God Our Mother
Rev. Erin McArdel
Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31, 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27
I’m going to say something shocking…are you ready? God is not an old white man with a long white beard as say, this image might have us believe.
Of course, most of us understand that God is not literally a man, and yet the language and characterization of God most often used as we try to conceptualize God—He, Him, Father--is predominantly masculine. For some, the predominant use of masculine images of God can be off-putting and may even cause a barrier in one’s relationship with God. For all of us, the use of predominantly masculine language for God presents limitations in our ability to deepen our knowledge of and relationship with God. Episcopal Bishop Moore goes so far as to say that our spiritual growth is obstructed, incomplete, and unrealized if it does not embrace femininity. He writes, “If the objects of devotion are only male, one cannot fully experience one’s own spirituality. Everyone’s prayer life is impoverished if we can only relate to a male God.”
Today, we continue with the summer sermon series, “Questions of Faith,” with the question, “If Jesus of Nazareth refers to God as the Father, and he came to earth as a man, does this then mean that God is more akin to males or conversely that males are more like God?
The answer, is of course a resounding no…As we read in our Genesis passage, God created all of humankind in God’s image, both male and female. Thus we as females and males are coequals and we both reflect the image of God. According to the Harper Collins commentary on Genesis, made in the image of God we may all look in part like God since we collectively represent God on earth and embody some of God’s qualities and characteristics with respect to moral, spiritual, and even political qualities in so much as God calls us to live in relationship with one another and in stewardship over all other living things.
Likewise, in our New Testament passage, Paul discusses how each of us is baptized or reborn into one body, that is, the Body of Christ-the church. He uses the image of the human body to illustrate how unity can exist in compatibility with our diversity. Our individual and diverse attributes, including our masculinity or femininity, all come from the same spirit of God and are collectively reflective of God’s attributes. We cannot therefore say that we have no need of any one particular attribute or function of the body, and we should have equal concern for each. Since both males and females make up the body of Christ and since both the qualities which are traditionally (albeit stereotypically) characterized as more masculine or as more feminine are reflective of God’s qualities, we should have language in our churches and culture which reflects this inclusion. When we refer to God exclusively in male terms, we repress God in that we miss out on or ignore attributes that may draw us closer to God, and furthermore, we oppress entire groups of people who may feel that their voices and experiences are somehow stifled or less important than the voices of their male counterparts. This is humorously illustrated by a little girl in the popular, “Children’s Letters to God” books. She writes, “Dear God, are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair…”
In reality, God is not male or female. As theologian Lynn Japinga wrote, our “Language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language.” God is transcendent and incomprehensible, and all of the language that we use to describe God is limited and imperfect. God is beyond our ability to name or imagine God, and the images we do use in an attempt to know God are limited, including when those images denote a particular gender. Our images for God convey something which is both true and false, true in its ability to enrich our understanding of God but false in its limitations. God is neither male nor female, and yet God has attributes that are like males and like females. If we are willing to expand our use of metaphors for God to include feminine metaphors, our experience with God can be enriched, and we are all liberated to discover and affirm the divine and feminine attributes in each of us—male and female, since each of us is created in God’s image.
The invitation to expand our use of metaphor is often met with resistance or discomfort, consider for a moment what it would feel like if, for example, we sang the doxology as “Praise Her all creatures, here below…” We tend to be more used to depictions of God like this:
but we wiggle in our seats a bit when God is depicted like this:
However, the concept of female metaphors for God is not a radical feminist movement. Though scripture does predominantly use masculine language to describe God, which is both a product of the cultural norms of the time at which it was written and is reflective of the patriarchal systems in place at the time of the canonization of the Bible, feminine language for God does have scriptural backing and was a part of early Christian history. We will briefly explore some of those scriptural feminine images now.
In the very opening of Genesis, there is imagery which illustrates the feminine characteristics of God. The creation story describes that God’s spirit moves over the primordial waters prior to speaking creation into being. The Hebrew word often translated as moves or hover, “racaph” can also be translated as “brooding,” as a mother bird does over her eggs to bring forth life. So God is described not just as speaking creation into existence but as brooding or birthing creation into being. This birthing image is repeated throughout the Old Testament. In the book of Job, God challenges Job to consider from whose womb was creation birthed? In Deuteronomy, Moses refers to God as the one who bore and gave birth to the Israelites. In Isaiah, God says, “like a woman in labor, I will moan, pant, gasp…” The birthing metaphor is used in the New Testament too, for example when Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see God’s kingdom, he must be born anew and when the apostles speak of themselves as birthing and nurturing the churches they’ve founded. The birthing metaphor is useful in describing the roles of both the Creator and the created, roles which involve suffering and risk, but which result in redemption and new life.
God is also compared to a nurturing and compassionate mother, one who does not forget her child, who feeds her suckling infant at her breast and who is a source of sustenance and comfort. These metaphors are found in both Isaiah and the Psalms. In the book of Hosea, God is likened to a loving mother who taught her child, Israel, to walk, took him up in her arms, lifted him to her cheeks, bent down to feed him, healed him with her kindness and love.
Though nurturing and compassionate, God is also described as protective and willing to fight like a mother bear separated from her cubs and to challenge her young like an eagle who hovers over her young, yes, but also pushes them out of the nest, though she is ready to catch them when they fall. Jesus mourns over Jerusalem, lamenting at their disobedience and sharing his heart and desire to protect and comfort them from the suffering that lies ahead, “How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Jesus too, knows that we must be pushed out of the nest, though he is there to comfort us and catch us when we fall.
There are also nonmaternal images of God found in scripture. In the New Testament, the God is compared to a woman searching for a lost coin and a bakerwoman making yeast bread. Perhaps even more notable is the use of the feminine word for God’s wisdom, the Hebrew word “Hokmah” and Greek word, “Sophia.” Thus books such as Proverbs, which speak of God’s wisdom, would have been understood in their historical Jewish context as describing feminine aspects of God. Theologian and author, Marcus Borg, argues that Christ, the incarnate God on earth embodies the Sophia wisdom of God. This is not to detract from Jesus being a 1st century Nazarene male. That,he was. However, Christ, the divine part of God in the flesh, like God, embodies both facets which are traditionally thought of as more masculine and those traditionally believed to be more feminine.
I always believed that becoming a mother would help me to better understand God’s love for me, and this couldn’t have been truer. As a mother, my children have my whole heart. I would do anything for them. When they hurt, I ache. When they feel happy, I rejoice in their delight. I have been for them, as my mom was (and still is) for me, a source of emotional support, nurture, love, and sustenance. They depend on me, and though I know I sometimes fail in my role as a mother, I strive not to let them down. How much more is our Mother God, who doesn’t fail, who is our dependable provider, sustainer, source of love, nurturer, supporter, rejoicer in our delights, bearer of our pains and sorrows.
Most of you know that I work as a palliative care and hospice chaplain at the VA Hospital in Seattle. The importance of expanding our understanding of God to include maternal God has been evident to me in my ministry there. As chaplains, we hope to bring something of God’s presence into the room with us when we visit a patient, to be for and with the patient an embodiment of God’s compassion and hope. My boss has often said that we female chaplains at times seem to have an advantage over our male counterparts amongst our population of veterans which is predominantly male. He has said of his own preferences, “When I am lying on a hospital bed, I would much prefer a female to sit with me and provide me comfort….someone that reminds me of my mother comforting me when I was sick as a child.” Recently, I visited with a man, Mr. A who had been abandoned by his father but also had felt emotionally abandoned and abused by his mother. As is so often the case, having been abused, he himself went on to perpetuate the cycle of abuse---and though he had turned his life around, as he lay on his deathbed, he was paralyzed by a tremendous amount of guilt and self-hatred. He could only imagine God as angry and punitive—and he wanted nothing to do with that God. It struck me that much of his fears and feelings were rooted in the sad reality that he had never experienced unconditional love from a parent or from anyone, and thus how could he relate to a God of unconditional love. In that moment, I hoped more than anything as I sat with Mr. A, that I could convey something of God’s feelings toward him of unconditional love, compassion, and forgiveness. I felt toward him as a mother feels toward her hurting child, and I pray that he might have experienced—through my presence with him the embodiment of Mother God, who has not and will not ever fail him, even though his earthly mother had. The image of Mother God is needed in our language and consciousness of God’s character.
There is a risk of emphasizing any one metaphor for God over another that the metaphor itself can become a form of idolatry. Therefore it is important that we use, what Dr.Christena Cleveland of Duke University Divinity School calls a “chorus of metaphors” to describe God, so that we might start to expand the boxes in which we try to stuff God and the boundaries and margins by which we try to define God. Each of the feminine metaphors for God I’ve mentioned serve to provide a more integrated and fuller understanding of the mystery of God and builds a theology which promotes unity and equality amongst females and males created equally in the image of God. I would challenge us today as a church to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and of the status quo, to resist the predominant use of masculine metaphors for God, and to expand our vocabulary and make room in our hearts for use of feminine language and conceptualization of God. We may be surprised at the transformation that could occur as a result. Amen.