�Our Mother who art in Heaven� -- challenging dominant masculinity
By Wanjiru Kariuki
Online Journal Contributing Writer

May 26, 2006, 00:54

When I came across the The War Against Women pamphlet, I was intrigued by its discussion of the androcentric attitudes that devalue women in the Christian church. This pamphlet was produced by the gender issues committee of the general assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa, and published in 2002.

The section titled �Is God Male?� in particular captivated me. It tells us that in the Bible, God is described in male terms such as father, lord, king, and shepherd. This is in view of the masculine qualities ascribed to God such as authority, fatherly care and protectiveness (p.12). The pamphlet also tells us that women feel alienated and shut out by references to God as male (p.8). From my present perch overlooking the Table Mountains in Cape Town, I think solemnly, �do I want to describe God using male metaphors forever?�

If I have been compelled to engage in the subject of male imagery used in the Christian church, it is not to denigrate men. My goal is to create a safe space to talk about the �male God� problematic. For the present, my aim is to demonstrate the dominance of male language in the church, to indicate the close tie in male metaphors of God and patriarchal thinking, and finally to argue the need for all inclusive gender metaphors that describe God amid the potential hurdles of this venture. These are the issues that struck me as I read the pamphlet on the war against women. I hasten to add that in writing this paper, I have been influenced by my complex identity as a woman, a Christian, and a feminist, and these three sides of my identity do not always coexist harmoniously.

The representation of God using male metaphors, which the pamphlet illuminates, obeys historical fundaments of patriarchy. What this means is that the androcentric principle has historically directed language -- male language as the language of domination in verbal images that represent God. The pamphlet tells us that the patriarchal nature of ancient societies tended to perceive the supreme deity in their pantheons as male. It is in this context, that the Hebrews tended to think of God in male terms. But more than this, the early Hebrews saw God as their divine warrior that had liberated them from Egypt. In addition, God symbolized authority to them, which was the domain of men as fathers, husbands, and kings in their society. Besides this, the authors of the Bible were male because Middle Eastern patriarchalism excluded women from education (p.13).

One therefore understands why it is that there is no female metaphor of God. Yet it is evident, according to the pamphlet, that the Bible has ascribed God with feminine qualities such as gentleness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, tender concern and care. The pamphlet tells us that the Bible talks of God as the mother hen (Ruth 2: 12, Ps. 90: 4), the midwife (Ps. 22: 9), mother in labor (Isaiah. 42: 14), nursing mother (Isaiah. 49: 15), and mistress of the household (Luke 15: 8-10) (pp. 17-18). Clearly, motherhood has a critical place in the Bible. One may legitimately raise the question of the silence of female metaphors that could be used to describe God. The failure to develop a female metaphor of God, which sees the interrelationship between women and God, speaks to female subjugation and invisibility in the church.

The �he� vs. �she� debate in reference to pronouns that describe God inclines us to see that there is tension and contention in referring to God. The pamphlet argues that if God were to be described in non-gendered language, God would cease to be described as �him� or �her,� but rather as �it.� This we are told is problematic as �it� is a lower case of being. And even if ordinary speech, were to contemplate referring to God without the pronouns of �he,� �she� or �it,� this would be difficult if not clumsy. The pamphlet goes on to tells us that, �no chromosomes or hormones determine God�s being; God has no genitalia! God is spirit,� yet in the same breath it asserts that, �if human beings are personal, then the triune God is supra personal� (p. 17). Herein lies the dilemma. If the relationship between God and people is personal, then language is the major means of linking people to God. The bottom line, it seems, is that gendered language will inevitably be drawn upon as a resource in the interactive process between God and people, in spite of the fact that God has no gender.

The interesting thing about language is that although it has been used symbolically to produce female subordination, it has the dynamic capacity to be used for female liberation. To invoke the liberating effect of language, I agree with the pamphlet that, �we need to loosen up and open the windows and doors of our theological house. We need to find words and images that help us have a more adequate notion of God: God as a mother as well as a father� (p. 19). In other words, the heteronomy of language should make room for flexible use of both male and female metaphors of God. Because God is all encompassing, we cannot afford to leave the metaphors of God purely in the language of men. In this sense, God is not only �our father but also our mother who art in heaven.� An all inclusive gender metaphor of God sends a potentially powerful message that female qualities and interests are important. Such an approach may help resituate the female in relation to God.

By and large, the argument about the dominant male metaphor of God is in many ways an argument about the kinds of knowledge that are accepted as true. Here I want to raise some theoretical concerns about the male metaphor of God as the normative view. Given that the church has historically favored men, it follows that male knowledge of the world has provided the epistemological ground for male metaphors of God. As a result the male view of God is seen as the normative point of view. Reference to God in both female and male terms will therefore bear a revolutionary potential in Christian epistemology; as this means including female knowledge that has previously been silenced and therefore subjugated. The church, the epitome of moral knowledge, cannot ignore even the slightest intimation that its knowledge is founded on �bad� moral convictions that subjugate the knowledge of majority of its members, women. And so the church must be called upon to celebrate female knowledge, the use of female metaphors of God in an endeavor to foster �good� gender practices.

Yet I feel that it might not be easy to speak of God in female metaphors. I say this not to create panic, but to take a few steps back, for us to recognize that male metaphors of God are deeply rooted in historical structures and may have been taken for granted. In essence, we are asking the church to change historical injustices that have privileged men for a long period of time. And because church leadership tends to be male dominated, we are effectively asking the dominant to participate in dispossessing themselves of power. It is the potential resistance of conservative members of the church who can prove to be very inflexible that may provide a major obstacle to avant-garde members who are ready for change. Furthermore, if the women themselves are not taken in by the game of transformation in which their rights are fought for, then they inevitably perpetuate their own subordination in the church. We must be cognizant of all these high political stakes and interests in the inscription of female metaphors of God in the church.

My wish to acknowledge the difficulties of resisting the dominance of the male metaphor of God may explain the need for radical change in the church. But since, we are only beginning to learn about female prejudice in the church, or rather to take it seriously, we must see gender consciousness as the beginning of the women�s liberation movement in the church. This I believe is the map for the church as it falters and learns to walk and eventually run in the right direction on matters pertaining to women�s subjugation. Thanks, in particular, to the critical effort of the pamphlet, The War against Women, which has managed to bring to the surface the dominance of male language used in reference to God, that would have largely gone unnoticed, gender consciousness in the church has begun. My conviction is that as the church takes a step into the 21st century, it has to seriously take a giant leap for womankind.


The Gender Issues Committee of the General Assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (2002) �The War against Women.� Pamphlet produced at the meeting in Lynnwood, Pretoria in September 2002.

Wanjiru Kariuki, a Kenyan, is currently working toward a PhD at the University of Capetown, South Africa. Her thesis is titled �Unfolding Womens Lives.� Last year, she published her first book �Empowering women in Kenyan Schools.�

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