Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction

Lion by Leszek.Leszczynski

The central task of theology, talking about God and discussing the nature of true talk about God, is difficult. How can one express the ineffable? One cannot hold the infinite within human language. Theologians and Pastors have used a number of approaches to their impossible task.

One approach, the Via Negativa, proceeds by saying what God is not, which can only ever be part of an answer, because God is obviously more than not-something. This argument says that since human language fails, let us not have pictures of God based on what humans are like. Much classical theology did this, stripping away what is inadequate before true talk of God can begin. The method that interests us here, by contrast, is analogy. An analogy says that the thing we do not understand is like something we do understand. In theology it takes things in creation as pictures that illustrate aspects of the creator. The Bible and our worship songs are full of such picture language. 

As well as lords and masters, lions, lambs and rocks, father is a popular picture; Jesus used this picture often. It also answers deep needs within the human psyche. Most of us comfortably call on our father, though the words do have problems. A human father may wound his son or daughter’s capacity to use this language. He may have abused, been absent for work, or separated from the child’s mother. The idea of authoritarian fathers, which lingers in our culture, also limits ways people can relate to God. Some fathers are distant in manner and yet stern in disciplining their children. These fathers present a poor picture of God’s tender and intimate love.
If father is part of normal human experience, understanding the meaning of “mother” is an even more universal for humans. Yet few of us are familiar and comfortable with talk of God as our heavenly mother. We are so unfamiliar with the motherly language for God in the Bible or the writings of early theologians, that we often explain it away or deny it. Fifty years ago, Christians rarely talked of God as mother. The great CS Lewis assumed the very idea was shocking, and the mere thought sufficient to demonstrate that women could not be priests (as Anglicans name their pastors), since they could not “represent” a God whose name was “father”.1

Contemporary Christians tend to fall into one of two categories on this question.
The liberal feminist may promote a notion of the “Great Mother, or speak of “Gaia,” a kind of modern Mother Earth. Evangelicals who believe that “father” alone is the biblical usage, deny all possibility of mother language, though of course people vary within these groups. One variety of liberal seeks to avoid the question, while remaining egalitarian and politically correct, by avoiding sexist language. Like the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, they reject all gender specific terms. Going further than the grammar checker, they even exclude father and mother. However, when people pray using this “PC” thinking, the prayers lack warmth and may not sound convincing, for example, God, Godself, is the creator and sustainer of all life. In my view, God does not create such lifeless prayers! 

Some evangelicals note small signs of God being motherly or feminine while seeing both God and Christ as male. This leaves us with a male God, but a somewhat feminized male! I do not find the view satisfying. Others, rightly, preferring to risk the human end of the equation, occasionally hint timidly that God may be like a mother to us as well as our Heavenly Father.
  1. C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper) Undeceptions London: Bles, 1971, 193 (article first published in 1948). []

2 comments on “Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction

  1. Bob MacDonald

    Lewis missed the nursing fathers in psalm 45, and God as mother hen (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, …) or mother eagle. But we miss, as Crossan points out in The Greatest Prayer, the householder motif in father.

  2. Andrea Candy

    “If father is part of normal human experience, understanding the meaning of “mother” is an even more universal for humans.” And yet human mothers are just as imperfect as human fathers in imaging the divine! There’s something very strange about the idealising of the feminine that goes on among liberal feminists but male evangelicals of a certain era (like CS Lewis) did it too – either idealising or demonising.