Issues Related to Language for God

This paper (minus the Appendix listing) appeared in Decades of Feminist Writing, a self-published book by DYN in 2020, 224-41.

This paper was first written in 1980 when enrolled in a seminary theology course titled “God and Revelation/Contemporary Theology.” The course professor, Marlin Miller, President of Mennonite Biblical Seminary, welcomed this personal expression of theologizing. Several years before writing this paper our family had lived in Cambridge, MA, where I enrolled in Episcopal Divinity School part-time. A five-week, non-credit class during March 1977 shaped my life-long conviction and practice. A dozen students shared budding experience and insight into our language about God. Content, titled “Images of God: The Range and Implications” and taught by Kathryn Ann Piccard, alerted me in a new, profound way to breadth of images for the Divine, being intentional when speaking to or about God, and an extensive bibliography. A follow-up discovery of diverse scriptural expression about God amazed me. [See listing at end of this paper.] Experience with public worship has taken decades to ‘catch up’ with concern for damage done or opportunity for Wisdom—as through wording for songs or prayers.

A simple “God analogy” activity learned from Piccard encourages us all to think more broadly about God’s amazing breadth, about harm inherent with male dominant language for the Divine. Each person thinks of/names an object—like raindrop, road, tree, clock, mountain—to complete a form:
God is not literally a _____. . . _____ are usually __________, ____________, __________
God is different from a _____ in these ways:
God is _____________ and a ____ is ______________ (3 times)
But God is something like a _____
God is like a _____; God is _____________, _____________, ______________
Although God is not literally a _____; God is a _____ analogically.

Prior to and since writing this paper, I have increasingly read about language for Divinity; created prayers, litanies or verses for songs that applied learnings; or wrote toward future sermons on the theme.1 Feminist articles appeared early on like one by Anne McGrew Bennett. 2)

As background for this personal expression of language for Yahweh God, I begin with quotes. Identification with feminist theologians enables me to sort, claim, clarify and be intentional in talking about my personal Source, the Divine Being with Whom I connect, on Whom I depend. Having lived in India (1962-65 plus seven shorter, return visits or assignments) exposed me to insight into the Ultimate One known through multiple forms and names. I wish not to limit the breadth and depth of that One.

Feminist theology . . . suggests that we begin where we find ourselves. . . As a woman that means taking seriously the experience and language that emerge from my female humanness as a necessary element in my attempt to articulate my experience of the sacred elements of life.3
Christian theology has to spell out and to affirm that revelation and truth are found only in those traditions and texts that transcend and criticize patriarchal culture and androcentric religion. Only those traditions that express the word of God in human and not in sexist language can be liberating for women and men. The critique of androcentric language is therefore central to the feminist reconstruction of Christian faith and theology.4
“To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God.”. . . It is necessary to grasp the fundamental fact that women have had the power of naming stolen from us. . . The most basic change has to take place in women—in our being and self-image. In hearing and naming ourselves out of the depths, women are naming toward God, which is what theology always should have been about. When women take positive steps to move out of patriarchal space and time, there is a surge of new life. I would analyze this as participation in God the Verb.5

What follows attempts “to begin where I find myself”; to express unrefined, emerging concepts offering them to be heard; to criticize patriarchy’s failure with God language; “to name toward God” or do theology. That which has shaped God language for me has been family, weekly church involvement, and education settings. Church connection has been mostly Mennonite along with particular years in ecumenical settings with Methodists, Disciples, or diverse Protestant folk. I was graduated from a Mennonite high school, college and seminary, prior to getting my Doctor of Ministry degree from a Reformed Church seminary. Single grad school courses with Episcopal and Roman Catholic professors enriched thought and awareness. Lengthy involvement with one prime denomination leaves me restless; blocks of time spent with ecumenical believers renews my Christian faith. Where my perceptions of God expanded the most occurred with exposure to religions of India (1962-65) and feminist research (following 1970).6

Memories from childhood about God emerge from Sunday School classes that highlighted the goodness, protection, and greatness of the One God who differs distinctly from human beings. Yet, I grew up with a strong relational sense in One with whom Mother “talked” a lot, in her distinct ways. Her personal piety, known through authentic, lived experience, appeared through genuine prayers. I recall the times that I interrupted her nightly prayers before bedtime or on intercessory occasions when a family experienced grief through death, my father being a mortician. He led most prayers for family meals, addressing God as “Heavenly Father.” Mother used addresses of “Dear God or Lord.” My prayer address was primarily to Jesus until Jr-Sr. years in high school when it switched to God. Never have I used Father for personal address. Multiple impacts on my God-image developed: confidence that a personal relationship with a Divine Being can be vital; belief in a personal God and what God offers and expects; confirmation that God provides a right sense of Direction.

Childhood corporate worship primarily occasioned reverence, praise or petition to God. It provided time to become better acquainted with scripture, via the story of God’s dealing with people, the Hebrews of Israel and believers throughout church history. Not limited to the church building, God meets us anywhere. When our church burned down one winter Sunday morning, I had a clear sense that Lower Deer Creek’s people of God would continue meeting with God. Worship occurred a lot through church music—unaccompanied, four-part group singing, quartets, sextets, and choirs. Youth from area churches often gathered after Sunday evening services at one congregation for hymn sings; verses of hymnody continue to be recalled.

Theological conversations with friends about segments of Bible doctrines or Mennonite history (early Anabaptism and current) occurred mostly near final exam times. Sermons heard during college years, especially via John Mosemann at College Mennonite Church, definitely engaged or stimulated me more than bishop John Y’s had during earlier, formative years. Quite involved in college “Y” activities (Young People’s Christian Association) especially the year when John Nyce (future husband) and I led the “Fellowship Commission,” God-image and understanding continued strong as Guide. Having grown up in a funeral home, I knew well the combination of life with death. But car accident deaths of high school classmate Charlotte our senior year and college friend Mary Jean not long after she visited us in India, raised serious questions for me with God. While accepting God’s Wisdom and control, I could not accept that the death of those two could have been Wise. How could greater good, for anyone, least of all God, result?

Divine Direction, not piously expressed, seemed real in our going to India during the first year of marriage. We taught for three years at Woodstock, an international school located in the amazing Himalayan mountain foothills. With a unique Methodist bookstore located in the bazaar, books about theology and world religions helped to explain the religious diversity met daily. What started out as intrigue and honest desire to gain insight into the richness of Eastern religions (while privileged to live among them) led us to visit many temples, elaborate or near obscure. We bounced the experiences off our solid belief in God as perceived through history, the Jesus become human. I value learning about comparative religion, as of Jesus with Buddha, and extended discussion with an articulate Hindu. Struck by how a teacher and I failed to fully understand each other’s understanding of God or the Ultimate, yet how easily we returned to the subject, interfaith interest emerged. Encounters with missionaries during vacation periods, observing them conduct simple worship services or promote sacred influence through medicine or education, impressed me. Within a predominant Hindu population in which three percent claimed my faith while eleven percent lived out loyalty to Islam, I seriously considered why I believe in Yahweh God while reading into other religions.7

Out of those rich years, I developed a strong conviction that nearly all peoples look to, crave for, respond out of need for some Being greater and beyond ourselves. That truth became clear in days spent at what seemed chaotic Benares. There we had a sensitive Muslim guide around the most holy Hindu river with its surrounding temples and sacred rituals. God, for me, did not become “muddied” like the water, nor could I approach that context with religious arrogance. Others have reasons for their beliefs, beliefs that I now fail to fully understand. While I value personal relating with God, my India exposure enabled appreciation also for corporate Christian worship. What became more difficult was taking seriously those who claim to be atheist, who deny the existence of Someone greater. Part of being created, for me, upholds a Divine Creator.

Seminary-parenting years, along with budding feminism, more than filled my years after returning from India. I cannot imagine what one of these three dimensions would be like without the other two. With each birthing experience, I came to value scriptures that associate God with: carrying/womb, stretching/labor, nurturing/breasts, comforting/story, guiding/steps. (Deut. 32:18; Isa. 42:14, 46:3-4, 49:15, 66:13; Ps. 22:10, 131:2, Mt. 22:37; Lk. 13:34, 15:8-10). Not choosing to exaggerate this experience, I will however expand on it. Seminary studies also had their rupturing, expanding, invigorating, near-devastating dimensions. I cannot, however, say that my concept of God enlarged more through chapel talks than nighttime conversations with reflective, questioning daughters.

To take seriously one aspect of being a woman, one intimate dimension of relating with the Divine, I divert this story briefly. For me, pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding were experiences rich with awareness of Being beyond, yet within myself. Feminist theologian friends encourage me to claim such features as vital to my construct of God. With them, I acknowledge that as long as women are excluded from doing theology, the crediting of such experience will be denied, ignored, and demeaned. To that extent, both women and men lose. We lose breadth of interest, potential material with which to construct, and an interdependence.

Although a direct correspondence between human and Divine birthing/creating activity will be avoided, the most profound creative experience that I have known came through birthing. Obviously, two people contributed directly to conception, to that fundamental creative act and commitment. But features of the ongoing development affected and blessed me more directly. Knowing that I directly affected the physical and emotional health of an unseen infant by diet, rest, exercise, attitude patterns reflected mystery. The at-times endless kicking inside prompted a sense of constant presence, made more vital with Another’s presence. The 30-plus hours of birthing labor for me imaged more clearly the agony, wrestling, near-frenzied associations I imagine with God’s distress over human creation and rejection. Elements of mystery, of Divine design, became real as my body prepared for the exodus. And the Exodus itself proved to be climax unknown in any other human experience. Accomplished through vigorous expending of energy, contrasted with gentle human coaching, the “exit” occurred. The unknown revealed herself. The recovery—prompted by considerable self-satisfaction—something like “a day of rest.” And God and I chorused, “That was very good!” One more sense of the Beyond remained in store—as little lips ever-so-quickly learned the art of activating that memorable gush in enlarged glands.

Admittedly, all of this could be expressed through reasoned, scientific explanation. I choose to express the experience as symbolic of meaningful human-Divine relationship, of creativity beyond human capacity alone. I identify One Who has been through something similar, Who then chose to share rather than monopolize vigorous Be-ing. I hear Gayle Graham Yates utter her prayer of praise.

O, God, our Creator, who gestated the universe in your womb,
Who gave birth to the cosmos,
Who fed humankind at your breast,
We praise you.8

I gather from Ulanov, noted authority on Jung, that this Being approach combined with the above mother image somewhat resembles Tillich’s image that he calls “Ground of Being.” Other secondary sources briefly refer to Tillich: Hammett and Romere.9 Hammett finds symbol to arise for Tillich out of two sources: 1. A group’s acknowledging that its own being participates in a particular word or thing; 2. The depth of self from which the depth dimension of reality is communicated. With that first source, my story has correlation. For Tillich, theology must be “theology of correlation” (which Mary Daly directly counters: “The method required is not one of correlation but liberation.”) He suggests that symbols are essential for telling about God and encourages that God be viewed as the Ground of all Being. Later, I elaborate on his concept that: “before the God beyond God can be known” or before a person has the courage to be authentic self, “the father God of theism must die.”

Romere’s chapter examines both Barth and Tillich’s theology. Contrasting them as authoritarian and nonauthoritarian, she finds Barth’s basic problem as “acceptance of the master-slave relationship as normative.” This, he supported in both God-human and man-woman relationships. Tillich, instead, expects human participation in, and therefore power from, the power of Being. He also anticipates human dignity and freedom for both women and men. “Whereas, then, Barth chooses to retain polarities, Tillich works to overcome them.” While useful to become more aware of these “master” theologians’ views, I return to my story, the vocabulary for which reveals difference in theologizing.

My year in the Cambridge-Boston area was most worthwhile. Particularly influential related to my God-consciousness, as noted above, was a five-session evening seminar on Biblical Images of God taught by Kathryn Piccard. Having read some articles from feminist writers on this subject, I mainly hoped for exposure to more resources. In addition, I became conscious of how blandly or carelessly I have addressed God in prayer, how much more varied, creative and inclusive the possibilities for God-language can be. Two other Mennonite women joined me in this search with Episcopalian, liturgically-oriented friends.

During a class session of another course we were asked to “create” a depiction of God using a variety of materials. I initially balked, reminded of “Thou shall not . . . any image of God.” Then I recalled watching an Indian villager create clay god/goddess Saraswati forms for a Hindu festival. Next, I visualized Michelangelo’s portrayal of God’s outstretched, creating hand that appears majestically in the Sistine Chapel. While forming a non-descript, ever-reshaping blob, I ended up adding words. The diversity of student and prof creations prompted striking thoughts.

That experience evolved further through change in understanding. Whereas my initial response had leaned toward piety, biblical or early-Anabaptist-influenced, I realized anew that any attempt to depict Divine beings is most partial. No language, image, or expression of God does justice to God’s essence. On further reflecting, I concluded that words can be no less idolatrous than objects. To dimensions of that potential idolatry, of predominantly male language, I now return. Corporate worship provides one setting; illustrations abound.

When I alter words while singing hymns (to avoid male language), my purpose focuses on being intentional in expression rather than unaware or non-caring. The sexism of one scripture litany in the Mennonite Hymnal especially offends. On my noting that sexism to a minister, he used it in congregational worship two more times soon thereafter. Resistance to change in our perceptions of God exists. Refusal to care or think important how we identify and image God matters.

Several years ago, after a public prayer at College Mennonite Church, John wrote on his bulletin “14 Fathers.” What surprised us more: after the next prayer by the same leader, our then 9-year-old daughter wrote on her bulletin “8 Fathers.” Unaware of her alertness, but at the same time grateful that she noticed, parenting matters. The same child, when four, had stopped me in the middle of a song at the piano, “Why shouldn’t God give me any gifts?” True, I had just sung “Give gifts to all men” and she knew that she was not a man. We continue to fool ourselves: “Everyone knows it’s generic; why be so petty?” That girl might as well get accustomed to “her place—second to man.”

Many people feel so comfortable, so personal with male pronouns—he and him. Then follows failure to connect identifying God in male terms with assuming that “male is norm while female continues as ab/subnormal or other. We fault calling God Mother as grotesque and flatly deny correspondence between “God the Father” terminology and human fathers. Such correspondence, especially when used exclusively, is idolatry; it makes gods of mere men.

But God is neither female nor male. So, addressing the problem presents itself. Dozing has had its day. “Rise Up, O Men of God” (which naturally includes everyone like “women of God” would!) To experience two months of using only female references—she, her, queen, Mother, Lady—to the Divine in worship services might hint at the issue. Charging fines for every male reference to God not balanced with female references might provide substantial income. My hope or view with reference to the Divine is not best served by sex reversal. But at times shock therapy helps. Then we could move to more thoughtful, inclusive vocabulary about the deserving Almighty.

When invited to speak at secondary or college classes on sex roles, I have gathered data about perceptions of God, notably God as Father and Mother. The results leave little doubt. Recently, I examined a 3rd-4th grade Foundation Series quarterly (Year 1, Quarter 4). The statistics, sobering in their portrayal, impose attitude, influence children’s belief system. Nearly 175 male references to God appear in that one booklet. No other image than father is offered, except for shepherd in one section. Fifty-three references to male Bible characters appear, nine to women. Only within non-bible stories does sex balance seem to matter. Statements suggest that God too dismisses mothers and sisters as significant. Other observations could be added here.

If we were to honestly connect the use of father (in relation to God) to our patriarchal context where associating maleness with Divinity promotes prestige for men, we might expand our images for God. Parents, curriculum writers, and adults generally need awakening. With 175 male references to God in one quarterly and likely not two percent of the teachers conscious of it, how will children’s views of God, plus self-image evolve? “Other foundation can no one lay . . .,” a text familiar to those with Anabaptist heritage, is near-blasphemy to quote when we admit the foundation for male idolatry that church curriculum instills. A place to avoid “taking the name of God in vain” begins with exclusive male association with God.

Examination of biblical background to God’s name can be useful. T. J. Meeks10 suggests that the name Yahweh, or God known as Yahweh, may have originated before the Divine encounters with Moses. The Kenite hypothesis—that Moses approached the Hebrews about a desert god interested in delivering them—led to their being initiated into that cult by the Kenite priest Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. Moses influenced the people to build trust in Yahweh. Meeks presumes that Yahweh, like most gods then, originated in nature, perhaps as a storm or mountain god. References to this feature appear in at least eight Old Testament books. At some early period, the name Yahweh was adopted by one of the tribes—likely Judah—as its god. As that tribe grew, its leaders persuaded other southern tribes to claim the same god, to form a confederation. Eventually, all Hebrew tribes, combined under Judah through David, claimed Yahweh as their God. Meeks suggests that the northerners claimed Yahweh as a reinterpretation of their own god with a new name.

Whether this account of the development of Yahweh support is valid, it reflects change or growth. We have often assumed that ancient Israel’s Yahweh worship was uniformly known and practiced, that Israel formed a personal relation with none but the One. Might that stance reflect an “ideal” rather than actuality? My concept of the Divine, continuous with the people of Israel, knows richness partly through diversity—of settings, points in time, and culturally-oriented peoples. Change in human followers and their patterns occur, therefore also in the Divine.

Who Israel’s God was for some ancient followers includes growing awareness that for three centuries worship of Yahweh included worship of the goddess Asherah. Comradeship with “sisters” who in Jeremiah’s time ritually prepared cakes and poured out libations to the Queen of Heaven seems possible. She met a need not taken seriously in male-oriented Yahweh worship. Admittedly, my reading of present Christian options affects what I predict might have influenced those who were being deprived of something historically and ceremonially important. Evidence also supports this reading, evidence for which this paper does not have space. Do read the chapter in Hebrew Scripture of this collection about Jeremiah’s effort.

Further examination into “the name of the God of Moses” appears in David Noel Freedman’s article by that title.11 Working with the “name” passages in Exodus (3:14, 6:2-3, 33:19, 34:6-7, 14), he supports biblical tradition’s association of Moses and the revelation of God’s personal name YHWH (known as Tetragammaton). The formulas cited are:

3:14 – I AM what/who I am; I create what I create; I am the creator
33:19 – I will make all my goodness pass before you and I will pronounce the name, YHWH, before you . . .
I am the gracious one, I am the compassionate one.
6:2 – I am Yahweh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai; but (by) my name Yahweh I was not known to them.
34:6-7 – The compassionate and gracious God creates what is created.
34:14 – The zealous or passionate God; the zealous One creates.

Revelation of the name contributed to the covenant-making process. Comparably, to the extent that we actively participate in identifying and experiencing God’s naming (naming toward God) we determine patterns for commitment, comprehend the inadequacy of language, and personally claim vitality in relationship. I hope to more carefully examine these statements during the years ahead, along with continued probing into ancient goddess worship.

George Howard’s article, “The Name of God in the New Testament,”12 helps to clarify confusion about divine naming between the two Testaments. Understanding that some words or names were too sacred to use or repeat, varied formulations developed for the Divine. Jewish scribes distinguished Yahweh’s name by using the Tetragrammaton/YHWH. When reading the term in public, the Greek Adonai was substituted rather than to verbalize what was deemed too sacred. Qumran writers sometimes used four or five dots instead of the four letters (as “Prepare in the wilderness the way of . . . .”). Christians sometimes abbreviated the names, using only the first and last letters and drawing a line above it (ks). Even today Jews continue to use Adonai instead of YHWH when reading scripture aloud.

Complications resulted when in the Septuagint (LXX) the translated term kurios appeared for YHWH, then later combined into New Testament texts. Did kurios refer to Lord God or Lord Christ? Howard has evidence that not all pre-Christian versions of the LXX translated the name YHWH into kurios; some retained the Hebrew YHWH. Apparently Jewish practice (including Jewish Christians) continued the paleo-Hebrew or Aramaic script within the Greek. But Gentile Christians, who had no traditional attachment to the Hebrew Tetragammaton, change it in both LXX and New Testament quotes of the LXX. Examples of confusion include: 1. Mt. 22:44, Mk. 12:36, Lk. 20:42 where first century Christians read “YHWH said to my Lord”; second century folk said “The Lord said to my Lord.” 2. Mk. 1:3 (1st century) “Prepare the way of YHWH”; (2nd century) “Prepare the way of the Lord.” 3. I Cor. 1:31 (1st century) “The one who boasts let him boast in YHWH”; (2nd century) “The one who boasts let him boast in the Lord.”

Howard concludes that something of the distinctiveness of the Jewish God was lost in this translation. This fact raises questions of continuity that affect naming toward God. It cautions against limiting oneself or a people to only one name. It counters the defensive “but it’s always been that way.” Why was Adonai less sacred than YHWH if the same Being was in mind? Did the fact of YHWH’s “issuing” it justify such exclusion of its use? Or would Christians return to exclusively using YHWH remedy anything? At least YHWH has no other English meanings or associations, making it preferable to Lord which through the centuries has been identified with human beings. Further, what was distinctive that was lost? Can it be regained because of the Being whom God is or the people who we are? And so, the quest goes on.

Where or when did the preponderance of father imagery in relation to God take root? A serious study of New Testament usage of the name Father in relation to God appeared in 1953.13 Writing “Abba, Father,” Vernon McCasland used 27 translations of scripture to examine the three passages that are translated “Abba, Father.” He concludes that the Aramaic and Greek combination could be translated “O God, my father.” McCasland’s intent seems to be to find a reason for the Aramaic abba inclusion in Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15, and Mk. 14:36 prayers. The Greek reads “Abba o father.” For that phrase, some interpreters suggest “Daddy, Papa” and the like, not necessarily helpful or faithful.

Numerous New Testament occurrences of Aramaic terms followed by Greek explanations are noted, plus data about words taken into Greek from Hebrew or Aramaic (such as Greek abba from Aramaic). The latter would have been familiar to Aramaic-speaking Jewish children of New Testament times in addressing their human father. From such association, the word acquired status as a metonym (a name substituted for another) for God. But the Stoic idea “that God is the father of all mankind: was never held by biblical writers. Instead of a father-son relationship, they predominantly viewed the relationship as Creator-creature. Eventually, Old Testament writers thought of God as Father of the Hebrew people or particularly as father of the king. But the only Old Testament instance of the word Father clearly as a metonym for God appears in Mal 2:10 (5th century BCE). This usage likely developed out of the more frequent use of father as a personal appellative (common name-giving) for God.

Although McCasland’s statistics vary from Gail Ramshaw Schmidt’s14 of father as a metonym in the New Testament, the total NT usage must be between 150 and 200. Jesus’ 125 uses of what is ‘o father in Greek and translated Father would have originally been abba, Aramaic (as in the Mk. 14:36 instance). The metonym Father, a substitute that had developed, could well be dropped then and the name God written in each of those occurrences. God and Father are interchangeable. Abba, which was translated ‘o father in Greek, could be “God/O God.” What a difference that might have made through the centuries had male translators been willing to “give up” prerogative, prerogative that they found useful as fathers in their being associated with the Divine.

McCasland goes on to show how the Hebrew word for the father had come to substitute for the possessive my father. Further, the Greek ‘o father frequently means my father/our father. The definite article often has this possessive character. In such cases, Father is used as an appellative or name to indicate how early Christians perceived God’s character, personality, or function: as father of themselves, the children. New Testament writers simply in dropping the abba, unfamiliar to non-Jewish readers, preserved the meaning of possessive with Father. The conclusion then translates the prayer statements as “O God, my Father,” or “O God, our Father,” “replacing the metonym (father) by the name (God) for which it stands and translating the article as the possessive.”

A question surfaces: why not, in these three occasions of combined Aramaic-Greek words, assume that they reflect instances of where dropping the Aramaic was overlooked, unlike the other 125? Either simply God or my/our Father could have been Jesus’ intent. This approach takes a long route for this paper’s purposes. But with the option that Jesus may not have meant Father in all of those instances, our language and understanding of God could be far less sexist than it is currently. Another question persists: whether the Father image can be relinquished or whether idolatry is too entrenched. Does valid desire to be free from such bondage exist? Had patriarchy not been driven to bias for men through dominant Father language for the Divine, might Church Fathers and Mothers have together made decisions? How differently might present-day issues of leadership and authority be? In case Jesus had not used Father so exclusively, might we welcome new depths of perception about God?

Additional sources to read include J. Jeremiah’s chapter on abba in The Prayers of Jesus and articles in the 1977 Dialogue plus Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s God the Father.15 Among male writers, Hamerton-Kelly at times seems revolutionary. He seems ready to relinquish male prerogative, to be freed from that bondage. He states that “at the level of indirect symbolization father, as applied to the Divine revelation, means liberation.” He emphasizes the adoptive over natural (by creation) sense, focusing God’s choice or election dimension. For his interpretation of Jesus’ understandings, father came to symbolize God’s liberating activity in history. That liberation released the cord of birth or natural dependency—earthly bondage in natural family relationships. That stance radically differs from biblical interpretation that stresses natural family ties—Abraham/Isaac/Jacob listings of generations that ignore missing links (mortified even more by “irregularities” like Rahab and Ruth).

If, as Hamerton-Kelly suggests, father in relation to God releases us from a fated (birth) relationship to God rather than totally free, unrestricted identity, that new twist spells possibilities. He sees Jesus relativizing what in patriarchy was absolute: obligation to human father/family. Such change corresponds to other reversals that Jesus promoted—as judge: from rigid, heartless judgment to “extending the other cheek” justice; of peer: from absence of financial wealth to freedom to be vulnerable, dependent on God. If such liberation expects free reciprocity, then we have distorted the concept of father by expecting, sanctioning prerogative and distinct position.

Distortion, inevitable within patriarchy, sanctioned exclusion, making difference more pronounced to “give an edge.” Term choice marks misfortune. Why use father if that needs correction? If that ‘norm’ needs to be challenged? Can Jesus’ revolutionary stance be wisely chosen when it humanly fosters misconception?

Logic or reason asks, why not choose Liberator, Freedom Bringer, Releaser—terms not burdened with sexual connotations? Father, so blatantly selective, leaves little option. Androcentric contexts do one thing with it—bless its selectivity. Then opponents must counter current bias, plead for equity (only to be labeled “selfish.”) Where is reasonableness? Presumably, faith in God pursues another direction or construct. The old order stubbornly resists the new. It justifies Father reference for God because of its “natural” intimacy, implying that Mother fails to comparably convey intimacy. We may stereotype comfort, compassion, or sensitive qualities for women—somewhat negatively—while “gracing” men, the intimate model, with prowess and stamina, reasoned expertise and distance.

Eric Routley pleads16 to retain Father imagery for God “because 1. we mean father when we say it and 2. The antisexists cannot win this battle so should not try.” He soon drops his only alternatives it and mother, (the former because it withdraws personality, the latter because grotesque). He attracts further pity with discussion of heresy. Heresy means “doctrine which if universally taught would achieve a limited objective at the cost of widespread confusion or distress.” Responding to incorporating God imagery as Mother, he concludes that it “comforts half the world by distressing the other half.” He is blind to the fact that that injustice precisely now exists! Providing a balance of Mother/Father images aims toward equity, as might ties with neither sex. Hamerton-Kelly implies that either father or mother imagery needs to foster reciprocity and avoid human privilege. Justice fails to materialize when Jesus’ radical posture of freedom from privilege is ignored. It fails to materialize when one people—sex, race, or nation—operates institutions, writes creeds, interprets scripture, or determines formulation of God’s nature.

Titles such as Warrior, King, Redeemer, Savior, Counselor, Master, Shepherd, Judge, Ruler, Prophet, or Potter are not absolutely sex specific. However, in patriarchal cultures human warriors, kings, masters, and rulers are more often male. Such positions have been credited with more human “status.” Because God has been associated more with maleness, tasks that men achieve have been granted more value throughout biblical and Christian history. To value men and woman differently matters. People who practice warfare may wish to credit God with knowledge of or blessing for that task. As a vegetable gardener, I value God’s creative design for clouds to empty, the sun’s rays to cause growth, seeds to “do their thing.” I address God as Gardener with a sense of affinity. But such activity holds no exclusive “right” in the process. Chemists, truck drivers, medical people, assembly line holders provide distinct insight into Divinity without claiming superiority.

This focus alerts me to Divine vastness, to unlimited dimensions of God-ness. Our distinct being finds commonality with the Universal God beyond our self and task. Being intimate and personal adds to human relational imaging of God. A listing of two hundred potential addresses for the One Divine Being reveals how inadequate, boring, and unfaithful can be predominantly male pronouns and roles for God. To broaden language about God matters. Language that limits who, what, where, or why God has been, is, and forever will be needs change. I believe in God, in a Being or Divine Actor, in One whom I am unable to fully comprehend or describe. No doubt God enjoys human effort to grow in expression. Terms meaningful for “identifying” God during recent years include:

Source-Creator-One who births;
I AM – Yahweh
Absolute-Transcendent One-Perfection
Gardner, Sculptor, Nourisher

Adjectives also emerge: consistent, dependable, stabilizing, compassionate, conversant, involved, formless, supportive, friend, beyond. And word images surface: rock, tree, mountain water, fire, ground, voice, womb, eye, ear, or arm. Male-oriented associations rarely appear. However, I do use “Dear Mother-Father” often with silent meal prayers. Depth, breadth, and vigor of possibilities attracts me to God-language along with disdain for the “rut” often revealed in prayers, conversations, speeches, or writings expressive of God.

In addition to language factors, my construct of God includes a strong belief that God dwells within. Akin to Quaker Inner Light, I do not visualize God as being “out there” (partial explanation for why reaching upward toward God in corporate worship seems unnecessary for me). My personal God resides within. Almost trite, if I have gone upstairs to get something, get sidetracked with another task, begin to return downstairs and recall what I had earlier intended to get. That experience of recall ‘lives’ as God’s alerting me, as God’s being within. So, I just breathe, “Thanks, God” and proceed to get the item. Some readers may experience that detail as just human, mental capacity or telepath. To credit it as a Divine gift avoids taking it for granted. Caution toward not balancing adequately the Transcendent dimension of Divinity may be at stake, but enriching personal encounter matters also.

The Divine One provides a sense of purpose. Choice remains to credit options. Through study of human creation in Genesis 1-3, I am convinced that humanity is created in God’s image—whether in responsible care (dominion at its best), dependence on communication, multiplicity and oneness, capacity to develop nearly unlimited qualities, opportunity and responsibility for choice, and more. This approach toward purpose constructs both God and self- image along with world view.

Reason for being points beyond ourselves to the One beyond and within all else. I understand that Jesus modeled for humanity repeated turning to God, to God’s universal kin-dom with openness or care for all. Jesus the Christ relinquished divinity alone, combining it with humanity. That combination points toward God’s Ultimacy. Just as surely, we human beings possess divinity. To further develop that potential within enables purpose, reaching toward our Source.


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A Portion of the Diverse Language about God in Hebrew Scripture, Compiled by Dorothy Yoder Nyce

Names for God
Gen. 49:25-26 – The God of your father who assists you, El Shaddai who blesses you: blessings of the heaven above, blessings of the deep lying below, blessings of the breast and the womb, blessings of the grain and flowers, blessings of the eternal mountains . . .”
Exod. 3:14 – “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Exod. 6:2-3 – “And God said to Moses, ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.’”
Exod. 15:3 – “Yahweh is a man of war; Yahweh is his name.”
Exod. 33:19 – “And [God]said, ‘Iwill make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name YAHWEH; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’”
Exod., 34:14 – “(for you shall worship no other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),”
Ps. 98:6 – “With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.”
Isa. 54:5 – “For your Maker is your husband, Yahweh of hosts is his name, and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”
Hos. 2:16 – “And in that day, says Yahweh, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’”
Mal. 1:14 – “. . . for I am a great King, says Yahweh of hosts, and my name is feared among the nations.”

Human-like activities of God
Gen. 3:21 – “And Yahweh God made for man and his woman garments of skin and clothed them.”
Dt. 32:18 – “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Ps. 22:9 – (71:6) “Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts.”
Ps. 23:1/Jer. 31:10 – “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; . . . who scattered Israel will gather them, and will keep them as a shepherd keeps the flock.”
Ps. 33:6 – “By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of [God’s] mouth.”
Ps. 127:3 – “Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless God watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
Prob. 3:19-20 – “Yahweh by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding [God] established the heavens; by [God’s] knowledge the deeps broke forth, and the clouds drop down the dew.”
Isa. 1:2b – “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.”
Isa. 1:25 – “I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.”
Isa. 2:4 – “Yahweh shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples;”
Isa. 5:5 – “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.”
Isa. 33:22 – “For Yahweh is our judge, Yahweh is our ruler, Yahweh is our king, [and] will save us.”
Isa. 42:16 – “And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not.”
Isa. 46:3 – “Hearken to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb;”
Isa. 54:6 – “For Yahweh has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife or youth when she is cast off, says your God.”
Jer. 5:24 – “They do not say in their hearts, ‘Let us fear Yahweh our God, who gives the rain in its season,”
Jer. 8:13 – “When I would gather them, says Yahweh, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree;”
Jer. 15:7 – “I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork in the gates of the land; I have bereaved them, I have destroyed my people; they did not turn from their ways.”
Jer. 20:11 – “But Yahweh is with me as a dread warrior; therefore, my persecutors will stumble,”
Jer 30:17 – “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says Yahweh.”
Jer. 31:4 – “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel
Jer 51:15-16 – “It is [God] who made the earth by his power, who established the world by her wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When [God] utters her voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. She makes lightnings for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from her storehouses.”
Hos. 11:1, 3-4 – “When Israel was a child, I loved them, and out of Egypt I called my child . . . Yet, it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love . . . and I bent down to them and fed them.”
Mal. 2:10 – “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?”

Human qualities/pictures of God
Exod 16:10 – “And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud.”
Exod. 40:34 – “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle.”
Job 40:9 – “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like God’s?”
Ps. 103:13 – “As a father pities his children, so Yahweh pities those who fear Yahweh.”
Ps. 118:16 – “The right hand of Yahweh is exalted, the right hand of Yahweh does valiantly!”
Prov. 15:3 – “The eyes of Yahweh are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
Isa. 42:14 – “ . . . I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant.”
Isa.49:15 – “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Isa. 55:10-11 – “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth . . . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
Isa. 66:9, 13 – “Shall I bring to the birth and not cause to bring forth? says Yahweh; shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb? says your God.” . . . As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.
Jer. 31:20 – “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is (Israel) my darling child? For as often as I speak of him, I do remember him still. Therefore, my inner parts yearn for (Israel); I will surely have motherly compassion on (Israel) says Yahweh.”
Hos. 11: 8b-9 – “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.”

Nonhuman comparisons with God
Exod. 19:4 – “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
Dt. 4:24 – “For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.”
Ps. 62:6 – “God only is my rook and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”
Hos. 14:5 – “I will be as the dew to Israel;”

To avoid this paper’s greater length, I choose not to include Second Testament references from my original listing—13 texts that depict Jesus as Metaphor of, and his use of metaphors for, God plus two where Jesus presented metaphors or pictures of God. (See “Lost Things” in Jesus Teachings on this website in Second Testament.)