What is your image of God? How did you imagine God as you grew up from childhood? Has that changed? Were you like me who imagined God as the old man in the clouds who remained fairly distant and uninvolved, yet kept account of my sins in some divine book?
When we attempt to deepen a stagnant relationship with God or rediscover the God who resides everywhere and in all things we must be able to, for a moment, put aside those images we’ve grown up with. William Barry, SJ says, “All the gospels describe the disciples as men who did not begin their relationship with Jesus with a preconceived picture of him that was later substantiated.” They had to get to know Jesus personally through their real-life experience of him. Preconceived images can block our genuinely getting to know God.
You may have noticed that when I write I always use gender-neutral language when referring to God. This is a common practice among many theologians and academics. We all know that God does not have a gender because God is not a human being. However, we have all grown up with the image of God as a male, a Father. Scripture refers to God as Father, and so does Jesus. The word logos in Greek is a masculine word. But the Bible also refers to God using feminine words like sophia in Greek or ruah in Hebrew. The New Testament uses the word pneuma which is neuter. Initially sophia was connected to Jesus, but according to Elizabeth Johnson, logos took over “as it became unseemly, given the developing patriarchal tendencies in the church, to interpret the male Jesus with a female symbol of God.” So there’s some historical context to our use of masculine pronouns and words for God.
Metaphors for God
The scriptures use metaphors to refer to God as mother, father, creator, one who gives birth, one who nurses, and even a mother hen. But these are just metaphors – they do not fully sum up who God is in God’s entirety. And Ignatian spirituality does not constrict God to a particular gender or metaphor. When Maggi Van Dorn, in her post a couple weeks ago, used the pronoun she for God, there was some resistance among readers. Calling God she can be jarring and strange to ears who have always known God as he and Father. But no one is saying that God is a woman, just as no one is assuming that other biblical metaphors mean that God literally nurses or is literally a hen. I think, as Ignatius would tell us that since God meets us and communicates with us uniquely, certain metaphors and images of God are more helpful for some than for others. Maggi, in her post, even quoted Thomas Aquinas who said, “God speaks according to the mode of the receiver.” Use of a particular metaphor or pronoun can highlight a certain aspect of God’s character, keeping in mind that metaphors are still limiting.
Richard Rohr, OFM was a prison chaplain and met many men whose fathers were alcoholic or abusive. For these men, he says, the image of God as a “loving Father” was not always so helpful.
Now you can see what a bind this put us in when we defined God as masculine and called God “Father” exclusively. That’s one metaphor, but it is a metaphor. And so people who never had a loving male in their life, and we come along and say, “God, the Father, loves you,” they have no outlet to plug into, and that was my experience 14 years at the jail. (Richard Rohr, On Being, April 13, 2017)
The Jewish tradition understood God’s divine presence as confined to the Temple, but we know God cannot be confined to any one place, whether a temple, a church, or a seashore. Ignatian spirituality does not restrict God to one or another metaphor or locus. This is the wonderful thing about our faith. God, who has infinite qualities of love, wishes to relate to us in a deeply personal way. I do not believe God says, “You must see me as a Father or Mother or Parent. You must refer to me as male or female.” Perhaps instead, God asks us, “How can you understand me as one who pours out love and wishes to lift burdens?”
For further reading: Maggi Van Dorn offers a comprehensive and and thoughtful theological and scriptural analysis of how we image God on her personal blog.
 William A. Barry, S.J., and William J. Connolly, S.J., The Practice of Spiritual Direction (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 23.
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Categories: The Tough Questions