God, of course, is God, beyond our wildest imaginings, beyond any human categories. Yet Christians have experienced and known God as a personality (and that in itself is a metaphor, not a category.) To express how they experience God, Christians, and before them those who wrote the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish communities round the world, have relied on the use of overlapping metaphors. Our experience of God is of a personality with many unfolding, sometimes contradictory characteristics; a being who is mysterious, who is both familiar and terrifyingly strange and whose manifestation in our lives evolves, changes, waxes and wanes. God is also consistent with God's self and this unchanging core is rather like human personality - we may present ourselves in new and different ways but we can essentially be recognised by others as an individual with a coherent personality.
|The Trinity: Andrey Rublev |
15th Century Icon
Christians have understood relationship to be at the heart of what it means to apprehend God. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us understand and reflect on this. God is in relationship with God's self, God can observe God being in relation to God's self, God is in relationship with us and God draws us into this relationship rather as we are invited into the 'conversation' in Rublev's famous icon (above). It is vital to grasp this to understand the Christian concept of Trinity. It's also central to Christian belief that God takes the initiative in relating to humans (revelation) and can also be very elusive or absent (experienced as desolation by the Christian.)
I could probably write another 50,000 words about God before needing to mention God's gender. God is not gendered in the sense that God is beyond gender. But God reveals characteristics that are like those associated with the male and the female human person. To say God is a 'father' or a 'mother' is akin to using other metaphors found in scripture where God can be a 'rock', a 'fortress', a 'shield', a 'King', a 'hen' or a 'shepherd'. We do not mean that God is literally any of these things. They are metaphors. God is like them. Now metaphors can be used in different ways; they are loose and invite exploration. If we say that someone is 'a waste of space' or 'a monument to respectability' or a 'prune' or a 'sweet briar rose', we are inviting the hearer to delve into their experience of waste bins, monuments, squishy fruit and roses in order to understand something about the essence of that person's character. This is how religious metaphor about God works too. Metaphors can be very apt, in which case nearly everything about them speaks of the person's character. Or they can work in a much more limited way so that, for example, just one characteristic of a sweet briar rose (its smell) reminds us of the person. Overlapping metaphors 'correct' each other - or perhaps it's better to say that they raise more questions that help us to explore what the person is like and even accept paradoxes about that person. How can God protect like a fortress (which is static) and a shield (which moves around with the soldier?) Yet God is frequently described as both fortress and shield: throughout the Old and New Testaments there is a corresponding tension between times when people experience God as being mainly in one, special, holy place and other times when God is experienced as moving about and being at the heart of the community of believers or even in the heart of one itinerant believer.
So, in this sense, God is neither male nor female. However, most of the people who have written about God, and especially those with power and influence and the means to communicate widely, have been male. This is certainly true since the dawn of Old Testament times down to today. Yet in the scriptures and even in the tradition of the churches there is a lot of evidence of God being understood in terms of female experience. From the earliest times Christians have known that God is not confined by gender, but the church fathers were, well, fathers. They both consciously and unconsciously selected predominantly male imagery and concepts in which to speak about God.(There are many famous exceptions such as the Mediaeval theologian Anselm's use of Jesus' striking image of Himself as a 'mother hen'.)
The writing of the early fathers then came to be overlaid with neo-platonic thinking and with concepts like immutability - God came to be said to be 'unchanging'. (Even 'unchanging' itself is a limited metaphor - I'm unchanging as myself yet every cell in my body will be replaced during my life; the metaphor reveals consistency rather than rigid sameness.) The apparent argument about whether God is male or female is not actually the real argument. The primary disagreement is between those who want to say 'God cannot change, tradition cannot change and God is predominantly male in tradition' and those who understand God in more dynamic terms drawn from texts and doctrines that show God 'repenting', changing God's intention and relating symbiotically and reciprocally to the created order rather as a mother does to her child. (Theologians like Dorothee Solle and Sallie McFague explored this more than 20 years ago drawing on sources from deep within the oldest traditions.) The argument is also about how we use metaphor. When, for example, Jesus said, 'Pray, 'Daddy' (Abba),' was the point of the metaphor God's exclusive maleness or God's intimacy with us as children or both?
This debate is both too hot to handle because it taps into some very fundamental things about male/female relationships and the very basis of Christian theology and, at the same time, open to trivialisation and ridicule - as seen in much of the media and on social media this week. The two are related. It is because some people find this all too threatening and dangerous that there is a great compulsion to rubbish it, often in extra-ordinarily abusive terms. We are into a topic that touches on how everybody feels about their own gendered worth before the God they do or don't believe in and so this is very challenging, potentially explosive stuff. In this sense, the Daily Mail has its antennae well-tuned to be onto a whiff of impending change in the air.
For many years feminist/womanist theology, biblical studies and church history have been relegated to the 'slightly nutty' edge of theological syllabuses. Yes, the sources have been there on the reading lists but many students have avoided them. Books have been relegated to the end of the bibliography along with liberation theology, ecological theology and theology from the two thirds world (where there is much interesting theology that challenges western-centric world views.) Usually the students who have read these books have either been already familiar with the issues or very keen to disprove their validity. But these 'issues' are fast presenting themselves as the most pressing issues of the day to the world-wide church.
If you are not convinced about the need for this debate (which is clearly going to happen whatever we think about it) perhaps I can share a personal insight? When I was about 16, I found myself, while praying, trying to explain to God what it was like to be a woman…..and then the penny dropped! It was one of those revelatory moments when you know the Holy Spirit has been at work: God knows! God understands the nature of your female experience. But the weight of male imagery for God had almost obscured from my vision any sense that God might be inside the experience of women as well as outside it. This is what women continually experience and either accept, rationalise and internalize or question and challenge - the objectification of themselves as 'not the norm.' There is a more powerful story about how this happens to young children on the Blog Because God is Love here God's Gender: A Cautionary Tale.
In conclusion for now (I know this debate will run on and on well beyond my lifetime) I would like to suggest that we all, in the churches on both sides of the argument and none, educate ourselves a lot better about the matter and familiarise ourselves with the resources available for thinking and praying. I also make an appeal for charity and for careful listening. I have expressed my opinion here but I respect the opinions of others and would like to hear without rancour or anger being directed in either direction. Here are some suggested resources for those interested in female characteristics of the divine nature. They are all available to order and some to read online and should, I think, be part of mainstream theology.
In Memory of Her Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza (New Testament interpretation)
Thinking About God Dorothee Solle (on radical immanence)
Models of God: Theology for a Nuclear Age Sallie McFague
Women's Ways of Worship: Gender Analysis and Liturgical History Teresa Berger
Lifting Women's Voices: Ways to Change the World eds. Rose, TaPaa, Person and Nelson