More on Gendering God

This started as a comment on this post but ballooned out of control.

Yes, bls, you’re right—we started gendering God quite a long time ago; now the question is what to do about it and why. The last is probably the place to start…

The Scriptures and the Tradition have shown a repeated preference for metaphors that are male (Father and Son). I also think there’s no debate that the Scriptures and Tradition were produced by patriarchal cultures and that the theological authorities were overwhelmingly males and, for much of the Christian era, celibates to boot. (I think the last point is significant; in some—though certainly not all—monastic/hagiographical literature there’s an inclination to see women as the enemy out to destroy the man’s purity… The stories of Aquinas’s early days come to mind.) Furthermore, one Person of the Trinity does have physical gender—by all accounts Jesus became incarnate as a man, thus increasing the potential for literalization of the metaphors of Father and Son.

But what’s our goal–to fix metaphor or to transcend metaphor?

I’m speaking in very broad strokes now…

Mother Laura’s approach moves towards fixing the metaphors by balancing them, male and female and neutral.

Fr. John-Julian’s approach seeks to transcend metaphor by cutting through human language to spiritual realities.

I see Doug trying both to fix metaphor and transcend metaphor through a re-energizing of the metaphor. Yes, bls, Doug’s connection of mother language with Jesus rather than with the First Person of the Trinity is a contradiction and that’s the point… Using female language of the one Person who may legitimately be called gendered and male serves as a paradox—hopefully as a Zen-like koan, even—that assists us to retain the metaphors of both “Son” and “Mother” yet points to transcendence in the gap between the two.

As much as I’d like to transcend metaphor (a la my “trial shot“) I don’t think most congregations will reach that point en masse. So—some kind of fix has to occur. I’m just not sure what, but I dislike an unreflective knee-jerk changing of metaphors (which is not at all what I see you doing, Mother Laura).

Now, I fully recognize that I’m classic “oppressor” material–a straight white male from the educated class upholding, on the surface at least, the way of speaking and think that has kept me and mine on top. I’m conscious of all that—and yet… I do feel that re-energizing the traditional language is still spiritually and theologically useful; I’ll give two quick examples without all the nuancing and hedging that I’d normally prefer for lack of time:

1) I worry that sometimes (though certainly not all) when “Mother” is used for God it is used because it is the word for a female parent and not because it is engaging the metaphor of “Mother”. That is, “Father” as a root metaphor means something different from “Parent” and “Mother”. All three carry different social, cultural, and emotional freight. Yes, I realize I’m splitting hairs here—but I keep sensing that they’re important hairs for the discussion.

2) As I tell my students, theology is an integrated science; we can’t change one part without affecting (and effecting) other things. “Father” as a metaphor for God cannot—to my mind—be abstracted from a host of meanings that tie deeply to our sacramental theology among other things. A professor in college once told me that God was not male in Scripture since he lacked the primary marker for male gods in the Ancient Near East—a consort: there’s no Mrs. YWHW. But upon study and reflection, I believe this dear mentor was wrong. Mrs. YHWH is the pilgrim people of God, Israel and the Church. The Church is the bride of Christ and the Blessed Virgin is the pre-eminent sign and type of the Church. (Yes, there’s an oedipal thing there we won’t go into now…) And this matters deeply when we talk about our Eucharistic and Baptismal theology and therefore also ties into our doctrines of salvation. Changing the metaphor profoundly changes the relationship (in ways I’d never really thought through before—interesting…)

I think this topic is an important one because of its many implications both pastoral and theological. Mother Laura and Doug are thinking through these issues but so many I’ve seen in seminaries aren’t—they’re appropriating the dominant model (whether patriarchal or not)—without applying thought and sussing out the implications and that bothers me.

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3 Responses to More on Gendering God

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for these conversations. I will be tackling these issues after the New Year as I prepare my Approval Essay, which this year focuses on the Trinity and the ways we refer to God. I’m “starring” your posts on my Google Reader, will come back and re-read them in January, and share some thoughts of my own at that time. Thanks!

  2. Caelius Spinator says:

    And because the ancients lacked our hang-ups about patriarchal language reinforcing debatable patriarchal power structures, they occasionally say such interesting things about the gender of God. My favorite ancient exegetical trope is Christ as Sophia (speaking of proposed candidates for Mrs. YHWH), which you even can justify with the Epistles.

  3. bls says:

    In A.A., we are very used to various metaphors for God; the Steps speak of “God as we understand him” – and yes, even as they offer this very lightly-defined formula, the “gendered” language remains in place!

    The point, though, is that it’s openly acknowledged that one person’s “picture” of God will differ from the person sitting beside her – but we all agree in common that God is the Power Greater Than Ourselves that “restores us to sanity.”

    All that is to say that I have no problem with “Father” language, simply because it’s the language Jesus used. That was the God of his understanding, and since he is the Son, I do not find the usage problematic at all. But neither do I find “Mother” language problematic, because Jesus also used metaphors around this. I do agree with Derek about paradox – but I don’t see why his formula wouldn’t apply as well to “God the Father.” I don’t agree with him that “Father” is really that much different than “Mother,” though.

    BTW, Caelius, it’s not really about “patriarchal power structures.” It’s about the fact that half of the human race has gone unrepresented in the church’s view of God, which has indeed been almost exclusively male for 2,000 years. Even the Holy Spirit, neutral in Greek and feminine in Hebrew, becomes a “He.” What people are doing these days is ungendering God, in the interests of – we believe – a less culturally-bound (and hopefully a truer) view.

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