Patriarchy and the Gender of God

Patriarchy and the Gender of God May 19, 2015

I recently came upon an interesting blog post by Sarah Moon of the progressive Christian channel on Patheos. In it Sarah pushed back against a blog post in which Roger Olson of the evangelical channel on Patheos argued against calling God “mother.” While I’m no longer religious myself, I was struck by the role gender constructs played in Roger’s post.

Roger starts by noting the following:

Some Christians struggle with calling God “Father” for three reasons. First, some say addressing God as Father reinforces patriarchy—the idea that males have the right to rule over and dominate females (and males with less status and power). (Yes, I know, some have expanded the term “patriarchy” to include all forms of social hierarchy.) Second, some say they and others have trouble addressing God as Father because they had abusive human fathers. Third, some have claimed that addressing or referring to God as Father tends to deify maleness. 

I find these arguments fascinating, perhaps because I did not stick around within progressive Christianity long enough to have much contact with them. I mean I obviously agree that having a male God tends to elevate maleness. As an evangelical this only makes sense—after all, husbands are to be the spiritual heads of the home, and so forth. As a progressive Christian, this gets iffy.

I struggle with understanding and accepting the reasons given above for abandoning language of God as Father. All suffer from what has been called “projection theology”—projecting humanity onto God. Of course, critics of retaining traditional language about God, especially “Father,” claim that it suffers from projection theology. The problem with that claim is that it must apply to Jesus, too, insofar as it is true. Was Jesus thinking of God the Father as male when he prayed to his Father and taught his disciples to pray “Our Father?” Or was Jesus teaching his disciples (and others) what good Fatherhood is like—merciful, compassionate, relational, providing, etc.?

The main takeaway here is that Roger believes “God the Father,” the first person in the godhead, embodies good fatherhood. This is repeated again below:

I agree with theologians such as Donald Bloesch and Stanley Grenz who have argued that Father language of God is not at all meant to affirm the ways in which all human fathers treat their wives and children. Far from it. Rather, our language about God as Father is not projecting human fatherhood with all the faults and failures onto God. It is showing us God as a perfect Father.

In other words, Roger responds to those concerned that calling God “Father” reinforces patriarchal norms, brings up bad associations for those with abusive fathers, or deifies maleness by stating that the first person of the godhead shows us what perfect fatherhood looks like.

So let’s recap. The solution to the problem that calling God “Father” reinforces patriarchy, elevates maleness, or brings up unpleasant associations for those with abusive fathers is that (drumroll, please!) God is the perfect father. He shows us what good fatherhood looks like. We shouldn’t read patriarchy or abuse into the picture because God embodies fatherhood done right. You might even argue that this should be liberating in and of itself—a way of reclaiming nonpatriarchal nonabusive fatherhood and painting a template for human fathers to follow.

And what does this perfect fatherhood look like?

To the Father is especially attributed the function of creating and ruling over us. 

Yes, really.

What Roger is missing here is that the pushback against addressing God as Father has less to do with individual experiences with abusive fathers than it does with the problems inherent to the patriarchal construct of father—a construct he embraces seemingly without realizing it. After all, it is precisely the idea that the father figure is to rule over those in his charge (i.e. women and children) that is the problem here! And yet somehow Roger says first that the first person of the godhead embodies good fatherhood and shows us the picture of the perfect father, and then that he does this by ruling over us.

Perhaps, given that Olson blogs for the evangelical channel on Patheos, this is understandable. But then he actually takes time to grapple with qualms about calling the first person of the godhead “Father” when most evangelicals (in my experience at least) simply dismiss the question. And further, Roger has previously spoken in favor of women’s liberation (while eschewing feminism, a move I do not pretend to understand, and one which garnered him no small amount of criticism). This makes Roger different from the ordinary evangelical when it comes to ideas about gender. He also explicitly states that he is not a biblical literalist.

And yet still he completely misses the point.

Roger says we can call the Holy Spirit “Mother,” but in his discussion of “Mother” and “Father” he endorses the traditional patriarchal constructs of these roles. The idea that mother is nurturer and father is provider (things Roger explicitly says in his post) is both patriarchal and a cultural construct. That Roger wants to impute these ideas uncritically on parts of the godhead is especially odd given this earlier statement about “projection theology,” but it’s also strange given his supposed understanding of the problems of patriarchy. He doesn’t get it—at all.

While I am no longer a Christian, I find this entire conversation a bit odd. Why would God—a supernatural otherworldly entity that defies our attempts at earthly categorization—have gender? Gender is a human thing. (Well, an animal kingdom thing.) What would be the point of God having gender, especially when our gender constructs change over time? Sure, we as humans would approach any such being through a lens shaped by the gender binary (an unfortunate reality nonbinary people run up against constantly), so it’s not surprising that we would use terms like “Father” or “Mother.” But to argue that this is something more than simply humans trying to relate to an ethereal being is just strange to me.

Finally, as a nonbeliever, I found this paragraph startling:

So why not talk about and address God as “Father-Mother” or “Parent” or just “Mother” (half the time)? First, “Father-Mother” raises the problem of dualism. No person is both father and mother. A person can function in place of father or mother (or both), but no one person is really both. Addressing God as “Our Father-Mother” inevitably implies to listeners that God is two beings or a split personality.

I’m really not sure how Roger can say this when he himself believes that God is three beings and definitely a split personality (else why all this conversation about which part of the godhead is the nurturer versus the provider?). I mean Roger’s entire post is about the multiple beings of the godhead, with their different personalities (which are apparently incredibly important to keep straight). And of course, he is also buying into an idea of “mother” and “father” as diametrically opposed opposites—nurturer and provider—that is rooted in patriarchal gender norms.

If you’re interested in further commentary on Roger’s post, go read Sarah Moon’s response! She’s excellent, as always.

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