Leader: God as father and mother

18 March 2009

ADHERENTS of faiths that avoid mentioning God directly, or that routinely refer to God by a set of attributes, can cause themselves plenty of grammatical problems, but at least they avoid the question of God’s gender. Christians continue to be confronted by the choice of personal pronouns that, in the English language, firmly categorise God as either male or female. The Bible, of course, is pretty decided, whatever modern translators do to it. None the less, the common practice of acknowledging God to be spirit and yet referring to God continually as he persists partly because the alternatives — switching randomly between pronouns, or repeating the word “God” and not using pronouns at all — are marginally more irritating. The only sensible attitude, for the present at least, is to embrace the literature of the faith up to this point — rejoicing in its sublimity, forgiving its awkwardnesses, and where possible amending its worst infelicities (especially when “men” is used for “people”). Those who choose to refer to God as “she” are perfectly at liberty to do so, but must know that, for most people, this is not a natural pattern.

The principle is that linguistic tinkering is no substitute for philosophical or theological rigour. This point is often lost in the secular world, where regulators appear to believe that easing offensive words out of common parlance somehow obliterates the prejudices that first called them into being. The world looks to be a kinder place when racist attitudes, sexism, discrimination against those with a disability, and so on, cease to be articulated; but enforced reticence does little to allay the emotions behind the words. Similarly, conceptions of God are too important to be altered out of a need for grammatical tidiness. Language must follow understanding.

On the subject of gender, it is important that the Church keeps hold of the arguments advanced during the 1970s and ’80s, when it was acknowledged that, for example, calling God “Father” was a stumbling block for some, sons and daughters alike. The term cannot be separated from images and emotions conjured up by human fathers. Although a broken parental relationship can be sanctified through participation in the union of Christ and his Father, this is not easily accomplished.

Similarly, the Church must beware as it succumbs ever more willingly to the sentimentality of Mothering Sunday. This is harmless enough if the clergy talk vaguely about “Mother Church”. But if motherhood is ever to be taken seriously as an attribute of God, the same complexity of human associations lies in wait for the unwary. The concepts of good mother- and fatherhood — and of gender in general — need to be grasped more widely before being applied to God. As has often been observed, a better under­standing of the human leads to a better understanding of the divine.

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