Is God Also Our Mother?
This debate over appropriate language for God has been going on for at least half a century now. 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. Mary Daly famously said “If God is male, then the male is God.”
I realize that, as a man, my opinion about this issue may be ignored or criticized as irrelevant because of my maleness. In other words, some will say, I have a vested interest in preserving the traditional/biblical language about God because it affirms my maleness. I really don’t think that’s the case, but I anticipate that response and acknowledge it.
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.?
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.
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. Also, there is no biblical warrant for it. I’m not a biblical literalist but I do believe in sticking with biblical images and language as much as possible. Addressing God as “Our Heavenly Parent” is awkward, to say the least. “Parent” is not a form of address. Addressing God as “Our Mother” raises the specter of pantheism as theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier never tired of pointing out. It points toward our being literally born out of God’s own being and therefore sharing in God’s substance.
For those and other reasons the vast majority of evangelical Christians (and others) have shied away from those forms of address to God. For a good critique of “inclusive language” about and to God, see Donald Bloesch’s two books Is the Bible Sexist? And The Battle for the Trinity. For the most part, evangelicals have weathered this storm over “inclusive language” about God and retained biblical and traditional imagery and forms of address.
Except! Many have responded by almost never addressing God with any name! Most prayers I hear now in evangelical and similar contexts address God as simply “O God.” “God,” of course, is not a proper name and therefore not the best form of address. And “God” is what theologian Robert Jenson called unbaptized language. In other words, when someone addresses God as simply “God” it’s unclear who or what is being addressed. Another confusion surrounds “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” These are not personal forms of address and using them has a distancing effect. One reason, I assume, that Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father” is to reinforce that our relationship with God is personal and should be intimate.
Bloesch suggested, and I agree, that we address God this way: “Our Father who is also like a Mother to us….” I have done that in several settings without any angry reactions. A few people expressed a bit of consternation—mostly fearing that could lead to full-blown inclusive language of God. But I don’t worry about that happening. The Bible does include mother imagery of God, but that imagery is always in the form of a parable or simile, not a form of address.
But must we then give up all “Mother” language about God? Not necessarily and I would say no. One of my historical-theological heroes is the eighteenth century German Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, godson of pietist patriarch Philip Spener and himself a leader of the pietist movement as bishop of the early Moravian Brethren. Zinzendorf preached a sermon on “The Mother Office of the Holy Spirit” (with “office” referring to function or role) in which he explored and explained all the feminine biblical imagery of the Holy Spirit as, for example, giving us new life and nurturing us (with “us” referring to God’s people). Zinzendorf encouraged address to the Holy Spirit as Mother and “She.” Years later German theologian Jürgen Moltmann picked up Zinzendorf’s suggestion and included it in his book The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation.
After all, the Hebrew word translated “Spirit,” even when referring to Yahweh’s Spirit, is feminine. The Greek word referring to God’s Holy Spirit is neuter. (It is the same word sometimes used to refer to breath and wind.) So there is no particular biblical reason to refer to or address the Holy Spirit using male or neuter language. In fact, I would resist using neuter language (e.g., “It”) because it tends to de-personalize the Holy Spirit.
So is it appropriate to address God as Mother and refer to God as “She” and “Her?” Yes—when we are thinking specifically of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Of course, all of this needs to be wrapped in the context of teaching about God within the churches. Much of the problem of people thinking that Father language about and to God reinforces patriarchy and makes the male God (!) stems from bad theology—projection theology. We need to do more teaching of sound theology in churches. Why not include a brief homily before or after a hymn (for example) that uses male or female imagery for God that explains that God is neither literally male nor female and certainly not both! Most churches no longer have teaching settings that are well-attended. The only place, then, for correcting theological confusion is during the Sunday morning worship service. Why not include an insert in the “worship folder” (or whatever it’s called) that explains that, while we pray to God as Father we do not mean that God is male and that when we pray to God as Mother we are praying to the Holy Spirit? Etc. There are so many ways in which we could teach people about biblical, theological and liturgical language to clear up the inevitable confusions that arise when people are left to themselves to figure it out.
So, on this Mother’s Day 2015 let me affirm that, yes, God is our Mother. The Holy Spirit gives us new life, the beginning of deification (partial participation in the divine nature), and sustains and nurtures us in the way of Jesus Christ. She is our Advocate and Helper and the One who makes Jesus Christ especially, intimately present among us and within us. She is our Holy Mother along with Our Holy Father and Holy Savior, Brother and Friend, Jesus. Together they are one God eternally united in essence sharing all attributes, but in history, with and among and in and for us, they have distinct (but not separate) functions. To the Father is especially attributed the function of creating and ruling over us. To the Son is especially attributed the function of redeeming and drawing us into God’s family as sons and daughters. To the Spirit is especially attributed the function of imparting resurrection life to us and strengthening us in our faith. God in Three Persons—Father-Creator-Provider, Savior-Son-Friend Jesus, and Mother-New Life Giver-Holy Spirit—Blessed Trinity.