The Masculine God Who’s Also Feminine

Recently, a local Christian blog featured some comments on the all-the-rage Christian novel, “The Shack,” which, like most of the rest of the evangelical English-speaking world, I have read. The writing is somewhat awkward, and I doubt that it will achieve, or deserves to achieve, the status of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” as theologian Eugene Peterson contends. But it’s wildly popular and entirely polarizing — you either love the image of the Trinity represented in the book as a Black woman as God, a jeans-clad, sentimental-yet-masculine Jesus, and a Spirit represented by a wispy, not-embodied Asian woman, or you hate it.

And those who hate it, really hate it. Objection Number One appears to be the author’s portrayal of Yahweh God embodied as an African woman, a counter to the main character’s long-held, unquestioned and largely unconscious imaging of God as a white man, complete with beard and white hair.

To those who understand Scripture, any visual image of God at all is problematic. God is Spirit. God has no body — no hands, no face, no genitalia. While we use the pronoun “He” because English lacks a personal, neutral third-person singular — “it” isn’t appropriate for those of us who believe in a personal God — most people understand that God isn’t male, and His self-identifying with us as “Father” is not only metaphor, but bespeaks much more now, and did then to the ancient Hebrews, than simply “Father” as “male parent.” Male and female both represent with equal completeness the image of God; Eve was not the “variant” of the image, and Adam was not ontologically “closer to” God than she was. Scripture is clear that BOTH were created fully in the image of their Creator, and the dominion mandate given to both is a clear sign that God’s intention was to fully manifest Himself in women and in men — equally.

The Book of Genesis is clear that God created men and women as men and women and, in doing so, created them after His own image — that is, male and female. It’s evident that God is “both-and.” He is — has — that of male and is — has — that of female within Him; God is ontologically both male and female and yet is neither. This paradox ought not confound us; a god easily comprehended and defined is a god not worth worshiping, and God’s ontology, while more mysterious to us than His revealed character, is clear: God is Spirit, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, alike and yet not alike those whom He made in His image. He has chosen to reveal Himself in both masculine and feminine images, images that serve to imperfectly introduce and describe the Perfect One.

The fatherhood of God, which is how He is largely revealed in His Word, speaks more to agency, initiative, superintendence, and authority — corporate personality, perhaps — than to mere male parentage. Like all descriptors for the Deity, even the relational characteristics, “father” is more metaphorical than literal; the terms we use, while utterly true, are only pictures given in words we can comprehend. Because of the eternal, functional, ontological equality within the Trinity, the “Sonship” of the Lord Jesus refers, in terms we can grasp, to the intimate love relationship, the “proceeding from” the Father, of the Second Person of the Trinity. The heresy of subordinationism, that Jesus was subordinate not only to Yahweh God in His incarnation, but is now and eternally subordinate to Him in the eternal, immanent Trinity, has made unfortunate inroads into Christian theology, usually as an analogy to argue for female-to-male subordination. But what was heresy then is heresy now; the Athanasian creed specifically rejects subordinationism and elucidates more clearly with the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds in spelling out the eternal equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They relate to each other not as Dad-fertilizing- and Dad-parenting-Son, but as fully equal, fully eternal, fully divine Persons in a relationship of single will, single heart, single intent.

It’s undeniably convenient and certainly comforting for Christian hierarchialists, patriarchs, and complementarians to cling to a male God, but the plethora of maternal images used by God to describe God’s nature, both in the Old and New Testaments, ought to reveal a God whose love is maternal and paternal, far beyond anything we’ve experienced or can understand. As Baptist pastor Paul R. Smith says, “God is more father than father and more mother than mother,” and failure to see God as “not male” results in our manufacturing a god much more to our liking, considerably more apt to be employed to soothe our prejudices than God has revealed Himself to be. I don’t agree with some of Smith’s analyses, but he does the Church a service in reminding of us of God’s propensity to reveal Himself in terms that evoke maternal, female, not just paternal, male, imagery.

It is true that Jesus Christ referred to God as Father 170 times in the Gospels. His disciples, however, whose prayers would serve as a pattern for the Church, are recorded eleven times in Scripture praying to God — and, as Smith asserts, “There are no accounts in the New Testament of anyone but Jesus addressing God as Father.” That Jesus didn’t refer to God as “Mother” is hardly shocking in a patriarchal culture, but that doesn’t argue that we remain blinded to maternal, female, images of God that enrich the Bible’s testimony, the origin of which is God’s own Spirit. We may not feel comfortable praying to God as “Mother,” and we should never reject the paternal image He’s given us, but that doesn’t require that we see Him only as our Male Parent In Heaven. We are saved by the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a male, Jewish carpenter, fully God and fully human. We are NOT saved by His maleness, but by His God-ness. It is the God-ness of our Lord that speaks the greatest truth and commands our worship. To revere only the maleness of God not only wrongly exalts masculinity — the effects of which have been fairly disastrous for humanity — but denigrates the full, revealed Person of the Deity, giving us half a picture that is no picture at all.

(“Is It Okay To Call God ‘Mother’?” Paul R. Smith, 1995/Hendrickson Publishers)

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