Fathers, Sons, and Mother Hens (Pt. 2 of 2)
Continued from Pt. 1.
If both masculine and feminine metaphors describe YHWH in Scripture, why do so many assume God is male? We must recognize the flaws of the English language (and many other languages) are partly to blame for an excess of masculine language for God. Many people struggle with whether it is more appropriate to call God “he,” “she,” “it,” or simply “God.” While “he” is imperfect, “she” also fails to fairly represent a God that transcends gender. On the other hand, “it” does not do justice to fact that God is not merely a force but a person, and continuously repeating “God” and “Godself” can feel awkward.
If we had a gender-neutral personal pronoun, perhaps we’d feel more comfortable with instances of masculine or feminine gendered imagery for God in the Bible. Unfortunately, we do not, and so references to God the “Father” can feel instantly offensive to those of us already tired of calling a God without sex a “he.” There is no easy solution to this problem, so everyone approaches it differently. Some use “she” to push back, others alternate pronouns, some use the traditional “he,” etc.—and we should probably tolerate some difference in preference here.
However we solve the pronoun problem, I agree that God has probably been more associated with fatherhood than motherhood because of patriarchy—a fact which can feel unfair or distasteful. Nevertheless, I don’t think this needs to reflect negatively on God’s person. It merely exposes the shortcomings of the cultures in which we’ve tried to describe God. For example, since women have historically lacked power, in some ways it is logical that an omnipotent God would be more often described in masculine imagery. This does not mean God approves of patriarchy. Rather, masculine language sometimes just made the most sense to ancient storytellers and their audience.
We need to remember that God worked through real (read: broken) people and cultures to give us the Bible—it didn’t just fall down from on high in one piece, written from the perspective of a 21st century American. In my view, these cultural limitations only highlight the significance of feminine imagery in the Bible and the various qualities of God that fit many cultures’ stereotypes of women (like nurturing or compassion). This does not always assuage our discomfort with father language, but it certainly helps.
As a feminist, I share the concerns some of you may feel regarding overly masculine God language. Nevertheless, I think we lose something important when we discard the “Father.” Jesus talked about his “father” in the Gospels, and “Father” quickly became the name of the first person of the Trinity among the earliest Christians—it is hard to justify total rejection of a term with such an important history. Clearly, however, we should celebrate God’s maternal qualities, as well as paternal ones.
The fact is, ideals of masculinity and femininity vary between cultures anyway, but God transcends both cultural and gendered boxes. God may look similar to white American women and Chinese men in some ways and South African men and ancient Mayan women in others. But regardless of where we’re coming from and what we see as a “good man” or “normal woman,” God shows us what is good. Whatever our gender or culture, God is the ultimate example of what it means to be holy, compassionate, just, patient, strong, merciful, and innumerable other positive characteristics we hope to emulate with his help.
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.