The Cosmic Gender Gap: A Dialogue on God as Mother

I shudder when I hear God called “Mother” — and so do many other Catholics along with me. But what is the reason for this reaction? Is it irrational, or is it justified? Is it mere traditionalism, or good Catholic instinct? The shuddering is justified, I think. Calling God “Mother” requires that one set aside revelation and adopt an essentially pagan view of God. From there, it is only a short step to embracing an entire, non-Christian religion of God the Mother, which is evident in the pantheism and New Age spiritualism of today. To shudder when one hears God called “Mother” is, I think, of a piece with the reaction of St. John, who, as Polycarp reports, once stopped his ears and ran out of the building when he heard someone speaking heretically.

Yet the arguments for God the Mother have an initial plausibility. To examine them, I suggest imagining a conversation between one of her partisans, whom I call “Gaia,” and an interlocutor named “John.” They are in a coffeehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gaia is defending herself, after John has criticized her for changing the readings last Sunday, when Gaia was lectrix.

GAIA: My reason for calling God “Mother,” in a nut-shell, is that any reason for calling God “Father” and “He” provides like reason for calling God “Mother” and “She.” I take it as obvious that maleness and femaleness are characteristics only of creatures with bodies.

JOHN: Actually, I disagree; those characteristics can, I think, be defined without making use of notions from biology. But how does your argument go?

GAIA: Well, I think that maleness and femaleness are merely biological notions. And since God, as you recognize, doesn’t have a body, he can’t be either male or female in the plain sense of those words. So if we call God “Father,” it has to be because of some partial likeness between God and human males.

But there isn’t any important respect in which males are like God but females aren’t. The most important thing about human males is that they have intelligence and will. We know that they are like God is this way; that’s why Scripture says they are “made in the image of God.” But human females have intelligence and will to an equal degree. So if we call God “He” because human males have intelligence and will, we should equally call God “She.”

JOHN: But aren’t there important ways in which males do in fact differ from females? I mean, for instance, in personality and character. Some of your own feminist writers have claimed, for example, that males are more impartial than females, and females more compassionate than males. Perhaps something like that is true.

GAIA: As I see it, the only differences between males and females are in physical organs of reproduction; the rest comes from culture and conditioning. And since God does not have a body, the merely physical differences are irrelevant.

But let’s suppose what you say is true, that males really differ from females in important ways. Suppose, to take your example, that human males really are more impartial than females. You might hold, then, that since God is impartial in his judgments, that means there’s a distinctive likeness between males and God, and so there’s reason to call God “He.” Fine. But then you have to grant that there are distinctive characteristics of human females as well, which establish a likeness with God.

After all, what could the text in Genesis mean, which says “in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (1:27), if not that males and females each contribute something to the way in which human beings are “in the image of God”? Male characteristics alone reflect only some attributes of God; female characteristics have to be added to help complete the picture. And that’s what we find in the Bible. God comforts Israel, we are told, as a mother comforts her children (Isaiah 66:13); God quiets Israel the way a nursing mother quiets an infant at her breast (Psalms 131:2-3). The Bible mentions distinctive resemblances between females and God as well as between males and God. So we must conclude, once more, that if the latter provide a reason for calling God “He,” the former just as much provide a reason for calling God “She.”

So it’s arbitrary, always to call God “He” and never “She.” What’s the reason, then, why you always use the masculine forms, never the feminine? My feminist friends, of course, would say that the practice arose as a tool for keeping women in subjection. But I don’t want to be that radical. I’m willing to admit that the practice had an innocuous origin. But it’s clear that, in this day and age, to continue always calling God “He” would encourage the belief that human males are superior to females. It suggests, doesn’t it, that males are more like God than females. And that’s a belief which rationalizes discrimination against women.

So, you really should put aside this mindless tradition of referring to God solely as “Father” and “He.” In my view, one ought to alternate between masculine and feminine forms of address, to show that either is acceptable. But I have to admire the strategy of some of my friends. When they speak in public, they usually refer to God as “Father,” which keeps the traditionalists placated and quiet. But once in a while they call God “She.” This says, in effect, that the tradition of God the Father is arbitrary, and that we could just as well have been calling God “She” all these years. True enough, it gives the traditionalists an occasional jolt, and wakes them from their pious slumbers, but that’s doing them a favor — they should be forced to think about problems of social justice once in a while.

JOHN: I don’t see that it’s up to us to decide how God should be addressed. We’re not working solely by our own lights here; God has revealed Himself to us. How else does Christianity differ from false religions?

GAIA: I wouldn’t call them false.

JOHN: Well, how else does it differ from the less-than-completely-true religions? If we’re thinking about this matter as Christians, we have to accept Christian revelation as the starting point for our reflections. But God revealed Himself to us as “Father” and “He.” This is clear both from the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God is called a “He” and “Father.”

GAIA: That’s easy to explain. In Jewish culture, a mother was under the father’s authority. Any woman, in fact, had to be under the authority of a man. Only men were lawgivers. It would have made no sense in such a culture to call God “Mother.” But our culture is different. Women have authority; they can legislate; they don’t have to be subordinate to a man. So the inappropriateness of “Mother” for God no longer holds.

JOHN: How can we put aside the practice of the Jews in that way? Christianity claims to have come from Judaism. “Salvation is from the Jews.” As Cardinal Lustiger often says, every pagan converted to Christianity has to appropriate the Jewish tradition as his own. To reject such a central strand of the tradition is to cut ourselves off from it. We could hardly start calling God “Mother” and still claim, with integrity, that Christianity has “fulfilled and not destroyed the Law.”

GAIA: Frankly, I’m not much concerned with the God of the Old Testament. Call him a “He” if you wish—I won’t object. Personally, I find him a stern, vindictive, and harsh God.

JOHN: I don’t consider that opinion very balanced. But what about the New Testament? Jesus referred to the God of compassion and mercy as “Father” and used the masculine pronoun “He” in speaking about Him. What Christ does is definitive. Also, a person is free to determine his own name, isn’t he? When you changed you’re name from Mary to “Gaia,” I had to respect your wishes.

GAIA: Yes, that’s right. So what of it?

JOHN: Well, if God tells us to address Him as “He,” it seems to me we have to respect this, until He tell us otherwise. We have no business, however good our reasons may seem, constructing some other name or title and insisting that it be used — especially if the being is superior to us, as God is.

GAIA: Go easy on the superiority thing, John — don’t we each have the spirit of God dwelling within us? In any case, I find your reference to Jesus naïve. Scripture scientists say that some early followers of Jesus called God “Mother,” but they were put down by the patriarchy of the early Church. One of my professors even claims that the author of Matthew is a woman — she shows that by deconstructing the text.

JOHN: For every scripture “scientist” you find holding one view, I can find a dozen others with an incompatible view — hardly a mark of “science.”

GAIA: Well, whatever you may say, I think that God the Father is simply a cultural accretion to the Judeo¬Christian tradition. It’s something added on, not essential to Christianity. You can be a good Christian and not accept it.

JOHN: But don’t you believe that the Catholic Church has a special teaching authority given to it by Christ? The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds both begin with words like “I believe in God the Father.” The Church tells us we have to believe them. Surely the creeds contain what’s essential to revelation, if anything does, but God’s fatherhood is affirmed in the creeds.

GAIA: I don’t want to say that the Church was wrong about the fatherhood of God. I suppose my point is simply that the motherhood of God is essential to Christianity as well. The Scriptures do reveal God as Mother — as in the Old Testament texts I mentioned earlier — so God is a Mother as much as a Father. You’re right, we probably ought to alter the creeds and say, “I believe in God the Father and Mother.” Wouldn’t that be in the spirit of Vatican II?

Yet even someone with a simple view of the New Testament can see why the Motherhood of God plays no role in Christ’s teaching. As I said, women played a subordinate role in Jewish culture. Jesus’s contemporaries would never have been able either to understand or to accept the idea that God is a Mother. So he just refrained from speaking in that way. No doubt his intention was to allow the idea to develop through the felt life-experiences of laypersons such as myself. It’s evident that Christian consciousness has developed to the point that we see God as both Father and Mother.

JOHN: Wait a second, Gaia. What claim could have been more difficult for the contemporaries of Christ to understand and accept than the claim that he was the only-begotten Son of God and so equal with God? Christ didn’t refrain from teaching this, even though the people rejected and crucified him as a result. But if he didn’t hold back from revealing this, then surely he would have revealed God as “Mother,” if it were appropriate to understand God in this way.

And we have no reason to think that Jesus ever used the word “mother” to refer to anyone other than Mary. If God were “Mother” as well as “Father,” then wouldn’t it have been appropriate for Jesus not to have a human mother at all, just as the Fatherhood of God made it appropriate that Joseph not be the actual father of Jesus? Remember the passage in Matthew, where Jesus says that “everyone who does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”? He doesn’t add “and Father,” because God is his Father. If your view were right, he shouldn’t have said “and mother” either.

Since Mary is the mother of Jesus, if God were his “Mother” as well, then one would expect to see, in Sacred Scripture, a comparison of Mary to God, as though she were also in some special way an image of God. Yet, Mary is never directly likened to God: she is a handmaid, a servant, the Moon rather than the Sun.

What’s more, you are simply wrong about the Old Testament. The Old Testament texts never call God a mother without qualification. If you look at them carefully, you can see that they all say God is like a mother, or acts as does a mother. But in contrast, God is called Father without any qualification: “Thou, O Lord, are our Father,” Isaiah says (63:16). God is a Father; he is like a mother. That’s the idiom of Sacred Scripture. The passages that liken God to a mother are self-consciously introducing metaphors, but “Father” is not a figure of speech.

And you certainly cannot claim that your view is a development of doctrine, in Newman’s sense. Developments imply continuity, but you admitted that “God the Mother” marked a discontinuity with Jewish tradition, hence also with Christian tradition. Also, remember that God the Father is the first person of the Trinity, and it is the very relation of fatherhood which distinguishes him from the son. You cannot just add on “God the Mother.” Should we take this in the same way that we understand God the Father — as a person? Well, then I am afraid you are adding a person and making God a quartet, rather than a trinity. That’s hardly a development of doctrine: I call that a repudiation.

GAIA: I haven’t thought much about the Trinity. And I’d prefer to steer clear of your scholastic mumbo-jumbo. What relevance does it have anyway? Look, you have often, in our conversations, drawn a distinction between the Christian revelation of God as three persons in one God, and the natural knowledge one has of God as the Supreme Being and maker of humankind.

JOHN: Yes, that’s an important distinction to draw. It goes back to the First Vatican Council, then before that to Aquinas, then before that

GAIA: —I don’t care. The point is that we can distinguish between God as known by revelation and God as known by the natural powers of a person. Now, to reach agreement, I’m willing to concede that the first person of the Trinity has been revealed to us as “Father.” The second person has been revealed as “Son.”

JOHN: And he now has a male, human nature, glorified in heaven.

GAIA: Whatever. And as you once pointed out to me, the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, is always referred to by Jesus with the masculine pronoun “He” — contrary to what people sometimes say. Okay. The Trinity is a mystery. We have no access to it with unaided human intelligence. So, we have to follow revelation on this point.

JOHN: Right, that’s the point I’ve been making all along. There may be various reasons, no doubt many profound ones, why God is appropriately called “Father,” but the most basic reason for our thinking so, as Christians, has to be the fact that that’s how He revealed Himself to us.

GAIA: All right, John. But now that I’ve conceded some ground, I wonder if you’ll concede some ground yourself. Suppose we regard God from the point of view of natural reason, simply as the Divine Being. You might think of this as attending to the essence rather than the persons of the Trinity. Now clearly the Divine Being, so regarded, is without gender, because God is a spirit. So how does one refer to a genderless Being? We couldn’t use a neuter pronoun: that would give the impression that God is a thing, rather than a personal being. We have to use a personal pronoun. But it’s anthropomorphic to use only “He”; that would imply that God has a male gender. So to convey the message that God has no gender, we alternate between “He” and “She.” We have to get beyond thinking of God as a man with a white beard up on a cloud.

JOHN: I understand your point, Gaia, but I wonder whether you understand how much ground has been conceded. How often do we think of God, or pray to Him, without paying regard either to any person of the Trinity, or to the three persons taken together, or to God with respect to some divine activity appropriate to one of the persons? What remains is prayer which has no reference at all to the persons of God. What you’re suggesting we do is put aside the God of revelation, and think of Him in something like the way a good pagan or a philosopher might. I actually doubt that that sort of operation is possible for a Christian. That’s like trying to think of your spouse as though he were a stranger! And even if it is possible, I can’t see that it’s desirable. I mean, wouldn’t it amount to spurning revelation?

GAIA: But maybe we have to step away from revelation once in a while and think for ourselves.

JOHN: When I “think for myself,” that is to say, think philosophically about this matter, I don’t see that your position gets any support. Consider, then, the Divine Being, wholly distinct from the material world and transcendent. This Being is our parent, because it has brought us into existence, and we are made in its image. But is it appropriate to call it a “Father” or “Mother”? Clearly, “Father,” since this implies transcendence and distinctness from the world. Calling God “Mother” would wrongly imply receptivity, materiality, and immanence. If God were a “Mother,” you know, there would be no need for an Incarnation, because God would be, so to speak, naturally incarnate.

GAIA: But what was that you just said? God naturally incarnate? That’s sort of appealing, isn’t it — the Earth Goddess, Our Mother who has begotten us. She works, not with an alien word, but with spontaneity and impulse. She is close to us; she enfolds and surrounds us — and so empowers us. She has no need of mediators, since she can direct us inwardly. And she is not a disciplinarian: her very nature is tenderness. In her we see the complexity and tensions in the fateful choices we have to make—

JOHN: —Gaia, I have to go. But I should say I am concerned by the course our discussion has taken. At first, your arguments led you to put revelation to the side; then you tried to view God as would a pagan; now it seems you are flirting, not with good pagan philosophy, but — if you will excuse me — with a rather silly pantheism. Perhaps you’ll end up rejecting reason altogether as a masculine trait, as some feminists have done, even though it was supposedly reason which set you on this path.

But look, all of your objections to revelation were unnecessary. You began by assuming that the fatherhood of God would imply that human males are superior to human females. It was a basically pragmatic concern with injustice that led you to put aside dogma in the first place. Yet your inference doesn’t follow at all. Maybe this will make it clear: In Scripture God is likened on many occasions to a rock: “Our Rock and Stronghold.” He’s never called a frog or turtle or parakeet, but who can doubt that all of these things are superior to rocks? Human males share one noteworthy characteristic with God which females do not: they beget outside of themselves. How does this imply a natural superiority of human males over females? You have to think about “names” for God with a bit more subtlety.

And what about the order of grace? There we all have to be like females! Notice that the images Jesus gives us for the Christian life tend to be feminine and receptive: soil which receives a seed; a branch which accepts sap. It is a feminine correspondence to grace which is needed for Christian holiness. The fiat of the woman, Mary, is the paradigm of Christian faith.

And one more thing — A Christian belongs at the foot of the Cross. At Golgotha, Jesus directed us to Mary: “Behold, your Mother.” Don’t you see? God wills that our Mother be a woman, not a deity. You aim to exalt women by making the Father like a woman. But God’s idea was to do so by making His Mother an actual woman. Let God do it His way. Follow the old saying, which seems true again today: Go to Jesus through Mary.

GAIA: And I suppose I should start praying the rosary?

JOHN: Not a bad idea.


Michael Pakaluk is a philosopher who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with his wife and their eight children. His most recent book is Mary's Voice in the Gospel According to St. John (Regnery Gateway).

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