Much of the controversy that has been stirred up by William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack relates to the depiction of God the Father as an African American woman and the Spirit as an Asian woman. With this daring innovation, Young introduced the evangelical church to a debate that has been going on for several decades in the mainline Christian churches: is it ever appropriate to think of God with female imagery and titles? Is it ever appropriate to call God Mother?
Whenever the question of calling God Mother has been broached in the church, the response has often been, to say the least, negative. Indeed, charges of idolatry and Goddess worship are quick to follow. According to many of the vocal critics, the incorporation of mother language into liturgy, hymnody and prayer constitutes a grievous error at best, and apostasy from Christian faith at worst. But is that charge warranted or is there something to be said for thinking of God as Mother?
Two views on mother language
Before we enter into the center of the debate over Mother-God language, we should note that one could argue for it in a strong way or a weak way. According to the strong case Mother language ought to be included in our liturgies, hymnody and prayers as a supplement to Father language. According to this argument, without female imagery and terms of address, our thought about and experience of God is impoverished.
The weak case makes no claims that Mother language is necessary for the fullest experience of God, but instead seeks only to argue that it offers an additional way to think of God available to those who cannot conceive of him as Father.
Of course this prompts the question of why anybody would have a problem with Father language. In my experience many evangelicals assume that any difficulty with thinking of God as Father comes from a rebellious feminist spirit that refuses to submit to male authority. The great thing about The Shack is that it blows the doors off that assumption. In the book we meet Mackenzie Phillips, a grown man who cannot relate to God as Father not because of any aversion to male headship, but rather because his human father was a vicious abuser.
This prompts yet another question: how many people – women and men – might there be who find it difficult to relate to God as Father? However many there may be, the weaker case asks us to consider opening up to them the possibility of thinking of God with maternal images and language.
The Transcendence of God
Any debate over language and God should begin with the recognition that God transcends our experience and language. The word “transcendence” comes from a Latin word meaning “to climb beyond”, and it is used by theologians as a way to emphasize that God exists beyond our experience and understanding. In Isaiah 61:1 the prophet describes God’s transcendence as follows: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?'” (TNIV) In the same way that God exists beyond any place of worship that we would build for him, so he always exists beyond our concepts, ideas and experience.
In the present case this means that while we may think of God with male categories, God is no more limited by those categories than he is limited by the four walls of a house of worship. God transcends both male and female as surely as he transcends architecture.
Once we come to recognize the full extent of the divine transcendence we can recognize that it may in principle be possible to think of God with personal categories beyond the masculine.
The Femininity of God
While we come to think about a transcendent God through the categories that we have available, we must make sure that we only invoke categories which are reflected in God’s perfect nature. So we must first ask whether femininity is reflected in the divine nature.
Let’s begin with Genesis 1:27 where we read: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (TNIV) This crucial passage describes the divine image as something shared by males and females together. This means that women image what it is to be God no less than do men.
The fact that one finds femininity and maternalism reflected in the divine image leads us to expect that the biblical writers will invoke these qualities to describe God. And indeed this is what we find. In Hosea 13:8 God’s jealous care for his people is compared to a mother bear protecting her cubs. Likewise, Jesus compares his care for Jerusalem to a hen longing to gather its chicks (Matthew 23:37). And in Isaiah 66:13 God declares: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (TNIV)
So if it is appropriate to refer to God as Father because he reflects paternal care, why wouldn’t it be likewise legitimate to refer to God as Mother because “she” reflects maternal care?
Is “Father” a Proper name?
At this point we encounter what many critics of Mother-God language take to be a decisive objection: Jesus always spoke of God as Father and taught his disciples: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven…'” (Matthew 6:9, TNIV) Father, not mother. When he did this, so the argument goes, Jesus was offering not merely one of many possible ways to refer to God. Instead, he was offering us a mode of divine address or a name. And if Jesus named God as Father for us then we are not at liberty to change that name.
Let me offer two quick responses to this argument. First, it is possible that Jesus is accommodating to a patriarchal culture. It hardly need be stated that the status of women in first century Palestine was fairly dismal, so to introduce maternal language for God in that context would make about as much sense as promoting mother language for Allah in present day Afghanistan.
Second, as the theologian Ted Peters has pointed out, it is standard practice to transliterate proper names between languages (e.g. Yeshua is transliterated as “Jesus” in English). But the word Father is not transliterated; rather, it is translated from the Greek Pater (which was already translated by Matthew from Jesus’ original Aramaic). Thus, it would appear that “Father” functions more like a title than a proper name.
After surveying the main arguments on both sides, it would seem that there is at least some ground to consider the appropriateness of supplementing “Our Father” (at least in certain contexts and for certain people) with “Our Mother.” For instance, might it be appropriate to offer a liturgy that stresses God’s maternal care in a shelter for abused women? Could such an innovation really be considered apostasy? At the very least, the topic calls for Christian charity as we all try better to understand both God and each other.