Questions 2.0 – Is God a Man?
Sycamore Creek Church
June 19, 2011
What questions do you have about God, faith, Jesus, the church? Today we continue a series where I’m trying to answer some of those questions. Well, maybe I’m not completely answering them, but I’m pointing us in the direction I think the answer would go. Today’s question is: Is God a Man?
Today is Father’s Day and it seems appropriate and comfortable to celebrate God as a Father. It seems so obvious that we rarely blink an eye when calling God “Our Father.” So as we celebrate fathers today in our culture, the question that comes into my mind is whether we could celebrate on Mother’s Day calling our God “Our Mother”?
While Sarah and I were at seminary in Durham, NC, we lived in a house with several other Christians who offered hospitality to women and children in transition. We would also gather each evening for prayer. When Sarah and I first moved in we were especially looking forward to praying together each evening. As we gathered that first night, we were told how the prayer time worked. It seemed pretty simple. We’d read some scripture, sing a song, pray, and close with the Lord’s Prayer. Besides how horrible we all were at singing and carrying a tune, the prayer time went off without a hitch. As we came to the Lord’s Prayer, we gathered in the center of the room, held hands, bowed our heads, closed our eyes and began praying together, “Our Mother…”
“Our Mother”?! What?! Before I could fully catch what was said, the prayer continued as I was familiar with it: “Our Father who art in heaven…” Hmmm…Each night this “Our Mother, Our Father” continued. At some point during a house meeting, I brought up how I wasn’t very comfortable with this variation of the Lord’s Prayer, and so I just remained silent and began when we got to the “Our Father” part. I was a little bit shocked to find out that the house was willing to drop saying “Our Mother” because I was uncomfortable with it. Wow! Where else did I have friends who were so flexible? Where else did I receive such hospitality? Not many places. And so began a time of biblical and theological searching for me. I figured that if they were willing to drop part of a tradition that I had, then I should at least look into the subject.
I don’t know that I’ve got a super firm answer to some of the questions surrounding the question “Is God a Man” although I definitely have an answer to that question. What I’d like to do is walk you through some scripture that speaks to this issue and also give you a taste of some of the theological issues that are at stake in this question. I’d like to finish by exploring what this all means for our practices of naming and calling to God. Let’s begin with the Bible.
There are so many images of God as a man in the Bible that you don’t even have to name any of them. The Bible regularly uses “he” to talk about God. Then there’s the whole “Father” language. The Bible doesn’t shy away from using masculine language to talk about God. But does the Bible ever talk about God using feminine language? Absolutely. While not as often, the Bible doesn’t seem to have a problem referring to God as a woman.
God Giving Birth
“You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18 NLT). Interestingly we find in this passage both a masculine and feminine image of God. God “fathers” and God “gives birth.” Hmm… God is both father and mother here.
This image isn’t just in the Old Testament. It’s also in the New Testament. Jesus regularly refers to the process of salvation as being “born again.” “Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God’” (John 3:3 NLT). Sure, there isn’t an explicit reference to God in this passage, but who does the birthing? Do we? Surely we don’t give birth to ourselves. God is the one who gives us a new birth.
These are only two passages out of many that I could have chosen describing God as a woman who gives birth to God’s people.
Biblical – Nursing
God is also described as a nursing mother from time to time. We read in the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15 NLT). God apparently has breasts. OK. No. God doesn’t. But God’s love is like the love of a nursing mother. How strong is that love? I’m learning that it’s one of the strongest loves around.
No matter how hard I try I cannot keep Sarah from nursing Micah when he starts crying. We can be in the middle of eating, and I’ll say, “Just finish your meal. He’ll be fine.” Nope. Or we can be sleeping and he starts crying. I say, “Just let him cry. He’ll cry himself back to sleep.” Nope. We can be having a really important conversation, and Micah starts crying for milk. “Come on honey. Let’s just finish this out, and then you can feed him.” Nope. We can be right in the middle of…well, you know. Too much information! Yeah, right in the middle of that, and I can’t do anything to keep her from running to make sure Micah’s OK and gets fed. The love a nursing mother has for her child is one of the most unstoppable loves around. God’s love is like that.
Once again we can turn to the New Testament to see similar language. Peter says, “You must crave pure spiritual milk so that you can grow into the fullness of your salvation. Cry out for this nourishment as a baby cries for milk, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness” (1 Peter 2:2-3 NLT). Where does this milk come from? Who is the baby? Who is the mother giving the milk? What exactly is it that we are tasting of the Lord? Yes. Milk! The Lord’s milk.
So language is used in both the Old and New Testament to talk about God as a mother who gives birth and a mother who nurses her children. Any more feminine images to talk about God? Yes. Many more.
Biblical – Midwife
The prophet Isaiah talks about God as a midwife. He says, “‘Would I ever bring this nation to the point of birth and then not deliver it?’ asks the LORD. ‘No! I would never keep this nation from being born,’ says your God” (Isaiah 66:9 NLT). The role of the midwife is to help bring about birth. In that day and age, the midwife was always a woman. God not only is the mother giving birth, but God is also the midwife helping the birth and the mother who nurses the child after it is born. That’s a lot of roles. I can barely imagine Sarah not only giving birth to our son but also being the midwife. No way. Thank you Amanda, Teresa, Connie, and all the others who were there to help do it all. Birth and nursing were enough. But Isaiah says God is also a midwife.
God is a mother giving birth. God is a midwife. God is a nursing mother. Is that all? Nope. We don’t have time to go through them all, but the Bible also calls God a homemaker (in that day a woman), a baker woman, a mother pelican, a hen, and a mother bear. Yikes! A mother bear? I never want to run into a mother bear with her cubs in the wild. I wonder if that one isn’t thrown in there just to make sure we don’t think that female images are all soft and cuddly. A mother bear is truly a fearsome prospect.
Clearly, the Bible doesn’t have a problem describing God in these motherly ways. Should we? Is God a Man? The Bible answers that with language that says, “Yes, and a woman too!”
Over the centuries Christians have argued theologically quite a bit about this topic. What do I mean when I say “theologically”? Theology is made up of two words. Theos = God and “logos” = words. So theology is simply putting words together in reference to God. There has been a kind of consensus that the Church has reached of the centuries on issues related to this.
The big question here has to do with language. Is the language that we use to refer to God language that describes a name or is it language that is an analogy? What do I mean when I say that? You all understand a name. My name is Tom. I am not like a Tom. That makes no sense. I am Tom. Tom = Tom. That’s what a name is. So what about an analogy? An analogy is when you saying something is like something else. Tom is like a male model. Tom is like a champion weight lifter. Tom is like a Hollywood star. OK. I’m kidding. But you get the point. I’m not saying Tom = a male model. Tom is like a male model. A name and an analogy are different.
The big debate of the centuries has been whether the language we use to refer to God is a name or an analogy. Is calling God “Father” saying God = Father or are we saying God is like a father? Theologians have tended to say that “Father” is not an analogy but is a name. Theologians refer to these names as the Trinity. God is Trinity = Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is a name, not an analogy.
So some have attempted to bypass this sticky issue by suggesting that we could refer to God by more gender neutral names like “creator, redeemer, and sustainer.” Well, others say, now you’re calling God by a function rather than a name. I probably wouldn’t last very long in my house if I was always calling Sarah saying, “Hey, wife.” Or if in the office I referred to Susan as, “Hey, secretary” and Jeremy as, “Hey, worship leader.” Although occasionally they all refer to me as “Hey, pastor” and I inevitably fire back, “Hey, worship leader.” We want to be called by our names, not our functions.
Then there’s the tricky part of asking whether it is only “The Father” who was the creator. Doesn’t John say something about the Word, the Son, creating (John 1:3)? And don’t we read in Genesis about the Spirit of God hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2)? So God the Father is not equal to the creator but God the Trinity is the creator.
So what to do about this whole name and language thing? I once only slightly jokingly suggested in a debate that we could solve all this by calling God by the Greek names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Pater, Huios, and Agiu Espirtu—and then no one who speaks English would have any masculine connotations with those words. This suggestion didn’t help very much.
So maybe your head is hurting right now. “Get me out of here,” you’re thinking. Hang on there. We’re going to tie this all together in just a minute. But before we do, I want to look at some other things theologians have said about language and God, particularly each person of the Trinity.
Theological – Father
Remember that when Christians speak about God as Trinity they are not saying that we worship three Gods. We worship one God in three persons. How is something three and one at the same time? Consider a triangle. It has three sides and yet is one object. Or take speech. It has a speaker, words, and breath. Three aspects and yet one thing. A mystery? Most certainly. But there are some things that we can understand clearly.
When it comes to the first person of the Trinity, the Father, two key things must be understood. Christian theologians have not understood “the Father” to mean that God was a man. Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th century church leader said that whatever “Father” means it does not mean “male.”
Theological – Son
Let’s look at the second person of the Trinity, the Son. Once again we run into masculine language. Interestingly enough, while Jesus is the most obviously masculine person of the Trinity, many church leaders have referred to Jesus as “our Mother” over the years. Consider Julian of Norwich, a Christian leader in the 14th and 15th century who wrote the first published book by a female in the Western world. She liked to call Jesus “our mother.” She said, “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.” What is she referring to here? Communion. Communion is a kind of spiritual milk for Julian that is like the milk a nursing mother gives to a child. So when we go to communion, according to Julian, we are nursing with our mother Jesus.
You might be thinking, “Ah, but she’s a woman. Of course, she’d refer to Jesus as ‘our Mother.’ Show me some men who call Jesus ‘mother’ and then we’ll be talking.” Julian wasn’t alone. Origen, a 2nd and 3rd century church leader referred to Jesus as mother. Irenaeus in the 2nd century did too. As did Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux both in the 12th century. For many Christians over the centuries Jesus has been a mother.
Theological – Holy Spirit (Hidden Feminine)
What about the Holy Spirit? One biblical teacher I read liked to point out the hidden feminine throughout all of scripture. In the ancient Greek and Hebrew the verbs included both subject and verb and the verb had a gender. So a Hebrew verb had built into it either a “he” or “she.” Generally speaking the gendered nature of the language didn’t mean much, but this teacher pointed out that if we’re going to translate the times when the hidden “he” for God shows up then we also ought to do it when the hidden “she” shows up.
Let’s look at the very first verses of the Bible in Genesis. If we translate the “he” or “she” inherent in the verb, we get this: “In the beginning, God, he created, the heavens and the earth. The earth, she was formless and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the earth. And the Spirit of God, she hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2, Literal Translation).
I don’t intend to suggest that the Holy Spirit is a woman and the Father is man and together they had the Son. No. In fact, I would argue against that idea, but I do mean to show that referring to God in feminine language isn’t alien to scripture.
Theologians ask the question, “Is God a Man?” They answer it saying, “I’m not so sure God is a man or a woman.”
So what about practices? What about where the rubber meets the road? What are we supposed to say when we pray or talk to or talk about God? Here’s the rub for many. As Mary Daly has said, “If God is male then male is God.” If we’re always referring to God as “he” or “Father” then it can come across as if there is a kind of way that men are made in the image of God more so than women, but that’s not true. Go back and read carefully the first chapter of Genesis, and you’ll see that both male and female were made in the image of God.
Practices – Trinity
As for my own practice, when it comes to the Trinitarian language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” I always leave that alone. This is a long theological consensus built upon hundreds of years of trying to define very precisely the nature of God as one God in three persons. You tinker with it too much, and you’ll have some unintended consequences. It reminds me of when I took the spokes off my bike wheel to clean each one. “Good idea,” I thought. Then I tried to put them all back together. What a mess I had made for myself. They had, before I took them apart, perfectly balanced one another so that the wheel spun perfectly. When I got done putting them all back together, the wheel spun with a horrible wobble. I had to throw the wheel out. It was useless. The language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is a finely balanced wheel. If you tinker with it too much you may end up creating a wobble you didn’t expect or anticipate.
When it comes to the use of the word “Father” for the first person of the Trinity, many have very bad associations with the word “Father.” Their father wasn’t kind of loving or caring. Is God that same kind of a Father? No. God is the Father who holds your father and your mother accountable. On this Father’s Day, my first Father’s Day, I remember that the character of God is what holds me accountable, not the other way around. For those who had no father because your father abandoned you when you were a child or teenager, then God the Father is, perhaps, the Father you never had.
And yet, when it comes to times other than referring to the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—I think we as a church should embrace the full spectrum of language for talking about God. Obviously, as I showed before, the Bible and even church leaders throughout history have had no problem referring to God in explicitly feminine ways. Why should we be?
Practices – Diversity
I like the diversity of images used to refer to God in several popular books or stories lately. Take the Experiencing God book. God is kind of like an old white guy. Is this a bad image of God? No, unless you only use this one image exclusively. Then there’s Bruce Almighty where Morgan Freeman, a black man, plays God. Most recently is the novel, The Shack. A little shockingly, God the Father is depicted as a big black woman called “Papa”! I love it. I must also admit that while I love it, there is still something in me that isn’t quite comfortable using this wide spectrum of images to refer to God. I still can’t quite stomach calling God “Our Mother.” This is probably due to the force of the conservative tradition I grew up in. We all get stuck in ruts from what we’ve always done. I’m no different than each of you. But I must add that I don’t cringe like I used to when I hear someone else refer to God in this way, and I encourage it.
Practices – Translation
Another aspect of practice related to this question is which translation to use. Not all translations are created equal in this regard. There are several that consciously attempt to be gender inclusive in their language. They don’t change the male gendered language about God, but they don’t shy away from the feminine either. The big three are the NRSV, NLT, and TNIV. I’d recommend using one of these three translations. It’s not that the others are bad, I use them too. They are just limited in this respect.
Practices – Humility
One last thing I think is worth saying about this question: Is God a Man? In our day and age, sometimes we ignore the second commandment. It reads, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…” (Exodus 20:4 NKJV). (Yes, I take note of the irony that I just suggested using the NRSV, NLT, or TNIV and now I’m using the NKJV. Sometimes with specific verses different translations just do it better.) In other words, don’t make an idol (as most modern translations put it). What is an idol? It’s an image of God. It says, “This is what God is.” I wonder if the language we use or the images we create to refer to God don’t at times become a kind of idol. It seems to me that there ought to be a kind of humility when it comes to the language we use to refer to God. Ancient and modern Jews stay so far away from the name of God that they don’t even say “God” and they never say God’s name. They say, “The LORD” or “The Name.” Maybe we could learn something from the way that they interpret and practice the second commandment when it comes to language. Maybe we could be a little bit more humble about the language we use to refer to God. Maybe we could be a little bit more open to other language than the language we’re used to. Do not make for yourself a carved image. Do not make for yourself a language image. Be humble when using language to refer to God.
So is God a man? No. God does not have male (or female) body parts. Is God like a man? Yes. Is God like a woman? Yes. Although it might be better to ask: Is a man like God? Yes. Is a woman like God? Yes.Share on Facebook