Posts tagged sexuality

Fathers, Sons, and Mother Hens (Pt. 2 of 2)

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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.

Fathers, Sons, and Mother Hens (Pt. 1 of 2)

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We believe in one God,
the Father…

A long, long time ago (before my finals… and midterms, for that matter…  I know, I know, a hiatus this long is simply unacceptable), I discussed the problems (and benefits) of the image of God as Father for those with various experiences with their parents.  But there’s another Father issue that may trip up some of you: the question of God’s gender.

Many people, when they hear God called “Father,” assume God is male.  For some people, God’s gender is of no consequence, but for others, thinking of God as a man is deeply problematic.  Some of us wonder why if God is good, he is called our Father, rather than our Mother, or even simply our Parent.  After all, men have traditionally been in power in our world, and they have sometimes misused that power.  God has more power than any of them—who’s to say he won’t misuse his power, as well?  And anyway, we want a God we can relate to and who can relate to us.  Can a “Father” really understand the experience of half the population?

If you’ve ever felt this way, I have good news for you today: the idea that God has a gender is a warped view of the Christian God, not based in the Bible or traditional Christian theology.  In contrast with other Ancient Near Eastern religions, the ancient Israelites did not (typically) attribute sexuality to YHWH.  (And I say typically because there were Israelites who worshipped foreign gods and goddesses in addition to YHWH, which may have colored their views of God’s gender… but this practice is condemned as idolatry in the Bible itself and not considered normative within monotheistic Judaism, despite its place in Israel’s story.)  Instead, gender seems to be part of the created order only—a category which God transcends.  That’s why unlike Zeus or Baal or other gods from the ancient world, YHWH needs no female consort.  Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image, and there is no room for considering one of them “closer” to reflecting God’s nature.

Furthermore, there are, in fact, many instances of female imagery for God throughout Scripture.  For example, the Bible contains metaphors in which God gives birth (Deut. 32:18; Is. 42:14; Is. 46:3-4) or a mother nursing (Num. 11:12, Is. 49:14-15).  Other imagery is based on women’s work and other experiences: A seamstress, a midwife, a woman in charge of a servant (Ps. 123:2), woman baking, a woman looking for a lost coin (Neh. 9:21; Ps. 22:9-10, 71:5; Is. 66:9; Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:20-21; Lk. 15:8-10) all represent God.  Even Jesus, who had biological sex compared himself to a mother hen caring for her chicks (Mt. 25:37; Lk. 13:34).*

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

*For a more extended discussion of these passages and others containing female imagery for God, see Margo G. Houts, “Images of God as Female,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 356-358.

One (Particular) God

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We believe in one God…

One of the things I have most appreciated about my academic study of religion is a newfound appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background.  My first religion course in college was on Judaism, actually— “Early Judaism,” i.e. Judaism of the Second Temple period, that time after the exile and before 70 CE.  Of course, my college New Testament introduction and my later seminary courses also emphasized the stories of ancient Israel and the significance of this religious background for Jesus and his Jewish community.

In particular, I have found it fascinating to ponder the enormity of the Jewish commitment to monotheism.  In seminary I learned that some scholars believe Israel was originally henotheistic—worshipping only one god but accepting the potential existence of many.  Over time, they say, Israel increasingly emphasized that YHWH was not only the stronger god or the proper god to worship, but YHWH was indeed the only real deity.  The others were merely idols fashioned by human hands and imaginations.  Some more conservative Christians are disturbed to think about Israel potentially believing in other gods, but however things happened, Israel’s dedication to YHWH was radical in their polytheistic surroundings.

Many of us who grew up in a Western context find it enough to simply accept the existence of one God, so I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on not only the number of gods but also the identity of the true God.  God has a name YHWH, typically translated “the LORD” or read by Jews as “Adonai.”  The character of this God matches what we might assume in some ways—but in some regards we may be surprised.

The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize that YHWH is compassionate, forgiving, a lover of social justice, and a powerful force to be reckoned with, among other things.  Some passages actually explicitly or implicitly compare YHWH to other peoples’ gods.  For example, unlike Baal who doesn’t answer, YHWH never sleeps, always available to his people (1 King 18).  Unlike Marduk, YHWH didn’t make people to be his slaves but to be co-reigners over the earth (Gen. 1, as compared to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish).  And in contrast with the sexual overtones of most religions, Judaism’s God transcended gender.

We who are Christians are also devoted to this one God who revealed himself as YHWH to Moses at the burning bush and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  This story is our heritage—with all of its rich descriptions of God’s character and actions and instruction for us.  When I say with the Nicene Creed that I believe in one God, I like to pause and remember that this is not just any abstract deity that I worship but a deeply personal God who has interacted with human beings throughout history.  And the better I get to know this God, the more I feel grateful that YHWH, in particular, is the one real deal.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

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