Is God female? - Isaiah 45:22-25
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about the Franciscan Sisters Cecilia Corcoran and Linda Mershon who have created a program entitled, “Retrieving the Feminine Soul Through Ancient Myth and Image.” This is an invitation to women and men who are searching for the female Divine and who are seeking wholeness and holiness. It is an exploration of ancient, indigenous feminine images of the Divine in an attempt to bring back traditional richness to our Christian traditions-so it is claimed. The program looks at past stories and asks what do they mean, what do they tell us today? Audrey Murray, a parishioner of the church of St Joan of Arc and participant in these experiential travel seminars, explains the impact the programs have had on her life. “The trips were a life changing experience,” she says. “I hear about the feminine God at St. Joan and I know that God is more than Father. I was able to move the idea of God as feminine from my head to my heart and experience the feminine God for the first time in my life.” So for her it was a good thing-she feels closer to God through it- and who would want to argue with that?
Some have gone so far as to suggest that Christ should be thought of as feminine. So back in 1993 a service took place at Manchester Cathedral called ‘Coming out of the Shadows-Women overcoming Violence’ in which a female figure on a crucifix was paraded and the one upon the cross was referred to as ‘Christa.’ The publisher, LBI Institute, released a Bible entitled: "Judith Christ of Nazareth, The Gospels of the Bible, Corrected to Reflect that Christ Was a Woman, Extracted from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." This new Bible includes: The Parable of the Prodigal Daughter and The Lady's Prayer.
But at a more modest level some would argue that there is a feminine side to the divine and that this should be reflected in our creeds and prayers and so we have these from a WCC conference in the early 1990’s. This creed:
I believe in God, MOTHER-FATHER -SPIRIT who called the world into being,
who created men and women and set them free to live in love, in obedience and community.
I believe in God, who because of love for HER creation, entered the world to share our humanity, to rejoice and to despair, to set before us the paths of life and death; to be rejected, to die, but finally to conquer death and to bind the world to HERSELF’.
Then we have this prayer:
‘Bakerwoman God, I am your living bread. Strong, brown, Bakerwoman God. I am your low, soft and being-shaped loaf. I am your rising bread, well-kneaded by some divine and knotty pair of knuckles, by your warm earth-hands. I am bread well-kneaded. Put me in your fire, Bakerwoman God, put me in your own bright fire. Break me, Bakerwoman God. I am broken under your caring Word. Drop me in your special juice in pieces. Drop me in your blood.’
And so as we raise the question we are looking at tonight: ‘Is God female?’ this is not frivolous- it is serious.
Now we have to be careful about drawing wrong inferences from our thinking. For example, if we conclude that God is not female, does it mean that we are right to say God is ‘male’? Well, given that in John 4:24 Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that God is ‘spirit’, this might lead some to conclude that he is neither; but would that then mean it would be better to refer to God as an ‘it’, as many tend to think of the Holy Spirit anyway?
If we try and define what we understand as male or female in terms of chromosome component, sex organs and the like, then it is patently absurd to think of God as female or male. However, when we turn to the Bible there is no doubt that the masculine pronoun is used of God exclusively. God is referred to as ‘He’, ‘Him’ ‘His’. God is never spoken of as ‘She’, ‘Her’ or ‘Hers’. In some ways this is odd given that the nations which surrounded Israel did have female gods, and also given the fact that the Bible does ascribe feminine attributes to God, like compassionate nursing (Is. 49:15), motherly comfort (Is. 66:13) and carrying an infant (Is. 46:3).
But then again, non-personal imagery is also used of God, such that he described as our ‘rock’, does it then follow that we are to conceive of God in terms of mineral composition and solidity? If not, why not?
You see, what we are being introduced to here is what is appropriate and inappropriate language by which we are to speak about God who by definition is beyond our full comprehension. So, if God is to be thought of as ‘Father’, then he is both like and unlike any earthly Father we have ever known.
Now instinctively we may react for or against these ideas. Some feel attracted to the notion of a feminine side to the divine, other are pretty blunt in denouncing it as heresy. But there are two basic questions which need to be answered regardless of matters of personal preference, namely, what is true and how can we know? Let’s think about these in reverse order.
How can we know?
Here is the question: How can we know anything about God? You see, the fundamental problem we have is that we are finite and God by definition is infinite and so a great chasm exists between us. For an ant to grasp the mind of Stephen Hawkins would be mere child’s play compared to our attempt to grasp the mind of God, for, to use the language of Isaiah 55, ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts, says the LORD’. What is more, given the fact that our minds are polluted by sin so our perception of spiritual things is warped, might lead us to conclude that the whole enterprise of knowing God is doomed to failure from the outset. And of course, that would be so, if God had not undertaken to cross that chasm and make contact with us.
So how is the infinite to communicate to the finite? The answer: by revelation. The Bible tells us that God has done this in two ways. First, by what is called ‘natural’ or ‘general’ revelation, that is through the things made and the sense deep down within us that there is a God to whom we are accountable. This is how Paul describes it in Romans 1:19, ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.’ But that kind of general revelation doesn’t get us very far in knowing what God is like, it just leaves us without excuse for atheism. Because problem comes with what we go on to do with that revelation, which is to twist it in our sinfulness, ‘So’ Paul goes on, ‘they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.’ You see, we need something more if we are going to know God truly.
This is where secondly; special revelation comes in, God communicating to us clearly in terms we can understand. As we were reminded by Scott last week, this God has done through the Bible and supremely through the one who is the main character in the Biblical drama, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But what is the nature of this language God uses to communicate to us? To some extent almost all language about God is ‘picture language’, metaphorical, what else could it be? Traditionally both Jews and Christians have taken such revelation language to be analogical. Word-pictures are used which convey some truth about the nature and character of God, the trick is deciding which elements are applicable and which aren’t.
For example, take the 23rd Psalm and the claim of David, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. How are we to understand that?
Well, there is the literal level of course, where a shepherd goes ahead of his flock with a crook, feeds his sheep with grass and protects them from wolves and bears with his staff. Is that what God is doing? No.
But then there is the analogical level, so we understand God to be like or analogous to a in caring, saving, protecting, leading his people. And we know that these are the ‘points of comparison’ because we can turn to other parts of the Bible which depicts God in similar ways. Do you see?
The important thing to grasp is that such images are God -given (divine revelation) and not man -made (human construction). If it were a matter of simply us deciding what we would like to think God as being, then it would be open ended. For instance, the argument, ‘I find it helpful as a woman to think of God as feminine for it affirms my gender’ could similarly be used by the animal rights activist who says ‘I like to think of God as a rat for it affirms my belief in the sanctity of all animal life.’ So it becomes a free for all- God is whatever you would like to think ‘him’ or ‘her’ or ‘it’ to be. But if God has given us the pictures and words by which we are to think of him aright, then there are limits.
Degrees of correspondence.
The next thing we need to grasp when thinking about the way God uses images to depict himself is that different pictures have different degrees of correspondence. Some correspondence is low and distant, others high and close. Think of it like a horizontal line with a range of correspondence between a picture depicting God. So at one end there is just a vague similarity between the image used and God and at the top end a very close similarity:
Where along the line would you place the following biblical images: Rock; Bridegroom; eagle; King; fortress; shepherd; Father- all used to depict God?
The Bible, however, does not see the higher correspondence of revelation- God as Father- as being some arbitrary image which could be taken and applied to God if it helps us or discarded if it doesn’t. Rather, it seems to indicate that this is what God is like in himself so that our ideas of fatherhood ultimately derive from God who is the perfect Father- e.g. Ephesians 3:14-15, ‘For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth derives its name.’ From a pastoral point of view this is of tremendous help to those who, because of their experience of abusive fathers, feel they cannot address God in this way. The fact that they feel abused indicates that there is some notion of good fatherhood from which their own father’s have tragically fallen short. Yes there is- God himself. As we look at what he has said and done in the Bible we then discover why the term Father fits perfectly, he is the supreme model of fatherhood who cares passionately about his children.
When we move on to consider God’s eternal being, we discover that the Biblical revelation introduces us to the one God who is God the Father, eternally related to God the Son by God the Holy Spirit. God is not Father, Mother and Son, or as in the WCC creed, Father, Mother and Spirit, but Father, Son and Spirit. The person of God the Father is Father by virtue of the fact that he has an eternal Son. The Son is Son by virtue of the fact that he has an eternal Father. Substitute these persons for some other-like daughter or mother and you end up with a different god altogether. You see, the Triune God is given to us in the Bible and we have to reckon with it, not abandon it because we may or may not like it or find some other idea preferable.
This is the way C.S Lewis lays out what is at stake in an essay which appears in the book, ‘God in the Dock’, ‘Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity.... Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter? Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable’ (1970, p. 237, emp. in orig.).
Sometimes it is said that feminine imagery is used in the Bible to describe God, what do we do say to that? Well it is true that some action or attribute of God is well captured by certain ‘feminine’ imagery - e.g. Luke 13:34, where Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem and its pending destruction because of its rejection of him says, ‘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!’ But what you have to ask yourself is this: what aspect of God is that imagery intended to depict? It is not the feminine as such, but the protective and sacrificial action of a hen. God is like that in that he is sacrificially protective. However, the imagery of father seems much more integral to God’s character and being. He acts like a Father because fatherliness is what he is as testified to by his eternal relationship to the Son in a way that ‘henness’ or femaleness is not. Do you see?
Neither can we dismiss the revelation of God as a man in the incarnation. It was as Jesus of Nazareth, not Judith of Nazareth that the eternal WORD, the Son- came and remains. The fact is a man reigns at the centre of the universe thus fulfilling Psalm 8, not simply a ‘human being’. Jesus Christ is not sexless, he is male.
Furthermore, each biblical picture of God is carefully co-ordinated with every other image of God. And so one of the most glorious images the Bible gives of God’s relationship to his church is that of groom and bride. That image is completely smashed if God is primarily conceived as feminine- except of course, it gives further grist for the mill of the proponents of same-sex marriage. To tamper with the Biblical images of God, even so slightly, results in distorted thinking, corrupt worship and eventually dodgy behaviour. I say that because what goes out of the window when God is primarily thought of in feminine terms is holiness and wrath- they evaporate.
What is true?
The more fundamental question of course is what is true? If God is the source of all truth and is incapable of lying to us or misleading us, then we have to accept how he describes himself as also being true. We therefore happily submit to God’s self-revelation because it is a window into how God really is and it is liberating- because we are not left to our own devices groping around in the dark for some image of God which might or might not be right- he has told us what is right.
Now just let’s think for a moment about why God in his revelation in the Bible is described exclusively by the masculine pronoun- ‘He’. One of the main reasons is that it is a term which preserves something which is vital to his nature and being, namely, his transcendence. He is a God who is wholly ‘beyond’ this world- a world which is dependent upon him and not the other way around. So the imagery of masculinity works like this in terms of creation; as a man comes into a woman from without to make her pregnant, so God creates a universe from without rather than birthing it from within. Similarly, when it comes to saving grace. We have to be born ‘from above’ said Jesus to Nicodemus, God by His Spirit gives us this new birth from outside ourselves, we don’t co-operate with him to bring it about. So just as a universe can’t birth itself, a person can’t give new birth to himself- and the masculine imagery preserves both these truths. And in this way, the religion of the Bible is totally different from pagan religions- with their talk of gods and goddesses bringing things into being- like the Baal religion of the Canaanites or the Babylonian religion of Marduk and Tiamat.
Very briefly let me deal with one argument often made in favour of envisioning God in feminine categories.
It is often said that realising the feminine in the divine is of value to women, enhancing their status, in contrast to the patriarchal nature of the Bible. In reply it has to be said that this is not simply providing a corrective to Christianity; it is creating a new religion. To be more precise it is reviving old pagan religions in Christian guise. But when you look at these religions, women are not particularly valued. In Pagan religions mention in the Bible, the senior god is always male and the female god is given a secondary role. They are linked with fertility which is ironic given the resistance to the idea that woman are seen as mere ‘baby factories.’ And so we should not be surprised that such female worship led to temple prostitution, the women being the losers and men being the oppressive winners.
Also at a pragmatic level, moves to view God in feminine categories will simply increase the already rapid exit of men from the church. Over the last 30 years there has been an increased feminization of the church, no least in terms of its leadership, which to be frank is a switch off for many men. The glory of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is that he commanded the allegiance of both sexes- hardy fishermen like Peter and Andrew and domestic carers like Martha and Mary.
Remember this: You become like what you worship. The God who is Trinity who exists in an eternal relationship of holy love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the God Christians worship as there is no other. It was to this end that Jesus prayed these words, ‘Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you sent me. I have made you (God as Father) known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me (paternal love) may be in them and that I myself may be in them.’ (John 17:25-26). Jesus died that we might know God in this way, so we can call him Father; the Spirit comes into our life so that we can know God this way and cry ‘Abba Father’- and all contrary claims are simply false.
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