Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is God's Nature "Father" and not "Mother"?

There is an argument among Christians today about whether the Father God can also be thought of as a Mother.  Paul R. Smith's Book Is it Ok to Call God Mother? - Considering the Feminine Face of God answers "yes."  Many other Christians have also pointed out the many feminine/motherhood metaphors describing God both in the Old and New Testaments.  Clearly, according to Genesis 1:27, both male and female humans are made in the image of God; therefore, though God is a Spirit and without gender, God's nature must encompass both male and female.  Shouldn't this mean that God our Father is also God our Mother?

Certainly not, other Christian groups say.  Jesus, they point out, taught us to call God "Father," but He never called God "Mother."  Some cite Ephesians 3:14-15:

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named. (KJV) -- which in some translations reads:  "from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name" (Phillips) or "of whose fatherhood all heavenly and earthly fatherhood is a copy" (Barclay, Daily Study Bible).

Proponents of this doctrine say that theologically, we need to discard the idea that being Father means God is male; but the nature of God is Fatherhood, and all fatherhood on earth springs from God's very essence.  "Father" is what God is called-- one of God's names-- and therefore describes the nature of God.  But since God is not called "Mother" in the scriptures, the motherhood images of God are merely metaphors-- word pictures to help us understand something about God, just as referring to God's "feathers" (Psalm 91:4) does not make God a bird.  God is Father, not Mother-- and indeed, some who teach this insist that it is actually blasphemy to refer to God as Mother.

There are problems with this teaching, however.  First of all, the word translated "fatherhood" in certain translations of Ephesians 3:15 is the Greek word "patria"  As I quoted above, the King James version translates this as "family," as do most other translations, with only a few using "fatherhood."  There are only three instances in the New Testament where this word "patria" is used.

Luke 2:4 - And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into. . . Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage (patria) of David.

Acts 3:25 - Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made. . . saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds (patria) of the earth be blessed. 

And, of course, Ephesians 3:15 - Of whom the whole family (patria) in heaven and earth is named.

Ephesians 3:14-15 does make a play on words between "Father (pater) of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "of whom the whole family (patria) of heaven and earth is named."  God the Father is seen as the Pater of the patria, which is a word linguistically related to "father."  But just because it is related to the word "father" does not make this word mean "fatherhood"!  "Fatherhood," as proponents of this teaching mean it, is "the state or nature of being a father."  But patria is not a concept word referring to a state of being; it is a concrete word referring to a group of people that are related by familial descent.  Therefore, meaning of this verse in its original language has to do with God being the source and engenderer of all people groups-- not the source of a state of being called "fatherhood" that women and mothers can never share.

This verse simply does not say that the nature of God is fatherhood and not motherhood.  In fact, there are certain implications of the idea that the nature of God is fatherhood and not motherhood, which the teachers of this doctrine may not have anticipated nor even desired.

1. If fatherhood is directly derived from God’s nature and motherhood is not, then what this would mean is that fatherhood is not only a biological thing, but a spiritual, divine thing, while motherhood is a biological thing only. This would mean that only fatherhood, and not motherhood, can have a spiritual dimension.

2. This wreaks havoc with the idea (which is often also believed by those who accept the doctrine of God-as-Father-only) that motherhood is a woman's highest calling. If motherhood is not spiritual and does not partake of the Divine Nature, how can it in any sense be a high calling?

3. This view degrades motherhood and thus womanhood, for if this necessary function of women does not reflect the nature of God, while the corresponding necessary function of men does reflect the nature of God, then women do not reflect God in one of the main aspects of the very nature of womanhood. ("Necessary" here is used in its meaning in logic-- not that it is necessary for women to be mothers, but that the potential  to be mothers and not fathers is "necessary" to the definition of womanhood.)  However, the holders of this doctrine usually believe men and women are both made in the image of God and are equal before God; that they just have different "roles."  But tying these roles into the nature of male vs. female humanity, and then saying the female role does not reflect the nature of God, contradicts the assertion of equality.

4. To find it insulting to God, or blasphemous, to think of God as having a mother's nature as well as a father's, smells of misogyny. Why should the Motherhood of God be blasphemous, unless there is something unholy about motherhood/womanhood?

5.  If only fatherhood, and not motherhood, can have a spiritual dimension (see point 1), then women must also, being made in the image of God, be able to partake of this spiritual, divine thing called Fatherhood, so women must be able to be spiritual fathers. To say otherwise is to say women are not as much made in God’s image as men are.  And yet the idea that women as well as men can be spiritual fathers is distasteful to those who believe this doctrine-- most likely because they associate "fatherhood" with authority that they believe women were never intended by God to have.

So, given that one way of testing an idea is to follow it through to its implications-- the implications of this idea seem to end up in a very self-contradictory place!  Perhaps it makes more sense to say that the nature of God is to engender, which both fathers and mothers actually do, and that there are other reasons why God is not called our "Mother" in the Bible that are unrelated to whether motherhood is also God's nature.

I'm going to go through some of the arguments in an online reprinting of Why God is Father and Not Mother by Mark Brumley, managing editor of the Catholic Faith Magazine (who originally published this in the July/August issue of 1999), to see how well his arguments hold together and if another way of looking at the issues he raises makes more sense.

Brumley says:

Since Christians believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, they must hold that He most fully reveals how we, by grace, should understand God: as Father. Otherwise they tacitly deny the central claim of their faith—that Christ is the fullness of God’s self-disclosure to man. Non-Christians may do that, of course, but Christians cannot—not without ceasing to be Christians in any meaningful sense of the word.

Here is the doctrine made explicit:  Jesus revealed God as "Father," and if we say otherwise, we are denying Christ and ceasing to be Christians.

The problem, of course, is that my understanding of the God-as-Mother concept is not that it denies the Fatherhood of God-- not at all.  Rather, that the Motherhood of God is a viable concept in addition to that of God's Fatherhood.  I am not saying we should stop viewing God as Father, but only that it is possible to view God as Father without excluding Mother.  Jesus, of course, stands in a special relation to God in that God is His Father in a way that God is not Father to the rest of us, except by adoption (see Galatians 4:5).  As Brumley himself says:

Now whatever else we say about God, we cannot say that He is Jesus’ mother, for Jesus’ mother is not God but Mary. Jesus’ mother was a creature; His Father, the Creator. "Father" and "Mother" are not, then, interchangeable terms for God in relation to Jesus.

Brumley then insists that if God was not Mother to Jesus, He [male pronouns for God are intended to be understood as generic here] cannot be Mother to us.  But that is precisely what Brumley cannot say, given his own words.  Jesus had no human father; He did have a human mother.  But the rest of us have both human mothers and human fathers.  Jesus could not call God His mother because God was exclusively His father.  God is not exclusively our Father, for we have human fathers as well.  Since God is our Father in a different way than He is Jesus' Father, it is not impossible that God could also be our Mother in that same way.

We cannot escape the fact that Jesus taught us to pray to "Our Father" and not "Our Mother."  But how restrictively should this be understood?  Brumley believes that it is wrong to call God anything other than what is revealed:

Undergirding Jesus’ teaching about God as Father is the idea that God has revealed Himself as to be such and that His revelation should be normative for us. God, in other words, calls the theological shots. If He wants to be understood primarily in masculine terms, then that is how we should speak of Him. To do otherwise, is tantamount to idolatry—fashioning God in our image, rather than receiving from Him His self-disclosure as the Father.

So is it wrong for humans to call God something other than what God calls Himself?  There is at least one place in scripture where a human does just that-- and God does not rebuke her.  Genesis 16 tells the story of how Hagar, Abraham's slave wife, was driven away by Sarah, and how God met Hagar in the wilderness.  Genesis 16:13 tells us, "And she [Hagar] called the name of the Lord who spoke to her 'You, God see me,' [or, "the God who sees"] for she said, 'Have I also here seen Him who sees me?'"   

There are actually many names for God used in the Old Testament, including names taken from other ancient religions.  There is one-- the name transliterated "Yahweh"-- which God calls His own Name, speaking to Moses in Exodus 3:14, but there is no indication that each and every other name used for God, including "El, "Adonai," and "Shaddai" [or "El Shaddai"], and "Ehyeh," were names God personally revealed to humanity as His names.  There are stories throughout the Old Testament where a person has an encounter with God and speaks of God using a new variation on one of these names.  Of course, Jesus' revelation of God should take primacy-- but there is simply no place where the Bible states that it is wrong for humans to give names to God.

Brumley goes on:

The fact is, whenever the Bible uses feminine language for God, it never applies it to Him in the same way masculine language is used of Him. Thus, the primary image of God in Scripture remains masculine, even when feminine similes are used: God is never called "She" or "Her." As Protestant theologian John W. Miller puts it in Biblical Faith and Fathering: "Not once in the Bible is God addressed as mother, said to be mother, or referred to with feminine pronouns. On the contrary, gender usage throughout clearly specifies that the root metaphor is masculine-father.

The question here, of course, is "why?"  Brumley dismisses the idea that the use of masculine pronouns and names for God could be driven by the patriarchal mindset of the times in which the Bible was written, but the fact remains that the word "father" (and other masculine names) in ancient times would have conveyed things God intended to reveal about Himself which the word "mother" (and other female names) could not have conveyed.  Women had no legal power in those times and were considered property to be transferred from male to male.  But this is no longer the case today.   Women today in society have the same rights and powers as men, and mothers today hold the same legal authority over their children that fathers do.  Therefore, the word "mother" no longer carries implications of powerlessness or dependence.

In fact, since fathers and mothers are different in the way they relate to their children (and children relate differently to them) motherhood conveys different concepts of relationship-- not inherently better, but different-- so that the desire to relate spiritually to a religious mother figure is widespread in humanity. Brumley, who says "Catholicism’s doctrine that Mary is the 'Mother of Christians' is correct," himself embraces a spiritual Mother in Mary. Protestants believe Mary should be honored as Christ's mother without becoming our own Mother. But many Protestants feel something lacking in relating to God only as Father. Is the desire for a divine mother-child relationship a genuine human need, and does it actually spring from the Motherhood of God? God is the One who said, after all, "As one whom his mother comforteth, so shall I comfort you." Isaiah 66:13. Though God does not call Himself "Mother" in the Bible, there certainly are promises of Motherhood in a verse like that one!

What are the reasons Brumley gives for why God is Father and not Mother, given that he disagrees that it has something to do with the Bible's patriarchal cultures? Brumley says:

A father is the "principle" or "source" of procreation in a way a mother is not. To be sure, both father and mother are parents of their offspring and in that sense both are causes of their offspring’s coming-to-be. But they are so in different ways. Both mother and father are active agents of conception (contrary to what Aristotle thought). But the father, being male, initiates procreation; he enters and impregnates the woman, while the woman is entered and impregnated. There is an initiatory activity by the man and a receptive activity by the woman.

This idea is inherently male-centered in perspective.  As Brumley says, it used to be thought that only the father was an active agent of conception: that he contributed the "seed" to which the mother's body was merely the "soil" in which the seed was planted.  We now know that both mother and father produce a "seed"-- sperm and an egg-- which combine together to become a child.  But the idea that the father "enters" the mother to "impregnate" her is neither more nor less accurate than the idea that the mother "encompasses" the father in order to "take" his seed.  Many men can testify that when a woman wants to become a mother, it is frequently not the man who "initiates activity"!  In short, there is no reason why God's generative, life-giving power is not as physically analogous to motherhood as it is to  fatherhood.

Another idea of Brumley's is this:

Because the father procreates outside of himself, his child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) other than his father. Likewise, the father is other than his child (though also not wholly). In other words, the father, as father, transcends his child. Fatherhood, in this sense, symbolizes transcendence in relation to offspring, though we also recognize that, as the "source" of his child’s life, the father is united or one with his child and therefore he is not wholly a symbol of transcendence.

On the other hand, because the mother procreates within herself—within her womb where she also nurtures her child for nine months—her child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of herself. And similarly, the mother is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of her child. In other words, the mother, as mother, is one with her child. Motherhood, in this sense, symbolizes immanence, though we recognize that as a distinct being, the mother is also other than her child and therefore not wholly a symbol of immanence. . . .

Which leaves us with the obvious question, "If this is so, why does traditional theology use only male language for God?" The answer: because God’s transcendence has a certain priority over His immanence in relation to creation. . .

To prevent God’s transcendence from being lost sight of and God being wrongly reduced to, or even too closely identified with, His creation, language stressing transcendence—masculine terms such as father —is necessary. . .

Thus, in order to express adequately God’s infinite transcendence and to avoid idolatrously identifying God with the world (without severing Him from His creation, as in deism), even on the metaphorical level we must use fatherly language for God. Motherly language would give primacy to God’s immanence and tend to confuse Him with His creation (pantheism). This does not exclude all maternal imagery—as we have seen even the Bible occasionally employs it—but it means we must use such language as the Bible does, in the context of God’s fatherhood.

In other words, God’s Fatherhood includes the perfections of both human fatherhood and human motherhood. Scripture balances transcendence and immanence by speaking of God in fundamentally masculine or paternal terms, yet also occasionally using feminine or maternal language for what is depicted as an essentially masculine God.

In a self-contradictory fashion, Brumley here associates masculinity with God's essence while simultaneously admitting that both motherhood and fatherhood image the nature of God-- one through transcendence and one through immanence.  I am inclined to agree that this analogy (fatherhood is to transcendence as motherhood is to immanence) has some merit.  However, I am not at all convinced by Brumley's idea that if we think of God as Mother, we will lose sight of God's transcendence and become pantheists. This would only be the case if we replaced the idea of God as Father with the idea of God as Mother.  But if we think of God as both Father and Mother, then God's immanence and God's transcendence achieve a balance.  

You see, I am also not convinced that God's transcendence should be given priority over God's immanence.  Jesus came to reveal God the Father-- but the Father also revealed the Son as Emmanuel-- "God with us."  Matthew 1:23. The Holy Spirit came from Father and Son and now dwells within us.  John 14:17.  And Psalm 139:7-10 states:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.

All of these are ideas of immanence.  If we focus on God's transcendence to the point where it takes priority over God's immanence, we can end up with a distant, removed God who commands from afar, and can miss the fact that God is very near.  In many branches of Christianity, it is transcendence, not immanence, which is overbalanced in Christians' worship and service of God.

Brumley concludes by discussing the Trinity and the Incarnation in terms of Fatherhood, in that it is necessary to see God as containing an eternal, engendering relationship between God the Father and God the Son, who nonetheless are One.  As a Trinitarian, I wholeheartedly support this-- though I think Brumley is associating "Father" with maleness and supposed male authority, in spite of his assertions to the contrary.   When he says:

Thus, within the Trinity, there is fundamental equality—each Person is wholly God—and basic difference—each Person is unique and not the Others, not interchangeable. And there is also sacred order, with the Son begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. This shows that equality and difference, and even equality and hierarchy, need not be understood as opposed to one another. . . .

--he is arbitrarily adding an idea of hierarchy to the Trinity, and from there to human male-female relations, that is simply unnecessary and without basis.*  Once he has done so, he has weakened the female and rendered it dependent, which may be at the heart of why he disagrees with ascribing motherhood to God. 

In short, there is no reason to follow Brumley's reasoning to deny the Motherhood of God, especially in light of the negative implications that I have described early in this post as proceeding from such a denial.  I believe it is most accurate, therefore, to say that God's nature and essence encompass both fatherhood and motherhood.  

Both fathers and mothers reflect God's image when they relate to their children.  And we can relate to God both as a Father and Mother.  

For which I am truly thankful. 


*Note: I have discussed this further in Part 3 of my series, The Bible and Human Authority.


Anonymous said...

Great article. It's amazing to what extent one group of people will go simple to gain power over another group. And in the meantime, what ministry remains undone.

perfectnumber628 said...

Great post! I think it's one thing to present arguments one way or the other, but often I get the impression that one side is saying "God has to be masculine because OH DEAR GOODNESS WHAT IF GOD WAS FEMININE OH GOSH THAT WOULD BE SO HORRIBLE!!! OH MY!" which, you know, comes across as a bit sexist.

This is something I totally want to write about sometime, when I have time... for now, I'll just link to your post from my blog. :)