God, the Maternal Father

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I’ve been working through Elizabeth A. Johnson’s She Who Is lately and finding it fascinating and challenging. Much of my journey from fundamentalism so far has been figuring out what I don’t believe about God. Johnson’s book, along with other feminist theology I’ve been reading, is helping me lay some foundation for figuring out what I do believe.

In one section, she talks about a trend that I’ve frequently seen in the many mainline churches I’ve attended over the past 4 or 5 years. God is Father. God is King. God is He. But God is a maternal father. God is a benevolent king. God is a he in touch with his “feminine” side. I’ve been to many more “liberal”  Christian churches, yet, with one exception (besides the Unitarian Universalist church I sometimes go to–they’ve got it together in this area), the most inclusive anyone gets when it comes to talking about God in general is describing a “masculine” God who has “feminine” traits.

I like what Johnson has to say about this (on pg. 48-49 of She Who Is):

 God persists as ‘him’ but is now spoken about as a more holistic person who has integrated his feminine side . . . Men gain their feminine side, but women do not gain their masculine side (if such categories are even valid). The feminine is there for the enhancement of the male, but not vice-versa. There is no mutual gain. 

This image of God as maternal father doesn’t break God out of the box that patriarchy puts on into. It gives men  the opportunity to be more fully human, and to see the fullness of their humanity in God. But as Johnson says, there isn’t much mutuality here.

In fact, Johnson even goes so far to say that “the feminine is incorporated in a subordinate way into an overall symbol that remains masculine.” Men can now represent the “whole” of humanity, because they can hold “masculine” and “feminine” traits. They can be strong AND kind. Powerful AND nurturing. Logical AND emotional. After all, isn’t God? Wasn’t Jesus?

Women on the other hand, must continue to fight our way out of the boxes that restrictive gender roles can trap us in without the luxury of being able to point to God and say, “But SHE is . . .”  Women don’t get the same affirmation of knowing that when they are strong and powerful and intelligent (traits typically stereotyped as “masculine”) they are still reflecting God’s image.

We need to move beyond the image of God the Maternal Father. It’s not enough.

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  • Jennifer Stahl

    This sounds similar to a book I’m reading at the moment called
    The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God As Female. (Mollenkott)
    I’ve been struggling in that area for some time and it’s been refreshing
    to know that someone as far back as 1983 was talking about the issue.

    I’ve added yours to my wishlist. Thanks!

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I’ve found that refreshing too–learning that people have been talking about this for awhile now, and that I’m not just going out on a random limb.

      • Jennifer Stahl

        Have you perchance read Pam Hogeweide’s recent book, “Unladylike”? She also uses inclusive language and references several other books and studies that do.

  • Brenda Morrison

    This problematic concept, of an all-male Trinity, was part of my sermon this morning — today is Trinity Sunday. One of the areas of challenge is that English doesn’t have a pronoun that encapsulates both male and female. Patriarchy is such an ingrained, sneaky concept…the roots are so fine and just keep cropping up.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I wish English had a personal pronoun that included both male and female (and those who don’t fall into either category too). I try to use “they” but that always bugs me because my English teachers were successful in training my brain to not use “they” to refer to one person. Sigh.

  • Sarah, I’m just so enjoying your blog. Your first paragraph got me remembering, and I hope it’s okay if I share.

    I remember after I left the church in 1980 I went for years just searching for someone or something I could believe in. I read a lot of stuff during that time (not much of it Christian writing – Jennifer, I wish I had known of Virginia back then). Mostly I just felt somehow slightly defective because I couldn’t find anything that seemed to fit, anything that felt really “true.” I didn’t understand why I couldn’t believe anything.

    And then there was one day in the nineties, when I was sitting in my parent’s living room helping them plan my grandmother’s funeral, when the minister started talking about believing in the resurrection of the body. I observed myself thinking that he just didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about at all.

    Driving home I realized that all the time I’d been looking for what I could believe in, my belief system was just quietly growing and changing and adapting, just like happens. What I believed in just didn’t really look like anything anyone else was saying they believed in, because it wasn’t some set thing, and probably wasn’t ever going to be.

    The relief I felt was like you feel when you run cool water over your hands after you’ve been working all day in the garden.

    Thank you for your work, sharing it with us here, and letting me share this memory with you.


    Marg Herder
    Christian Feminism Today

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Thank you for sharing your story! I know that feeling of relief well!

  • Erin

    I’ve been attending a UCC church lately, and one thing that I love is that they are very careful not to assign a gender to God. They always use something gender-inclusive like “parent” or “Mother and Father.” I think trying to envision God as Mother has been incredibly good for my faith, as well!

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I’ve had such a hard time envisioning God as Mother or anything other than masculine. It’s so engrained in my brain that it seems unnatural! But it is freeing to think that, even if I can’t envision it yet, I’m made in God’s image too!