By Rev. Gary W. Deddo, Ph.D.
Since the initial burst of Enlightenment confidence in our human capacity to know absolutely and with certainty all of reality there has been a progressive awareness of the acute limitations of human knowledge. The recognition of these limitations are based on the apprehension of the involvement of subjective elements in all our knowing, especially in the realm of values and religion. On one side of the contemporary debate are those who hold that the subjective elements formed by cultural, educational, economic, linguistic background, or personal preferences, aesthetic predilections and experiences determine how one perceives reality. Some would say that it is on the basis of one’s subjective orientation that one constructs reality, for there is no coherent objective reality there at all, outside one’s self.
Such radical skepticism provides the background for much feminist argumentation, for much multiculturalism and also for most arguments which aim to liberalize sexual ethics (heterosexual and homosexual). Those who advocate such skepticism associate it with true humility and compassion toward others, especially when argued within a church context
This type of radical skepticism is being gradually absorbed into the Christian church itself. Its influence is manifest especially in the debates over the use of proper language about God. These debates once occupied the energies of our universities and seminaries, but now are breaking out in church governing bodies and even in individual congregations. How should we address God, in prayer, liturgy, preaching, testimony?
Here we only will attempt to address one dimension of one issue operating within this general framework: given the nature of human language and biblical usage shouldn't God be addressed equally as feminine, and so be properly called Mother or She? 1
Two things need to be explored. What is to be assumed about human language and what exactly is the biblical usage? More and more it is being assumed that language is subjectively or inter-subjectively determined. Our personal and interpersonal experiences form the lens through which we interpret or construct what we see by means of language. Many theologians are also affirming the same when they contend that all our speech about God consists of models or metaphors about God. They are all approximations with perhaps relative but not absolute value. One model may be helpful in one case, but another in a different case. Metaphors are not exact and so one might be more appropriate in one situation compared to another. The various models and metaphors are at minimum mutually correcting and counterbalancing. No one can be normative.
Some of course note that the biblical material contains more than one single metaphor for approaching God. Biblical writers refer to God variously as my Rock, Strength, Righteous One, Almighty, Yahweh. They contend that feminine metaphors for God have been suppressed and that they ought to be given equal if not compensatory attention. Without the corrective and counter-balancing of feminine metaphors God will be misrepresented as being essentially masculine. And since God is neither male nor female, both models/metaphors are needed.
Several questions have to be asked of this line of reasoning. Is it the case that all language about God is figurative? Second, is all our language about God necessarily determined by our subjective or inter-subjective experiences with little or no correspondence to the external reality of God? And furthermore, should we assume that all models and metaphors are equally valuable? Finally, if we cannot so assume, what criteria should be used to determine which model or metaphor is to be preferred?
If all our language about God is necessarily determined by the subjective dimensions of human experience, the only proper conclusion is that all our talk of God is mere mythology, outright idolatry. Plato and Fuerbach, Freud and Durkheim were right; all talk about God is mere human projection onto a cosmic screen. Theology is nothing but anthropology at high volume. All metaphors and models should then be regarded as equally invalid and therefore irrelevant, for they do not refer to God as God is, but to a god created according our own image; out of our own subjectivity or inter-subjectivity. All talk of God is equally idolatrous.
Now something important needs to be acknowledged here. The fact that human beings are predisposed to idolatry is not a modern discovery. It is forcefully enshrined in the Mosaic Law for all generations to heed. The law against creating images of God constitutes the recognition that this is exactly what human beings are prone to do. But it also holds out the promise that human beings can indeed avoid this propensity so that true worship can take place in Israel.
So, we can assume that human beings will always be prone to create God in the image of their own likeness. Thus there ought to be a proper Judeo-Christian "hermeneutic of suspicion" about religious language.
But this radical skepticism in no wise rules out the possibility of there being a faithful way to speak of God. For this possibility to be ruled out one would have to assume that human experience is incorrigible and unreformable to the extent that even God could not find a way to clearly communicate with us and bring us to repentance. To acknowledge human limitation and sinfulness does indeed demonstrate humility, but to assume that God could not take account of such limitations and find a way to achieve a self-revelation would be the height of presumption about God. It rules out revelation and therefore the possibility of true worship from the start on the basis of an often unacknowledged assertion about God’s own limitations. It assumes a cosmological dualism in which God can have no real contact with humanity which can contradict and clarify our knowledge. In the end, this amounts to a denial of the Incarnation and an excuse for idolatry.
Such a prescriptive agnosticism about God cannot be a Christian (nor Jewish) position at all. Furthermore, it rules out not only a Christian knowledge of God but all claims of true knowledge of God by any religion.
Neither can it be a coherent philosophical position. One cannot say absolutely what cannot be known. For the claim itself represents an absolute knowledge. This claim is especially unreasonable when it comes to the knowledge of God for it purports an absolute knowledge about God, namely knowledge of God’s inability or unwillingness to accomplish self-revelation.
Perhaps many who are wrestling with language about God would not want to embrace such a radical skepticism. Perhaps their concerns focus essentially on the seeming indeterminacy of language about God. Metaphor and models seem inherently open and ambiguous. Thus, it seems no one metaphor or model could be normative for speaking of God.
This line of reasoning is also open to serious objections. It assumes, first of all, that all language about God is metaphor or model. 2 Biblical language about God utilize a range of figures of speech which move from making relatively weak and indirect comparisons to making strong and relatively direct comparisons. However, there are certain ways of referring to God in Scripture which cannot be properly regarded as mere figures of speech, but which are much more strongly and directly related to God than any figure.
A short survey of biblical ways of referring to God will be instructive. The weakest figure of speech is the simile. For example, Hosea says that God is "like a bear." Here a comparison is made between two different things but the connection is quite loose, since the term of comparison is "like." It is also indirect, in that the differences are great between God and the term of comparison. Similes do not attempt to illumine the essential nature of something, but some aspect of its character, an attribute.
We also find in biblical material a stronger form of comparison, which is most properly regarded as metaphor. For example the Psalmist says, "God is my Rock." When the biblical authors refer to God as a rock, a fortress, a high place, a cypress tree, the comparison made is much stronger than in a simile and yet is quite indirect. The personal is compared with impersonal and language is stretched to make the comparison. Yet this is most properly a metaphorical figure of speech because of the strong connection made by the copulative, "is." between two things not usually brought together.
Much biblical language describes the attributes or the perfections of God such as when God is said to be holy, all-knowing, moved by covenant love, faithful, or righteous. In this form certain characteristics are predicated of God. Strictly speaking such language is not metaphorical. While the propriety of a comparison is being assumed, it is made on the basis of a certain similarity, not a dissimilarity, between the two things being described. The characteristics attributed to God are personal ones, that is are ones appropriate to persons, human or divine. Persons may be more or less faithful, but not rocks. The God of Israel is more than a human person but certainly not less than personal. Here the comparison is strong and direct compared to more properly metaphorical ones which are usually deliberately more indirect, comparing personal with impersonal. Here there is some modeling expected, more properly called imaging in the Old Testament, between God and humankind.
Biblical language clearly moves beyond the metaphorical when it speaks of God as agent in time and space. The God of Israel is not merely referred to by an abstract description, such as Redeemer. God is spoken of as the sovereign divine agent who was ultimately responsible for particular historical events such as the Exodus or the fall of Jehrico and who interacted with particular people: the people of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, etc. This God is known through particular relations and in particular acts in time and space. Persons and peoples have had contact with God and have been blessed by the personal agency of God. Compared to the abstractions inherent in figurative or even attributive language, the language of personal agency.achieves a new level of concreteness. In fact, figurative and attributive language are abstractions from and reflections on the character of God revealed in these personal encounters and through events of divine agency.
But biblical usage of language achieves even more direct and concrete expression. The biblical authors address God by means of titles: Lord, God Almighty, Provider, Redeemer, Salvation. Here we have speech to God, not about God. Often these titles are used in prayer to God. Certainly the words assume the appropriateness of comparison to human acts, characters and titles, but the words are used as personal titles, truly appropriate in the superlative only to God. The usage is not metaphorical, but a form of personal address.
In the Old Testament, however, language about God achieves is most direct and concrete form in God’s address to his people, revealing his Holy Name. Here we have a reversal. Not persons naming God, but God revealing himself by way of self-naming. "I am who I am"
"Yahweh." The tetragammaton is not metaphorical at all in that it is not humanly generated nor is it comparable to anything at all. It is utterly incomparable. It constitutes the personal Title of God, given by the gracious act of God in a humanly expressible form by which Israel should know and address Him.
In the New Testament we have the most direct, most concrete, most personal and final Word about God. In Jesus Christ we have Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is not God’s metaphor nor man’s, but constitutes the personal presence of God in time and space flesh and blood. This is the Incarnation, God’s self presentation, God’s own image for us and our worship. In Christ we are graciously given God’s own self-interpretation, self revelation by which all other thoughts, speech, and stories are judged and relativized and find their true meaning and end. In Christ we are given the most personal and concrete way to address God, we are given the Divine Name that fills out, completes and concretely personalizes the Divine Title held in trust by Israel. It is the name into which we are baptized, and the name we are instructed to use as we join Jesus Christ himself in his address of prayer. It is the Triune name: Father, Son and Spirit.
What should be clear is that not all language in Scripture is used or regarded by the authors equally. Some expressions are more direct and concrete and personal than others. The one Triune Name of God becomes the apex of revelation and thereby sheds light on all other descriptions of God. The biblical authors do not treat all language about God as interchangeable but as given a multi-leveled structured relationship.
Of course even if one were to insist that all biblical language was metaphorical, it is quite false to say that all metaphors are of the same value. If we change the metaphor we change the meaning. And of course, if metaphors are different, and they refer to some reality beyond themselves, then some must be more faithful and more central than others. The criteria by which to evaluate their relative faithfulness would not be my subjective judgment nor our inter-subjective evaluations, but its correspondence to the reality. And if the reality itself can and has achieved self-revelation, then all language would have to be judged on the basis of that self-revelation. This last possibility can only be ruled out if we are prepared to deny all divine self revelation of all possible gods, including, especially, the Incarnation.
The Christian claim is exactly this. That God’s revelation, which has given us simile, metaphor, attribute, titles of address, historic acts and prophetic word, and Divine Personal Title, has culminated in God’s self-giving and self-interpretation in Jesus Christ who has given us the Personal Name of God: Father, Son and Spirit.
How then should we regard so called masculine and feminine language about God? First off, we should say that if there is such a thing as God’s self-revelation which judges all our language, then personal preference by individuals or groups cannot serve as the criteria by which to select among options. Secondly, if we regard ourselves as responsible to revelation first given to others to pass on to us, that is to Scripture, we must acknowledge the structure of its multi-layered nature with its center formed by the self-revealed Name of God through Jesus Christ. This structured and multi-layered revelation then establishes the norm by which God may be faithfully addressed.
If this is so, then when someone addresses God as Father, Father cannot be construed as a merely human projection. This would be to deny God’s self-revelation.
It also cannot be construed as metaphorical and therefore indeterminate and interchangeable with other terms.. First because it is not used as a metaphor at all by Jesus Christ or the NT authors but as one dimension of the Triune Name itself by which they personally and concretely addressed God accordingly as God has named and knows himself in his own internal relations. This name is clearly distinct and central from all other types of reference to God in Scripture.
And second, because the self-naming of God establishes a norm, there can be no equal alternative to it. (We have also mentioned that even normal human metaphors are not so indeterminate that they can be interchanged without changing the meaning.)
But more importantly, when God is called Father, we are not claiming that God is like a human father, but the reverse, that some persons can be called father because God is true father, the father from whom all families on earth are named. Human fatherhood is to be a true reflection/witness of God’s fatherhood. Furthermore, God’s fatherhood is not essentially that exercised towards humans or creation, but towards the Son. The true character of God’s Fatherhood is found in the Son’s relationship to his Heavenly Father. We call God Father because of the triune relations, because God is first Father of the Son and Son of the Father all in the Spirit. We call God our Father, because in the Son, we have a Heavenly Father as well.
Thus, since the relationship of the Father and Son is not bodily and so not sexual, to speak of God as father is not a from of sexism. Nor can it be construed as the divinization of the masculine gender. It does not have to do with gender but with the divine quality of eternal relationship between the Father and Son in the Spirit. Whenever persons attempt to use biblical language to justify sexism, it out to be judged not by counter-poising feminine language, but rather countered out of its deepest basis, the true meaning of Fatherhood as exercised in the relationship between Jesus Christ and His Heavenly Father. On this basis alone will the temptation to use one’s own gender as an infallible criteria for judging others be eradicated.
What of biblical feminine language? According to Mayer I. Gruber of Ben Gurion University in Israel there are four unequivocal human feminine images for God (Is. 42:14;45:10;49:15;66:13) 3 Here God is compared to a human mother. There are three places where God is likened to a mother bird (Deut 32:11;Is 31:5; Matt 23:37) 4 God is also likened to a mother bear. 5 Other references may have a feminine reference but do so not nearly as directly or concretely as these. 6
Here we have descriptive or illustrative similes of the actions of God. The comparisons here are not metaphorical but suggest loose similarities compared to metaphors. These passages certainly do not approach the strength of comparison or directness of unique reference as do titles for God or the Triune Name of address. God is never addressed as Mother in Scripture nor metaphorically said to be a mother. Only the weakest forms of comparison and reference are used in the biblical text when motherhood or strictly feminine images are used.
On the other hand God’s character is metaphorically compared to fatherhood. "Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?" (Deut. 32:6).God is addressed as Father about twenty times in the Old Testament and nearly 250 times in both Testaments. The numerical aspect only serves to reinforces the significance of the structural dimension of the biblical language and usage.
We can affirm that the character of God does include what we might call feminine characteristics. The feminine does indeed reveal something important about the character of God. God’s character does have a mother-like side to it that should not be overlooked. This should be pointed out to those who contend that it doesn't. It is good and right to refer to those characteristics we call feminine, but not because they are feminine but because God truly is compassionate/caring/tender.
However, on the basis of the biblical witness, the conviction that God can correct our subjective misunderstandings and that God has indeed accomplished his self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we have no warrant either for thinking that we have the authority to address God alternatively as Mother nor that Mother or She can be regarded as equivalent substitutes for the self-given name of Heavenly Father entrusted to us in Jesus Christ. 7 Doing so could only be regarded as another form of mythologizing.
1 I am indebted to probably all the contributors of Speaking the Christian God. The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, Ed, Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Eerdmans, 1992. My argument is a synthesis of the contribution of these persons and gleanings from the works cited in the bibliography.
2 Let us attempt a brief working definition of metaphor. Loosely speaking, many use it to refer to all figures of speech in which two things which are not identical are nevertheless compared. Metaphorical or figurative language suggests a comparison between the reality being spoken of and something else that represents it. More strictly speaking, a metaphor is a certain type of figure. Others would be symbol or simile. Not all figures are metaphors. The usage of the term metaphor in theological contexts is often ambiguous. Most often it is used to refer to all figurative language. Sometimes it has been used to refer to the analogical nature of all theological language. Such loose usage has contributed to confusion in the debate.
3 Cited in Roland M. Frey, "Language for God and Feminist Language" in Speaking the Christian God.p. 29..Isa. 42:14, "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 labor, I will gasp and pant." Isa. 45:10, 'Woe to anyone who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” or to a woman, “With what are you in labor?”' Isa. 49:15 "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." Isa. 66:13, "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem." (NRSV).
4 Deut. 32:11, "As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions..." Isa. 31:5, "Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it." Matt. 23:37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (NRSV)
5 But not in a stereotypically feminine role: "I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them" (Hosea 13:8, NRSV).
6 We have in mind here especially references to God personified as Wisdom, in the feminine gender in Hebrew.
7 Let me also note that it is my contention that the usage of feminine language for naming or addressing God as Mother or She, or for a counterbalance to naming God Father, actually has the effect of re-enforcing sexism for it assumes that all our language about God is mere projection, and also assumes that such projection is legitimate. It assumes that the ultimate and inviolate reality which determines the shape and perspective of our lives is our biological gender. If this is so, then it legitimizes creating God in our own image, and so legitimizes men worshipping their masculinity even as it legitimizes women worshipping their femininity. Sexism is not essentially the arbitrary preference of one gender over another; it is the assertion that gender is the ultimate and inviolate reality which then must serve as the criterion to judge all truth and engage all others. This strategy cannot provide a way to a genuine reconciliation of men and women, nor a true knowledge of the Christian God, but will only exacerbate the separation of men and women perhaps into their own male and female churches with their separate self-justifying gods. This strategy culminates in the worship of sexism, not its rejection. It is not a strategy of reconciliation but a social Darwinism premised on the life and death competition between inherently unreconcilable rival powers.
Kimmel, Alvin F., Jr, Editor. Speaking the Christian God. The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992. This is the single volume I most highly recommend.
Bloesch, Donald. The Battle for the Trinity. Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1985.
Carr, Anne. Transforming Grace: Tradition and Women’s Experience. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
Christ, Carol , "Symbols of Goddess and God in Feminist Theology", The Book of the Goddess Past and Present: An introduction to Her Religion, ed. Carl Olsen. New York: Crossroad, 1983.
Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father; Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.
Gunton, Colin. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology. Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1991.
Hampson, Daphne, Theology and Feminism.Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Jenson, Robert W. The Triune Identity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
Lewis, C.S. Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1961.
"Horrid Red Things",God in the Dock. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974 reprint.
"Is Theology Poetry?" in The Weight of Glory. New York, MacMillan, 1980.
"The Language of Religion" in Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971 reprint.
"Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism", Christian Reflections.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971 reprint.
McFague, Sallie, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language.London: SCM Press, 1983.
Metz, J.B. and E. Schillebeeckx, God as Father? Concilium Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1981.
Reuther, Rosemary. Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
Torrance, T.F. The Trinitarian Faith. Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1988.
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