We all know what God looks like, right? We’ve all seen the pictures. Older white man. Long white hair, somewhat unkempt. We’ve all seen the paintings. And right now, I bet half of you have the picture in your heads from the Sistine Chapel ceiling—The Creation of Adam. You know the one.
|About This Sermon|
Part 7 of the Series “The Seven Words You Can’t Say in Church“
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 9, 2008
Deuteronomy 32:15-18; Isaiah 66:10-13
In this very traditional—if somewhat Biblically irresponsible—depiction, God is most definitely a “he.”
But perhaps some of you, have the image of God from the movie Dogma, in which God is a young woman (also white), played by Alanis Morissette.
I have to say, I enjoyed that depiction of God a lot, although it was definitely an unconventional portrait for God. And it’s not because God is depicted in that film as enjoying handstands and smelling flowers in the Creation. But because God is depicted as a “she.”
II. THE LEGACY OF HE
Because referring to God as a “he” has as long legacy that is hard to overcome.
A. Hebrew Usage
While the Sanskrit of the most ancient Indian sacred texts refers to God as an “it”, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is referred to over and over again as a “he”. The Psalms are full of this kind of language. It makes it difficult for anyone interested in egalitarian language to read this stuff as written. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” Over and over again.
Even the name for God, written with the Hebrew letters yod-he-vav-he, translated as “Lord” or supposed to be “Yahweh,” is masculine. It has the resemblance of a verb: the “y” at the beginning is the third-person-masculine-singular prefix, meaning “he” such that God’s name means something like “he is” or “he causes to be”. If God’s name were feminine, it would be Tahweh.
B. Greek & Latin
It’s a tradition that was continued when the Scriptures were translated into Greek and Latin. The Greek word theos and the Latin Deus are both masculine words. And carry masculine pronouns that go with them.
This was all perfectly natural for the Greco-Roman patriarchal culture. No one probably gave it much thought.
And that tradition has continued in English. God has been a “he” from the time Christianity came to the Anglo-Saxons. And God has remained an identifiably masculine entity since.
Part of that might be reading too much into things. That is, English hasn’t had grammatical gender for a long time. Unlike other languages of Europe, in English tables, chairs, shoehorns, and hydraulic lifts are all it’s not he’s or she’s. So, perhaps when we encounter a “he” borrowed from another language, we read too much into it. And because “it” is reserved for inanimate things, it seems somehow inappropriate to refer to God as an “it”, no matter what the ancient Indians might have been doing.
Indeed, it is par for the course in the English speaking world to refer to God as a he. Happens all the time.
III. THE CRAVING FOR THE FEMININE
But this has not been without consequence. First, it has created the impression that males have something more in common with God than females do. In the ancient world, the Gnostics believed that men were in fact more spiritual than women. Women were often seen as too “earthy”, too material. They did messy things like have babies and menstrual cycles. They were not viewed as being as spiritual as men were. This kind of cultural bias reinforced the idea that somehow God was more akin to males than to females.
Now, it should be said that there are plenty of women, some of whom are in my own family, who feel no slight whatsoever when referring to God as a “he”. They feel no impact upon their own self-esteem or feminine worth.
That being said, there are many who do. There are many women who feel that the exclusively masculine portrait of God implies that they are somehow “less than” their male counterparts. That they are second class creatures of God. And more to the point, there are many who feel that an exclusively masculine portrait of the Deity is unsatisfying and incomplete with their experience of life and of the divine.
This phenomenon goes back a long ways. In ancient Israel, the worship of Yahweh was threatened most by the Canaanite fertility cult of the goddess Asherah. The fear in ancient Israel was not that people would abandon their worship of God to worship Asherah, but that they would try to worship both. The prophets saw this as a problem not because of Asherah’s femininity but because toleration of pagan idolatrous religion was always followed by a toleration of a decline in social justice. The God of Israel was a God of Justice and expected righteousness from her people. To worship Asherah was to tolerate the kinds of injustices that were prevalent in Canaanite society.
But there were undoubtedly those drawn to Asherah because she was feminine–because fertility was useful for crops and provided an expression of the Sacred Feminine. There are even some sculptures found by archeologists that depict God sitting next to his wife: Asherah.
I think that a reasonable argument could be made that the reason Mary is so popular in Catholicism is that on some level, as the Mother of Christ, one to whom prayers can be offered, who makes intercessions on behalf of the faithful, who was bodily assumed into heaven (according to Catholic belief), she fills the role of the Sacred Feminine. The adoration of Mary responds to a need, indeed a deep yearning to experience the feminine in one’s sacred life.
One might also reasonable conclude that in the Protestant countries where this feminine aspect is not as keenly felt, the need to encounter something of the sacred feminine has been greatest.
Indeed it is in the industrialized Protestant countries where we have seen the rise of neo-paganism: earth-based religions, like Wicca and Neo-Druidism, all embrace the sacred feminine. And I think it reasonable to conclude that these new age mystery religions are responding to a dearth of divine feminine imagery in traditional Christianity.
But is our faith really devoid of feminine understandings of the Deity? Is God really a “he” and not a “she”?
IV. THE GOD AND THE FEMININE
It may come as something of a shock to modern folks concerned about this issue that there actually is a tradition of embracing the feminine in an understanding of God.
A. Medieval Mystics
The women mystics of the medieval era often used feminine imagery to describe God. Julian of Norwich, who lived in the late 14th Century, in her work The Showings reflects on the nature of the Trinity in language that is, to say the least, interesting:
And so in our making, God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and the goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord… I contemplated the work of all the blessed Trinity, in which contemplation I saw and understood these three properties: the property of the fatherhood, the property of the motherhood, and the property of the lordship in one God…” 
In fact Julian goes on to describe the Second Person of the Trinity–traditionally the “Son”–as “Mother Christ”.
But the tradition goes back even farther than that.
B. St. Ephrem
St. Ephrem the Syrian was a deacon and a teacher in the Fourth Century A.D. He wrote theology in the form of beautiful poetry that expressed some of the deep mysteries of faith. St. Ephrem did not write in Greek or Latin. He wrote in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic–the language of Jesus–and for that reason is not very well known outside the small circle of Syriac scholars. A shame, as one scholar described him as “the greatest poet of the patristic age, and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.”  But perhaps it is time, for a whole host of reasons, for us in the West to rediscover this saint and his writings.
Not the least of which is for the way he describes God. St. Ephrem was remarkable for the ways he focused on the female heroes of the Bible. He wrote hymns to be sung by women, believing that women were being neglected in the life of the Church. As a result, Ephrem used a lot of feminine imagery to describe the creation. But he did not stop there.
Ephrem used feminine imagery to describe God herself. Now, in Aramaic, the terms ruha-d’qudsha “Holy Spirit” and melta “the Word” are both feminine, and Ephrem would use them as feminine words. But Ephrem does not stop with simple grammatical gender. In one of his Resurrection hymns he writes:
The Word (fem.) of the Father came from His womb, and put on a body in another womb: the Word proceeded from one womb to another– and chaste wombs are now filled with the Word: blessed is He who has resided in us. 
Ephrem had many other instances of feminine imagery for the Godhead: he describes the two main aspects of God’s activity: her Righteousness and Grace as “mothers” and in another hymn compares the Divinity to a wetnurse:
The Divinity is attentive to us, just as a wetnurse is to a baby, keeping back for the right time things that will benefit it, for she knows the right time for weaning, and when the child should be nourished with milk, and when it should be fed with solid food, weighing out and providing what is beneficial to it in accordance with the measure of its growing up. 
Over 1,600 years ago, a Syrian saint used feminine imagery for God. But it goes back further than that.
C. The Shekhinah
After the Babylonian exile, the Jews who had been exiled understood that God was not limited to Jerusalem, but that God had gone into Exile with them. This idea was reaffirmed a few centuries later when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and increased the Jewish diaspora. The Jews referred to God’s presence as going with them–the word for this was Shekhinah. A feminine word. With feminine pronouns.
But it goes back further than that.
D. Biblical Images for God
We read two passages of scripture earlier–not among the most commonly read passages–but important ones for us nonetheless. First is a passage from Deuteronomy that contains the following statement: ” You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
The image of God giving birth is a maternal image, invoking the feminine. No less so is the passage from Isaiah:
As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
The image invoked to describe God is that of a mother comforting her child.
It doesn’t end there. The Book of Proverbs engages in a long reflection on Wisdom–the creating power through which God created the universe, often equated with the Word of God–and is described in very feminine terms. “She” all over the place. There is an Orthodox Cathedral about a mile and a half from here dedicated to Holy Wisdom–it is called the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. It is often known by the name St. Sophia, but Sophia was not a person, “Sophia” is the Greek word for “wisdom” and is a reference to this divine creative power.
In the New Testament, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as being like the yeast used by a baker woman (i.e., God) in adding leaven to the bread.
These are ancient references to God using feminine imagery. But some might argue that all of it is metaphorical and merely illustrative. It doesn’t say anything about God’s essential being.
E. The Image of God
But there is one passage of scripture that does. In Genesis we read the following:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 NRSV)
All humanity was created in the image of God. “Male and female” humanity was created in the image of God. What this means at the very least is that male and female both, reflect the image of God. There is masculine in God. And feminine in God. She encompasses both. She encompasses all.
Human language– all human language–is inadequate to describe the ineffable mystery that is God. Even the ancient Israelites, who used masculine pronouns to refer to God, and a masculine version of the verb to name God, nevertheless understood that God was a mystery beyond any gender.
Our words come up short. All our words are inexact. We come up with terms to describe God that are from our experience. We call God a king, because we believe God to be sovereign, and that God is in charge over the universe. We call God “lord” because we pledge our allegiance to God and to no one or to nothing else. We call God “Father” (or “papa” as Jesus did) because we believe God is in an intimate relationship with us.
But all these terms are lacking. All these terms are human and convey perhaps too much from their human experience. Our words are inexact and when we hear King we think “tyrant” or “autocrat”. When we hear “Lord” we think “social hierarchy”. When we hear “Father” we think “male.”
But all these terms do is show us that God is so much more than anything we can come up with to describe her. God is not a “he”. God is not a “she”. God is not an “it”. God is neither George Burns nor Alanis Morissette.
Ultimately it does not matter what pronouns we use to describe God. All human language is just a placeholder for mystery. A mystery of love and grace, that gave us birth, that holds us in her arms, that nurtures us in our need, and that seeks to embrace us in love our whole lives long.
Jacob ate his fill; Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked. You grew fat, bloated, and gorged! He abandoned God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him. They sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known, to new ones recently arrived, whom your ancestors had not feared. You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her– that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
 Amy Oden, In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, p. 183.
 Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, p. 173.
 Brock, p. 171.