God the What? What Our Metaphors for God Reveal About Our Beliefs in God

by Carolyn Jane Bohler
Woodstock, VT. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2008, 162 pages.

Reviewed by Becky Kiser

God the What?Many of us appreciate the theological call to recognize the names we use for God as metaphors, especially since the work of scholars like Sallie McFague opened up the exploration of the power of metaphors in theology.  We of EEWC especially appreciate a broader use of feminine metaphors for God, recognizing the way an unreflective use of solely masculine metaphors for God has resulted in a virtual identification of God with the masculine, to an unfortunate and idolatrous end.  In this book, Bohler invites us to open up our imaginations and play with those metaphors from Scripture and classic writings and those that arise in our own faith journeys. She offers us discussions based on over 36 metaphors, including newly-created ones that come from her journey and that of her colleagues.  Some are pretty surprising!

The most interesting aspect of her book for me is how she approaches the discussion of God-metaphors on the basis of their intrinsic view of God’s power and its use in relationship, and the implications of these metaphors for our faith. This is therefore a feminist outlook, even though she surprised me in moving quickly past the discussion of masculine or feminine images.  In her introduction, she writes:

. . .over time I have realized that implicit gender in the God metaphor may not be what matters most. Whether our God is Mother or Father in our naming, what affects our beliefs or prayers is how we imagine God to have and use power, how God wills and makes God’s will happen—or not.  What matters for our faith is how we, God, and the world relate to each other. (p.xiv)

This is a fascinating slant, and may be another way to open up the discussion of God-metaphors with those for whom the Father/Son/Spirit is the sole correct and Reformed God-image.

Good metaphors, Bohler restates, have several dynamics in common: they need to evoke the twin reactions that “yes, God is like that,” and “no, God is not exactly like that,” as well as provide an element of surprise and insight.  And they must be relevant.  “The challenge, then, becomes discovering which metaphors limit, or conflict, with our sense of God, and which metaphors revitalize or increase our perception” (p. 7).

In a very insightful perception, she suggests that life events may raise a faith crisis when our God-metaphors are inadequate to the situation—an important reason that it may be helpful for people’s faith journey to be invited into other metaphors and so continue the relationship with God.

Bringing the examination of God’s power and will into the discussion, Bohler discusses how in many life crises and natural disasters, what we perceive about God’s power, ability and willingness to control events, and how we perceive God’s care for us in that crisis, affects what we pray, how we pray, and whether we feel God answers or even cares.  When crises occur, it makes a difference whether a person has usually seen God as the protector Shepherd, or seen God as an impersonal designer of fate, or seen God more as a jazz band leader who improvises along the way!

To grab the imagination and invite a read, here are some of the metaphors discussed: God the Divine Physical Therapist; God the Coach; God the Graffiti Artist; God the Blacksmith; God the Divine Night Light; God as Persistent Life; God the Flamenco Dancer.

Bohler’s book would be a great selection for book clubs or discussion groups, and she offers guidelines for a six-week class.  It’s an approachable book and doesn’t take a theological degree to answer her invitation to explore our own experiences of God in different metaphors.

Related:  Read more about Carolyn Jane Bohler in this article by Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

© 2009 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 33 number Fall (October-December) 2009


Rev. Rebecca Kiser
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Kiser is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She has served in a variety of church and program positions in 31 years of ministry. She holds an M.Div from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a D.Min. from Matthew Fox’s University of Creation Spirituality, and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the Tidewater Institute of Spiritual Formation. She has been active in EEWC-CFT for many years, and has written several articles and reviews for their magazine. Her current location is Myrtle Beach, SC, and she is enjoying being a grandmother.