During the worship service I viewed this morning, a pastor referred to God as a mother, praying to “mother God.” This was a beautiful expression and, of course, timely on Mother’s Day. Another pastor read from Isaiah 49, noting that the text compares God to a mother nursing her child.
Mother’s Day is a perfect occasion to reflect on female images for and references to God–so often neglected and marginalized in a Christian tradition shaped by and stamped by patriarchy. It’s also a reminder to not relegate these reflections to this special occasion–they should be consistent aspects of our worship, prayers, and liturgy.
Elizabeth Johnson’s wonderful book, She Who Is, provides biblical and theological rationale for incorporating female and feminine images and references in Christians’ language for and about God. Doing so requires that we release the harsh grip of male-dominant images and references. It is worth a slow and careful read.
There is a temptation lurking, however, whenever we deconstruct our God-language and incorporate other language and metaphors. We might forget that language about and references to God are just that — referential. God-language is ultimately metaphorical, analogical, poetic–and mystical.
In Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Power and How They Can Be Restored, Marcus Borg explains the distinction between two different ways that Christianity has referred to God. The first, which he calls supernatural theism, refers to God as a being, who “exists” apart from the created universe. He says there are several categories common to this way of thinking about God as a being: (1) A Personlike being; (2) An Authority Figure; (3) An Interventionist; and (4) As Male.
Many Christians, it seems to me, assume that the male pronouns and references to God are to be taken literally as reflecting the nature of God’s being or essence, so much so that to use female pronouns instead or alongside of the male references appears to them as irreverent at best and idolatrous or heretical at worst.
It is important to practice the use of a wide array of gender pronouns and images in our worship, prayer, and preaching, so as to reiterate the inclusion and equity of all people in God’s family. By doing so, we also destabilize and interrupt our expected patterns of speech about God. These interruptions remind us that our references to and about God are analogous, metaphorical, and mystical.
God ultimately eludes our ability to encapsulate or capture in language. The many references in the Scriptures themselves demonstrate that God is beyond language, beyond human articulations of God–even while God is within us and among us as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)
As Borg points out, this reference in Acts, along with numerous other biblical texts, reflect both the transcendence and immanence, the otherness and the closeness, of God. This God is not adequately characterized by supernatural theism, with its default to God as a “being,” whether male or female.
But it is important to use diverse and inclusive personalized images and references of God nonetheless, because God is love and is present to and for us as spirit – God is not an impersonal “it.” “Personal language affirms that this reality is more than personal, but not less than personal (Borg, Speaking Christian, pg. 73).
Borg makes a pretty sharp distinction between “supernatural theism” and what he calls (and prefers) God as “sacred presence.” I would like a bit more nuance or perhaps a third category between the categories he offers. That said, I fully agree with the important point he makes, that personal language for God is important to Christian faith, but should always be understood analogously, metaphorically, and mystically–not literally.
Worship involves both the beauty and limits of our God-language.