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Credo: The Nicene Creed

3. The Father

Since the time of Jesus, “Father” has been probably the most loved of the titles Christians give to God. And now it’s become controversial. Here are some of the issues:

  • Is the fatherhood that we experience really a good image for God? What about people who’ve experience nothing but bad fathers?
  • If “father” describes God, why not “mother” as well?
  • If God is “He,” why not “she” as well? Should our language for God be less masculine, more explicitly inclusive of the other sex?
  • Is Christianity sexist? Is the Bible sexist? Does our “masculine” God promote sexism?
  • What are masculine and feminine qualities, anyway?
  • Is God masculine or feminine or both or neither?

Imagining God as father I had been praying the phrase “almighty Father” for as long as I could remember when I was informed by my parish liturgical minister that these two words represent images that don’t go very well together. With just a quick reflection on my experience as a father, I saw the truth of his words. And if you’re starting to think of yourself as particularly mighty, I could recommend becoming a father to cure your delusion. “Father” and “almighty” make a very odd combination. Maybe the International Committee on English in the Liturgy agreed with that because they put a comma between the two ideas: “the father, the almighty.” In doing so I believe they were faithful to the original Greek. (The new translation of 2011, largely dictated by Rome, goes back to "almighty Father," unfortunately.)

In the Mediterranean world of Jesus and the early Church, a father was legally “almighty” in relation to other family members. Those who want to continue that tradition today can appeal to Roman law for support, but not to the Christian Creed translated, as I believe, correctly. Jesus’ words don’t support the idea of “almighty father” either. In an environment which gave supreme power to parents over children and fathers over the whole family, Jesus pictured God as a father who gave in to a son’s premature demand for his inheritance and then waited longingly for the prodigal’s return. Jesus clearly did not support the absolute control of fathers over children that was the norm in his society. He raised the status of children when he commanded, “Let the children come to me,” and when he enjoined his followers to become like little children. Jesus challenged the image that his world had of fatherhood, and he challenges ours as well. Those of us who try to be good fathers and those who have had good fathers are challenged no less than those with primarily bad experiences of their fathers—all of us are challenged when we try to imagine God as father.

Is God mother? There’s no question: The images the Bible uses for God are overwhelmingly male. God is judge, shepherd, warrior—all male roles in Biblical times, though not necessarily so today. Mostly God is king in the Hebrew Bible and Father in Christian scriptures. But female imagery is not entirely lacking. The Women’s Ordination Conference has made a list of Bible verses that describe God with female images: ·        

  • Hosea 11:3-4, God described as a mother. “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” ·        
  • Hosea 13:8, God described as a mother bear. "Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder...” ·        
  • Deuteronomy 32:18, God who gives birth. “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” ·        
  • Isaiah 66:13, God as a comforting mother. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” ·        
  • Isaiah 49:15, God compared to a nursing mother. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” ·        
  • Matthew 23:37, Jesus shows his feminine side. "JerusalemJerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!”

The WOC actually listed a couple more, but I think they were not helpful. One mentioned a queen god, but this was a god the Israelites were not supposed to worship. I don’t know how they could have made that mistake.

It’s only a few passages, but it shows that imagining God as mother is at least possible in biblical religion. Pope John Paul I affirmed this possibility strongly: “God is Father, and even more, He is Mother.” And his successor, John Paul II, said, “The father who embraces his lost son is the definitive icon of God…. The merciful father of the parable has in himself …. all of the characteristics of fatherhood and motherhood. In embracing the son he shows the profile of a mother.”

Is God ever “she” in the Bible? Notice that both popes, in speaking of God as mother, referred to God as “he.” Logically you would expect a “she” there, but this is something that the Bible never does, even when it uses feminine imagery for God. The Bible also refuses to acknowledge a female god alongside Yahweh. You do find God’s wisdom referred to as “she,” and some people claim this is Yahweh’s consort. But the Bible is very clear. Even though it was a long time before the Jews decided that there simply were no other gods besides Yahweh, and even though ordinary Jews did worship other gods, the Bible as we have it claims only Yahweh as Israel’s God.

So what is going on with the female imagery. I think there are some images that are applied more literally to God and others less literally. In the Hebrew Scriptures “king” seems to be the most literal image. On Jesus’ lips it’s “father” that is most literal. It helps to look at this development, which actually started a little before Jesus. Hebrew authors give many titles to God, but with “king” you get the impression they really mean it. Here are some examples: ·        

  • Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, (Psalms 5:2) ·        
  • The Lord is king forever and ever. (Psalms 10:16) ·        
  • Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. (Psalms 24:8)

And that’s only one sixth of the way through the Book of Psalms. In contrast, here are some of the Hebrew references to God as father: ·        

  • Isaiah 64:8. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.       
  • Jeremiah 3:19. I thought how I would set you among my children, and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. ·        
  • Psalm 103:13. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.  

Imagine you were the Isaiah of the first quote telling your real father, “You are my father.” It doesn’t make much sense. That’s something you would only say to someone who is not your real father, a mentor perhaps. Most of the older references to God as father are like that or are obviously just comparisons, like the third quote. Very late in the pre-Christian era, however, it changes somewhat. In a work written in the second century before Christ we find: ·        

  • LORD, Father and Master of my life, permit me not to fall by them! (Sirach 23:1)

It sounds like the author of this work, included in the Catholic but not the Protestant Bible, means “father” literally.

With Jesus it’s even more real: ·        

  • Father, hallowed be your name. (Luke 11:2) ·        
  • Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. (Luke 22:42) ·        
  • Your heavenly father knows that you need all these things.  (Matthew 6:32)

When Jesus says “king” of God, it sounds more like a metaphor.

  • "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet . . .” (Matthew 22:2)

It’s interesting that Jesus switched from “king” to “father.” The father image has much more room for feminine qualities. As John Paul II said, Jesus’ father has “all of the characteristics of fatherhood and motherhood.” Still we don’t say of God “Oh, Mother” as we do “Oh, Father.” All of the references to God as mother are comparisons only. It never sounds real. In the Bible God is never “she.” God is imagined very nearly exclusively as male, and God is always “he” even if, to requote John Paul I, “he is mother.” Is that the way it should be?  

Inclusive language Things are changing. I was at a dinner party with friends, and after a decent amount of wine had been drunk, the conversation turned to religion. I made a statement referring to God as “he,” and one of the participants immediately corrected my “he” with “she.” I thought, If I’m going to talk about God when I’m half in the bag, I shouldn’t have to worry about my personal pronouns. I think the movement toward inclusiveness—less masculine, more feminine—in our language and imagery about God is a good thing; but I’m not sure how far it should go. Here are some thoughts about that:

  • It’s good to have more than just masculine images for God. To king, judge, father, we could add friend, lover, counselor, consoler, advocate, companion, patron, support, friend, source and ground of our being—and mother.
  • The English language is big on personal pronouns. We use the words “he,” “him,” and “his” much more often than, say, Spanish or Latin. In both the latter languages “he” is often omitted. The Spanish “his” doesn’t even look or sound masculine, and in Latin it takes the gender of the thing possessed, not the possessor. The result is that language about God sounds a whole lot more masculine in English than it does in some other languages. Recently some religious speakers and writers, sensitive to the impressions that even the sound of language can make, have found ways to say what they want to say without using quite so many of these masculine words. It's called inclusive language, and I think that’s a good thing.
  • On the other hand, I think there are limits to how far inclusive language should go. One priest I know never uses a masculine pronoun for God in his homilies, and it sounds stilted. He has to repeat “God” all the time and use made-up words like “Godself” instead of himself. It isn’t really our language, and if the long struggle we Catholics had getting English into the liturgy means anything, it’s that God does speak to us in our own imperfect language.

Can we call God “she”? Let’s say we someday succeed in balancing masculine images for God with feminine and neutral ones. The question then is, Can we also use feminine pronouns for God? And can we raise the status of the feminine images; for example, can we also say “Oh Mother” to God as we now say “Oh Father” and mean it literally, not just think of God as having motherly characteristics? I can only guess at an answer, and my guess is partly Yes but more No.

The “Yes” part is already happening. My friend (of the dinner and wine party) can pray to her “Mother” and think of God as “she.” Feminist theologians say there is a deepening of spirituality when women are free to think of God as one like them. I think the deepening may accrue to men as well if you drop the “like them” part. My “Yes” would be a limited one, though. First, much is perfectly appropriate in a person’s private spirituality and prayer. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century mystic, and, Wikipedia says, possibly the first person to publish a book in English, wrote of God and even of Christ as mother. She says she means it literally. But such a thought would not have worked in a typical parish liturgy, not then and not today. You can expand the mind faster than the heart. It's easy enough to think about God as mother, even if your image of God is very masculine.  Saying to God from the heart "Oh Mother" is another story. Parts of the liturgy appeals to the mind, but mostly it's a prayer from the heart. We aren't all Julian of Norwich--yet.

A second, more serious objection concerns the idea of thinking of God as like oneself. Catholic feminist theologian Carolyn Osiek asks, “Can you [men] identify with a feminine Goddess in the same way that women have been expected to identify with a masculine God?” (“Images of God: Breaking Boundaries,” Spirituality Today, Winter 1988, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 333-344) I don’t know if men identify with a masculine God, but I don’t think they should. “Identifying with” is a modern psychological concept. It doesn’t apply very well to our relationship to God. God identifies with us, most especially in Jesus. The distance that God traveled from the divine to the human in that historical event completely overshadows the choice of becoming a male human as opposed to a female human. And how odd it would have been if God had decided to become both sexes! Then God would not have identified with anybody.

To be human is to be one sex or the other, and that’s exactly what God chose. In that way God became like all of us. To turn that historical event around in a psychological process of “identifying” with God—to try to cross that infinite distance between human and divine in the other direction—is to ask for trouble, specifically the trouble of discovering that one kind of god is easier to identify with than another. It’s to ask for a plurality of gods, not just male and female but also white and black, Asian and Native American, and European, old and young, bald and hirsute.

In a sense we all invent our gods, that is, our images of God. If we invent an image of God that makes us feel more comfortable with who and what we are, that’s probably OK, as long as we don’t have too distorted an image of ourselves. But I think the classic “inventions” of god images, that ones that have kept their power through time and across the world, have not been for the purpose of making identifying with God easier. I’m thinking, for example, of the image of the soul as feminine and God as the masculine lover, which is found in the Bible’s “Song of Songs” and also in the writings of many saints, including men; and the image of the whole Church, from the Pope on down, as bride and Christ as the bridegroom; and the image of God as father and us as his children, even the image of God as holy and us as sinners. Notice the human side of all these images. None of them have us, especially us men, where we want to think of ourselves. All of them challenge some deep assumptions that we have about ourselves. We don’t want to think of ourselves as sinners and, I expect, not as children either. Man doesn't get any advantage from these images; he's challenged to see himself as a woman. And the challenge to woman, no less difficult, is to think of herself as partner in a committed relationship, a marriage, not just in a certain part of her existence to a particular individual by her own choice, but through and through, in her essence.

These classic images, conditioned though they are by their time and place and culture of male dominance, have the power of putting us all--men and women, old and young, and so on--in the same boat. At times, not often enough but in our better moments, we have recognized that power. In relation to God we are equal. This writing must close sometime, and there are too many more questions. God is not either a man or a woman but in relation to us God shows some masculine and some feminine qualities. Does our male imaging of God, calling God always "he," say anything real about this relationship? What are our images of man and woman, and what should they be? Does our image of God have anything to do with the dominance of men over women in society? Is the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women from the priesthood justified? I struggle with all these questions. But, if we recognize that an image is just an image, then I’m sure the more images the better. I would like to see the Church find plentiful use for female images. A prayer envisioning God with motherly qualities, maybe one written by a pope, would be a good start. I’ve tried to imagine this papal prayer. (I assume that a pope could do better.) As a conclusion, here is:

A Prayer to our Mothering God

Our most compassionate God, you brought forth a universe of galaxies and stars and planets with creatures that live and love, like you. You send your children forth all unprepared on paths untrod, as all mothers do. Our earthly mothers remember the care they have for their children, from the womb and ever on, even when it causes them sorrow. So surround us always with the womb* of your compassion. Remember your First Born, Jesus. Please do this for us, Jesus' sisters and brothers. Amen.

* An interesting fact: The Hebrew word for compassion is the plural of “womb.” 

On to 5. All things visible and invisible