One God, Many Metaphors —
The Ministry of Carolyn Jane Bohler
by Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Christian Feminism Today editor
When Carolyn Bohler was in the seventh grade, she loved mathematics. But she noticed that some of her classmates’ questions showed they weren’t grasping certain concepts. Yet, the teacher kept answering their questions the same way over and over without actually addressing their underlying concerns.
“I would even raise my hand and try to ask a different question so that I could get the teacher to answer for the other person differently,” she says. “So I found myself a kind of translator. I even made a journal about how I would do it if I were a math teacher so that I wouldn’t forget what it was like to be in seventh grade!”
Experiencing God through Metaphors
Carolyn Bohler is still “a kind of translator,” still trying to increase understanding and help people see things in different ways—only now she is trying to help people of all ages find answers to questions about God rather than about mathematics.
One way she does this is by using metaphors to guide us toward new theological insights. It’s the subject she discusses in her latest book, God the What? What Our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefs in God. (Published by Skylight Paths, see Becky Kiser’s review.)
Teaching Children through Metaphors
Carolyn not only sees metaphors as a way of helping adults learn about God; she uses metaphors with children as well. I first learned about Carolyn Bohler’s writings almost nine years ago when I purchased a copy of her children’s book, God Is Like a Mother Hen and Much, Much More. It was a gift for my granddaughter Morgan’s third birthday. I was impressed with the colorful illustrations and the simple descriptions of God in imagery that children could understand.
God is described as not only being “like a mother hen who protects her little chicks,” but also like “a “caring daddy,” “a best friend,” “a smiling teacher,” “a mommy who kisses all your hurts.” God is even described as being like the air all around us that we can’t see. And over and over again, as children are reminded that God is like all these things, they are told that God is also much, much more.
I remember the warm feelings I had watching my son Dave hold Morgan on his lap as he read the words and showed her the pictures. The language was inclusive, and Scripture references for each image were listed in the back of the book, providing parents and teachers with further background about each metaphor. (Unfortunately God Is Like a Mother Hen is now out of print, although Carolyn is hoping to arrange for its reissue soon.)
I knew from the time I saw that children’s book that I wanted to know more about the author.
Who Is Carolyn Bohler?
Currently the pastor of Redlands First United Methodist Church in Redlands, California, Carolyn Bohler graciously agreed to be interviewed about her life, her work, and her latest book. I reached her by phone at her church office on October 13, 2009. She told me that her interest in metaphors for God had developed over many years through her personal devotional practices as well as through her hands-on experiences as a pastor and during her academic career as a theological seminary professor.
Before becoming pastor of her current church, Carolyn served as the senior pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Tustin, California. But for 21 years before that, she worked in academia as professor of pastoral theology and counseling at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Earlier, she served as a campus chaplain at Simpson College in Iowa and as a hospital chaplain in Los Angeles.
Although she graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics, she went on to earn a doctor of religion degree at the Claremont School of Theology and later a Ph.D. in religion and personality at the same school. While studying for her doctorate, she pastored a church in San Diego, where she met her husband, John. They became parents of two children, Alexandra, now studying for a master’s degree in architecture, and Stephen, who died in 2003 in a tragic accident during his first year of college. Ever since then, Carolyn says, “all metaphors are nuanced because of this loss” (p. xv in God the What?)
It is through what she calls her “lived faith” and through lovingly listening to others facing life’s challenges—hearing their hearts as well as their words—that Carolyn has learned to speak about God in creative, imaginative ways, especially through using metaphors, which is exactly what the Bible does, too.
How Metaphors Help Our Understanding
In God the What? Carolyn introduces the idea of metaphors by talking first about images we’re all familiar with. God is like a shepherd (the 23rd psalm), a potter (Isa. 64:8), a rock and fortress (Psalm 18:2), an eagle who teaches her young to fly and carries them on her wings (Deut. 32:11 and Exod.19:4)—even a seamstress or tailor who “stitches and mends” (Gen. 3:21) or one who knits (Ps. 139:13,15).
Then, before introducing less familiar and even highly unusual metaphors, she shows us new ways to think about even the familiar images. For example, we might think of God the Creator not only in terms of bringing the universe into being but also as a creative artist continually at work in our lives, shaping and reshaping us into artistic expressions of beauty (an elaboration on the potter image). Or we might think of God as an author, developing a book manuscript, or as a poet who “edits” us through many drafts or even coauthors with us as we are open to God’s working within, through, and with us over time.
Can Metaphors Ever Limit Understanding?
Although metaphors can expand our understanding of God, they can also limit our understanding of God—if we forget they are metaphors! No single metaphor can capture the entirety of who God is and what God is like.
I told Carolyn that one of my favorite sentences in the book is on page 129: “Monotheism is a belief in one God, not a belief in one metaphor” (italics hers). She laughed and said, “I think that’s the best sentence I’ve ever written.” It’s a sentence that sums up a profound truth in just a few words.
Nevertheless, some people may see no need to explore any metaphors for God other than the one that has always felt most comfortable to them, clinging to it throughout life, and feeling no need for additional imagery in relating to God. But for others, either of two problems may emerge: (1) They might find themselves jolted by a crisis of faith and begin what Carolyn calls “metaphor wondering” in which they question God and struggle with their faith because a particular metaphor does not work for them. Or (2) they might equate a particular metaphor with the entirety of God’s being and thereby close themselves off from other understandings and experiences of God (which, as we’ll see later, sometimes occurs when the father metaphor is used to the exclusion of all others).
Carolyn Bohler does not dodge the difficult issues. She encourages the development of a “grown-up” faith that can deal with questioning and struggling. In describing “metaphor wondering,” she provides four examples of people for whom certain images of God were problematic.
One was a teenager who had been sexually assaulted repeatedly by a relative. While attending a Christian camp, the girl was appalled to hear a sermon from Hosea 2:1-13. The image of God as “dominating and abusive,” yet “forgiving and romancing,” reminded her too much of the cycle of domestic violence that was a regular part of her home life. Was God like that? A wise counselor helped her see that while some people may experience God that way and that “evidently the prophet Hosea was describing God in that manner to make a point to his ancient audience,” it is not the whole story. “It is quite different to tell someone you experience God in a certain way than to suggest (or teach others) that God is in fact like that,” Carolyn writes (p. 33).
Other examples of metaphor wondering include an 11-year-old boy who was troubled by the metaphor of a “jealous God” in the Ten Commandments, and a middle-aged man with symptoms of depression who was troubled because his prayers for healing were not being answered in line with his image of an all-powerful God.
One example Carolyn uses is from her own life. Shortly after her ordination when she was in her 20s, she sometimes joined her dad in his daily walks. She writes about some of their conversations:
Repeatedly, my father said to me, “Now that you’re a minister, tell me how to believe. I do not believe in God. Why would God let me have all this pain, for years?” Sometimes he would say, “I don’t believe in God. There just is not any hell, fire, and damnation after death. I don’t believe that.”
She says, “I told him that I did not believe in the God he did not believe in either!” (p. 29). It’s a point she makes in her book. Even for those who don’t believe in God, their image of the God they don’t believe in can have implications for their lives.
A Spiritual Journey
Carolyn’s father had been the son of a strict Presbyterian minister who directed a boys’ home and worshipped a very judgmental, punishing God. Since her dad “had been given images of burning in hell if you weren’t good,” he reacted by searching for something very positive.
By the time Carolyn and her twin sister, Marilyn, were born in Hollywood, California, her parents had found the positive form of spirituality they were seeking by becoming adherents of Religious Science, which emphasizes the integration of spirit, mind, and body. It should not to be confused with Christian Science, Carolyn cautions, the main difference being that “in Christian Science everything is thought to be spirit so you don’t pollute spirit with things such as surgery or pills, whereas in Religious Science, you pray to discern whether you should have surgery or pills, knowing that spirit, mind, and body are connected and that prayer and the pill can both help. It is very holistic. Now we might consider it New Age.” She pointed out that while some of its members may identify as Christian, others probably do not. Various Religious Science ministers quote from Hindu scriptures as well as contemporary spiritual writers.
During her high school years, Carolyn thought about being a minister. The Religious Science church her family attended had a woman as associate pastor, so she didn’t consider female clergy as something particularly novel—although she remembers wondering if anyone would want to marry a woman minister!
In college, she majored in math and tutored on the side, and from being in the homes of young students, she realized that the problems many were having went beyond difficulty with numbers and involved family dynamics. It struck her that by being a minister she could relate to the whole person—though sometime later, she realized that “math teachers could relate to whole people, too”!
She enrolled in Religious Science ministerial training but, unlike the others in the course, she was not reacting against Christianity. In fact, she wanted to learn about Christianity so decided to study at a Christian seminary. At the Claremont School of Theology, she was drawn to Methodism. “My reason for that is that I was fretful that Religious Science focused a lot on health and abundance, and I didn’t feel there was a lot of social action,” she said. “Although they cared about peace on earth, I still felt there was not a lot of empathy for people that have a hard time. It was more a sense that you pray and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. As a Methodist, I could still be holistic, which was what I liked about Religious Science, but I could also have the social action.”
Besides embracing Methodism, Carolyn made another important decision because of her time at Claremont, which illustrates how important it is for women to have role models. During her last semester at seminary, Carolyn had a class with her only woman professor, Patricia Martin Doyle. “I could relate to her extremely well,” Carolyn says, adding that she had gotten along fine with male professors “but I could never be a friend or have casual theological discussions with them, and it was clear that the male students did.” Having a woman professor was transformative, she says. “With the male professors,” she explains, “I felt a kind of distance but now suddenly I was like—or in the same boat with—my professor. I guess you could say I was able to truly identify. I knew I could be like her and that other people would need what I was needing from her.”
So when Claremont contacted her during her year of campus chaplaincy at Simpson College and invited her to participate in a three-year Lilly Foundation grant program on spirituality, she said yes. While working on that, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in pastoral theology and counseling, then continued on her path to ordination by serving the San Diego church.
Prayer, God, and Gender
Along with emphasizing metaphors for God, many of Carolyn’s writings have focused on teaching people how to pray. “How we name God and think of God is definitely related to prayer,” she says.
Her 1984 book, Prayer on Wings: A Search for Authentic Prayer (LuraMedia) begins with a story about a woman who told her she couldn’t bring herself to join in a multicultural service in which everyone was praying the Lord’s Prayer in her or his own language. The woman had choked on the words, “Our Father,” a male image that didn’t feel authentic to her as a woman. Carolyn wrote:
The Lord’s Prayer uses the metaphor “Father” for the Deity. If it were prayed amidst a liturgy in which the congregation also prayed, “Womb of God, help us feel Your nurturance surrounding us,” the Lord’s Prayer would be seen as one model, with one metaphor for the Deity; it would not be seen as the only way to pray…. Think of the task [of varied imagery for God] as “expanding” our prayer, rather than “changing” our way of praying. Change implies that what is being practiced is wrong. It is wrong only in that it is limited. (Prayer on Wings, p. 5)
“In Prayer on Wings,” Carolyn says, “I argued that we need to be able to affiliate and identify with the metaphors that we use for God. . . and I even had lists of feminine images for God, masculinemetaphors for God, gender-free metaphors for God, and gender-full metaphors for God. It was looking at metaphors but pretty much through the lens of gender.”
She said that she confesses to feeling some grief that “after all the Beyond God the Father and Sallie McFague’s work and so much emphasis on thinking of God in liberating ways, so much of the male God-talk just came back! I didn’t know whether those who fully grasped the importance of inclusive imagery had all become post-Christian feminists or what, because in local churches you still hear God—He. And Father.” She tells of pastoring one church for five years, “never saying ‘Father,’ except for the Lord’s Prayer, and still when people would pray at dinner, they would start out, ‘Father.’” When she did a class on metaphors for God, some people were “pretty upset” to reconsider their familiar gendered ways of thinking about God. She says that was a kind of “reality check” for her, summed up in one woman’s statement, “God is just beyond gender; he just really is beyond gender.” The male pronoun was spoken automatically.
“I thought OK, this is reality again; I am not in the seminary, and this is not a burning issue,” Carolyn told me. “But nobody complained about my being inclusive—although I confess I did not say Mother God or Goddess. But I didn’t say Father except on Father’s Day, and on Mother’s Day would make the most of God as Mother.” She says that many members of her present church are more open on the gender issue than some churches might be because several adult classes have studied what they know and call progressive Christianity.
In God the What? Carolyn emphasizes that nevertheless the “metaphor of God the Father holds much relevance for us,” so she doesn’t suggest discarding it entirely. But she says the father metaphor is also “the one that leads to the greatest confusion. Instead of being a metaphor that points toward a set of characteristics we believe God to have, this metaphor often becomes who God is” (p. 18).
She writes, “God is like a Father, a Daddy, Abba Mia, My Daddy, ”but only in the same sense that God is like a Nursing Mother or Shepherd or a nonparental image such as Intimate Friend, or Guide or Rock or Light. “Settling for any one metaphor for God can hinder our exploration of other aspects of our wonderfully complex relationship with God” (p.18).
“If we wean ourselves from always using that metaphor [Father],” Carolyn says, “then the image of God as Daddy can become meaningful again”—in the sense of a toddler asleep on Daddy’s shoulder; or of a child holding his father’s hand, going off to a new adventure; or of a teenager being coached by her dad as he encourages her in her sports activities.
Those whose background may make even that approach problematic will find plenty of alternatives in Carolyn Bohler’s writings and may even find their imaginations stimulated to find their own new ways to answer God the What?
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is editor of Christian Feminism Today and author or coauthor of numerous books.
© 2009 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 33 number 3 Fall (October-December) 2009