By Bert Montgomery
The 14th Century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich observed, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”
Once, when I was in high school (1984 or ‘85), my small church youth group went to a highly impoverished New Orleans neighborhood. We did volunteer service work by scrubbing, mopping, sweeping, and cleaning a community center. During a short break, we sat outside the center, and Craig, our youth director, brought up the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father …”
Each of us had fathers in our homes. We knew our fathers and knew each other’s fathers. We knew our fathers loved and cared for us, and we loved our fathers.
God as our Father is a wonderful image for some of us, Craig said. It helps us understand the nature of God; it helps us relate to God
But, Craig pointed out, some families around us did not include fathers. Some families around us did not have happy, positive experiences with their fathers. Some were tormented by violent, neglectful, hateful fathers.
While seeing God as Father certainly can convey the generous, providing, caring nature of God to some of us, for others it is a meaningless, or even violent and harmful, image. For others of us, the most important figures in our lives are our mothers, or even grandmothers. Shouldn’t we, Craig asked, use the best example a person has of a deep, intimate, loving, providing, caring relationship and allow that image to illustrate how God relates to us?
God … our Mother.
God is neither male nor female, of course. God is not confined by sex, gender, or any physical attributes. We use these descriptions because they are things we know. We use sex, gender, and other physical attributes and relationships as analogies to help us understand and relate to God.
The Bible and our rich faith traditions are filled with many “masculine” images of God, but they also include many “feminine” images of God.
In the book of Proverbs, the Wisdom of God is a woman. She speaks of her Divine nature. She was with God as the whole world was created. She stands on corners, walks the streets, calls out to us, instructs us and guides us. Our Scriptures imagine God as having a womb, as God giving birth, as God nursing us at her breasts. “As a mother comforts her children, so God comforts us,” Isaiah says.
The Hebrew word for “spirit” is a feminine word. In church history, the Holy Spirit is often referred to as “She” and “Her.”
Some argue, however, that we must use the masculine, Father image of God because Jesus did. The Lord’s Prayer, remember?
Jesus, though, was emphasizing the very personal and loving nature of God by painting a visual picture of the intimate relationship of a parent and a child; this was contrasted against an understanding of God as distant, angry, and disconnected. Besides, elsewhere Jesus does portray God in a feminine manner: She is a mother hen gathering up her chicks under her wings. When speaking of God, should we insist everyone literally believe She is poultry?
Yes, we can still refer to God as He and Him. But we should also speak of God as She and Her. I met a Catholic priest once who decided to add the third-person plural to the mix: They and Them. Why? Three-in-One, the Blessed Trinity, he said: Father, Son, and the feminine Holy Spirit! Father Kenney said using “They/Them” prohibited him from focusing too narrowly on only one way of experiencing the Presence of God.
Pronouns are simply quick ways to add variety to how we speak of one another. They (see how I used a pronoun there to avoid boring repetition?) can also add variety to how we experience God. We must always remember, though, that God is so much bigger than pronouns.
Let the one that comforts you most speak to you and guide you. But use other ones, too, to stretch your faith, even it makes you uncomfortable. Especially if it makes you uncomfortable! Doing so will remind you that God is always so much more than your words and so much bigger than your imagination. Doing so will broaden your experiences of and your relationship with the Creator of all that is.
Like the best mothers and fathers and grandparents always are, I believe God, too, is patient, understanding, and even occasionally amused, as we continue to grow in faith and understanding.
Rev. Bert Montgomery pastors University Baptist Church in Starkville, teaches courses at Mississippi State University, and loves Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of God in The Shack. Bert can be reached at email@example.com.
Note: The views expressed here in columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.
Interested in writing for CBF at Patheos? Submit your column idea to CBF Communications Director Aaron Weaver at firstname.lastname@example.org.