Saturday, September 9, 2006

Is It Okay To Call God Mother?

The most recent book I've read is called Is It Okay To Call God "Mother"?  Considering the Feminine Face of God by Paul R. Smith.  This is one of those books that you might feel you have to hide when you take it out in public.  If people see you reading a book with this title they'll probably think you're some sort of a pagan or feminist or tree-hugging liberal type.  Actually, I could probably be accused of at being at least one of those things.  But, that aside, the book brought up some very interesting points that I'd like to share with you.  And, I'd like to encourage you to read the book.  I think it's definitely worth checking out.

The book was written by a pastor who had been in the pastorate for over 30 years at the time of its writing and who has been a Southern Baptist his whole life.  So, a few surprises there.  One- it was written by a man. Two- it wasn't written by a liberal theologian.  And three- it was written by a Southern Baptist- not exactly a denomination known for its progressiveness.  But, Pastor Smith has led (or participated with) his church through several major renewals; just one of which was considering whether it was appropriate to continue to refer to God in exclusively male terms.       

Just the question in the title of the book will be enough to get some people up in arms.  Why even ask the question?  Actually, as I began reading the book, the question that came to my mind was "Is It Important To Call God Mother?"  Let's face it.  It's a deeply, deeply rooted tradition to call God Father and refer to God in exclusively male terms.  Why mess with what works?  If it's not important to call God Mother then the answer to the question as to whether we should call God Mother is "no".  There is no point in making a major change that is bound to cause divisiveness with no good reason.  If you want to privately refer to God as Mother, that's your deal.  But, why should we even consider so radical a change publicly?

I'm going to review/outline the book here (with the hopes you'll read it) and also add my own thoughts on the subject.  Something Pastor Smith said toward the end of the book really struck home with me. That is that we often experience that we need to make a change in our perspective as an intuition first and the rational comes along later.  For me, this is definitely the case.  As I thought about the distance I felt from God a few years ago and really tried to come to grips with God truly loving me and being delighted with me, something just seemed wrong.  One of the things that was was wrong was my hyper-masculine image of God.  I just couldn't picture a hyper-macho God truly delighting in me, loving me, embracing me, me climbing up into His lap.  None of these images worked in my mind.   I got a book called Father's Love Letter which pulls scriptures and arranges them in such a way as to create a love letter from God to us.  It's a great book, which I highly recommend and it did help with some healing.  But, if it has been called Mother's Love Letter it would have helped even more.  I can picture my mother writing me a love letter, I cannot picture my father writing one.

When I started reading the book, a couple of buddies teased me about it.  They both thought I was crazy for even considering such an idea.  "Didn't Jesus call God Father?"  "Is there anything in scripture to back this up?" , etc.  But, when I asked them if they thought God was a man, they said "No".  If you asked people if God has a penis (if you could get up the nerve), they'd say "No".  The point is, we know that God is not corporeal and I think most of us intellectually realize God is not male.  But, since God is personal and since we associate gender with anything personal, we just about exclusively refer to God as male.  This presents some serious problems.  The point of this book (and this post) is not that God is female.  The point is not that God is Mother instead of a Father. The point is that God is not exclusively male and that by referring to Her that way, we are doing ourselves a disservice.  We have an distorted and incomplete view of God that is perpetuated by this practice.

Pastor Smith begins by talking about sexism on Sunday morning.  The faces we see before us (in most churches) are mostly male, if not exclusively male.  The hymns are sung to the Father, King, Master, etc.  All exclusively male terms.  The prayers are to a great big male figure.  Those of us who were raised in the church are so used to this that most of us are blind to it.  But, for those coming in from the outside where women have become more equal to men, this can be an experience that is so uncomfortable that it hinders their ability to worship. The fact that we think of God as male says, unconsciously or consciously, that men are more like God than women.  And, if men are more like God than women and God is the ultimate good, this can only mean one thing.  Men are better than women.  This is a sexist message that has no place in Christianity where there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek.

One powerful and common argument for referring to God as male is the Bible exclusively refers to God as a male.  However, this is not true. There are several (I almost said many- that might be a stretch) feminine images of God in the Bible.  God's Shekinah Glory or Wisdom is referred to in the feminine.  God is compared to a she-bear.  Jesus quotes an Old Testament verse about taking Jerusalem under His wing, as a mother hen would.  We know that when God is referred to as a shield, rock, fortress, tower, etc. these are metaphors.  Why do we assume that when God is referred to as Father, this is a true reflection of God's gender?  Language has changed over the years. First of all, the Bible was written by a patriarchal society.  To refer to God as Mother would have reduced His power and authority because women had none at that time.  Women were considered on the same level as children. They were not considered as reliable witnesses.  They were considered intellectually inferior, unclean and even evil by some.  Despite this (miraculously), we do at least have some feminine images of God.  But, we don't have a lot of them and we shouldn't expect to given the times.  Also, the use of masculine pronouns was, until recently, considered to be inclusive of women. This has changed now though as we have realized how unfair and degrading this is to women.  But, we have not changed this practice when it comes to how we refer to God or even how we refer to each other often.  Women are still largely excluded when it comes to the language in our hymns, our prayers and our Bibles.  Frankly, until I read this book, this would have probably gotten a big "So what?" from me.  But, I now realize this subtle devaluing of women and the feminine has a big impact- not only on women only.  But, also on men.

OK. So maybe it's not a bad idea.  But, is it Biblical?
I know that there are people who wouldn't even consider making such a change unless it's "biblical".  I'm not one of those people.  But, I think it would be silly to ignore that POV.  One of the strongest verses supporting the feminine image of God is found right there at the beginning of the Bible   

Genesis 1:27 says (Young's Literal Translation)
YLT:  And God prepareth the man in His image in the image of God He prepared him, male and female He prepared them.

Go ahead.  Look it up in any translation you like.  This one is hard to screw up.  God created mankind in God's image- male and female.
Another verse that is commonly used to put women in their place has been so abused it's simply amazing.  People say that Adam is in charge and Eve is Adam's helper (kind of like Adam's gopher).  Genesis 2:18 says:
YLT:  And Jehovah God saith,'Not good for the man to be alone, I do make to him an helper--as his counterpart.'
Now, this is a verse that is easily screwed up in the translation;  and  it has been.  The key to understanding it lies in one little word and it's a word that doesn't translate well into English.  The word is Ezer.  Pastor Smith points out that Ezer is used 21 times in Torah (Old Testament). Twice it refers to Eve.  Three times it speaks of crucial help provided by other persons. But, sixteen times it refers to God Herself where God comes to the aid of human beings.  Psalms 70:5 is just one such example.  Ezer is strong helper, even a divine helper- not an inferior one.  God is the Ezer to humanity and Eve is the ezer to Adam.

Another strong Biblical reason for referring to God in the feminine is the word Elohim. This word has puzzled theologians for centuries.  Most Christians say we're strict monotheists (even though Jews and Muslims would disagree).  But, Elohim is a plural word.

There are examples in the Old Testament of the "womb of God".  You can't get more feminine imagery than womb.  Thinking of God as the one who gives me birth rather than as a father makes God seem seem much closer to me.  I think most people would agree there is a bond between a mother and daughter or son that is special because the child literally comes forth out of the mother.  El Shaddai is another term for God that ties to breasts.  God is compared to a nursing mother.  You'll have to get the book for all of the details.  But, Chapter 2 is full of examples of feminine imagery in the Old Testament.  Chapter 3 covers the objection many people give that Jesus called God Father, not Mother.  There were very good reasons why it would have simply been too much for a patriarchal society like Jerusalem was at the time to bear such a radical teaching.  However, Jesus treated women and children with much, much more respect and tenderness than was common at the time.  Jesus Himself said there was much that He had to tell us that we could not bear at the time. We expect the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal things to us.  We no longer use the Bible as an excuse for slavery or racism. Should we continue to use it as an excuse for sexism?

Why It's Important to Call God Mother


Chapter 5 was the Chapter I had been waiting for.  It comes about half way through the book.  As I said earlier, if it's not important to call God Mother, why bother?  There's a great quote from a little girl's letter to God that really struck me, especially since I have two girls:

Dear God,
Are boys better than girls?
I know you are one,
but try to be fair
- Sylvia

I don't know that I need to say a lot more about this.  I think either you'll get it or you won't.  For me, personally though there's an even more pressing reason to call God Mother.  I mentioned earlier that a couple of buddies gave me a hard time about even reading this book. Ironically, both of these guys have issues with their fathers and struggle with knowing (a heart knowing) that God really loves them and God delights in them. I do too.  I wonder if that might be because they project the image of their broken earthly fathers on to their image of Father-God.  I know that is the case with me. A father is stern, compelling, motivating.  But, a father is not loving, tender.  A father's love is conditional.  But, a mother is encouraging, nourishing, tender.  A mother's love is unconditional.  If we had had a more feminine (or balanced) image of God, would we have come up with the doctrine of Eternal Torment?  What mother would throw her children away because they misbehaved?  It's almost unthinkable.
I think for a lot of men, calling God "Father" as a Son has spiritual significance. For men who can picture a great  father/son relationship because of the relationship they had with their dads, this might work OK.  And, if ain't broke, don't fix it.  But, you know what, we already have permission to do that.  How would it be for a woman to have permission to call God Mother as a Daughter?  How huge woud that be?  Or for a man who had a pretty deep father wound (to use Eldredge's terminology) to be able to call God Mother?  I know for me, that brings a whole new level of closeness I could never feel with a father.

I know I'm talking stereotypes here.  There are tender, compassionate 
fathers and there are lousy mothers.  But, we're also stereotyping when 
we project "masculine" traits onto God. We all know God doesn't have a
 body.  We know God doesn't have testicles or a penis.  OTOH, we also know
 God doesn't have breasts or a womb.  But, if we're going to talk about 
the masculine traits of God and the Bible tells us She created humanity
 in Her image- male and female, why do we take such an unbalanced
 approach to talking about God?

One other thought I had after completing the first edition of the article.  Jesus called God Abba.  That can have several meanings in Hebrew from the first thing a child calls a father (like Daddy or Dadda).  I love it when my daughter calls me Dadda even more than when she calls me Daddy) Abba is also people could use for their father right up through adulthood.  But, we don't call God Daddy, we call Him Father.  That's so formal.  As distant as my relationship with my father is/was, at least I called him Daddy and now call him Dad.  What about if we just called God Dad or Daddy every once in a while?  Father seems very cold to me.

Some people think that because Jesus was male, God must be male.  I think this is extremely flawed logic. Jesus had brown hair (probably and spoke Aramaic).  Jesus probably had a beard.  Jesus was a Jew.  We don't attribute any of these traits to God. Jesus, to be human, had to be a man or a woman.  A woman at that time wouldn't have gotten the platform necessary to deliver the message Jesus came to deliver.  Actually because Jesus was a male is even more reason why we need female imagery of God, to balance our picture out.

Last point- this is getting long- Sexism in the church hinders evangelism.  While the church should never be driven solely by culture it's foolish to ignore culture. Culture does influence what we do (look at all of the marketing done by the modern church).   The culture around us is moving beyond sexism and demanding women be treated as equals and that inclusive language is used. If we ignore that, we run the risk of alienating not only women but enlightened men.

Have I Convinced You?
Maybe I haven't convinced you that God is a woman (that wasn't my goal).  Hopefully I have convinced you to at least explore this a little more and consider it. Maybe you'll even get the book.  If you are ready to begin doing some actual things to get others to consider this, you can do what I'm doing.  One of the things I really liked about Pastor Smith's advice is don't expect this to be an overnight thing.  He said it took him years to get used to some of these things.
  1. First I have just about completely eliminated masculine pronouns from my speech and from my writings about God.  This is fairly easy and somewhat difficult.  It makes for some awkward sentence structures as I use God over and over again instead of using "He".   I'll use God's instead of "His" and Godself instead of Himself.  This is a good first step, IMO. I don't know if others have even noticed. But, it's a great reminder to me.
  2. Second, I have started to trying to imagine God as Mother.  I've nibbled at praying to God as Mother rather than Father.  It's still very uncomfortable. But, I like the idea of snuggling up to Mother God much more than crawling up into Father God's lap.
  3. Maybe start to sneak a few feminine pronouns in for God.  See how people react.  Begin by doing it in places where you are very comfortable.
  4. Spread the word.  Get the book.  Encourage others to get the book.  There are other books as well.  Talk to people about it. Ask them what they think.  Have they even considered it?  What would it mean to them to think of God as female instead of as male (or in addition to being male)?
  5. As you get comfortable, approach your church leadership about at least cutting back on all the male imagery in the hymns and prayers. Maybe they could start to use some inclusive language (some suggestions are in the book).
That's it. I got this book on a whim, a nudge or whatever and I think it's really going to make a big impact on my relationship with my heavenly Mother.  If this article helps you, in any way, that's a double blessing.

Peace,
Brian


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