Many years ago, I walked into an argument in my Sunday School classroom. It went like this:
“The Bible says “Our Father who art in heaven!”
“Yes, but we know that God isn’t a boy or girl. So I can say ‘Our Mother’ if I want!”
Without knowing it, these two kids were hashing out a battle that was much, much older than they are. The central question: Does it matter what we call God?
Most Christians affirm that God is neither male nor female: God is God. The challenge is in our language. I speak from the experience of someone who tries hard to refer to God only as “God” and avoid the gender issue altogether. It gets tedious. “God told God’s people to move into the land God had prepared for them.” It’s fine for a sentence or two, an entire sermon or article that way is a struggle to read and listen to. Quite simply, we need a pronoun.
That’s where things get tricky. In a patriarchal society, like ancient Rome, Medieval England, Renaissance Spain or most other place Christianity has spread, the default pronoun is male. And so while we affirm that God is neither male nor female, we say he/him/his. “It,” as a pronoun for God has never been seriously considered, for good reason
So we press on, calling God “Father,” trusting that we are intellectual people who can appreciate that the maleness of God is simply a matter of language. It is a matter for the head, not the spirit.
The mistake we’ve made in this debate is assuming that our intellectual understanding is really separate from our spiritual understanding. The truth is, what we call God shapes how we think of God, and how we think of God shapes how we connect with God. We can’t divorce our heads from our hearts quite so easily.
We would be better served, I think, if we dropped the emphasis on God’s lack of gender and began emphasizing instead God’s encapsulation of both genders. It is biblical, right from the story of Genesis: male and female, both created in God’s image.
Where we have tried to teach God’s “nothingness” in gender, many of our spiritual role-models have taken the opposite approach. Julian of Norwich, for example, regularly referred to God as both Mother and Father, using the terms interchangeably as she wrote about her deep experiences of God’s presence. While she frequently used the traditional language for God: Maker, Lord, Father, she also wrote of being nurtured at God’s breast, of Mother God pulling her close and even used feminine imagery in speaking of Christ. “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
I’ll be the first to admit that gender-bending language like this makes me pause. And yet, it is also a fuller, deeper, richer image of God as One who encompasses all things instead of a remote, heady image of God who encapsulates nothing.
This is why the first question I ask people who are stuck in their spiritual lives is how they address God. I’m not primarily interested in whether they think of God as “man,” most don’t. I’m actually interested in how they’re addressing God in the intimate moments of prayer: the quiet of their bedtime prayers, or the depth of their souls as they watch the sunrise in the mountains. For many people, the traditional male language for God has become removed and rote; it fails to capture God’s fullness and nearness the way Jesus’ daring language of “Father” or “Dad” once did.I believe that God continues to reach out to us in ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Click To Tweet
I have come to believe that God continues to reach out to us in the ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Our spiritual journey to “find God,” isn’t about finding God in prayer once but finding God in prayer over and over and over again–and sometimes, this means changing the very way we pray.