Is Calling God “Mother” Theologically Helpful?
A recent article reminded me of an exchange I had recently with a friend concerning whether it is appropriate to address God in anything but masculine pronouns. It’s not a new question. It’s not peculiar to our modern culture to have this discussion. People from every generation before us have wondered out loud whether God is male, female, androgynous, or unknowable.
What may be peculiar to our generation is the number of men asking these questions.
The article is a little too “sympathetic to these arguments,” even though she makes it very clear that it is proper to address God in masculine terms. Her review of God from William Paul Young’s ‘The Shack” is more favorable than I believe is proper. There’s nothing in her critique making it clear that “The Shack” is a heretical work that completely distorts Scripture on everything from the Trinity to Salvation. And while the author disagrees, presumably, with Young’s portrayal of God, the language is not strong enough to make clear that “The Shack” is not a proper example for Christians to use.
That aside, the author of the article makes some very good points for why it is not proper to address God in anything other than masculine terms. One of the main arguments for referring to God in feminine terms is to be more inclusive of people who have abusive, absent, or unknown earthly fathers. But, as the author makes clear, this argument is far too short-sighted (and maybe sexist) to abandon Scriptural precedent:
“If male and female are equal in worth and dignity, as they are, then they are also equal in their fallenness. It can be weirdly sexist to suggest that women are angels or men’s ‘better halves’ or on a higher moral plane than men. And calling God ‘Mother’ is not a balm for people whose earthly mothers are abusive, absent, or otherwise don’t reflect God’s nurturing, tender care.”
Imagine you are teaching a lesson about God, and you know there’s a person in the room with a terrible earthly father. In order to be more inclusive of that person you change the pronouns for God to feminine. After the class another person from the group walks up and tells you about her terrible mother and how your lesson made her feel left out. Now what?
Our culture currently wants to elevate women above men. Men are viewed by many as nothing more than a problem to be corrected. There’s no celebration of our differences as men and women, and no teaching of how to properly exercise our God-given femininity and masculinity. Modern feminism has as its goal to elevate women above men rather than to seek true equality. Are we really going to change how we communicate our relationship with God to accommodate culture? Are we willing to alienate people with terrible mothers in order to make God “more inclusive” for people with terrible fathers?
The author makes another good point by noting that gender-neutral language around God’s work – as Creator, Sustainer, etc. – is cold and impersonal. By seeking to make God gender-fluid we remove His personal attributes and are left with an impersonal “force” that we are somehow supposed to have a relationship with. It brings up images of Luke Skywalker trying to “use the force” to win his battles. That force was a feeling, something Luke couldn’t see, hear, or interact with, it was just a feeling. Removing the clearly communicated personal pronouns for God reduces Him to the same kind of “force.”
This brings up another aspect of God that needs addressed: what about those feminine references to God in Scripture?
In Isa. 49 we are told that God is like a “nursing mother.” In Psa. 91 and Matt. 23 we are told that God is like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings.
The author tries to make sense of these passages by saying they help us reclaim the gender-neutral image of God. I don’t think so. These passages are metaphorical. They do not speak to the gender of God but instead speak to the immutable characteristics of God. The emphasis is on God’s character, not His gender. It would be similar to us pointing out that a grown man is “as innocent as a child,” or that a woman is “like one of the guys.” We aren’t suggesting that the man is actually a child, or that the woman is actually a man. But there is a quality about them that is being recognized.
The reality is that God is not a biological male or female. However, we are told in Scripture that God is our Father and we are taught how to interact with Him as a Father. Jesus told us to pray “Our father…” While some will seek to erase this language (and our understanding of God) in order to be more inclusive for those who have terrible earthly fathers. It seems to be better theologically and practically to teach about how God is the perfect Father. If you don’t have a father, what can be better than having the perfect Father?
Removing the personal pronouns for God in Scripture isn’t a new thing, it’s not modern. It’s not even distinctly feminist anymore. It’s another effort to make God what we want, based on our needs, rather than coming to God as He is and acknowledging that He knows best what we need. Since when does the creation determine the best way to interact with the Creator? The Creator has clearly communicated how we are to think and interact with Him. Are we so arrogant to tell the Creator He made a mistake and needs us to correct it to make Him more approachable?
Seeking to change the way we understand God is another attempt at elevating the creation above the Creator; or at least making us equal with God. But we’re not equal. And God has told us, as a long Father would do, how to approach Him. We would be wise to follow the instructions of our Heavenly Father.