My Mother in Heaven: Exploring Gendered God Language
Editor's Note: When I, Spencer Boersma, teach theology in class, we go over the meaning of God as "Father" and look at feminine images in the Bible. This is always a fascinating experience because I notice students, usually women, feel a sense of excitement (even a sense of empowerment) over talking about the feminine images (and that is largely why we we are doing this series). However, having a fuller picture of God does not just impact women. It impacts men as well. Contemplating the richness of Scripture's imagery should always deepen our relationship with God and make us better people. Thus, unsurprisingly, one student wrote about this and turned their theology paper into a post to share here. Thanks Luke for sharing and thinking about this subject.
God is my mother, and she loves me and cares for me. It wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve never heard a sentence like this spoken in a Baptist church; in fact, I would be surprised if you’ve encountered this sort of speech anywhere in a Christian context. Since this type of speaking is uncommon, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on how that first sentence makes you feel. Does it feel natural? Jarring? Does it feel like reading something heretical? For many readers, I’m willing to bet that hearing God called “mother” or “she” is uncomfortable. I’m willing to bet this because that was my reaction the first time I read an author using female pronouns for God. It didn’t sound orthodox. It sounded like the writer was purposefully rebellious, bending God to her own desires instead of relying on Scripture and tradition, maybe even making God into the mother goddess of another religion! Why don’t I have the same reaction when I hear God being called “he”?
The mental picture conjured by the word “God” for many is an old man with a white beard. From Renaissance paintings to religious satire, God, maybe muscular, probably white, definitely ancient, is depicted in male skin. This is my default mental picture; it lines up with all of the ways that I have heard people talk about God. Yet, God isn’t a man. In fact, God doesn’t have a biological sex, male or female! Why, then, do we always use male language for God and never female language? Let’s explore a few reasons some might think that male language is the only option for God.
One reason people might consider male language more appropriate is that they consider masculine language gender-neutral. Since God doesn’t have a gender, if male language were neutral, it might be most fitting! While the gender neutrality of “he” used to be assumed (in, you guessed it, cultures where men determined the norm), it is certainly not neutral today. Dr. Glenn Wooden, my Old Testament professor at Acadia Divinity College, drew my attention to a 2011 study by Khan and Daneman that investigated this issue. This study got people to read a passage and tracked their eye movement while they did. The passage itself introduced a character using gendered language, like “chairman,” then later revealed that the character was actually a woman. The readers’ eye movement showed a break in understanding at this gender revelation; they had automatically assumed that a man was being discussed, and only with further information did this assumption get updated. This indicates that male language does not suggest male and female people equally. Beyond this science, this is also true in my experience and the experience of many. If you say “he,” the mental image I form will never be a woman. If “he” were gender-neutral, I should picture a woman half the time you say it.
So, God is not male, and masculine language is not neutral. Some might think we are mandated to use only biblical language for God, and this means sticking to “he” and “Father.” We can see that this isn’t the case on two fronts. First, the Bible uses female imagery for God. Recently on this blog, Dr. Spencer Boersma did a survey of feminine biblical language in his Mother’s Day post (which you can read here). From birthing a nation to being a mother hen, the authors of Scripture (and Jesus himself!) did not think male language was required. Beyond this, we are not bound by the language in Scripture because the Bible sets a precedent for naming God according to personal relationships and experiences: Hagar reflects on God’s actions toward her by naming God El-Roi, while Jesus explores God’s desire for relationship with people by comparing God to a woman searching for a lost coin. Language for God is not set; God is in relationship with us, and we can express that relationship in our language! How cool is that?
If all the above is true, this still leaves one potential reason why calling God “she” could be unacceptable. Maybe feminine comparisons to God are fine, but direct feminine language is unfit, disrespectful, or degrading to God. Maybe there is something inherently lesser about being “she,” and God deserves better than that. I dearly hope that the last two sentences do not seem right to you. They are emphatically untrue! Femininity is not shameful, degrading, or lesser than masculinity; these are assumptions based in culture, not in God’s truth. Yet as we work toward being a body of Christ that recognizes the equality of women and men, we will confront many harmful assumptions about who women are, even assumptions within ourselves that we have ignored. This is because our language for God has been developed and reinforced within a system that has used harmful assumptions about gender to keep women down, a system where female-as-lesser is pushed as the natural order. It is this system that provides background radiation of discomfort to using feminine God-language, not a universal truth that God is he.
Now that we’ve seen that feminine language is acceptable for God (or, at least, now that you know why I feel this way; I do not expect the discomfort of challenging ingrained language to immediately dissipate), here are some reasons I would encourage using it. First, calling God “mother” reminds us that God isn’t male. As we’ve just discussed, we are still dealing with the effects and perpetuation of male-dominant culture. Bombarded on all sides by male language, using female language is an intentional way to balance out a gender bias that is not often challenged. Using diverse language for God, in general, reminds us that God is beyond the boxes that we try to put God in; the box of male primacy, in particular, is due to be burst.
We may also wish to use feminine language to better reflect our personal relationship with God or to explore another aspect of this relationship. If I feel toward God like a child toward their mother, it is more honest and meaningful for me to use this language; it allows me access to a different set of personal connotations, and in turn, a way into a deeper understanding of my relationship with God. While I have been incredibly blessed to have two parents who have shown me God’s unconditional, self-sacrificial love, the words “father” and “mother” will mean different things to each person. For people whose experience with their father has meant pain, fear, or absence, knowing that “mother” is appropriate might offer entry into a more intimate relationship with God that would otherwise be impossible.
Using feminine language for God also affirms women and recognizes the dignity which God has invested in women. Everything that is good has its origin in God: male, female, and otherwise. Using diverse language is a way of pointing out that the source of all this diverse goodness is God. By calling God “she,” we acknowledge that women are not the afterthought of a god who only wanted to make men. We acknowledge that “male” is not the intended universal gender. Women are made in the image of God in every sense, and that image is good. Recognizing this also means that we can better understand who God is through women! The way women understand and express their womanhood has the potential to reveal aspects about God that might otherwise be ignored. For men, this affirms an essential otherness in God; for women, an essential likeness.
In the end, language is incredibly personal. Each of us has a unique set of experiences that we use to understand what any given word means and the feelings we associate with it. If you are reading this while feeling trapped in a set of language for God, I hope that I have given you enough rationale and encouragement to branch out. Even if, like me, you are comfortable calling God “father,” I encourage you to explore your relationship with God through a diversity of language; this is what our predecessors have done, and this is a road to a more honest and developed relationship. On top of diversity, I encourage you to incorporate feminine language. This may feel strange at first; it is going against ingrained habits and assumptions. But this is not anti-biblical, and it is not dishonouring to God. Instead, it challenges our male pictures of God, explores our relationship with God, and declares that women are equally made in God’s image. In a time of uncertainty and loss, I have personally found calling God “mother” to be incredibly comforting. She has welcomed me with open arms when I have run to her, into her everlasting embrace. This embrace is open for you too.
Luke Steeves is a graduate student at Acadia Divinity College, where he serves as a Teaching and Research Assistant.