Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the January 1992 print edition of Crisis. It has been edited for brevity.
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 nutshell, 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.
GAIA: Go easy on the superiority thing, John. Don’t we each have the spirit of God dwelling within us? 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.
Anyway, maybe sometimes 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.
Let me just say this. 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.
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