Mother God?

I wrote a couple of leaflets for the Mind Body Spirit fayre I was at this weekend, one of them was called ‘Mother God?’, and a lot of people picked it up. It’s pretty basic, but it was supposed to be light and easy to read, anyway – here’s the text – crowd sourced revisions and clarifications are welcome. I think the one thing I would add if I were to redraft it today, is some kind of prayer at the end of it.

Mother God?

Christianity, Patriarchy and the Divine Feminine

Because of its language, Christianity can seem to be a rather male dominated affair. Talk of ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ can make the Christian faith sound very patriarchal. But in fact the only truly male aspect of the Trinity that Christians call God, is the person of Jesus.

God in his or her own right cannot be ascribed a single gender, containing aspects of both the masculine and the feminine. Jesus refers to God as his ‘Father’ – thereby demonstrating his own inheritance of God’s authority, but throughout the Bible God is shown as having feminine qualities, including giving birth and suckling.

So why has the Christian God become seen as masculine? Without doubt culture and power have played a role in the construction of an almost exclusively male portrayal of the divine. For many years the culture of male rule was firmly entrenched in society, and many leaders were loathe to change or upset that, particularly as it might be seen to threaten their own positions.

The names of God in the Bible

The Bible we read today is the product of the hard work of translators who have faithfully worked to provide a text which accurately represents the original words and meanings of documents many centuries old.

But we might reasonably consider that the idea of God as masculine, and the ongoing patriarchal culture which has come down from that interpretation is not a good reflection of either the ancient scriptures, nor even the text we have today. Certainly God is described as ‘Father’ but that is not the only way that deity is described. Jesus called God ‘Abba’ a word which has its closest contemporary meaning in ‘daddy’ but most accurately represents a parental relationship of great intimacy.

Other passages give God an particularly female aspect –  for instance, the name El Shaddai is used for God a number of times in the book of Genesis. El Shaddai has been translated as ‘Almighty God’ but might more accurately be understood as ‘God with breasts’.

On other occasions God is given female qualities, including the ability to give birth.

Deuteronomy 32:18  “You neglected the Rock who begot you, And forgot the God who gave you birth.

Jewish Rabbis used the word ‘Shekinah’ to describe the presence of God, as a hovering manifest being, an image which would later be used by Christians to describe the Holy Spirit. Shekinah is a feminine noun, and has also been used to help describe God in feminine terms.

Patriarchy and power

There is no doubt that it has suited many powerful people for many years to ensure that power remained in male hands. However, even major religious leaders have over years explained God in terms which deny the idea of God as solely masculine.

“God is a Father. More than that, God is a Mother.”

Pope John Paul II

While the language may take many more years to change and adjust, neither essential Christian teaching, nor even many of the major spiritual leaders would ascribe a fully male nature to God.

Many in the protestant church are wary of the idea of the elevation of Mary to God status, and that may have reinforced the use of masculine words for God, but it is becoming more and more widely accepted that to try and confine God into a gender or sex, is impossible.

Gender inequality and the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

There has for many years been a gender imbalance in the ‘hierachy’ of the church. In fact, many believers will accept that there is not, or should not be a hierarchy at all, as Jesus teaching was that ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first’ – demonstrating his own humble spirit by consenting to be treated as an outcast and murdered by his opponents.

But despite that, it is still true that for some time, women have been excluded from holding roles of responsibility within the church – or have they?

Certainly some major denominations have stated that only men can serve as priests or bishops, but in reality women have since the earliest days of the faith been operating in positions of power and responsibility within the global church. Certain high profile roles have remained exclusively male, but that is slowly beginning to change, and Christian thought, which is always a widely divergent and slow moving being at the best of times, is ever more accepting of the rightness and necessity of equality between the sexes.

There are certain bible passages which continue to cause discussions and disputes between opposing groups within the Christian faith, but there are many others which demonstrate very clearly that Jesus came to set us all free. That he considered all of us as equal, and that, as one Biblical writer put it: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

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15 thoughts on “Mother God?

  1. This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard this week. (And I hear a lot of ridiculous things). It’s a logical fallacy to assume that culture has shaped God. You have no real data to back that up. You just suppose an alternate history based upon your own worldview. God is the one that came from outside of creation and spread his seed upon the world. He entered the emptiness and filled it with life. These are masculine actions, and that is why we see him as such. Not to mention the fact that he refers to himself in the masculine.

    1. gosh, well I suppose its quite early in the week, I am sure I could come up with some more ridiculous things if you like.
      I suppose I’m interested in the idea of God ‘spreading his seed’ -where does that idea come from?
      And to suggest that we put no kind of created ideas on God… well – whoever said God had a white beard? Yet ask a British kid to draw a picture of the Christian God, and guess what you’ll get nine times out of ten.
      And sure God didnt enter the emptiness, he created it – gave birth to it if you like? To enter the emptiness requires a whole new subset of assumptions about God.

  2. If God gave birth to the emptiness (I realize a metaphor) then by the same logic God was impregnated so as to give birth. We then pointed to a being greater than the feminine God. Life comes from the seed. That is why God is thought of in the masculine sense. Life comes from him. If God were a woman giving life, she would have been “acted upon” to receive that life and nurture it. Life does not come from the woman. It is given to her.

    I will say that God is neither masculine nor feminine. But we do relate to him best as a male. Jesus is the best example of that. And we worship God as our Father because he gave us life.

    1. I think perhaps the process of trying always to apply logic to God is not always going to work, and one will always work backwards into infinity.
      I agree that God is neither male nor female – indeed that was my point all along, and certainly if you relate best to God as male, then go right ahead. However, I suggest that God has feminine aspects, that it would be acceptable in those terms to understand God as mother as well as father.
      The danger, as I see it, from your perspective is imposing a dominant – dare I say mysoginist – view of masculininty onto our deity. The wonder of the virgin birth is that Jesus is born of woman, with no physical penetration or insemination.
      In terms of your other comments about seeds – the seed giver is no greater than the egg carrier – there is not a hierachy here. But I suppose my point was that in talking of God ‘spreading his seed’ you were imposing your own ideas on to the concept of God, as this concept is not written.
      Yes our fathers give us life, as do our mothers – without either we are not viable, and hence to forshorten our view of God to a gender is to limit our understanding.
      I sense we are coming close to an accord – which gives me hope, and I shall now try and think of something else ridiculous for us to disagree upon! 😉 Peace to you.

  3. It is a bit curious that we give God a gender at all. When Moses asks God-in-the-fire who he might be then, the answer isn’t ‘the all-powerful guy upstairs’ but ‘ME! I am who I am!”

  4. It’s not necessarily about which gender is greater. It’s about origin. I cannot attribute origin to the female. After all, man was created first (again, this is not about who’s greater). There is an order to life. The seed of life comes from the man into the woman where it is cultivated. Yes, without cultivation, life as we know it would not exist. But, a womb with no possibility of life coming into it is useless. There is a natural order to life here and it points back to God. He is the giver of life (as is pictured in the man). Therefore, when I think of the source of life from which we came, I cannot help but think of God as a “him”. Nature mirrors God himself. This is something the woman cannot represent. Consider the following:

    –“She” symbolized something immanent, while “He” was transcendent. “She” was the Womb of all things, the cosmic Mother, but “He” was other than Mother Earth. He created the earth, and He came into it from without, as a man comes into awoman. He impregnated non-being with being, darkness with light, dead matter with life, history with miracles, minds with revelations, His chosen people with prophets, and souls with salvation. He was transcendent.”–
    –Peter Kreeft

    1. At that point then we part company – I cannot honestly see how ‘seed is cultivated’ in the womb, as if it were some kind of onion set. Rather, it meets the egg, and then if it is successful in fertilisation the resulting fertilised egg is nourished. A man’s seed has only part of the potential for life, on its own it is useless. Anyway, lets part on this in peace – thanks for your comments.

  5. we can … and should … use anything as a metaphor for God.

    O Divine Slug who’s trail of knowledge accross the lettuce of life, bringing nourishment to the beasts of the sky, have mercy on my leaf, do not rend it from me utterly. Amen.

    1. Interesting theory, Keith. Given that perception can be seen as subjective, I suppose everything is metaphor in a way. I guess the question then is how to use metaphor and how to recognise useful vs useless metaphor.

  6. For once in my life I am genuinely dumbstruck….”The seed of life comes from the man into the woman where it is cultivated.” Someone needed to pay attention in biology! The Man is “the giver of life”. Please don’t pretned that this is anything other than a thin psuedo-scientific justification for sexism.

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