For Mother’s Day this year, a group of Christian theologians and musicians created an alternative liturgy honoring the motherly aspects of God. The central piece of this motherly worship was an apophatic meditation – an ancient form of prayer meant to simultaneously acknowledge the breadth of God and the limits of our language and understanding of this breadth. One of the main examples of such a meditation (used in this liturgy to challenge father-only metaphors for God) is this:
God is our father.
God is not our father, for God is more than our father.
God is not not our father.
I’m a fan of this crew of people – The Liturgists, as they are aptly named – and the work they are doing. As someone who actively tries to engage churches in feminist discourses, i’m always glad when people reputable in more conservative circles talk about faith in a feminist bridge-building manner.
Though i find it most worshipful to refer to God in feminine terms, i understand that it is important to give space for all people to speak about God in metaphors that are most authentic for them.
But it really irks me when churches only use gender-neutral language for God.
I’m not opposed to androgyny; i love and affirm gender-fluidity, breaking gender binaries, the boundless spaces my trans* siblings dwell in. Godself created us in a multiplicity of gender images in Genesis – naming male and female as ends of a spectrum, like saying one looked high and low to mean one looked everywhere.
Yet i still don’t like using gender-neutral language. Partly, because i don’t think neutral language actually embraces the gender binary challenging aspect of androgyny. Using God and Godself as a pronoun can make our language strange to us. Clumsy sentences not only challenge our language structure, but can pointedly illuminate the prevalence with which masculine imagery is used in Christianity. The foreign-ness of Godself as a pronoun embodies God’s wildness.
How God is like us, not like us, and not not like us.
Churches and seminary classrooms and conversation where i do encounter gender-neutral language for God, gendered pronouns do eventually wiggle in. And they are almost always male. The metaphors remain of masculine fortitude, of a king lording over his people, of a father who materially provides. The imagining of God – with few exception – remains masculine, reinforces the idea that creator and author of all is personified as male.
So when i hear people using God in neutral language in church and in conversation, it mostly comes off to me as people wanting to be “PC” but fearing the feminine.
Fearing what it means to call God – all-powerful, all-merciful, all-mighty God – female. Feminine. Tender. Vulnerable. Motherly. Capable of carrying life.
To associate God with the feminine with one hand expands our understanding of God and gender-full and gender-less, and with the other turns the lens on our broken, sexist society that essentializes human beings to gendered stereotypes. A God who submitted to death on the cross, but who calls womyn out of man-made subservience. A God who does not mandate womyn be servile and men strong, a God who denies our human-wrought binaries.
I know that churches using gender-neutral language in liturgy theoretically enables people to imagine God in ways outside of the white-man-with-a-beard model. The best model i’ve encountered is when the pastor invites the congregants to use the language most worshipful for them.
I like this invitation to use what is worshipful, because i don’t think father-language or kingdom language has to be thrown out with the bathwater. Father-language can be healing for someone whose father was less than loving – but it can also reinforce destructive hierarchies for people who have been abused by their fathers.
But even using Father-language alone is not Biblical. What of Jesus who yearns to gather us like a mother hen protecting her chicks in Matthew 23 or Luke 13? Consider Wisdom, who is the mother and fashioner of all things in Wisdom of Solomon 7:22, the very “breath and power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty,” in 7:25, who sits by the throne of God in 9:4.
Fundamentally, if we rely on the faith of the apophatic meditation, we have to know our language of gender cannot ever fully cover God’s expanse.What i want from the pulpit and the classroom and conversations that actively engage with and preach a mother God. And a genuinely androgynous God. And a father God who weeps for Zion and a mother God who cloaks us in Her own armour.
A God who is father, and not father, and not not father.
A God who is mother, and not mother, and not not mother.