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).
Gender-Inclusive Language; Gender-Inclusive God–Part 4
Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here. Read part 3 here.
So “we” have now established that effort toward a mindfulness of gender-inclusive language is preferable when talking about ourselves and each other. But what about when we talk about God?
Remember when Madeleine L’Engle was writing about her perspective on gendered language? She referred to Genesis 1:27 as the basis for “man” being inclusive of both male and female. Here’s how the TNIV translates the verse:
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
If it takes both a man and a woman together to represent the image of God, then why is it that we often only use male language when referring to God? One common argument is that God is described in male language in the Bible; therefore, Bible-believing Christians must follow God’s example and continue to use male language to describe God.
Let me be clear. I do not think there is anything wrong with using male language or masculine imagery for God. In fact, God as the Father is one of my most precious expressions for God in my personal spiritual journey.
What I think is unhelpful is referring to God using male language at the exclusion of female language and feminine imagery. Christian mothers like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena helped bridge the gap by describing God using male language and at the same time feminine imagery. For example, Julian of Norwich wrote of Jesus nursing us at his breasts and described Jesus as “our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
In today’s Christian culture, many people are too quick to settle on God as Him and dismiss the movement of the Mother-Father-God-ers as radical and perhaps even heretical. For me, I strive for a more moderate stance. That’s why I avoid gender-specific pronouns when I talk about God. That’s why I still refer to Jesus as male (because he was a man, even if he isn’t still). That’s why I like to refer to the Holy Spirit as female, because so much of my experience of the divine feminine has come through encounters with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit-inspired.
Even when I must use gender-specific pronouns so as not to write myself into ridiculously awkward sentence structures, I try to use “he” and “him” or “she” and “her.” That way I know I am not saying God is “He” as in God-the-All-Masculine or “She” as in God-the-All-Feminine. Instead, I say God is “he” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-masculine or God is “she” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-feminine. In this way, I am able to balance the masculine and the feminine aspects of the Trinity, which is very biblical. At least for right now, this is what works for me.
(Does the idea of God as “she” rock your world? Ask yourself what it would be like if the situation were reversed and God as “he” was revolutionary. Watch out for double standards and try to be mindful of the way language may affect others, even if it doesn’t affect you that way.)
We all know that when the pendulum swings away from one extreme, it inevitably swings right past the middle and reaches the other extreme before it can gradually settle more and more toward the balance the middle brings. My journey with gender-inclusive language has swung from one side where “man” includes both men and women to the other side where God as “He” and “Him” makes me feel like I, as “she” and “her,” am not part of the image of God after all.
Maybe my reaction is too extreme. Maybe as the pendulum of my journey continues to swing back and forth, I will come closer and closer to the perfect balance of the middle ground.
But I’m not there yet.
So for now, oh ye readers, you will see me still swinging. Let’s approach both ourselves and each other with grace, and give each other room to swing out as far as we need to, safe in the knowledge that we will also have room to swing back.