By: Tyler Lehmann
I can only imagine what the other fathers must have thought.
It was Wednesday night—Boys Brigade, my church’s weekly father-son program. I was 8 years old, and I had just arrived, as I always did, without my dad.
For the next two hours, another man took me under his wing. He had come with his own son, but he was a family friend and wanted to look out for me.
Every Wednesday night, Boys Brigade followed the same pattern. We played games in the gym, heard a lesson, and then we left with an activity to do later in the week with our dads. Of course, I did mine alone.
At that age, I didn’t notice anything unusual about the arrangement, my Wednesday night honorary father. I had my own dad, but his job kept him away from home all week. I didn’t know any different, so I thought that was just the way things were.
To me, Dad was just that man who came home on the weekends, that man who was technically part of the family, but didn’t really feel like part of it. In fact, my mom sometimes called herself a “married single parent” because she essentially raised me by herself.
Though I was never close to my dad, at least I saw him on a weekly basis. For many, that’s not the case. Nearly 28 percent of American youth don’t live with their father, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s over 20 million kids.
Here’s why this reality is of particular concern for Christians: to people who have grown up without a paternal relationship, our faith can seem alienating because we have unnecessarily masculinized God. How is someone supposed to connect with a “Heavenly Father” when they can’t even connect with a flesh and blood, earthly one?
The Father God Metaphor
God, of course, is not literally a father. Gender is part of human biology, and God is divine, transcendent of human gender. The father metaphor may be helpful for some, as Kristina Lacelle-Peterson explains in Baylor University’s Christian Reflection, but it holds different meanings for different people:
Metaphors have a didactic function, teaching about the abstract in terms of the concrete, and in the case of God, the unknown by the use of the known and the infinite through the finite. But more than that, metaphors possess an affective aspect that goes beyond rational lessons about a given topic. As they draw on personal experience they produce an emotional response, so we experience one thing in terms of another.
Though “Heavenly Father” may produce a positive emotional response for many Christians, there are a number of us whose personal experiences inhibit our ability to connect with God through this metaphor.
The truth is we need to rethink our male God image, because it has some major problems. Yet we don’t give the father metaphor a second thought because it’s been so grossly blown out of proportion in Christianity.
“[W]orshippers confuse metaphor with reality and make absolute something that was meant to be illustrative,” Lacelle-Peterson says.
Female God Names
Ancient Hebrews were apparently comfortable using both masculine and feminine names for God. According to Jann Aldredge-Clanton, an ordained minister who has earned doctorate and master of divinity degrees, the name Elohim, which is plural, is derived from an ancient Semitic goddess Eloha and a male god El. By mingling masculine and feminine forms, ancient Hebrews recognized God’s transcendence of sexuality.
El Shaddai, though traditionally translated as “God Almighty,” literally means in ancient Hebrew “God with breasts,” according to both Lacelle-Peterson and Aldredge-Clanton. Additionally, theologian Marianne Katoppo claims that the Third Person of the Trinity originally had a feminine Hebrew name, Ruach, whose gender got lost in translation.
Mother Imagery in the Bible
Throughout Scripture, many different metaphors—both masculine and feminine—shed light on God’s multidimensional nature. While the father metaphor is perhaps best known, a mother metaphor is also employed numerous times throughout Scripture.
In Isaiah, God uses an image of a woman giving birth to express distress at the Israelites’ unfaithfulness and warn of imminent action. Isaiah 42:14 says, “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”
Later in Isaiah, God again shows a feminine side. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” In this verse, the Hebrew verb rechem, meaning “to be compassionate” or “to have pity,” is drawn from the word racham, or “womb,” according to Lacelle-Peterson. In this verse, God is showing womb-like compassion for the Israelites.
Jesus occasionally used feminine metaphors for God, as well. His parable in Luke 15:8-10 compares God’s joy over repentant sinners to a woman finding her lost coin. When Jesus expresses his sorrow for Jerusalem in Luke 13:34, he again uses feminine imagery: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Maternal imagery even shows up in one of Christianity’s most central concepts, though many don’t realize it. When someone receives salvation, we say they’ve been “born again,” a distinctly maternal reference. John 3:5-6 says, “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. . . .’ ” This is another instance of the femininity of the Third Person of the Trinity, Ruach.
“It is ironic in our era that the people most comfortable calling themselves ‘born again’ Christians are most opposed to picturing God as the mother who birthed them, the one who gave this born again experience,” Lacelle-Peterson says.
The God of the Bible is not a bearded old white man, as many of us imagine. God is much too dynamic to be portrayed by any single metaphor. That’s why there are so many different images for God in Scripture.
“[T]o ignore the rich diversity of images of God in Scripture not only leaves us with a partial picture of God but allows us too easily to assign our cultural assumptions about huan fathers to God,” says Lacelle-Peterson. “In other words, we not only reduce God to one image, but we also reduce God to our image, our cultural ideas regarding male parents. This, of course, borders on idolatry.”
While the father metaphor certainly has value, it isn’t enough on its own. It is one of many ways for learning about God, who isn’t truly a mother, either, for that matter. Christians must remember that the Creator of the Universe will never fit into any singe human understanding. All the more reason that our God is an Awesome God.