Is He or Isn't She?
It happened at least twenty years ago, yet I remember it vividly. I can see the lecture room and picture exactly where the student was sitting. I don't remember the topic of the lecture but I do remember her question: "Do you think God is male, then?" I don't know what I'd said to prompt the rather belligerent tone of voice, but I knew I was being challenged.
Help! What do I say now? I felt threatened and caught off guard. I knew the 'theologically correct' answer was no. But to be perfectly honest I did think of God as male. For most of my (very positive) Christian upbringing I had never questioned it. Why should I? All the language was male. God was always spoken of as "he" and all my images of God were masculine: Father, Shepherd, King . . . . In the depths of my mind, emotions and spirit I saw God as a wonderful, powerful, loving, male protector.
Back to the classroom: I remember trying not to look as caught out as I felt! I referred to the creation account of God making both male and female to represent 'his' own image! (I'm sure language tripped me up again as it so often does.) This shows, I said, that God is neither male nor female but encompasses all the qualities of both. That was a good enough answer and one I stand by today. But back then I was shaken by the whole discussion. If I really believed what I'd just said how come I never gave the feminine qualities of God a thought?
In the intervening years I've discovered that the Bible (which has so often been used to 'prove' God is male) has a wealth of feminine imagery for those with openness to see it. The sad thing is that for so long I, along with many others, didn't see it, perhaps because those who wrote books, preached and taught didn't raise it into view. Or perhaps I just missed it because I was programmed to look through a 'God is male' lens.
The fact that a well rounded view of God has been preserved in Scripture is all the more significant given the patriarchal culture in which the Biblical events were lived and written. And by the way, I'm not knocking the patriarchal culture of the time. We all express our experience through the culture we live in.
But God made sure that the truth about God's nature was not submerged by cultural expression - at least not in the inspired Scriptures. We may have submerged it a whole lot more in our own selective interpretation since then.
You may be wondering why I'm suddenly holding forth on this topic now when the initial incident was so long ago! Fair question! I've recently been reading my way slowly through Julian of Norwich's "Showings". Julian was an amazing woman who lived as an anchorite in the 14th century and had deeply significant encounters with God which she wrote down.
The feminine qualities of God were interwoven through all her visions and theology. What has struck me afresh in reading her experience is that she didn't let language inhibit her. She says: "Jesus Christ, who opposes good to evil, is our true Mother. We have our being from him . . . ."1 It doesn't bother Julian to mix female and male language in a single statement. She knew it wasn't about physical gender but about a fully balanced picture of the character of God.
While we might want to edit the following quotation by simply leaving out the word 'he', Julian, writing in her culture, didn't let a pronoun stop her full orbed view of God. "As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything: I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the unity; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires."2
Even if twenty years have passed and my understanding of the character of God has deepened, I still find old habits die hard. Julian has reminded me to actually relate to God in my prayer, my emotions and my thinking as Mother as well as Father. It makes a big difference!