Wow. I’ve actually been surprised at the response to the last post in this little mini-series on using feminine language to talk of God. I thought I was addressing one simple thing in the life of churches, but I misjudged the degree to which people would feel like this touched on everything from their thoughts on the Bible to the nature of Jesus himself. One of the best sets of exchanges was on Facebook in response to yesterday’s post. Below, I’ve reproduced a lightly edited version of the conversation. I hope you find it interesting as well. And let me know what you think!
DEBATER: Your post says, “The model of God as Father may be profound and true; but it is not the only model, and it does not render other models less true or profound.” It’s Jesus’ own self-disclosure and revelation of God. It’s more important than any other ‘model’ and it isn’t really a model. “Father” is not a metaphor. Its a reality for Jesus. And I’m not talking about Jesus’ physicality like his weight or hair color. Jesus revelation is of God as Father. That’s the particularity. He said pray to God as father. And he’s the Son. That’s ontological. The feminine is redeemed in Jesus, but its redeemed not by Jesus taking on the sign of the feminine, but by taking on the sign of the masculine redeemer of the oppressed and abused feminine.
ME: Your last line especially uses terms and ideas entirely foreign to the Scriptures. I’m actually shocked that you saw no issue in writing that. Women need a male redeemer to be redeemed? Even if you point to the ancient cultural idea of the male kinsman-redeemer, surely you aren’t saying that this (clearly) cultural accommodation is some revelation of the essentially gendered nature of God and redemption? The Old Testament also had lambs being sacrificed, and not people. Does that mean that Jesus in some sense had to partly be an “actual” lamb rather than a metaphorical one?
Regarding the other items, we simply disagree here. Fatherhood itself is a metaphor. Not only is it a culturally-conditioned, ever-changing idea, but it’s employed in scripture in terms that betray its figurative nature, like God our Father “giving birth” to things. Whatever ontological reality is represented in those words, they are much deeper than sexual relating.
And lastly, I know you hate this, but we can’t simply gloss over glibly the difficulty that is the patriarchal environment out of which the bible came to be. It’s much harder to tease out what is culturally accidental and what is eternally essential than you seem to appreciate.
DEBATER: I’m happy with the assumption that Jesus told us to pray to God as our Father, in his name, and to baptize in the name of Father and Son and Spirit, and to celebrate the eating of the body and blood of the particularized Jewish male Jesus. Those are authorized, perhaps by patriarchy, but if so it would actually be impossible to tease out the patriarchal accidentals without changing the particularities that communicate the essentials. I’m on good ground finding God in God’s own self-disclosure, and not in things that go beyond it. Here is a longer piece by Alastair Roberts to better explicate my views. You can tell me what you think: “A Biblical Biblical Essentialism?”
SUPPORTER: Read this book: Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament by L. Juliana M. Claassens
ME: Firstly, the self disclosure of God (even by Jesus!) does include feminine imagery, so no one is going beyond anything. Heck, even then words for the Spirit in the Old and New Testaments are grammatically feminine!
Second, Jesus never commanded us to pray to God as our “Father”, but as our pater and abba (or the aramaic equivalents). I am not trying to be cute. My point here is that even when you call God Father you are doing an act of translating one cultural concept into your own. It is almost certainly impossible for you to have in mind the same exact concept of fatherhood Jesus had in mind. Therefore, the more helpful ground is to talk of God’s eternal Parenthood, while speaking to how that parenthood particularly showed itself in 1st-century concepts of fatherhood, which are very different than our contemporary concepts.
We are always doing an act of translation when doing theology, trying to make ancient concepts into eternal truths. All I am proposing is that one of those “translations” we have to do is seeing God in the feminine as well as the masculine. Not neutering God, or flattening out gender, but increasing our concepts and language to include both. Now, is that so hard?
DEBATER: I submit that my non-identical-to-Paul’s view of God’s Fatherhood is of necessity closer than a modern re-working of it into mere parenthood. Its less helpful to me to remove the gendered element that is so obviously present, even if my apprehension of it is not 100% identical. “Including feminine imagery” is not equal to Gods disclosure as a masculine person.
If you want to press that lack of identity idea for old ideas into new cultural contexts it ultimately undermines “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” Increasing our thoughts risks undermining the unity of God. A Father God that Subsumes feminine imagery is superior to a Father God that is not “in all” and has to be reconceptualized as mother to truly be “in all”
ME: Okay, I hope you know me well enough to know that I just don’t casually say something like this just to be snarky, but that Biblical Essentialism article (linked above) is one of the silliest things I’ve ever read on this topic.
The majority of his post is simply trying to pull theological ideas out of the structural bodily differences between men and women. This is such after-the-fact reasoning. It’s not an argument. It believes something to be the case then goes out looking for confirmation of it in the Bible and the world. I’m not trying to invoke Godwin’s Law, but the same sort of stuff has been used to defend atrocities and hierarchical divisions and abuses of power for millennia (especially race-based slavery).
And his treatment of the Scriptures? Actually, he doesn’t even engage in Scriptures or the breadth of the biblical narrative. He keeps almost everything he says within Genesis 2 and 3, quoting things like “he made man in his image” and invoking the garden commands to Adam as the reason for male priesthood”. He completely ignores Chapter 1, that says clearly that the image of God is found in both male and female–not femaleness subsumed in maleness or whatever. He also ignores that the account in Genesis 1 has the creation, commands, and ordination of humans in Genesis 1 clearly happens to “them”.
My point is not to pit Chapter 1 and 2 against one another but say that no one can appeal to “plain reading” principles on this matter. We must admit more humility and employ other interpretive tactics beyond simplistic proof-texting and “Jesus used the word Father”.
Lastly, he completely acts like the only two options in the world for our theological anthropology is Essentialism and Liberalism are our only two options. I advocate for none of those, which is why his piece, as silly as it is, is completely irrelevant to what I’m saying. I’m down with some Essentialist ideas. I don’t think gender is simply socially constructed. I don’t see humanity as an assembled mass of individuals that get to define everything in whatever way they want.
Rather, while his post says that the genders are like two different coins in the “currency” of humanity, I think we are two sides of the one coin of “humanity”. In other words, the image and dignity of our humanity is foundational, and the genders are different expressions of that. To me, this is rooted in the Trinity. There are different persons in the Godhead, but no Subordination. The Son and The Spirit are expressions of the one Godhead, they are not expressions subsumed within the “Father”.
So again, I’m not advocating only referencing “the Parent, the Child, and the Holy Spirit”. I think we should employ the full use of biblical imagery, including those biblical feminine words, languages, references, etc.
DEBATER: The Genesis 1 commands are of dominion, reproduction, and food. The Genesis 2 commands are, to Adam, of guarding and beautifying the garden he is placed in, and then given a woman in. I’ll grant the article is tangential to language about God, but it helps me see if you’re even amenable to the kind of through process and reflections Alastair goes through.
For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I know most of the feminine biblical imagery and I think its weaksauce for a full envisioning of God, personally, as a mother or bride or sister. Chickens and eagles and doves, and likening ones warrior rage as that of a laboring woman is not the stuff of a personal mother. But I can’t think of too much else on the top of my head. I’ll let your subsequent blog entries to provide additional feminine imagery fodder though: no need to list the clinchers I can’t think of now. Maybe nursing fathers?
HELPFUL FRIEND #1: A thomistic angle: If masculinity and femininity are intelligible perfections, then such perfections as finite effects must each ultimately exist in God as infinite Cause. I think the issue is not primarily about “God in himself” but “God towards us.” According to the latter, God’s act of creating is understood in a very feminine mode (a mother bird hovering over her brood). But God’s sovereign Lordship in providence is expressed in more universally masculine themes (which connects with why Christ commands through the apostles that authority is exclusively given to men in the church). Can we call God “She”? Yes, maybe, but I think God as She is far more mysterious than God as He, and that only because of the way he has deigned to reveal himself.
HELPFUL, BALANCING FRIEND #2: I think I end up at the same place as you do Paul in principle, but with some differences. While I do agree with the other Paul (following Bavinck) that God is Father…I’m pretty sure that “Father”, as it pertains to God has nothing to do with gender for the same reason that “Son”, as it pertains to Christ, has nothing to do with hierarchical subordination. Any logic that leads to one, pretty much has to be used for the other. But on the other hand, following Miroslav Volf, in English, gendered personal pronouns are always used to denote personhood. This is why it won’t suffice to call God “It”.
And as far as I can see, that is also the only (semi) legitimate reason why we are having so much trouble accepting any kind of interchangeability between personal pronouns. Personally (no pun intended), I don’t have a problem with people calling God “She”. Besides the argument I just listed above, I call God ‘He’ out of regard for tradition. While I do understand the “feminist” argument for why we shouldn’t use masculine pronouns for God, I think we are better off fighting the gender inequality in people’s hearts. Contra postmodernism, this is not a language problem–its a heart problem. And for what its worth, I think that’s where we all need to be spending our time.
Amen. I think that’s a good conclusion. On Monday, I’ll continue this little series through Holy Week. And again, let me know what you think!