When you think of God what do you imagine? What does she look like in your mind’s eye? What is her role in your life?
If hearing God described with female pronouns felt grating, you’re not alone. A few months ago I wrote a post called The Male God? which addressed biblical metaphors a bit and how we tend to find ourselves jarred by a non-male or non-father image for God. Our images of God are engrained in us at childhood and re-engrained with the images, scripture, and metaphors for God used and reused in our churches and homes. How we image God is critically important for how we relate to God. Do we see God as a firm but protective father or a gentle and life-giving mother? Is God a formless faraway object or an imminent friend or lover? Is your God white? Does he have a penis?
If you are finding yourself reject some of these metaphors, ask yourself why. We know intellectually that God has no gender, that God is infinite and transcendent and indescribable, but metaphors give shape to this transcendent God; they help us relate to the infinite and the eternal. Unfortunately the metaphor of God as “Father” or male is so a part of Western Christian culture that it leaves little room for other metaphors for the Divine. Patriarchal structures of history and those that exist today (in both church and secular society) preserve the dominant male metaphor, which appears in liturgy, creeds, and prayers. We call God “king” and “lord”. By themselves these metaphors can be wonderful and helpful for many in relating to God, but we lose sight of the myriad feminine and non-gendered metaphors throughout the scriptures.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “In no way is God in man’s image. [God] is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective ‘perfections’ of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband” (CCC, 370).
Recently The Liturgists, a group of Christian thinkers, artists, and musicians who present liturgical prayer experiences for groups (and via their podcast) had an event in Boston called God Our Mother. Through poetry, music, and conversation, they challenged our deeply rooted dominant metaphors, even playing with the pronouns used for God in well known hymns. It’s worth a listen if you’re open to letting yourself be challenged. It’s important to note that either masculine or feminine images for God are not bad. The qualities we associate with them are qualities God possesses. The problem is when masculine metaphors, which tend to be about domination, authority, control, and power, take over. Scholar Marcus Borg says, “The issue is not that mothers are better than fathers, but that a particular way of imaging ‘father’ can produce a distorted form of Christianity—as if Christianity is about meeting the requirements of an authority figure who will punish us if we don’t get it right.”
It can be refreshing to see God as a mothering God who births us into creation, protects her children, carries them, weeps for them, exudes a compassionate strength, and delights in her children. Julian of Norwich even wrote about God as mother. What’s fascinating is that the Second Person of the Trinity, who came to earth as Jesus Christ, she calls Mother. She writes,
Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.
God is Mystery. God is being itself. How have the images and metaphors you’ve tended to use for God affected your perception of who God is? How have they affected your relationship with the Divine?
Related posts and links:
- The Male God?
- God our Mother (a blog post by Erin Duffy Burke which offers many non-male metaphors for God and the background on biblical language)
- Excerpt from Julian of Norwich on the Vatican website
Listen to the podcast version of this post on the episode page, especially if the player below doesn’t work.