“I am the Way—I am Truth, and I am Life. No-one comes to the father but through me.” The ways in which these words have been interpreted by many people who insist that they are “Christian” is enough to make most mothers, be they Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Shikh, Jew, atheist, or agnostic, cringe. It seems to me, that to insist that it’s Jesus’ way or the highway, as if Christians have the exclusive way of being in the world, violates the basic principles of the image we have of what it means to be a good mother.
Today, while we celebrate all the various stereotypes of what it means to be or to have a good mother, I don’t think any of us would hold to the image of a mother who favoured one of her children to the exclusion of her other children. Yet somehow, the image of God as “Father” of us all, is messed up with the notion of a God who insists on a particular Way of being in the world, a way of being that involves believing particular things about who Jesus of Nazareth is, a way of being that insists that only those who believe particular things about Jesus will be welcomed into God’s household.
The Good News is, that New Testament scholars have learned a great deal about this passage that contradicts the so-called “traditional interpretations” of this text. They are of the opinion that these words attributed to Jesus, were in fact written some 70 plus years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
But even more important than the realisation that Jesus may never have actually said these words is the reality these words were taken out of context and proclaimed in ways that exclude some people at the expense of others. These words fail to express the very ideas of inclusion that the anonymous story-teller that we call John was trying to express to his community in the first place.
Perhaps the reason that some people are so willing to portray God as the kind of Father who would shut the door on the vast majority of human-beings, has something to do with the ways in which the reality that we call God has been imagined for far too long.
For generations, a majority of Christians have proclaimed a particular image of the triune God, where all three persons in this Trinity are male. God has been declared to be male. This is not an easy declaration to make. In order to make such a declaration, many of God’s attributes which are revealed in the biblical accounts have been eradicated from the Christian tradition.
These conventional assumptions have resulted in the exclusive use of male images, symbols and pronouns to represent the Triune God which Christians worship. Until we can fully recover images and names for God that include the feminine, it will continue to be difficult for many to see the face of God in women and girls. Mothers’ Day is an opportunity for us to uncover, explore and proclaim the feminine names, attributes, images and activities of the Divine.
Long before the Christian church began to formulate its exclusively male image of the triune God, the Hebrew people used several words to refer to God. The earliest of these words is “El” which is the generic Semitic word for a god. The Hebrew word Shaddai comes from the root word ‘breast’. Literally translated it would mean ‘many-breasted one’. There are two roots for the word: the first is to be powerful, and the second is breast or nourisher and sustainer.
‘El Shaddai‘ literally translated means God with breasts, or Breasted God.
Translators chose to translate that as ‘God Almighty‘, because they wouldn’t want people to think of God as the ‘Breasted One‘. Just sit for a while with this image. Is it disturbing or comforting or both? All of the passages using El Shaddai for God in Genesis, with one exception, are fertility blessings, for examples:
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared, and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly…’ “(Genesis 17:1-25). “May El Shaddai bless you, and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may be an assembly of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3).
As to why male translators of the Hebrew text would translate “She Who Has Breasts” into English as “God Almighty,” we can only guess. One wonders if these male translators weren’t uncomfortable with the notion of God as feminine. (Maybe we too feel uncomfortable.) Christianity has defined roles for women that describe women in terms of their relationships to men as wives, mothers, virgins or whores.
Despite the fleeting images of God as a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14); a nursing mother (Numbers 11:11-14, Isaiah 49:15); a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:12-13); a fierce mother bear (Hosea 13:6-8); etc., the overwhelming image of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is male. Not surprisingly the people of God created an idol in the form of the Father, which reflected and reinforced their own patriarchal culture. Christianity was born into this patriarchal culture where the image of God the Father stood proudly at the head of a patriarchal hierarchy.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find the Holy Spirit referred to nearly 400 times using the Hebrew word “ruach” which is a feminine noun for breath, wind or spirit. Like Wisdom (chokma), the Spirit (ruach) is feminine in nature.
Although fleeting images of the Holy Spirit’s feminine nature can be traced in various Christian communities, a majority of Christian theologians speak of the Holy Spirit as masculine in nature. The expression of the Trinity as three male persons is not in and of itself wrong. It can be argued that even though the attempt to express the inexpressible that is the Triune God, is made using male images, this does not mean that God is in fact male. The use of exclusively male images to symbolise God has produced an attitude which serves not only to reinforce the patriarchal structure of both the church and the culture, but which also, as Mary Daly has insisted, fosters the notion that, “if God is male, then the male is God”. Exclusively male symbols for God have distinctly negative effects in the lives of women and have helped to entrench male dominance in some societies and has profound implications for the ways in which the Christian Gospel is proclaimed.
From the beginning, Christianity and patriarchy have been closely intertwined. Patriarchy is a term used to describe a social organisation marked by the supremacy of the male. I attended our Theology Discovery group, when professor David Tomb was the speaker. He pointed out that Jesus himself was a victim of the patriarchal system he was born into. Notions of male supremacy have led to social structures that lead to oppression. However not all males are patriarchal, some males suffer under patriarchy.
My earliest encounters with Christianity were with the stories of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. The ethics I learned from these encounters helped me to see the injustice of a system that refused equality on the basis of gender. I believe that it is both necessary and possible to articulate and proclaim the Gospel in ways that do not reflect and reinforce the oppressive domination of patriarchal systems. The way in which the Gospel is proclaimed has an impact upon the community. The way we speak and enact the Gospel in stories, texts, institutions, liturgies, and creeds reveals our understanding about the nature of God. The way we speak about God is directly related to the kind of community we are. Speaking moulds the identity of our community and directs our praxis. This makes the use of inclusive language for God a powerful tool in the work of re-imagining God and our communities.
God is not male.
God is not female.
God is beyond gender.
All our feeble attempts to describe God with language fail to express the immense wonder of our God.
To date, I still think the Hindus have the best way of expressing the very nature of our God. In Hindu literature we find God described as: “beyond the beyond, and beyond that also.”
We simply have no words.
So, our attempts to capture God in words fail. The church has deprived the people of God of the tender images of our God. So much so that sometimes I feel like a motherless child. We have grown up in the faith as motherless people living in a single parent universe headed by God our Father.
How might our lives have been different if deep within us, we carried an image of El Shaddai, the Breasted One, Mother of Us All, and when things were bad we could nestle in her tender embrace? Men and women could both turn to El Shaddai and I suspect that the church would be a different place.
You and I are made of God. When we begin to see our fellow human beings as one with God. This has profound implications for how we relate to one another.
Let the Ruach of the Breasted One be who she will be, the Mother of us all, the One who is now and ever more shall be.