Posts tagged Trinity

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.

Father Issues

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We believe in one God,
the Father…

The Father.  Everyone has a different reaction to that part.  Some of you have great relationships with your fathers, making it easy to imagine a loving Father God.  Others of you don’t see much of your father but know he loves you—yours is okay, but you wouldn’t mind an additional heavenly Dad.  Or maybe fathers aren’t really the sort of people you want to spend time around.  Perhaps your father has never seemed to “get” you, or maybe he just doesn’t seem to care.  Maybe you don’t get along with him very well.  Some of you have even experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of your fathers.

Complicating matters, you may have multiple fathers—biological vs. adopted vs. step, or even two fathers who are gay partners.  You may live with an additional father figure—a grandfather or uncle, for example.  You might not even know your biological father because he left your family when you were young.  For a few of you, a paternity test has never proven his identity or he was an anonymous donor at a sperm bank.  Some of you feel no loss from not having a father because your mother(s), grandparents, or others have done such a fantastic job raising you.  On the other hand, some of you deeply miss your fathers, especially the few who have endured the untimely death of a dad.

In my own family tree, fatherhood has looked different in every generation.  My maternal grandmother’s biological father left when she was two, so her “Daddy” was her stepfather (and a very good one, thankfully).  My maternal grandfather had an abusive alcoholic for a father, but because he learned from his family’s mistakes, my mom ended up with an involved and loving dad.  My own dad was very emotionally abusive, but I now enjoy the chance to spend time with my father-in-law Mike, who has been a wise and caring father to my husband.

Your story is probably similar.  Dads are sometimes good and sometimes bad and usually a mix.  For some of you God as Father is an easy concept, maybe even desirable.  For others God as Father is confusing, uncomfortable, complicated, or even revolting.  Even when we know God is not supposed to be anything like our human fathers, it can be difficult for some of us to warm up to the “heavenly Father” idea.  If that’s you, I want to encourage you, that God is not upset at you for having difficulty trusting him in a father-ish way.

Whether God as father is just an awkward and confusing thought or a sharp sting demanding a journey of deeper healing, I believe God can handle your issues with his desire to be your Father.  I believe Jesus invites us into relationship with his Father, but with that invitation God offers his patience.  He knows your background and will be with you all the way as you open yourself up to him more and more, gradually learning to trust that he will be the good Father he promises.

On the other hand, those of you who feel great about God as Father—whether because of the merits or deficiencies of your experiences with other dads—have an opportunity to share his love with others.  When you care for those around you, including your own children one day (if you have them), remember how meaningful it is to be loved well.  Whether an adoptive or biological parent, a “spiritual” parent, an “auntie” or “uncle” to others in your community, an advocate for social justice, or just a true friend in times of need, we all have the power to communicate the God’s concern for others.  The way we share the love we have been shown may be just what someone else needs to hope that there really is a heavenly Father who cares for them, too.

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

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