The Female God
Already warning bells are clanging in the heads of many of my fellow, conservative-leaning Christians. It has been drilled into us to abhor the ancient goddesses, who were worshipped with such practices as public temple prostitution. Historically, we Protestants have also reacted against the veneration of Mary and many have even been taught that it is a thinly veiled return to goddess worship.
What is ironic is that, as much as we have elevated Scripture to a high degree, congratulating ourselves for reading through the entire Bible repeatedly and embracing it as the very Word of God, we have tended to ignore — or at least not appreciated the implication of — many passages that depict God using feminine imagery. Let’s look at a few, in which I have bolded key words and phrases:
“You forgot the God who gave you birth.” Deuteronomy 32:18 (NIV)
“But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother.”
“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation.”
Isaiah 42:14-15a (NIV)
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!” Isaiah 49:15 (NIV)
“As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you.” Isaiah 66:13 (NIV)
“In a desert land he found him,
in a barren and howling waste.
He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft.”
Deuteronomy 32:10-11 (NIV)
“Like a bear robbed of her cubs,
I will attack them and rip them open.” Hosea 13:8a (NIV)
“How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Luke 13:34 (NIV)
“As the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God.”
Psalm 123:2 (NIV)
Note that, while most of these references ascribe to God the compassionate, nurturing and comforting qualities commonly associated with motherhood, others emphasize the protective, powerful, and frightening ferocity of a mother bear; the “tough love” of a mother eagle who pushes the fledgling eaglets out of the nest, then swoops down to catch them before they hit ground; and the authority of a mistress who signals her wishes to her handmaid. For an even richer and fuller exploration of other biblical references pointing to the divine feminine, see More Feminine Imagery for God in the Bible.
What’s the big deal? What are we missing by imaging God only as a male?
- First, we may be missing some of the breadth and lavishness of who God is and who we are as part of God’s creation. J.B. Phillips, a 20th century Bible translator, wrote a book with a title that I think applies to all of us: Your God Is Too Small. By picturing God as exclusively male, we are limiting the Divine, who is bigger and more multilayered than we can imagine.
For example, when we picture a male Creator, we may picture the universe as the “the work of his hands.” Which is true — a good biblical phrase! But it gives the impression of God as a workman and creation as an object created, however beautiful and complex. Now try picturing a female Creator who births the world out of her womb, draws it into her arms and nurtures it. Creation now is a birthed offspring bearing the image, the very DNA, of God. She permeates all of creation, and through it feeds and nourishes us. The idea that we are made in the image of God takes on new vitality and intimacy. People and nature are not just static design elements programmed long, long ago at the dawn of creation, but the whole universe is organic, constantly moving, growing, dying away and being born in cycles. God’s creation is now more than just a sterile product of a distant Maker; it — and we — carry our Mother’s genetic code in our being and are continually fed and cared for with the universal attentiveness of the feminine.
- Second, this formula (God = male = leader; female = follower) tends to perpetuate in the church a model of leadership that is no longer true in the wider world. Perhaps in the First Century, women were not allowed to speak or lead services because women were generally illiterate. But today, why can a woman be a head of state but not a pastor or priest in some denominations? Why can a woman run a business, even a very large one, but not be a church elder? It doesn’t make sense, and in fact it is perhaps one reason for dwindling church attendance among younger generations in first world countries. Our young people smell that incongruity to which many of us have grown nose blind.
- Third, and most compelling to me, viewing God only in male imagery does not contribute to the flourishing of women. Viewing ourselves as subservient, secondary, mere shadows of the “real” human (man), we tend — like goldfish — to never grow beyond the size of our small bowl. We lose confidence in our own worthiness and potential. An outward way of measuring this inward loss is the persistent lag in wages for women doing similar jobs as men. Why do we not get larger raises? Because we don’t ask for them, whereas men do. Ask yourself: Is this what you want for your own daughters? Do you want their lives to be cramped and limited? Now turn it around as in this paraphrase of Matthew 7:11: “If you, imperfect as you are, know how to lovingly take care of your children and give them what’s best, how much more ready is your heavenly Father [Mother] to give wonderful gifts to those who ask him [her].” (The Passion Translation, with my [additions])
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”Rainer Maria Rilke
So what’s the answer? How do we even speak of God if not as he? Well, some people have taken to avoiding pronouns for God or Spirit altogether. Others refer to the Holy Spirit as she, for which there is solid reasoning. Honestly, I don’t have an answer yet, even for myself, but, along the lines of the Rilke quote above, I’m trying to love the question.
Next post: Loosing the Leash