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The Motherhood of God
With God the Father in so much trouble in so many places around the world, maybe its time to consider the alternative

Since we Christians, along with our Jewish and Muslim cousins have devoted 2000 years or more to God the Father, and our religions appear to be caught up in such a mess of trouble, both here in the US with the sex abuse scandal and in the Middle East, perhaps its time for a change of heart. I'm beginning to suspect that it's too late for tinkering around the edges. New policy statements from Rome, and new peace initiatives from the failed leaders of political entities that are at war with each other around the world may not be sufficient to address, let alone solve, the problems that confront us. It may be time for a more fundamental change.

For as long as most of us can remember, we've  been taught, by the very people who brought us sex scandals and warfare without end, that the God in whose name such things were perpetrated, is an all powerful, Father God. Could it be that there's something in this image of God that actually contributes to the problem and prevents us from finding the solutions we so desperately need?

Long ago, Jesus was able to infuse new life into a dying faith by speaking of God as "Abba," or Daddy, using the familiar term and the father/son relationship to communicate the most intimate, personal feelings about God. Since that time, I would submit, the intimacy of that image has become obscured by images of power and authority. Today the vocabulary of our faith includes references to God as Warrior and King, Monarch and Almighty Ruler  ... something quite different from what Jesus had in mind.

Between us and the teachings of Jesus, centuries have passed in which God has come to be defined by worldly rulers in words and images that mirror their own power and authority, rather than reflecting the spirit of the carpenter from Nazareth who preached a gospel of peace and put forward an ethic of compassionate love.

If Jesus succeeded in restoring a vital connection between God and  the people by evoking the love between father and child, perhaps, today, the vitality of faith can be recaptured by drawing upon the equally intimate relationship between mother and child. What better way to emphasize the intimacy of our relationship with God than to imagine a mother's love for her child? When you think of the devotion, the sacrifice, the tenderness, and sometimes the suffering that a mother pours out for her children, doesn't that reflect in some deep way the love God feels for each of us?

Of course, this is nothing new. In ancient religions the idea of Mother God was very closely related to the idea of Mother Earth or Mother Nature. It seemed only natural and obvious that a God who gave birth to the world must have at least something in common with a woman who gives birth. As a human mother gave birth to us all, God was quite naturally seen as the Mother of us all.

The long history of God as Mother

In fact, the relative poverty of maternal symbolism in the Hebrew Bible places Judaism in striking contrast with many other ancient religions. Whether in Egypt or Babylonia, Greece or Rome, Asia, Africa, or the native cultures of the Americas, ancient peoples the world over have envisioned God in feminine as well as masculine terms. Some scholars even believe that Yahweh, the Hebrew God, can be traced back to a Sumerian Goddess, so that in emphasizing the maternal qualities of the deity, we are only tracing our own faith back into its deepest roots in history.

Yet when the patriarchs of ancient Judaism took control of things; when they took the deepest experiences of the people and put them into the form of codified law and other sacred writing, the maternal side of God's nature was repressed. So too in New Testament times. Elaine Pagles, a professor of New Testament at Princeton, points out that within the early Christian Church there was a strong emphasis upon the maternal aspects of God. In fact, some early Christians may have seen Christ's gospel as a long awaited reform, correcting the patriarchal emphasis of first century Judaism. Pagles cites recent archeological discoveries which suggest that many early Christians thought of God as a being who possessed both masculine and feminine qualities. One group of ancient texts contains prayers addressed to both a Father and a Mother God.

But several hundred years after the time of Jesus, as the early church fathers formulated the dogmas that became the official teaching of the Roman church, much of the balance and the rich variety of this early experience was lost. It is not surprising that a church which came to be dominated by popes and princes, kings and bishops should so easily identify God as a male authority figure. And so it came to be that the idea of God as a father ruling over his people from a throne in the distant heavens perfectly suited a church ruled by a pope sitting on a throne in Rome. And likewise, the idea of the father God was used to support the idea of the man's supremacy over the woman, including the denial of equal rights under the law for women.

Nevertheless, even in the period of the church's greatest worldly power, there were many people who continued to feel God's love and to see in God's love a maternal dimension.

Even in the darkness of the middle ages, there was a renewed emphasis upon the feminine. So, Julian of Norwich, the English mystic, wrote: "A kind, loving mother, who understands and knows the needs of her child will look after it tenderly because it is the nature of a mother to do so. As the child grows older, she changes her methods, not her love. This way of doings things is our Lord at work in those who do them. Thus God is our Mother." In Medieval times, language about God was grounded in the life of woman as well as men. And even in a male, dominated, warrior society people were exposed to a vision of God as a nurturing, tender Mother, Maiden and Midwife, as well as Father, Lord and King.

Within the real experience of Christians across the ages there has always been a powerful egalitarian principle at work against the dominance of the male. At the simplest level what feminist theologians are attempting today is simply to recover some of these long forgotten traditions.

And there's the simple question of fairness.

There's a glaring inconsistency between theory and practice in our churches. For in theory I think most modern day Christians would agree we do not imagine God as a bearded patriarch sitting on a throne somewhere up there in heaven. Yet in practice, the language of our hymns and prayers and creeds does suggest that we still have this one sided male image in mind. And what could be more inconsistent when you think about it than in our hearts to believe that men and women are truly equal and then go ahead and speak of God as though the Supreme Being were a male?

Yet if you go beyond the official teaching of the churches and actually explore the rich variety of peoples' experience, you will find that many of us can just as easily see God in feminine as in masculine terms.

Certainly the dimensions of God's nature are at least as broad and as wide as human nature itself. And if the love of God can be mediated through the love of our own fathers, why deny the same value to mother love? At bottom, it's a basically a matter of reflecting in our faith the broad range of human experience, inspiration and illumination.

As we remember each and every Mother's Day, there is no closer and more intimate relationship than that between mother and child.

Especially in the earliest days and weeks of infancy, mother and child are literally at one. This bond, begun in the womb, is played out on a physical, emotional, and deeply spiritual dimension as the mother nurses the new born child. I suspect that one of our reasons for having difficulty with maternal images of God is that in our adult life we do not feel all that close to our Creator. Today we have a very strong sense of God's absence. We no longer see God under every fallen leaf or in every human encounter. No wonder people find it easier to compare God to the absent father. We too easily surrender to the idea that like a man preoccupied with his work, God has far too many important and weighty problems to solve, so we must solve our personal problems on our own. 

Meanwhile, the actual rulers of our world invoke the name of God to justify the failed policies that allow more than enough room for sex scandals and warfare. I do not suggest that thinking about God in different ways will lead directly or quickly to a solution to such problems. But I suspect that unless and until the world's great faith traditions can begin to affirm an image of  God that truly mirrors the better angels of our own nature, solutions to our gravest problems will not appear on the horizon. 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.