The Motherhood of God

MadPriest, a/k/a Reverend Jonathan Hagger, is one of my favorite Christian bloggers. He combines a naughty sense of humor with a passionate concern for the poor and marginalized. What he modestly calls his “bog-standard sermons” are anything but. In his latest one, he muses on the different ways we have tried to express the feminine aspect of God within a monotheistic religion and a patriarchal culture. An excerpt:

…Our pagan ancestors understood the importance of the feminine in the scheme of things and this understanding led to the creation of female deities. Looking at the world, and the balance between male and female, our forebears projected their world view onto their gods, and because they had many gods, they could have both male and female gods. Of course, this could not be done in the monotheistic religions, the religions, such as Judaism, which only had one god. In such religions all the attributes of godliness had to be included within the personality of just one god. In a fair world this would have meant that the understanding of God would have been of a deity who was both male and female or neither. Unfortunately, human projection of their own society onto the society of the godhead, meant that in a predominantly patriarchal society, God came to be seen as predominantly patriarchal himself . God was seen as male. A full blooded, dominant, aggressive male at that.

However, the need for a balance in the human understanding of the divine nature of God, meant that there was never complete acceptance of a completely male God. Even in Judaism, that most male dominated of religions, there can be found hints of femininity within God’s personality. In the book of Isaiah God says, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant,” and elsewhere, “ For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” In Psalm 131 we hear the psalmist say, ‘But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.”

More important than these brief references was the Old Testament understanding of the Wisdom of God. Wisdom is seen in the Old Testament as one of the primary characteristics of God and is almost regarded as a separate person within the godhead, and wisdom in this respect is most definitely female. For example, Wisdom, chapter nine, states,

“With you is wisdom, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may labour at my side, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you. For she knows and understands all things, and she will guide me wisely in my actions and guard me with her glory.”

It is interesting to note that the Egyptian god of wisdom was the great goddess, Isis, herself. The people of the Middle East definitely believed that wisdom was very much a female characteristic. It is even more interesting to note that, within Christianity, the Wisdom of God becomes the Word of God, and the Word of God becomes the Son of God in his incarnation as Jesus Christ. We have a situation where the preexistence of Jesus within God is not of necessity male. This multi-gendered God became man. Genderwise, the Word was something else before becoming man. That is an important point for us to remember.

But what about Jesus, the man? What did he have to say about the nature of God?

Firstly, Jesus affirms the maleness of God, over and over again. Jesus refers to God as his father; he prays to God, his father. There is no doubt that the language Jesus uses indicates a masculine deity. However, the personality that Jesus attributes to God, God’s caring, forgiving nature, God’s physical and emotional closeness to God’s children is not archetypical male. Furthermore, I think this scares the male hierarchy of the church. So much so that they took all the female attributes Jesus said God the Father had and put them on Mary, the mother of Jesus. The cult of the Virgin Mary is in reality a displaced reverence for the feminine in God as revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

And, although Jesus was physically a man we must be very careful not to confuse this mere accidental with the real nature of the Word incarnate. When God became man in Jesus Christ he took on both the limitations of human language and the limitations of the human culture of the time. No human language can fully describe God, it can only give us a very limited view of our creator. Jesus had to use human language and so he had to give God a gender because the conventions of human language demanded it. That is why Jesus did not restrict his teaching to the spoken word alone. He preached the good news about God through action, through the things he did, and when he did speak about God it was often in parables that were meant to be understood within the heart rather than just within the mind. Within these parables, parables such as the one about the prodigal son, we see a God who is not restricted by the stereotypical ideas of maleness current at the time. God is loving of his children, he embraces them like a mother embraces her children, and we see this also in Jesus, in his gentleness, in the way he deals with people. Within Christ and within Christ’s understanding of God there is a balance between the male and the female. There is the necessary maleness of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, but there is also the gentle Jesus, calling the children to him….

Read the whole sermon here.

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