Recent essays that have appeared here at Covenant and elsewhere have brought up the significance of gendered imagery in the Christian faith and its relation to liturgy, ordained ministry, abuse, and harassment. For example:
- Michael Fitzpatrick, “Liturgical Revision and a New Conception of God”
- Sarah Condon, “The Catholic Church Needs Mothers”
- Matthew Olver, “Did General Convention Authorize Prayer Book Revision?”
I won’t pretend to resolve the issues raised in these posts, but I would like to touch on a fundamental point. Namely, we ought to realize that we have to deny and affirm — simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically — that God is an old man in the sky. This was once broadly understood, yet seems to be a flashpoint today, not simply among misguided atheists comparing the Christian God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but even among the faithful. We are more accustomed to slogans than nuance.
Like many aspects of Christian theology, we can state this truth in simple and profound ways. As Michael Fitzpatrick noted on Tuesday, earlier Christian generations realized the difficulty of anthropomorphic language, particularly gendered and biological language applied to the Godhead. At the same time, the primacy of Father and Son language could not be abandoned, given its general biblical grounding and especially its use by the Word made flesh. He commanded all nations to be baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), and while the names are largely to be evacuated of their biological resonance, they are to be retained in describing the relations of the persons (see Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 29.7-8, 30.20).
Because of such apparent paradoxes, Christianity — like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and many other religious traditions with developed philosophies — has sophisticated practices for naming God or other transcendent beings, as well as justifications for these practices. One would think the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, or many others would play a role in contemporary debates in the Episcopal Church. But we need not go so far as these eminent theologians. The issue can be stated fairly simply.
One popular catechetical address, written in the fifth century and used widely in the Latin West from 800 to 1500, put it this way: “When you hear the word Father, you should not imagine God is in either sex, but you should understand that God proceeded from God in incomprehensible majesty” (Pseudo-Maximus of Turin, Sermon on the Apostles’ Creed). The language points to the shared nature of Father and Son, and has many other resonances as well. But God is not an old man in the sky, even as we use language that may be misunderstood by the uninstructed.
Somehow, the Episcopal Church and many other churches seem to find themselves incapable of articulating this idea, a piece of basic instruction that generations of (largely illiterate) ancient and medieval Christians received before baptism or confirmation. That, in itself, tells us something worrisome and important.
On the other hand, the rush to abandon traditional masculine language for God brings with it a series of other misunderstandings or questionable motivations. Often and admirably, this push has been driven by an urge to take seriously claims of abuse within the Christian community. What it fails to reckon with is that men, particularly fathers, are not the only culprits in this universal affliction.
Yes, many of us have been abused by men, fathers, and other paternal figures, and this is something particularly urgent to address in the present, in the wake of #MeToo and various sex abuse crises in churches. However, simply shifting our naming of God from Father to Mother or from masculine to feminine imagery is not going to settle the problem; nor will expansive language in general. There is no silver bullet here, nor is naming God a balancing act.
Many of us have also been abused or neglected by women, mothers, and maternal figures, and overly feminine imagery bears potential for scandalizing new generations of the faithful. Others of us have been failed in significant ways by both parents — or even multiple sets of parents, if we have been adopted or abandoned.
As Ben Guyer put it in July, the search for linguistic purity is only ever going to fail. There is no pure language, uncorrupted by sin and abuse. There is a language that has been redeemed, however, and we must keep this point in mind. There is something powerful to claiming one’s identity as the child of a heavenly Father, Friend, and King, when all parents, family, friends, and institutions have failed and continue to fail you.
A final set of points: While we may claim breezily with a wave of our hand that God is not a man, let alone an old man or a heavenly one, all we are doing is avoiding the ultimate question of what masculine imagery for God is meant to do and its relation to the analogy of being, the general way that all our language both does and does not sufficiently address God, whether we name him as Father, rock, righteousness, wisdom, or even drunken warrior (cf. Ps. 78:65).
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “I kneel before the Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:15).
Earthly fathers share in the fatherhood of God, just as earthly loves share in divine love, earthly justice in divine justice, and so forth. We might say the same of maternal language, and we would have to carefully qualify all of these statements. The dissimilarity is greater than the similarity. There is a dim, imperfect shadow of God’s character in what we experience through our parental relationships (cf. Heb. 12:9), and it echoes into all of human society. As Julian of Norwich puts it in Revelations of Divine Love, God is the goodness we experience throughout all our lives, such that we are enveloped in his character at all times.
Another aspect of biological and gendered imagery has been brought to the fore recently by the equally beloved and reviled Jordan Peterson, who continues to point out forcefully that the traditional archetypal language of humanity, which is present in most of our art, story, and song, as well as grounded in both nature and culture, cannot simply be dismissed. It gives meaning to much of our experience, and we continue to respond strongly to it. As a fellow priest and psychologist put it to me recently, the Church ignores this aspect of human experience at its own peril.
God’s fatherhood importantly speaks to our need for a transcendent source of being that grounds our human ordering, as well as questions it. We need the old man in the sky; we need “the Ancient of Days” to take his seat, with “his clothing as white as snow” and “the hair of his head white like wool” (Dan. 7:9). For in his wisdom and power, this God will destroy all the earthly, boastful authorities that trample down justice (7:1-8), and will establish the eternal dominion of one “like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (7:13), that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. As Michael Fitzpatrick said, God may be more than such language, but he is certainly not less than it.
How this relates to questions of sex, gender, and ordination is a complicated question. For example, we may rightly desire to question the association of masculinity or fatherhood with transcendence, but we are unlikely to undo or change the symbolic structure of human thought overnight — if at all, in the long run. When it comes to the human representation of divine qualities, particularly by priests, there are more fruitful and flexible paths to consider, but that is the topic for another essay. (See Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names 2.8, Celestial Hierarchy 3.1-2, and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1.2 for a quick primer.)
No doubt we find this paradoxical. It is inescapably so. But the God we worship is beyond our imagining, our language, our comprehension, our control. He is no more contained in the language we choose than he is by any earthly temple or even by the whole earth and heaven (1 Kings 8:27). We would not know him unless he chose to reveal himself to us.
But God has chosen to dwell among us in particular ways, and given us language we may use and sacraments and mysteries that unite us to him forever. It is not all up to us.
As we continue to serve God’s purposes in our generation, let us draw deeply without shame on the tradition handed down to us, and be sure to turn aside from overly simple solutions. For, like all earthly things, they are thin reeds on which we dare not lean, no substitute for “the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27).