Our Mother Who Art in Heaven?

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”

Lewis Carroll

The image of God as father is a powerful one.  So powerful, in fact, that I’ve heard pastors caution on numerous occasions that it can be all too easy to conflate one’s earthly father with our heavenly father.  The fatherhood metaphor isn’t always positive, and it is hardly perfect.  Fathers, after all, are human with foibles and weaknesses that it would be improper to ascribe to the Most High.  The notion of God as father must be tempered at last by our intellectual understanding of God as God.

And yet, the practice of viewing God through the paternal lens remains one of the church’s most time honored traditions, all pitfalls aside.  Objectively, I can see the value in the analogy, although as someone raised on an estrogen island “father” was about as abstract an idea for me as “God.”  Growing up fatherless, I didn’t have any baggage when it came to picturing God as father, but whenever I prayed to “Father God” or “Abba Daddy” (honestly, prayer language can be so weird) the only image that came to mind was a strange amalgamation of Santa Claus and Danny Tanner.  God as father didn’t hold a lot of meaning for me outside of two dimensional sitcom representations, and viewing God as male perhaps did more harm than good.

What does the maleness of God mean for women?  What does it mean for my relationship with God?  I’m not really certain.  Had I been born a man, maybe my faith would look exactly the same.  But maybe not.  Maybe in reading the stories of God’s special relationships with Abraham and Moses and David, I could more easily picture myself in similarly intense God-human interactions.  Maybe instead of pondering whether I’m a Mary or a Martha I would be asking if I’m a Peter or a Paul.  Maybe if I were a man God wouldn’t seem quite so removed, quite so unreachable.  It’s at least possible that the father-son relationship I could envision under those circumstances would be more vibrant and more active than the father-daughter connection I’m stumbling through now–that as a son God’s fatherhood would seem more paternal and less paternalistic.

The thing is that, of course, God is not a man at all, neither genotypically nor phenotypically, and yet as far as our language is concerned, He (see what I mean?) is male.  I’m wondering now what difference it might make to address God, at least on a halftime basis, in female terms.  It’s true that by and large the Bible depicts a masculine God.  Yet it’s also true that our contemporary ideas of fatherhood and masculinity are pretty far removed from those of the Hebrews thousands of years ago.  It meant something different to them than it does to us.  And whether the use of masculine imagery was an attempt on God’s part to communicate something to His people in their time and place or whether it was that culture’s best attempt at understanding their God, there’s no reason to think God eternally insists on a masculine portrayal.  Infrequently, the Bible has God cast Himself as mother rather than as father.  (O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37).  “For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant.” (Isaiah 42:14)).  So while the conservative within me might take umbrage at the idea of a female God, I think it’s worth considering that God may not see femaleness as the insult that some of us do.

I’m aware that in speaking of our “Mother God” and choosing to describe Her in female terms I might come across  as an adherent of some kind of goddess cult.  It’s really weird, I know.  But I think that weirdness is a virtue.  This isn’t a feminist battle I’m fighting, but merely an attempt to reassess the metaphors we use when we speak of God.  I don’t think God is more feminine than S/He is masculine.  The point is that God is neither male nor female.  God is Other.  And like it or not, our language shapes the way we perceive Him/Her.  If God the Father has become too familiar or conversely, been too unfamiliar for too long, perhaps God the Mother won’t be.  I don’t really know, but I think it’s a hypothesis worthy of a linguistic experiment.  I’m hoping that it will prove both instructive and corrective–that I might recognize God in a new way and at the same time that I will be disconcerted anew by His/Her Otherness.  Language is an inadequate and clumsy tool for expressing the great mysteries of God, but as it’s probably our only option, I think it’s just as well to be a little cockeyed about it.  I’d like to think that Alice, at least, would approve.


2 thoughts on “Our Mother Who Art in Heaven?

  1. So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

    Even the account of our creation shows the male/female natures of God. And with
    more searching through scripture one could find many references to attributes that we would ascribe as distinctly male or female.

    Perhaps the reason that God is so often described as male is due to the authority given by God to the man. And maybe that’s where the God as father figure comes from.

    Just a few thoughts.

  2. Interesting. My own idea (and I’m not sure it’s correct) is that for Israel–a small-ish people in the midst of much larger empires–God the Father meant God the sovereign protector. God the Mother probably would have evoked different images that may not have answered the concerns of the people in the same way.

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