being literally born out of God’s own being and therefore sharing in God’s substance.

However suggests that we could use: “Our Father who is also like a Mother to us….” (which is what Deuteronomy 32:18 essentially does). But then, he goes much further. He picks up on the use of the feminine in the Old Testament to describe the Spirit and argues:

So is it appropriate to address God as Mother and refer to God as “She” and “Her?” Yes—when we are thinking specifically of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

Olson explains (as we’ve already noted) that God is neither literally male nor female and certainly not both! Therefore, he says:

let me affirm that, yes, God is our Mother. The Holy Spirit gives us new life, the beginning of deification (partial participation in the divine nature), and sustains and nurtures us in the way of Jesus Christ. She is our Advocate and Helper and the One who makes Jesus Christ especially, intimately present among us and within us. She is our Holy Mother along with Our Holy Father and Holy Savior, Brother and Friend, Jesus.

Olson concludes with this Trinitarian understanding of who God is:

God in Three Persons—Father-Creator-Provider, Savior-Son-Friend Jesus, and Mother-New Life Giver-Holy Spirit—Blessed Trinity.

However, many people still disagree. For example, Ian Paul argues that:

If we think the language of God as ‘father’ is inadequate and needs to be replaced, then we are suggesting that Jesus was not merely located in first century Jewish culture, but also trapped in its inadequacies.

But, as I’ve already said, this isn’t really about replacing imagery. Augmenting, enhancing, expanding and extending, but not replacing. And, if that argument was taken to its logical conclusion, then I’m not sure how we can make use of that most central metaphor, The Trinity, given that it is not directly found in the Bible (yes, there is language that we identify as trinitarian, yes, the doctrine is clearly implicit, but it isn’t actually named, as is evidenced by the time it took for theologians to wrestle through their understanding of it). Ian Paul goes on to argue that:

it is through our language that God has chosen to express the truth about who God is. So it might not be ideal, but God has said it is enough. Yet it is only enough if we recognise its limits. The use of metaphor to describe God is a distinctive feature of Christian theology, since metaphor constantly says to us that this language can communicate—but don’t think that by doing so, you have mastered God.

Donovan bookAgain, I think that it doesn’t take much pushing of this argument to see it as an argument for removing talk of the Trinity. It certainly is a direct critique of, for example, Vincent Donovan’s work among the Masai (discussed in the classic book Christianity Rediscovered), which talks about the importance of translating metaphors into ones that work in the cultural context. Incidentally, Donovan also reports (chapter 4) that the Masai:

were a bit incredulous to learn, that, for all practical purposes, we leave the female out of God, and we consider him as only male, which is, of course as patently wrong as considering God only female. God is neither male nor female … If the Masai wanted to refer to God as she as well as he, I could certainly find nothing theologically incorrect about the notion.

I also disagree with Ian Paul that restricting our language to a particular range of metaphors is the best way of demonstrating that our language has failed to master God.

In short
I think that a clearer demonstration that we have failed to grasp all there is to grasp about the God who has revealed himself to us, is to use a wide range of metaphors (rooted and grounded in the Biblical revelation, as feminine imagery and imagery of God as mother is), to encourage us to continue to explore God’s love for us and call on our life. That way, we will be reminded more clearly that each of these metaphors is only a partial and incomplete glimpse into the majesty and mystery of the God who loves us so much that she invites us on the adventure of discovering more about her.


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