Maternal Language for God

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted May 9, 2008

Julian of Norwich, Showings

The idea of referring to God as Mother, or even as Mother-Father, has never sat comfortably with me. I cherish the image of God as Father and attribute much of my relationship with God to the understanding that image has fostered. (Note: I’ve come a long way since first writing this post.)

Nevertheless, I felt no discomfort when reading Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Perhaps that is because it was not my first reading of her revelations using such prevalent maternal language and imagery when referring to God and especially to Jesus. Or perhaps I was not uncomfortable because she is not agenda-driven in her writing. Though Julian often refers to Jesus as our Mother, she continues to refer to him as “he” and just as often pairs the parental reference as God our Father and God our Mother.

Particularly, Julian is writing in explication of sixteen visions she had of Jesus revealing something of himself to her. If her explanations include maternal imagery in conjunction with paternal imagery, I am not upset by it but appreciate what her revelations add to my understanding of God in the role of tender nurturer.

Hildegard and Hadewijch

Likewise the use of maternal imagery in the writings of Hildegard and Hadewijch, as recorded by F. Gerald Downing, does not bother me for similar reasons. These women are not pushing an agenda, trying to force out the man in favor of the woman, or trying to emasculate men or make God a woman. They are simply recording their own experiences of personal encounters with Jesus, using the kind of language and imagery that is both appropriate to their own life experience and to the way in which Jesus chose to reveal himself to them.

As Downing notes, “Hadewijch enjoys a fully tactile (and indeed erotic) sensation of being embraced by him [Jesus] during a mass,” and Julian’s less sexually-charged image of “Christ’s motherly suckling care” is just as intimate and personal a description (429). Downing notes also that the images these women draw on in their writings are all scriptural and traditional sources available but not utilized by other theologians like Anselm and Thomas Aquinas (430).

This kind of imagery, Downing argues, leads to an understanding of “the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit towards us [as] personal, specific, and interconnected, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word and the response the Spirit enables” (433). The point is not a triumph of feminine imagery over masculine but of personal, bodily imagery of a real and experienced relationship with God over impersonal, abstract imagery of a distant God who is perfect but inaccessible.

Marriane Meye Thompson, “Speaking of God”

Marianne Meye Thompson writes in her article “Speaking of God” that it is important not to lose one’s audience for the sake of pushing a theological conviction that the way has not been prepared for (6). What is the help in praying to God as Mother before a room full of people who have no idea what you are doing?

But Julian teaches her readers, in the midst of her sensuous and bodily language, how to imagine God (and particularly Jesus) as relating to us not just like a Father but like a Mother as well: “for God’s fatherhood and motherhood is fulfilled in true loving of God; which blessed love Christ works in us” (chapter 60). I think Thompson would agree that reading Julian out of context would be detrimental to an unprepared audience, but Julian’s unashamed use of maternal language (“[Jesus] feeds us and nurtures us: even as that high sovereign kindness of motherhood [does],” chapter 63) in general draws no particular criticism.

Paul Jewett, The Ordination of Women

Paul Jewett would probably also agree that Julian’s use of maternal language is appropriate because they are just metaphors. She still uses the masculine pronoun “he” to refer to each of the three persons of the Trinity—“for he [Jesus] is our Mother, Brother, and Savior” (chapter 58, emphasis added)—which is the only thing Jewett is concerned about.

She also does not use maternal language to the exclusion of paternal language, so Jewett would not be too concerned about her usage but would probably praise her ability to integrate these images so smoothly into her descriptions. In fact, Jewett actually declares that “the church needs to teach that God is as much like a mother as like a father” (139), and thus Julian does.

Is feminine imagery for God “un-biblical?”

Thompson notes that while there is a “predominance of male imagery for God” in the Bible, it is also true that “the Bible does use feminine imagery for God” as well (2). Since “much of our language for God is metaphorical and analogical” (1), there is no grounds for the claim that it is “unbiblical to picture God in analogies from the sphere of women’s experience” (3). What Julian does in her writing is provide a balanced analogy of the parental relationship, both that of the Father and the Mother whenever she deems appropriate. In that way, she is able to elevate from a “second degree” status the part of the woman in the image of God (5).

Jewett echoes Thompson in the acknowledgement that women have been demeaned in the church, relegated to a secondary or “human-not-quite-human” status in relation to men (119). Since God has revealed himself in masculine language through the biblical authors, and since theologians have followed that tradition in referring to God, Jewett argues that it is appropriate to use masculine language, especially the masculine pronoun “he,” to refer to God (123).

Nevertheless, it is important to educate Christians that while a masculine pronoun can be more appropriate in some contexts than a feminine one, that usage must be balanced with the recognition that “God so transcends all sexual distinction as to be neither male nor female, yet appropriately likened to both” (124).

Julian does just that: likens God to both a Father and a Mother, “as truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother” (chapter 59). Ultimately, Jewett asserts, God has revealed himself not as masculine but as personal, the “personal Subject, saying I am who I am” (127), so while masculine language about God is appropriate because of tradition, “we must not continue to think of the male as supremely the bearer of the image of God” (128).

Julian helps us understand God in feminine terms as well with her many references to Jesus as the suckling mother who cares for his children: “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus feeds us with himself” (chapter 60).

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About Laura K. Cavanaugh

I'm a writer, spiritual director, and advocate of holistic body theology.

Posted on March 27, 2012, in Body of CHRIST, Community, Equality, Image of God and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Take that, John Piper! 😉

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