Our youth group last night discussed stereotyping God. There are many more stereotypes we did not cover. I chose this particular stereotype because I think it continues to lead to many, if not a majority, of our stereotypes of God. Before the lesson I had the youth do an activity. They broke up into small groups, given an assortment of magazines and told to make a collage of the perfect man/woman. Then they made a collage of God.
What does stereotype mean? It’s a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing
Stereotypes general reduce something to one thing. It sucks, this is stupid, dumb, i hate this, she’s fat, he’s lazy blah, blah…they are terrible and Christians should do better not to reduce things to stereotypes.
Two specific scriptures speak to this idea
1 Samuel 16:7
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
As people of God we should use these words as measure by which we see one another. God’s eyes look beyond the surface to the heart. It’s the way of Christ to see beyond one’s physical looks or outside persona.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
These words take the scripture from 1 Samuel 16 further…Not only are we not to look at outward appearance but we are to look beyond all proclaimed identity. In these words Paul is addressing the three major “stereotypes” of the time. These are the major “political, biological and cultural identities” of the time. It’s not that these cease to exist but that they are no longer used to reduce people to a label. In Christ we are made one. We can no longer reduce one another to labels and stereotypes.
All labels, stereotypes have a genesis. Some say they contain some truth within them. Tonight our focus will be on what I think is the genesis or beginning of a majority of our labels/stereotypes. Christians can focus their efforts to limit the labels/stereotypes but until we address the source we won’t break free of some of our long held stereotypes.
What’s the source…
It’s how we talk/see God.
One of Job’s friends in the book of Job says, “How great is God—beyond our understanding!”
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Solomon during his prayer to consecrate the temple states, in 1 Kings 8 “27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”
Saint Augustine once said, “If we have understood, then what we have understood is not God.”
Now we can KNOW God. We know God is love, mercy, justice, beauty, grace. We can know God through Jesus Christ who is the image of the invisible God. Yet God is known yet unknowable…God is mystery.
Lynn Japinga writes, “Language about God should help us to understand and encounter God…but we often make the mistake that our language about God for the reality of God, forgetting that language about God can never be more than an approximation.
Yet most of us talk about God in stereotypes. Remember that a stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. Can you think of fixed images of God? I can and it’s the source of many of our stereotypes.
Just those two letters used to describe God are the source of many stereotypes.
When Moses asks God for God’s name, God says, “I am who I am or I will be who I will be.” Within our language about God it seems like God’s name should be He.
Now it’s clear that the biblical authors used the term He, Him, Father…etc to describe God. I don’t want you to leave tonight and tell your parents Nathan thinks God is a woman. I don’t want to remove He, Him, Father from your vocabulary, I want to add language about God that helps us stop stereotyping God.
One of the great stereotypes of God is that God is a man. As this has historically formed society and has lifted men while devaluing women. Don’t believe these two have connections? Listen to some of the brightest and most well respected theologians of history: (These are found in the book Quest For The Living God by Elizabeth Johnson)
Tertullian who lived only 100 years after the death of Christ wrote, “all women are “the gateway of the devil”; they tempt men and because of their sin the Son of God had to die.”
Augustine said that women “were not the image of God” but only so coupled with a man.
Thomas Aquinas said women were “a defective male”.
Martin Luther suggested women should submit to husbands and should stay home “like a nail driven into the wall…in this way Eve is punished.”
In her book, Lynn Japinga, points out that “English words in which the female version is almost always inferior to male version. A master is skillful or in charge, a mistress is an illicit sex partner, A lord manages, A lady has perfect manners, Sir is a term of respect while madams run brothels.”
My friend Drew Gray, pointed out that when a man is compared to a woman it is generally seen as a bad thing “you throw like a girl” but when a woman is compared to a man it tends to be good i.e. “she maned up”.
So what has thousands of years of this type of thinking produced?
Jimmy Carter, our 39th president, has written a new book called A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. In the book he argues that the abuse against women is the ““worst and most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on Earth.”
The statistics back it up…
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in three women around the world is subject to sexual violence at some point in her life. In many parts of the world, women still aren’t receiving adequate health care and education. Every year, about 14 million girls under the age of 18 are given away as child brides, and an additional 4 million women and girls are bought and sold into slavery. And according to the United Nations, at least 125 million girls in Africa and the Middle East have undergone female genital mutilation.
What does this have to do with calling God He, Him, Father?
In his book, Carter argues that faith leaders have indirectly contributed to the ongoing violence against women by furthering a society that allows inequality to flourish.
“Religious leaders say women are inferior in the eyes of God, which is a false interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. When [people] see the Pope, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others say that women can’t serve as priests equally with men, they say well, I’ll treat my wife the way I want to because she’s inferior to me,”
Speaking of God so casually and frequently as he and Father, implies the belief that God is male and that males more closely resemble God.
Mary Daly, famously said, “If God is male, then the male is God.”
Now I understand the awkwardness you feel in calling God she, her, mother, etc…Riding a bike is awkward at first also but you get use to it over time. The issue here is two-fold. All language is only a glimpse, an approximation about God so it’s not as if when we say He, Him, Father that fully captures who God is anyway but the deeper issue and why we should consider other language is that women, historically and currently are abused, violated and killed. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me is the most ignorant cliché. It’s simply not true. How many of you have been hurt by someone’s elses words? Reducing God to the stereotype of He, Him, Father not only leads to a misunderstanding of God but has led and continues to lead to the idea that somehow women are less than. When anyone is viewed as less than they are persecuted. How can women be created in the image of God if God only resembles men? We are all created in the image of God and we all deserve to have that image resembled in our language about God.
Now the argument usually goes to well the Bible doesn’t talk about God as a woman…that’s simply not true. I believe this is just stubbornness on behalf of the initial awkwardness of calling God she.
Genesis 1:27 Women and Men created in God’s image “Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them.”
Hosea 11:3-4 God described as a mother God: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Hosea 13:8 God described as a mother bear “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”
Deuteronomy 32:11-12 God described as a mother eagle “Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”
Deuteronomy 32:18 God who gives birth “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Isaiah 66:13 God as a comforting mother God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 49:15 God compared to a nursing mother God: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Isaiah 42:14 God as a woman in labor God: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
Jeremiah 44:25 Queen of Heaven “Thus says…the God of Israel: You and your wives have accomplished in deeds what you declared in words, ‘We are determined to …make offerings to the queen of heaven and to pour out libations to her.’ By all means, keep your vows and make your libations!”
Psalm 131:2 God as a Mother “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
Psalm 123:2-3 God compared to a woman “As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!”
Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34 God as a Mother Hen Jesus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Luke 15:8-10 God as woman looking for her lost coin Jesus: “Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Beyond that, words in scripture to describe God provide us with a female image of God.
The greek term for Wisdom, is Sophia. In proverbs 8, Wisdom or Sophia is the source of life “whoever finds me, finds life.” Matthew 19 says, The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
The hebrew term ruah which means Spirit is a feminine noun.
Now some would argue, but Jesus calls God “Father” so doesn’t that imply that God though having feminine attributes is personified as a man.
Jesus also calls God Spirit.
One scholar I read believes Jesus refers to God as Father and not Mother cause Jesus had a mother.
The reason to start using “inclusive language” is not to remove male pronouns from talking about God. It’s to start to include language that is being left out so not to stereotype God. This widely held but fixed and oversimplified view of God reduces God and has in someway contributed to reducing women “whom God created in Her image” in ways that lead to harming God.
Lynn Japinga writes, The most effective metaphors usually startle, shock, or surprise. When the Hebrew Scriptures occasionally referred to God as a father, or when Jesus prayed to God the Father, that was a fresh, surprising, even radical metaphor of God. Religious people usually thought of God as a distant being in the heavens. The biblical use of father imagery suggests a God who relates intimately with human beings, who is not isolated in heaven but is connected with people as closely as a father to his children.
This also opens up the opportunity for people who don’t have a positive experience of their father or mother on earth to know a loving, caring, compassionate father or mother.
The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Will referring to God as She really stop global and systematic oppression of women?
That’s a difficult question because there has really never been a time where a majority of the world saw God beyond a stereotype. I think that you can see connections to our stereotype of God and women’s abuse. That’s good enough for me!
This is how we should see all stereotypes.
It diminishes the complexity and beauty of one another and reduces us to a label. And as we all know those labels have power. They can cause real significant damage. If we are not to reduce one another to stereotypes, how much more are we not to reduce God to stereotypes.