Sunday, July 18, 2010

God the Mother

I recently took a class at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossen.  It was called "Redeeming Christian Language" and I wrote a paper on it and received a Biblical credit for it.  My program requires a lot of Bible based classes and these two are master teachers.  I realize when I was writing the paper, which I wrote on the term "God the Father", that I didn't quite buy Borg and Crossan's argument.  I felt that they wanted everything both ways.  They wanted the comfort of the old language but with transplanted understanding.  In one section of my paper, I was 'allowed' to critique the class using any theological reason I wanted and so I chose feminist theology.  Ah, they stiffen my spine!

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg are two compassionate and thoughtful Biblical scholars who are trying to reclaim Biblical words that have become offensive or problematic over time. It's a daunting task and one that can only be partially accomplished by exegesis (Biblical scholarship). The deconstruction of God the Father is a case in point. Dominic Crossan does an exegesis which shows that the metaphor of God the Father can be thought of as God the Householder, or more concisely, God the Head of Household. Crossan also shows that God as the head of a large household is concerned with justice. God as Householder equates to God being against “GROSS INEQUALITY in distribution of either poverty or wealth” (Crossan).  It's a beautiful idea that may reclaim Christianity, but it doesn't entirely reclaim the phrase, God the Father. Why is that?

Let's first look at the leap that Crossan made from his exegesis of God the Father to God the Householder. He thinks it's deplorable, but just part of the ancient mindset, that Scriptures use a male pronoun. Crossan is interested in the family unit in Ancient Israel and he points out how central it is to understanding God in the Torah. Because the description of God as Father is about his position in a household, God the Father can be thought of as 'God the Head of the Household'. The logic here is fairly solid. Crossan is assuming that the God title was mostly about the function of the Father and not his identity as a man.

This is a leap conceptually. One could more easily use a title like Head Accountant, to transfer functions without considering gender. In the Ancient Near East both in the Israel of Exodus and the Greco-Roman Diaspora world of the Gospel of Luke, the role of male or female head of household was not interchangeable and certainly the word for Father was never confused with Mother. The Betab is translated as “Father's House” and within that house all property is transferred via the male line. A daughter is married out of the family and sons stay in it. An older wife may have had status, but she wasn't a father and was not able to perform all the functions of the 'head of household' even though she may have had personal authority. In the Ancient Near East there was no confusing the roles of mother and father.

Crossan tried to finesse this issue by joking that “everyone knows who is really in charge”. Ouch!  It is true that the world has seen many a powerful woman who managed to use her relationships, fertility or personal strength to be the one in control. However, this kind of power was not institutionalized and was often apocryphal. At the death of any woman within the Betab, or father's house, there may have been heartbreak, but there wasn't the economic upheaval that could come at the death of the Patriarch.

Crossan is saying God's radical concern for the people trumps the crude inter-family oppression of this older family structure that included slavery, oppression of women, and other poor practices.

Therefore let's accept the logic so that we can move on to the second point of this essay. After all, it is a generous thought that God the Father, should be thought of as Head of Household and that this Householder would be concerned with the health, economically, and in all other Fatherly and Motherly ways, with the health of the world. This world needs such a compassionate and yet practical God.

Point two is that Crossan's logic relies on Christian woman seeing the words “God the Father” and then making the translation in their head's, “this metaphor includes me -- because it means head of household, and I can be a head of household, (even though those women of Ancient Israel couldn't be)”.

Feminist theologians have denied the idea of accommodating exclusively male language around God in this way. It isn't because God the Father can't have good qualities. God as Father can draw on the best of fatherly associations. When God is described as father, this can be the father who will love, care, and protect you. As Elizabeth Johnson writes:

The difficulty does not lie in the fact that male metaphors are used, for men too are made in the image of God and may suitably serve as finite beginning points for reference to God. Rather, the problem consists in that these male terms are used exclusively, literally and patriarchally.

Johnson continues that it isn't enough to neutralize metaphors for God. The word God itself which is often seen as neutral is “a term long associated with the patriarchal ordering of the world...” (44). According to Johnson's standards, using God the Father with a mental, internal translation is not going to 'take back' the word. What would take it back, is to continue to use God the Father, but also to use God the Mother at least as often, and as prominently, within Christian liturgy as God the Father.

This would be about, according to Johnson:

Reorienting the imagination at a basic level, this usage challenges the idolatry of maleness in classic language about God, thereby making it possible the rediscovery of divine mystery, and points to recovery of the dignity of women created in the image of God.

Is there more to recovering this word than using the female image? Would the almost impossible task of bringing female metaphor into the Christian Church in a non-token way satisfy me and other feminist women?

I am not sure it would because there still remains the problem of history. Crossan has gone back in time to recover the original meaning of God the Father. There is much healing in doing so. But frankly, not enough healing to cover the centuries of oppression that is part of the entire Biblical journey.

One of the reasons we flinch at the words is because they represent thousands of years of being excluded. Perhaps the original meaning was something benign, no, better than benign, they meant a Fatherly God who took care of His people. At the time that was the best one could expect, and in fact a Mother metaphor would not have been possible in that culture. It doesn't really make sense to hold a grudge against ancient peoples or expect any redress. Sensible thoughts like these however, don't always work, and at the very least don't make one fond of the term God the Father. History has left many women with a permanent aversion that can't go away with the knowledge of original intent.

We don't live in ancient times. Now, women can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Marcus Borg writes “...this is not simply a matter of linguistic gender equality (important as that is), for these images affect the psyches of both men and women and shape attitudes toward society and nature.” It is time for Christianity to be generous and move toward a vision of God that gives everyone dignity.

And perhaps we women should also get a heartfelt apology.

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