Should we call God “Mother”? May we? Must we?

The call to introduce into the liturgy female imagery for God is back in the news. I had begun to hope that the issue had gone the way of the dodo, but apparently I was wrong. Bloggers, always hungry for fodder, have quickly jumped into the fray. Fr Dwight Longenecker has given us twelve reasons why we shouldn’t address God as mother. BC at Catholicity and Covenant has offered his rejoinder to Longenecker.  For anyone who participated in the liturgical wars back in the late 80s and early 90s, the arguments advanced in both articles may well elicit a sense of déjà vu. Nothing to see here. Move along. But a whole generation has passed since then.

In a galaxy far, far away, I was once immersed in these debates. I even submitted an article for publication: “The Holy Trinity Meets Ashtoreth” (the title may be the best thing about the piece, but there are some also good quotations in it, too). But more importantly, the debates led me to solicit essays from some top-notch theologians, including Thomas F. Torrance, Robert W. Jenson, Geoffrey Wainwright, Colin Gunton, J. A. DiNoia, Elizabeth Achtemeier, and Thomas Hopko. If you are interested in this subject, I commend to you Speaking the Christian God.

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10 Responses to Should we call God “Mother”? May we? Must we?

  1. mkenny114 says:

    This is a happy coincidence – I have just finished reading C. Fitzsimmons Allison’s book ‘The Cruelty of Heresy’, in which ‘Speaking the Christian God’ was cited for further recommended reading! I was going to ask about it, but this post serves as a timely endorsement. Just one quick question though – what, briefly, are your feelings on this whole debate now? Is it just a case of exasperation that the whole thing has resurfaced again, or are you any more open to either side of the debate than you were when the book was published? Knowing the CofE, I have a feeling that this issue could be dragged out for a good long while…

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I honestly have not thought about the subject very much during the past 20 years. I remain convinced that the feminist criticisms and recommendations totally miss the gospel point and represent a severe alienation from the biblical story of salvation. I don’t worry about the extreme feminists—they know they are proposing a new religion and ideology. It’s the moderates whom I find most exasperating. They really believe that if monkey around with the language and symbolism, the gospel will somehow become more effective and more salvific. I find this utter silliness.

      The gospel is glorious because it is the unconditional promise of the Last Future. The gospel is scandalous because the promise is made in the name of a crucified Jew who named the God of Israel “Father.”

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      • mkenny114 says:

        Thank you Father Kimel. That pretty much sums up how I feel too, about a lot of other similar issues (i.e.; where there is felt to be a need to ‘update’ the language and/or thinking on key themes). It is indeed those who wish to make accomodations in order to be more ‘relevant’ or appealing whilst convincing themselves that they are remaining true to the saving truths of orthodoxy that are the problem. This is a point made very well by Fitzsimmons Allison in his book as well, incidentally.

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  2. I think God can be called “Mother”, however, this is not a name of God. He can be called “Mother” because he is a “Father who is also a Mother”. God is beyond gender. Likewise, I find it ridiculous why so many feminists are worked up against the identity of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. I don’t think it’s sound theology to regard Jesus as “God the Daughter” or the “person” in the Trinity known as the Father “God the Mother”. God the Father is not God the Mother.

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    • Dante Aligheri says:

      Exactly. I agree here. No doubt God is neither male nor female, but, that said, both masculinity and femininity are contained in his image. Mark S. Smith, a Catholic and fairly well-known scholar of biblical antiquity, has an excellent chapter about YHWH and assimilated female imagery in the Bible (“Early History of God”). He notes that, contrary to older scholarship who have touted Asherah out of proportion, many modern scholars believe that YHWH’s exclusive, non-spousal, non-sexual existence was established fairly early on, firmly established by the Early Monarchy. Indeed, the old Asherah imagery, they believe, was tamed or hypostatized within YHWH himself as Tree of Life and Burning Bush to create a steadily more transcendent Creator against a kind of dualistic procreation.

      Besides that, there is an agenda here in this feminist twist of the Deity, a wider range of goals alien to traditional understanding. It’s forced for obviously sociological goals, and I think that’s the main problem. To be sure, many great Christians have even referred to God or Christ as Mother – Bl. Julian of Norwich comes to mind – but these were always hedged within a normative understanding of the Gospel. They were organic expressions of worship moving outward, not seeking to completely remake traditional language in its own image, to serve itself. It reminds me of a scene in Gaiman’s “American Gods” wherein the pagan gods sit at a diner and talk with a self-professed pagan waitress only to convince her that she doesn’t actually worship anything because she offers no sacrifices, libations, etc. Her worship doesn’t move outward at all to anything but rather is a pale self-reflection, confidence in a vague thing which stands for herself.

      At most, I would be prepared and might welcome a return to the old Syriac liturgical expressions about the Trinity with their depiction of the Holy Spirit as mother of the Incarnate Christ and of reborn Christians and of the new creation in Christ (Emmanuel Kaniyamparampil, O.C.D., “Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit in the Early Syriac Tradition”). There the maternity of God was vividly and honestly expressed. However, this was always done without feminizing the entire Trinity; indeed, the feminine imagery of the Spirit depended upon the masculinity (not maleness, per se) of the Father and of Christ to complete the birthing imagery of creation. Judaism might speak of the Shekinah, Sabbath, or Wisdom, conflated with either Word or Spirit, as female, too, but that only makes sense when the masculine imagery of God in play, as a daughter playing before God in Proverbs 8, because those images always needed completion in the masculinity of the transcendent God, in Himself, a dynamic bringing or completion of the femininine-maternal Spirit and creation with it to the transcendent God. This kind of traditional femininity, the kind talked about by Jurgen Moltmann, has a long-standing, but it depends not on a wholesale feminization but precisely on the traditional roles of femininity and masculinity at work in God’s actions.

      But it occurs to me that is precisely what feminists do not want. Indeed, I fail to understand why modern feminism finds its heroes in ancient expressions of the so-called “divine feminine” because that primordial impulse only functions not as female but as particularly feminine. Wisdom is female precisely because of her maternal or wifely relationship with the (male) philosophers who seek her, who spurn the world and other real women for her. Wisdom is only feminine precisely as the daughter of the Father, not in herself as some feminists might desire. It is why I fail to understand why they galvinize behind the old pagan fertility cultus (not to mention that many of the so-called goddess figurines actually are probably not deities at all but rather sympathetic talismans in petition for fertility like medieval church-goers who would leave tokens in their churches after a healing), which emphasizes precisely might seem to be so un-liberating today.

      Real feminism and improvement for the lot of all women, it seems to me, shouldn’t be dependent on reconfiguring ancient thought-forms revealed in and inherited from nature, ancient liturgies – or reducing religion to a sociology project, all looking for historical precedents that don’t exist.

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  3. Fariba says:

    Christians who change language (whether it is by using “she” for God, preferring “liberation” to “salvation”, or saying Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) fail to realize that what they have done has far-reaching theological implications. Everything is seen purely through a social justice lens. I also see a bit of a gnostic tendency there. The assumption is not just that language is always inadequate when it comes to speaking about God (which is true of course) but that it doesn’t matter how people speak about or worship God because the created world is somehow at odds with the way God operates. God is always greater they say. By that they mean that God does not reveal Himself in the world. This leads to the worst kind of materialism. I’m reminded of Augustine’s description of Manichaeism in his Confessions. The Manichaeists were dualists, so they thought that the body was evil. Therefore, they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies.

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  4. Patrick says:

    Kendall Soulen has argued persuasively in his book, The Divine Names and the HolyTrinity (2011, part one of a two-volume work to be completed), that the question of naming has three kinds of answer, depending on what person of the Trinity one starts with. Names based on maternal and other metaphors can be legitimate from the point of view of the action of the Spirit, but they must be kept in balance by the Father and Son language required by the incarnation of the second person, and also–a point often neglected–by attention to the unique name of God proclaimed in Exodus 3:15, corresponding to the monarchy of the first person and to monotheistic belief. There are thus three strands to be held together. A similar view (though without Soulen’s emphasis on the mysterious proper name of God in the OT) has coincidentally just been presented by Ben Myers at Faith and Theology, in his post on 21 grammatical rules for the doctrine of the Trinity:
    http://www.faith-theology.com/2015/06/doctrine-of-trinity-21-grammatical-rules.html

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  5. john burnett says:

    Fariba, you mentioned that in the move toward calling God “Mother”, “Everything is seen purely through a social justice lens”. Actually don’t you think it would be more accurate to say that everything in some theologies has been reduced to power, and that’s what the struggle is all about?

    Also (a more general point)— it’s always struck me that the wording of the invitation to say the Lord’s Prayer in the Liturgy in all traditions I’m aware of puts the matter quite exactly. We have no power, and no right, and no standing, to call God “Father”, or anything else for that matter. None! But (as the Catholics put it), “Taught by divine command, and formed by the Word of God, we dare to say, Our Father…”. That is, taught by Jesus, and brought by him into his own life with God, we learn to pray as he did. Basil/Chrysostom emphasizes, again, our inability to call God anything. There we say, “make us worthy, O master, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call on Thee, the heavenly God, as Father, and to say, Our Father…”.

    And this is “daring”. We call God Father not because we can somehow “envision” God as a “male” by virtue of our “patriarchist” culture, but because Jesus uniquely called God, “Father”. And Jesus called God “Father” because when he said “Mother”, he was talking to someone else! We know her too, because we’re brought into *his* life.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I agree totally with your comment. That we are given to pray and acclaim God as Father, within the relationship that Jesus eternally enjoys with God, is the great gift we are given in Christ. Truly nothing else matters.

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