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Epiphanies with Julian of Norwich (God and Other Mothers, Part Four)

I have spoken before that our knowledge of God is always interrelated with our relationships, that our beliefs about God are always intertwined with our emotions and experiences with others, often in ways, we do not fully understand. Well, after that difficult Christmas, I continued my studies at the University of Toronto. The university has a beautiful campus of both old stone-work and modern buildings (and other modern buildings with no redeemable aesthetic features, like Robarts library, which is built in the shape of a weird, concrete block peacock like a sad modernist architectural joke).

There are several courtyards on campus like the one at Trinity College that made for some surprisingly peaceful and serene places for a bustling place like downtown Toronto. It is there that I would often settle in for an afternoon and do some reading, whether for courses or for sheer curiosity or to get my mind off things. I took out a book called Showings by Julian of Norwich. Norwich is well regarded in the Catholic church and may soon be recognized as a saint and doctor. This book was a collection of her mystical visions of God, and while there are many beautiful moments in this book, there was one that struck me. She proclaims in a vision: “The high might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord.”[1]

My immediate thought was, “God as a mother? That’s ridiculous!” God’s revealed name is “Father,” not “mother;” Jesus was a man, and the Holy Spirit was his Spirit. To see God as a mother was to reduce God to the imminence of creation, for maleness symbolized God’s transcendence. God is surely not male, but fatherliness is God’s chosen way of revealing himself. Feminine imagery, as I felt, came out of paganism and polytheism, which I associated with all the stuff my mother was into.

It was someone odd. While I was a committed egalitarian at that time, I found myself deeply suspicious of anything that resembled feminism. “I’m an equalitarian, not a feminist,” I would say as if to try to persuade my more conservative peers that I was radical but not that radical. People do that same thing on all sorts of issues. Saying that to others is also saying that to yourself: it somehow reassures--or at least feels reassuring--that while you have changed your mind, you haven’t gone too far, unlike those people, whoever those people are.

Well, here I was reading Julian of Norwich, and quite frankly, this passage vexed me. The notion incepted my mind. As I did my reading through the Bible, I started noticing passages I had never noticed before. I would read them, but not really read them, if you know what I mean. For example: “You have forgotten the Rock who bore you and put out of mind the God who gave you birth,” says Deut. 32:18. God, the transcendent God, the God who mightily rescued Israel out of Egypt, is described in this passage as the one who birthed Israel like a mother. Now there is some dispute as to whether it could be translated with the feminine “birthed” or the male “beget,” but the context right before uses the extended metaphor of a mother bird (Deut. 32: 11-12), and this metaphor is used in the Psalms (Ps. 57:1) and even Jesus uses it when he talks about Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!.. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

God is the good of every good, for God’s being is the root of all being in the world. And so, as Thomas Aquinas reasoned, what is good about the world, if it is truly good, can be used to speak something of God by analogy.[2] God rules like a king; God guides like a shepherd; God consumes like fire; God is majestic like a lion, etc. So, if God’s love is good, if the love of mothers is something God created good, and all that is truly good is of God (for there can be no goodness apart from God), then our mother’s love shows us God’s love. God’s love is good, like a mother’s love. Ergo God loves like a mother.

Statements like this would worry me, however. Could that mean anything in creation can be used to speak of God? Is God merely a projection of human love? However, there is a passage in the book of Isaiah that is especially beautiful:

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isa 49:14-15)

God uses the analogy of God’s love being like the love of a mother, but it is so much more than that. God’s love is communicated with human love but then insists that it is even more: it is an incomparable, inexhaustible love. This realization is important for many Christian mystics: God is like something, but then not that because God is so much more than what we can comprehend. This method or habit of speaking about God is called the via negativa or “way of negation.”[3] Mystics would say things like, God is powerful similar to ways we know power. God can accomplish anything within his will. And yet, God is not powerful, for our notion of what “power” is simply is so finite that there are moments when God’s true power appears like weakness to us. However, in truth, it is the power that is above and beyond every power.

Now there are other passages that use feminine images, but some scholars have said that while there are analogies and metaphors for God as motherly, there are no direct references to God having, say, feminine pronouns. God is “he” never “she.” That’s fair but not quite accurate. God is portrayed as male for most of the references in the Bible, that is true, but we might ask whether that reflects the cultural assumption of the day. If God is ineffable, we may want to apply the way of negation to this.

In Proverbs, there is a figure called “Lady Wisdom” (particularly, Prov. 8:22-36), and this figure is described as the architect of creation with God. She is described as the one we are to listen to, follow, and obey. She is the gate and through her is life. Most see Lady Wisdom as a personification or metaphor, but in the intertestamental books, she comes to be understood as a figure that represents the Holy Spirit. Later intertestamental books (Sirach 24:1-8, Baruch 3:28-37, 1 Enoch 42:2-3, Wisdom of Solomon Chs. 6-12) display Lady Wisdom as the Holy Spirit and a fully divine person.

Now, you might say, those books are not in the Protestant canon of Scripture. Yes, but this misses perhaps the strongest argument for the feminine language of God: Jesus quotes them. Again, there are passages I have read many times but never stopped to consider in any depth. Specifically, references to Lady Wisdom can be found on the lips of Jesus. Matthew 11:19 (cf. Luke 7:35) states that “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” which refers to the Holy Spirit as Lady Wisdom acting in and through Christ’s deeds (as well as John the Baptist’s in this passage). Later in Luke, Jesus denounces the Pharisees and, in so doing, again cites the words of Lady Wisdom (Luke 11:49) as a speaking agent. It is clear that the title “Father” is very important for the early church, especially concerning Jesus as the messianic son of God. In the Old Testament, God pledges to be a father to David and for David to be God’s son, which is central to the meaning of the Father-Son language in the New Testament. Nevertheless, this does not discount that both Matthew and Luke depict Jesus referring to God as Wisdom with feminine pronouns. These references are sparse and subtle, admittedly, but they are significant.

I remember thinking these things and praying to myself, somewhat sheepishly, “God, is it possible you are a mother? Have I failed to recognize how your love is motherly?” I could not bring myself to refer to God as a mother, however. There is something about the way you pray that just becomes so habitual and ingrained. To refer to God in a way different from what you are used to will feel foreign.

[1] Julian of Norwich, Showings (long version), chapter 58, in Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). [2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. Anton Pegis (University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), Book 1: Chapter 34: Section 1. [3] See Dionysius, Mystical Theology, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987). This is really one of the first and, along with the his On Divine Names, also the greatest works of the negative way in Christian mysticism.

Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.

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