Is It Okay To Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God
by Paul R. Smith
Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. 278 pp.
Ed. Note: This review is from our occasional
series on “Older Books You Might Have Missed.”
Reviewed by Cliff Williams
I think of 1980 as the year English language writers started using gender-neutral language. Beginning then I saw fewer hes and hims and more theys and theirs. In the early 1980s, I heard male philosophers at meetings of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the annual Wheaton College Philosophy Conference use “she” and “her” instead of “he” and “him”—the generic “she,” of course. I began using the plural in my classes and occasionally “she” when I could not avoid the plural.
However, I still used “he” and “him” to refer to God, even though I began to think of God as both female and male. The anomaly of this practice did not occur to me until some years later.
In this book, Paul Smith, a minister at Broadway Church in Kansas City, Missouri, argues that, yes, it is okay to call God mother. It is also important to do so, he says, and not only consistent with scripture, but required by scripture.
Although this book covers territory familiar to many Christian feminists, it is delightful to read and contains fresh ideas.
Smith begins by pointing out that first-time visitors to a typical American church would leave with the impression that people in the church worship a male God. However, Smith states, if we want to be true to scripture, we should refer to God in both feminine and masculine ways, in private and in public.
He includes an occasional prayer in the book: “Strong mother God, warm father God, thank you for being there.” And throughout the book he uses “she” and “her” to refer to God, never “he” and “him,” as an antidote, he says, to the centuries of using “he” and “him.”
“But Jesus called God father, not mother,” some people will say. In his chapter devoted to this objection, Smith responds by saying that this fact does not mean that we cannot call God mother.
It is important to call God mother, he argues in another chapter, for a number of reasons: religious language shapes our image of God, and our image of God is the key to how we relate to God. Here Smith recognizes the importance of making language and thinking fit. It won’t do, he says, to think of God in feminine ways yet use masculine words to refer to God.
In addition, it is important to call God mother, Smith argues, because people become like the God they worship. If men’s conception of a male God is solely that of power and authority, which it often is, their mode of relating to women is likely to be that of a superior to an inferior. And this, Smith declares, can lead to demeaning behavior and even violence toward women. But, he says, “when men see the feminine in God, they value women more, and it becomes more difficult to treat them in demeaning ways.”
The chapter on inner healing is one of the most moving in the book. In it, Smith gives firsthand accounts of how a number of people have been healed of inner trauma when they experience God as mother.
A forty-seven year old man whose painful memories of betrayal caused him to be addicted to sex and drugs is transformed when the words “Mother God” come powerfully to his mind. A woman who had been sexually abused as a child senses God’s presence for the first time in her life when she pictures a mother God protecting her from her abuser.
Marcia, co-pastor at Broadway Church, feels received by God with “total joy, acceptance, and love” when she pictures herself encountering Mother God. Smith himself regularly pictures Jesus as female, in addition to picturing him as male, which “shocks him into realizing again the length to which God went in [Smith’s] redemption.”
This chapter on healing demonstrates that the issue of whether to call God mother is not just scriptural or theological, but experiential. It reminds me of the time in the 1980s when I was curled up in a papasun, feeling somewhat depressed, and then suddenly feeling held up and soothed by large, motherly hands. Two other chapters are also very good: “Why Are There Such Strong Reactions?” and “How Then Shall We Worship?”
In “Why Are There Such Strong Reactions?” Smith describes nine factors that have contributed to intense negative reactions to calling God mother, including culture shock, fear of losing God as father, and the image of women as inferior or evil.
In “How Then Shall We Worship?” he presents a number of suggestions, some obvious and some creative: Stop using masculine pronouns for God. Start calling God mother in your personal prayer life. Experiment using feminine pronouns and metaphors for God with others.
For pastors who want to keep using “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Smith suggests adding a clause, “the One God who is Mother to us all.” Also, he says, we can pray using “Our mother father God.”
For those who want to influence their congregations toward gender inclusive or balanced language, Smith suggests counting the number of masculine references to God in a particular worship service, because pastors and worshipers are often unaware of the extensive use of such references.
I was convinced before I read this book that it was okay to refer to God in feminine ways. Yet reading the book was refreshing and rejuvenating. It encouraged me to use “she” and “her” more often when referring to God, both when talking one-on-one and when talking to my classes. Sometimes conviction also needs courage, and this book gives it.
Dr. Clifford Williams teaches philosophy at Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois. His most recent book is Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic, 2011). Among his numerous earlier books is Singleness of Heart: Restoring the Divided Soul (Eerdmans, 1994). Cliff is a frequent contributor to Christian Feminism Today; and his wife, Linda, serves on the planning committee for the 2012 EEWC-CFT Gathering and also writes for Christian Feminism Today. For more information about Cliff Williams and his many and varied interests, visit one of his websites. On this one, you’ll find an abundance of riches from his thinking, writing, teaching, and story-telling; and on this one, you’ll find a colorful listing of his books, including his fascinating study of modern America hobo culture.
© 2011 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Winter (January – March) 2011 issue of Christian Feminism Today, Volume 34, number 4.