God is not a man (or a woman)
For me, Sundays are not only a day for Mass and extended prayer but one of rest from social media. Rather than posting anything remotely controversial, I try to share more irenic fare online. So on Sundays I usually post two reflections on social media. The first is from The Jesuit Post, a sister site of America Media, which offers short and punchy “One-Minute Homilies” from younger Jesuits. (Technically speaking, they are not homilies since they are not done in the context of a Mass, nor are some of the Jesuits ordained; they are instead reflections.)
The other resource is “Catholic Women Preach,” which brings together a variety of gifted laywomen and women religious from around the world (including theologians, scholars, teachers, writers and pastoral associates) to comment on the Sunday Gospel readings. Among their roster of contributors are some of the church’s most esteemed leaders, including Barbara Reid, O.P.; Helen Prejean, C.S.J.; Norma Pimentel, M.J.; Lisa Sowle Cahill and M. Shawn Copeland.
Last week I listened to a reflection by Vickey McBride, director of campus ministry at St. Martin de Porres High School (Cristo Rey) in Cleveland, Ohio. As usual, I copied Catholic Women Preach’s description of the reflection, along with a summary of Ms. McBride’s background, to my Facebook page. For good measure, I retweeted a link to the reflection on Twitter.
A few hours later, a friend texted me and said, “You certainly stirred things up!” (Not what I like to hear on a Sunday night.) As it turned out, the text I posted on Facebook included the word “Her” referring to God, an idea that was part of Ms. McBride’s reflection.
Most of the commenters on social media enjoyed the talk. But some people, as my friend indicated, were outraged, accusing her (and me for posting it) of heresy, apostasy and blasphemy, mainly for using the offending word “Her.” I considered commenting, “I was simply reposting the summary from Catholic Women Preach.” But that would imply I had a problem calling God “Her.” And I don’t.
God is not a man. And while Jesus Christ was (and is) a man and invites us to call God the Father, that does not mean that God is male or that God is only masculine. Is just as theologically correct to use feminine imagery about God as it is to use masculine imagery. It is also not contrary to our faith, since it’s part of Scripture, albeit an overlooked and even ignored part.
And while Jesus Christ was (and is) a man and invites us to call God the Father, that does not mean that God is male or that God is only masculine.
But neither is God a woman. The mystery of the Triune God goes beyond the confines of sex or gender. It is surprising this still stirs up rage, not only because it should be obvious that God is beyond human categories, but also because of how damaging it is to envision God as solely one gender.
For much of the last 2,000 years, in predominantly patriarchal cultures, Christians have been conditioned to think of God as not only male, but exclusively male. This has wide-ranging consequences for our theology, the way that we worship in common, how we pray on our own and the manner in which we lead our lives as Christians. It also has profound consequences for how we see women. “If God is male,” as the saying goes, “then the male is God.”
Almost 30 years ago I read Elizabeth Johnson’s landmark book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. Her scholarly work looks at how conceptions of God as an earthly monarch, to take just one image, gave rise to an “oppressive and idolatrous” image of God as a literal patriarch. In response, Johnson shows how the divine power is, and can be, revealed in female imagery, because, as the church teaches, God transcends categories. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you have understood it, then what you have understood is not God.”
Sister Johnson, now Distinguished Professor Emerita of Theology at Fordham University, points to multiple biblical images of God, such as the Shekinah (the divine presence or “divine involvement”) and especially Wisdom (or Sophia), which can help to counterbalance the predominantly masculine image that most Christians are used to.
With careful scholarship and vast research at her command, Johnson shows how the logos or “word” (primarily a masculine term in Hellenistic thought) “won out” over the conception of God as Sophia. She calls this a “repression of Sophia,” which gave rise to a more narrowly patriarchal mode of speaking about God, different from the ancient and richer Jewish tradition of Sophia.
Jesus himself uses feminine images of God, for example, the woman searching for her lost coin.
Her lengthy discussion of Sophia in the Book of Wisdom may surprise those accustomed to thinking of God as thoroughly masculine. She describes Sophia as “the most developed personification of God’s presence in the Hebrew Scriptures, much more accurately limned than Spirit, Torah or Word.” While the term itself is feminine in gender in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, Johnson focuses more on how Sophia, the personification of God, is consistently depicted as female, cast as sister, mother, female beloved and many other “feminine” images.
In her book, Johnson also points to many other images of the divine in the Old and New Testaments that use feminine imagery. She considers the maternal image of “the God who gave you birth” in Deuteronomy (32:18), which recurs in Isaiah, with God saying, “Now I will cry out like a woman in labor/I will gasp and pant” (42:14). Later Isaiah writes, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (66: 13).
Jesus himself uses feminine images of God, for example, the woman searching for her lost coin: “[W]hat woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:8-10).
This striking image of God is sandwiched between two others: The Good Shepherd and the Prodigal Son. But which ones have been the subject of more artistic representations? Which images are more a part of the Christian consciousness? And why? Ask yourself how often you have talked about someone being a “lost sheep” versus a “lost coin.” Why might that be?
This imaginative imbalance has been challenged by several holy women and men throughout history. Julian of Norwich, in her Divine Revelations of Divine Love wrote, “Just as God is our Father, so God is our Mother.” (That’s found on this Vatican website.) Pope John Paul I said of God, “He is our Father, even more he is our mother.” Newer ways of speaking about God, who is mystery, should not be rejected simply because they are new. St. Thomas Aquinas alludes to this in the Summa Theologica, when speaking about the term “person” to refer to the Trinity, saying it is “necessary to find new words to express the ancient faith about God.” Further, says Aquinas, “Nor is such a kind of novelty to be shunned; since it is by no means profane, for it does not lead us astray from the sense of Scripture.”
It is more important that God was incarnated as a human being, not just as a man.
When I read She Who Is, I felt that my image of God had shifted, expanded, deepened. Every page seemed to teach me something that I should already have understood about our “ancient faith”: God is our “Mother-Creator” as much as “Our Father.” It is more important that God was incarnated as a human being, not just as a man. And the Trinity is not a community of three men relating to one another. God is larger than our categories; God transcends gender; God is beyond us.
Maybe that is what still provokes such anger. It mirrors some of the reactions we see in the Gospels when Jesus invites people to think of God as bigger than they had originally imagined: more just, more loving, more merciful, more compassionate, more welcoming. In a word, larger.
Think of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4: 1-42). The disciples are described in the Greek as ethaumazon, amazed, a word most often used to describe stupefaction over a miracle. And this is just a conversation! And remember the even angrier reaction of the ruler of the synagogue when Jesus heals the “bent-over woman” on a Sabbath (Lk 13:10-17). The ruler is described as “indignant.”
The disciples and the Pharisees were devout Jews, not bad or venal people. They were doing their best to follow what they saw as their traditions. But, at least as the Gospels relate these stories, Jesus is upending their expectations and enlarging their conceptions of God, as God often does. And this astonishes and causes indignation. Likewise, to say “Our Mother” in addition to “Our Father” challenges our conceptions of God and can cause indignation.
Johnson addressed this in a 1993 article in Commonweal entitled “A Theological Case for God-She”:
For some literal-minded believers, however, the Christian community is not free to expand its language about God. They argue that Jesus himself spoke to and about God as father (‘abba) and that he taught his disciples to do likewise. Such an argument sets its sights too narrowly. Jesus’ language about God, far from being exclusive, is diverse and colorful, as can be seen in the imaginative parables he created. A woman searching for her lost coin, a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, a baker woman kneading dough, a traveling businessman, the wind that blows where it wills, the birth experience that delivers persons into new life, an employer offending workers by his generosity: Jesus used these and many other human and cosmic metaphors for divine mystery, in addition to the good and loving things that fathers do.
In the light of Jesus’ own usage, the difficulty with restricting our language about God to “father” alone is readily apparent. Speech that was originally pluriform, subtle, and subversive gets pressed into an exclusive, literal, and patriarchal mold. This does not do justice to Jesus’ own language nor to his understanding of God. Furthermore, it fails to examine the deleterious effect that relying almost exclusively on the father symbol has had in Christian history. Diverse images of God, including female ones, are not only plausible; they are necessary, and scripturally justifiable.
In my own life I’ve said perhaps a million Our Fathers. I say it at least once a day at Mass. And my primary way of envisioning the first person of the Trinity is as Father. For me, Jesus’s relationship with Abba is deeply moving, and his use of the father figure in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (whom some call the “Prodigal Father” for his overflowing love) has been transformative in my life and in the lives of many people I’ve counseled. So my primary image for God is, besides Jesus, that of Father. That’s probably true for many if not most Catholics.
And that is one good reason why one should use more feminine imagery for God: to restore balance, expand our minds and remind us that God is larger than our most beloved, treasured and traditional images. As the Jesuit priest Carlos Valles wrote, “If you always imagine God in the same way, no matter how true and beautiful it may be, you will not be able to receive the gift of the new ways he has ready for you.”
So God is Father, Creator, Ground of All Being, Mystery of Love. God is also Mother, Sophia, Wisdom, Shekinah, She Who Is. Praise Her!
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