Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
The priest gathered the children around her on Rose Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. As she sat cross-legged on the floor with the Advent wreath between her and the children, she looked around at their faces and asked a question. "Why do you think we light a pink candle on the Advent Wreath today?
Without hesitation an animated little three-year-old girl with large dark eyes blurted out with enormous conviction, "Because Mary wanted a girl!"
Obviously, this little girl had not yet been taught that it is better to be a little boy than a little girl. Make no mistake, such a lesson is unavoidable if we continue to teach our children that God is a man.
Why do our faith curricula continue to teach children things about God that they have to unlearn when they are adults? Until we are willing to relinquish our insistence on using only male images for God—images that have ravaged the female population for thousands of years—our faith will continue to give permission for the rape, neglect, abuse, disfiguring, and oppression of women and girls across the globe.
I have written a children's book in which I encourage children to imagine God as fully present in each and every child, a God created in the image of both little girls and little boys. Stellarella! It's Saturday introduces young, imaginative children to a cast of autonomous, ethnically diverse female characters who offer a variety of role models to inspire and encourage. Stellarella, a feisty, frizzy-headed little girl and her best pal, a herculean bulldog aptly named Tank, refer to God matter-of-factly as She. "She" plants strawberry seeds in dirt and creates rainbows, rabbits, bubbles, and bears. Stellarella assumes she is created in the image of God.
Author and world-renowned historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, in his endorsement of Stellarella! It's Saturday writes, "Dear Mothers and Fathers: This is a beautifully subtle and profoundly intuitive vision in which a young girl's earliest imagination moves instinctively from a mother who runs the kitchen to a God who runs the world. If women produce food and women prepare food, how is God not female? How could it be otherwise, Tank?"
Questioning the use of male pronouns to refer to God is unimaginable for some people. Male language about God so permeates our thinking and our conversation we don't even hear or recognize it.
Obviously, none of us sets out to harm our children, anyone's children. But, harm them we do.
Today, most of us do not intend to preserve a religion that excludes women and girls. In fact, many of us are horrified at such an idea. But when we perpetuate images and language that identify God with "male," we are in fact, as Joan Chittister, OSB, tells us, excluding 50 percent of the human population.
Sr. Joan has aggressively been addressing this issue for many years. She writes in her book Heart of Flesh:
Exclusion from sacristy and sanctuary, from hymns and prayers, from language and legislations of those who are not the right gender is taken for granted in a system that prizes a hierarchy of social classes and promotes it theologically...Now in a century with eyes wide open to the evils of domination, the sin of exclusiveness, the other humanity of the feminine, a God of an infinitely gentle heart waits for all of us outside old systems and old rules at someplace new.
It is essential that we offer our children curricula, worship, and liturgy that is inclusive and that proclaims a God that is invested in every little girl and every little boy.
In subsequent Stellarella stories, Stellarella sees God planting seeds in dirt, hears God's breath in seashells, laughs as She winks each time a firefly blinks, and celebrates Her birthday with every birthing day.
Follow the adventures of Stellarella and Tank at www.stellarellaandtank.com.