If God is Father, is God also Mother? The Syntax of Gender in Speaking about God

By The Venerable Dr. Christopher Brown

Aleta was the saxophone player’s girlfriend. She studied Marxist critical theory at Smith College, and traveled around Western Massachusetts with our jazz fusion band as we drove to gigs at the local colleges.

That was how I first heard of the seminal feminist theologian, Mary Daly. Aleta sat in the backseat of the station wagon, reading Mary Daly’s book, Beyond God the Father, and gleefully sharing choice passages aloud whether we were interested or not. Raised in a conservative Lutheran household, she was exhilarated by Mary Daly’s stinging indictment of “patriarchy” and its claim of an irredeemable male bias in Christianity.

A year later, when I became a believer, I came across Beyond God the Father in a bookstore. I took it home and read it. By the time I finished the book, my newfound faith was badly shaken. I thought, “If Christianity is this oppressive to women, I guess I can’t be a Christian after all.” In the end, I muddled through. I didn’t have an answer to Mary Daly’s brilliant diatribe against Christianity, but I wasn’t prepared to give up what I had come to recognize as “a pearl of great price.”

For Mary Daly, the issue was not simply that the Church has treated women as second class citizens. The problem lay in the core conviction of the Christian faith: the nature and character of the God whom Jesus called “Father.” Her indictment can be summed up in a simple formula: “If God is male, then male is God.” Because the Christian God is Father, then God is inescapably masculine, and everything else flows from this fact.

Re-imagining and Revising
Mary Daly’s solution was to abandon Christianity entirely. Others, however, have accepted her axiom, “if God is male, then male is God,” but opted to remain in the Church. Believing there to be a redemptive core that makes Christianity worth holding on to, they have “re-imagined” the Christian faith from the ground up – radically rethinking its basic components. Anything that seems to justify “patriarchy” (the cultural and linguistic structures of male privilege) is systematically removed and replaced. The result, often creative, passionate and incisive, does not always resemble Christianity as it has commonly been understood and practiced over the centuries and into the present.

Others with a more positive regard for Christian tradition, and have sought simply to broaden the range of religious imagery and language to be more gender inclusive. When I was in seminary, we would sift the Scriptures and Christian writings of the past for feminine imagery applied to God – and as we discovered, there is plenty there. Particularly popular was the feminine personification of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, and the invocations of “Jesus, our mother” by the 14th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich.

A key issue has long been the problem of pronouns. Even before I went to seminary in the early eighties, my rector, an Anglo Catholic with a socialist political vision, announced that he was making a conscious effort never to refer to God using the masculine pronoun. From the eighties on it became common during the liturgy for some people emphatically to blurt out, “God” or “God’s” whenever the prayer book indicated masculine pronouns such as “He,” “Him,” or “His.” Over the years such efforts have become institutionalized. When I was in graduate school, it was school policy to prohibit reference to God as “He,” and those who did were scolded.

Inclusive Liturgies in the Episcopal Church
In 1997, the Episcopal Church published a supplement to the Book of Common Prayer, titled Enriching Our Worship. The new liturgies in this book represent a moderate but systematic effort to adjust the use of gender in liturgical language. While the book retains traditional texts such as the Creeds that refer to the “Father,” it seeks to balance these with feminine imagery. Eucharistic prayers couple Abraham with Sarah, they refer to Jesus in gender neutral terms as “the Holy Child of God,” and characterize God as a “mother who cares for her children.”

The new liturgies assiduously avoid the masculine pronoun in referring to God. “Blessed is the One [instead of “He”] who comes in name of the Lord.” Rather than “It is right to give him thanks and praise,” we say, “It is right to give our thanks and praise” or “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” (In all fairness, the 1928 prayer book simply said, “It is meet and right so to do.”) The opening invocation of the Eucharist, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy...and blessed be his Kingdom now and forever” gives way to, “Blessed be the one, holy, and
living God…Glory to God for ever and ever.”

This last example points to a more profound adjustment: the avoidance of the Trinitarian formula, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” In the Daily Office, instead of concluding the psalms with “Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…,” the congregation says, “Praise to the holy and undivided Trinity, one God...” Similarly, final Eucharistic blessings substitute alternative terms for “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” such as:

Holy eternal Majesty, Holy incarnate Word, Holy abiding Spirit, Bless you for evermore. Amen.

May the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jesus Christ born of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

These liturgies are now in use in many churches. They represent the future of prayer book revision in the Episcopal Church. They strive for a typically Anglican in balance of the new and the old, and retain a traditional liturgical shape and feel. There are those who would say that nothing of substance has been changed except that the language has become more inclusive. But is this really true?

I do not think that these changes are only mild adjustments. The more radical critics who strive openly to “re-imagine” Christianity from the ground up are the more truthful and discerning. Such changes are a departure from a scriptural syntax of language and image by which we are drawn into fellowship with the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. Though motivated by an admirable commitment to justice, the entire project – in both its milder and more radical forms – is misconceived. This is due to an unquestioned acceptance of Mary Daly’s formula, “If God is male, then Male is God.”

God and the Character of Religious Language
God is not Male. God does not have gender; gender is part of the created order. The challenge is that God is personal. To speak of God, we make use of the analogy of personhood as it is derived from our experience. And in our experience, persons have gender. To simply “neuter” God is a non-starter, since in everyday experience, an “it” is always far less than a person. The question is, must we privilege masculine language for God or should we broaden our discourse to include the feminine? For many, the answer is obvious: “Of course! It is a matter of justice.”

But in the first place it is a matter of language. And in our use of language about God, we are constrained by the holiness of God – God’s character as “set apart” and “other,” as mysterious and transcendent. God is not located within the sphere of human comprehension and manipulation. For us to know God, God has to come to us. God has to reveal himself to us – which God has done within prophetical utterance in Scripture, and in a human person named Jesus of Nazareth.

Hence we use what we have been given. We are not actually free to “re-imagine” new imagery for God that is more pleasing to us. There is, of course, plenty of this sort of thing in the Bible, but it is condemned as “idolatry.”

What we can do, is to use what we have been given in Scripture more broadly. It is entirely fitting to employ biblical feminine imagery to broaden our understanding of the nature of God. Yet, rich and compelling as these images are, they remain somewhat circumscribed, functioning descriptively rather than used to identify or name God in a formal sense. The biblical God is never confused with the mother goddesses so prevalent among the fertility cults of Israel’s pagan neighbors.

The Father of Jesus
We call God, “Father,” because Jesus called God, “Father,” and invites us to do the same. Jesus brings us into the same intimacy he enjoys with God. As one who is “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father. We are not “in the form of God,” but we, nevertheless, become what he is – sons (and daughters) of the Father – by adoption. St. Paul tells us, “God sent forth his Son…that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). As a result, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, “Abba, Father.”

Can we affirm our divine adoption in Jesus without privileging the use of male language? Can we say the same thing with neutral terms such as “parent” and “child?” Actually, no. Not quite. Such neutral terms, become abstractions and generalities. By contrast when Jesus calls God, “Father,” he is being personal and specific. Jesus’ use of “Father” is part of a syntax of familial language that runs through Scripture. Jesus is the Son of the Father, who in turn is also Father of Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 11:1). Through Jesus, we are adopted as sons, and share in the “Spirit of Sonship,” becoming “fellow heirs” – that is, “part of the family.”

This interweaving of familial language also includes nuptial imagery in which Israel is betrothed to God, who becomes her husband as a result of his Covenant. The prophets repeatedly denounce Israel’s proclivity to pagan idolatry as marital infidelity. Hence, in Jeremiah 31:32, God speaks of “my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband.”

The New Testament extends this nuptial typology to the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Church. In the Revelation 21:1, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Human marriage says Paul, reflects the relationship of Christ to the church, in which, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” It is also worth noting that the sacrificial self-giving of Christ in this relationship is the ultimate counter factual to the claim that the ascription of masculine imagery to God is inherently oppressive to women.

If we are to be related to the God who reveals himself in Jesus, we must inhabit the linguistic syntax in which God has made himself known. That language has a certain fluidity. Father – Son, Husband – Wife, Bride – Bridegroom all intertwine in a way that only makes sense if they are understood analogically. In this way, Scripture provides a collation of “mixed metaphors” that work together to configure the divine – human relationship, as well as inner three-fold relations of the persons of the Trinity.

This scriptural language is not unvaryingly masculine. There is feminine language in Scripture. It consists mainly of evocative similes that enrich our understanding of the nature of God. The reason modern liturgies that press this language relentlessly into the foreground seem awkward and forced is because feminine language in Scripture generally functions on a secondary descriptive level; it is never the language of direct address. But it is sufficient to remind us that God is not actually “male.” To privilege the language of Fatherhood of God is thus not to denigrate the feminine or to keep women down. Only an ideologically inflected literalism would object to it as such. Rather, the primacy of the term, “Father” in speaking of God is grounded in the actuality of Jesus’ relationship with the Father, and lies at the center of a linguistic scriptural syntax by which a transcendent God reveals himself and becomes incarnate in time and space.

Published in the May 2011 issue of The Albany Episopalian

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