Learning to Call God Mother
Posted by sjmharrison
“Maybe you need to work on your God image,” my spiritual director said. “Have you given much thought to God as Mother?” The candle between us glowed as a reminder of God with us, directing us.
“Some. But it’s a leap. Even as a feminist, I have always said that I called God Father because Jesus did,” I replied.
“Why don’t you try Mother for a change? See what happens.”
I was having trouble trusting God back in those days, the first year of my marriage and the first year in Oregon, having moved from a city and community I loved. My spiritual director suspected that opening up to the more feminine aspects of God could help me.
I didn’t expect to get an opportunity to take the Mother God leap so soon, but my husband began to lead a liturgical prayer group in which, every other time, we would use “Mother” language for God. Just the practice of affirming God-as-mother in a group helped me open my mind.
That was ten years ago, and I am still on the journey of incorporating the name Mother into my relationship with God. When I do, I find a sense of God affirming and comprehending who I am, that I don’t have when I say “Father.” It’s not that I am all-mother in my own identity. It’s that being female is a part of who I am that “Father” doesn’t encompass. “Mother God” gets me on a level that “Father God” doesn’t seem to.
After all, both are just metaphors for a God who understands us all, more deeply than we can imagine. A metaphor that opens a locked door to God’s nature can only help both men and women feel more deeply loved and understand God better.
So, how did I get past the fact that Jesus didn’t refer to God as Mother? I read a book by Paul Smith, a Baptist pastor, called Is It Okay to Call God Mother? Considering the Feminine Face of God. Smith’s church affirms God as mother (as well as father and many other metaphors), and he cites enough Biblical precedent and cultural understanding to back up that decision.
His take on Jesus is that
he couldn’t call God mother. It would have been too great a break with the existing culture…Calling God mother in a culture which considered women the property of their husbands would be like calling God ‘slave’ instead of ‘master.’ But of course, Jesus was about to change even the slavery image because he took on the form of a slave and forever changed our understanding of God. But naming God more directly as Mother waited upon the results of Jesus’ transforming model, the challenging of the war on women, and a culture where both mother and father are beginning to share the qualities and powers that were only ascribed to fathers in Jesus’ day (p. 144).
In his chapter “Bible Verses You Never Memorized,” Smith shows how even in a day and culture when women were in a decidedly inferior social position to men, the Biblical writers embraced feminine imagery for God. Here are just two from the Old Testament:
Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore, my womb trembles for him; I will surely have motherly-compassion upon him, says the Lord (Jer. 31:20).
Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth (lit. ‘belly’ beten), carried from the womb (racham); even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save (Is. 46:3-4).
Smith also embraces the importance of fighting the commonly held assumption that God is, in fact, male. He writes:
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote ‘Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth.’ Many more times in the life time of the average Christian…God is called Father, King, he him, his and himself. And each time, the deeply-imprinted, ‘felt’ masculine picture of God is subtly reinforced. No amount of explanation or reassurance that ‘we all know God is not male’ can prevent this felt image from profoundly embedding itself in our psyche. The sheer magnitude of the repetition of masculine words prevents any other image from getting a foothold.” (p. 152)
Yet, our image of God is key to our relationship to God, says Smith, and so said my spiritual director ten years ago. I think it is also key to our self-image. What does it mean to women (and men) that God is rarely described in feminine or female terms? We implicitly believe that God is described in male terms because to be masculine is to be powerful and competent—god-like—and to be feminine or female is not. Almost every church service reinforces this unspoken assumption.
And that is one reason the shift to Mother God can be difficult. Plus, there is such a tendency toward mother-blame and self-blame in moms and other women that we can struggle to see ourselves as anything at all like God.
Men may stumble over this as well. When I was in a doctor of psychology program, my proposed thesis was to find out how praying to God as Mother would change self-esteem in women over time. A professor questioned how we could see God as “Almighty Mother,” when I brought up that phrase as a title for God. He at first thought I felt dubious myself, but I was only pointing out the difficulty we have with seeing women as powerful. His own bias was so strong he couldn’t see my point. It seemed unthinkably paradoxical to him to even say such a thing: Almighty Mother? Yet I am sure he felt that way about his own mother when he was a child.
In fact, that may be the best way to imagine God as Mother: take Jesus’ advice and “become like little children” (Matt. 18:3). God can then come to us however She wants to.
What is your experience with God as Mother?