God our Mother: Gendered Language for God
In one of those pieces of serendipity, a few weeks ago I heard the Liturgists' podcast titled “God our Mother”, featuring Christina Cleveland, and I read Katelyn Beaty’s CT Women post on why she continues to use masculine pronouns for God. This question about the language we use for God is one I’ve been thinking about over the last few years, especially as I’ve come to see the value of gender-inclusive language in the bible.
For several years, I used the ESV translation of the bible. The more traditional language, especially in the Psalms, resonated with me — probably linked to the fact that the literary chair for the translation, Dr. Leland Ryken, was one of my first literature professors; he laid the foundation for my deep love of seventeenth-century British poets. But the steadfast refusal of the translators to use gender-inclusive language bothered me more and more as I read.
Most egregiously, as pointed out by Rebecca Card-Hyatt on the Junia Project blog, the translators chose to render the Greek word adelphoi in the New Testament as “brothers,” a choice consistent with centuries of tradition. However, the translators footnote each instance with these words:
“Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.”
In other words, the translators reject the inclusive language that Paul himself uses in favor of traditional language.
I’ve read widely in English literature, and I do understand that often (although not always) the terms “men,” “mankind,” and “brothers” are used to include women as well. However, language shifts; in modern-day English, it’s no longer considered acceptable to use “man” as a stand-in for “everyone,” or “brothers” as the equivalent of “siblings.” But the translators of the ESV simultaneously acknowledge and reject this fact by using “brothers” in the text but including the footnote that the word means both brothers and sisters. The translators choose exclusive, rather than inclusive, language on the basis of tradition without considering how this comes across to those excluded — namely, the women of the church.
So I switched translations, to the 2011 NIV. The Psalms aren’t quite as melodious, but I don’t feel intentionally excluded when I read the New Testament; that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.
Thinking about gender-inclusive language in the case of a word like adelphoi has broadened into thinking about the language I use for God. I grew up using exclusively masculine language for God: God the Father, God the Son, God the warrior, God the bearded creator of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. And I do affirm that Jesus was made incarnate as a man, which makes the use of masculine imagery for God even easier to accept.
Jesus may have been incarnated as a man, but God is a spirit, or a being who defies human categories, yes? If God doesn’t have a beard, God also doesn’t have male anatomy. And if God created both men and women in the image of God, God must incorporate both male and female; neither male nor female can claim to be the better representation of God.
Beyond the creation narrative, the bible uses both masculine and feminine imagery to communicate the nature and character of God.1 God comforts like a mother (Is. 66:12-13), longs to gather us as a hen gathers her chicks (Mt. 23:37), and we relate to God as a weaned child to its mother (Ps. 131:2), among other images. And in the parables about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus gives us the image of a woman searching for a lost coin alongside the shepherd searching for a lost sheep, using both a man and a woman as analogues for the God who longs to recover us (Luke 15).
Additionally, God prohibited the ancient Hebrews from using images of God in worship; this sets them apart from the surrounding people groups who located power in physical idols, but it also has the interesting result of preventing the Hebrews from giving God physical shape, including a physical sex.
And yet, anyone who affirms a historical Jesus must acknowledge that he was incarnated as a man. Moreover, in the process of the incarnation God the Father is indeed the father. I don’t want to push the biology of the incarnation too far, but given human reproductive systems God must be the father rather than the mother of Jesus. Building on Jesus as human man and God as his father, the church has historically used masculine pronouns for God and tended to conceive of God as male.
Envisioning God as male has had the unfortunate side effect, however, of making women seem less fully created in the image of God. A male God combined with ancient Greek medical science that saw women as mis-formed men has fed patriarchal social structures and negative views of women. In order to combat patriarchal structures that subtly demean women, we need to remember that God is not a man, is not constrained to human categories of gender or biological sex.
But how do we do that?
One answer is to use feminine pronouns and titles for God. In the Liturgists' podcast “God our Mother,” Michael Gungor rewrites well-known hymns to address God as a woman: this is our Mother’s world. This phrasing feels jarring to me, but it also opens up new ways of thinking about God. Also, the discomfort I feel with saying “God our Mother” reminds me that I should feel similar discomfort with “God our Father”: neither can fully encompass who God is, while both can offer valuable (and biblical) insights into the nature of God.
In her CT Women article, however, Katelyn Beaty pushes back against using female language for God. She begins by arguing that for every person who struggles to accept the idea of God as a good father, there’s someone who would struggle to accept God as a good mother. This point is true, of course, but it doesn’t make sense as a defense of calling God “father;” rather, it acknowledges the limitations of using any human metaphors to describe God.
Beaty also argues that calling God by neutral terms — creator, redeemer — risks de-personalizing God, making God an abstract rather than a relational being. This is an interesting point: I’m not completely convinced that this necessitates the use use of masculine terms, but “father” is a much more personal relationship than “creator,” a term that may invoke a distant deistic god (or perhaps the dysfunction of a Dr. Frankenstein).
Although Beaty concludes that the church should continue to use masculine language for God, while encouraging men to fully reflect God by treating women as equals, I think her most important point is that God is a relational God. God wants to be known by us, but we humans can only understand God through metaphor and image; even the Incarnation gave us God mediated through human physicality.
In the “God our Mother” podcast, Christina Cleveland rather tartly argues that of course people should be able to use masculine language for God; for some, this is the best way to understand who God is. And if God is relational, if God wants to be known by us, surely God understands when we use language that helps us to enter into a relationship with God — after all, no human language can ever adequately describe God. But if we accept this argument, then we must also allow people to approach God as the woman searching for a coin, not just as the good (male) shepherd; as the hovering mother hen, not just the strong warrior’s arm.
Perhaps the best approach is to embrace the variety of images and terms for God we find in the bible. Not every metaphor will resonate with every Christian, but that’s not the point; if one metaphor could explain the nature of God and the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus would only have needed to tell one parable. Embracing variety will also remind us that God is above our human categories of gender and biological sex. We may pray “God our Father” in our liturgies, but we can also embrace the image of God as our Mother.
I’ve challenged myself in this blog post to not use pronouns for God. This feels awkward; I’ve typed and deleted “his” and “him” more times than I care to count. But it’s also liberating: if God is a man, I can’t be created in his image. But if God is mother along with creator, redeemer, protector and father, I can better relate to and reflect that God. Just like reading “brothers and sisters” in Paul’s letters, seeing the feminine attributes of God reminds me that I am fully created in the image of God and fully a part of the church and the coming kingdom of God.
I’m using “masculine” and “feminine” rather imprecisely here, since these culturally-determined traits can shift. Modern-day America, for example, associates weeping with femininity, but historically this hasn’t always been true.↩