Our Mother, Who Art in Heaven: Reflections on God, Gender, Patriarchy, and Language
A couple of years ago, I started participating in a biweekly pub theology group called, “Theology and Beer.” I remember one conversation in particular centering around the liturgical language of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art on heaven,” it begins, before coming to the grand conclusion, “...in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
So, we start with a divine male figure, and we finish with a trinity that is composed of at least 2/3 divine male figures. This is the central prayer of the Christian tradition, repeated weekly by hundreds of denominations across centuries. However we may speak of the “mystery of God” and how the nature of God defies human categories, it isn’t very difficult to see how people could come to the conclusion that the Christian God is unmistakably male.
The implications of this reality were not lost on the group I was having this discussion with. While some members of the group were attending churches that had already removed the he/him pronouns for God from their liturgy, the problem of the language in the Lord’s Prayer remained intact. Nearly everyone present agreed that it was a touchy subject. How we talk about God becomes how we think about God, and how we think about God becomes what we do about God.
To put it succinctly, holding on to the image of God as a male reinforces the structural framework in Christianity that holds up the image of maleness as a God. When we assigned God a gender, we at the same time assigned that gender a God-like status. Even if we didn’t explicitly articulate it as doctrine, we wove it into the fabric of our collective Christian consciousness that men are created in the image of God—but women are created in the image of men.
It goes without saying how a divinely sanctioned, superior status of men could lead to a systemic abuse of power in Christianity. In this arrangement, women become the property of men that they may manage at their discretion. And there is no accountability, because the only authority that men have to answer to is a God who is just like them. This hierarchy of gender has been disastrous for families, communities, and societies throughout history, as men in positions of authority have taken it as their God-given right to rule over the women in their lives in whatever manner they’ve seen fit.
From the very beginning of the Christian tradition, we’ve been habitually committing the great sin of the Church: patriarchy. Isn’t it about time that we practice a little repentance? Isn’t it about time that we shatter the idol of masculinity that we’ve placed upon the altar of God? Isn’t it about time that we stop calling God, “Father?”
Tell Them, “‘She Who Is’ Has Sent You”
When I ask these kinds of questions, I naturally get pushback—from men in particular. I’ve run into some people who literally think that God is male. When I ask them, “Does God have a penis?”* The response is always the dismissive accusation that I’m being sacrilegious. Truthfully, I am poking fun at them a bit, because I actually do know what they mean.
Typically, these people are fundamentalists who openly uphold patriarchy and complementarianism. They don’t believe that God is anatomically male, but they do genuinely believe that God is “masculine.” They believe that God embodies the characteristics of a “man’s man.” God is a strong, bold, decisive, and authoritative provider—just like they believe a man should be. At this point, I usually bow out of these conversations, because I’m not all that fluent in brick wall. Besides, it isn’t only fundamentalists who want to hold on to the image of “Father God.”
One thing I hear expressed rather frequently from “moderate” men is the idea that condemning the use of male-oriented God-language puts us on a slippery slope toward androgyny. There’s an undercurrent of defensiveness that surfaces in some Christian men when patriarchy is criticized. Why should I have to apologize for being a man? And what’s so wrong with being a father, anyway? Isn’t feminism just another word for women who hate men?
Of course, the obvious answer to this question is the same answer that is given when people of color criticize “whiteness.” The problem isn’t that your skin is white. The problem is that white skin has been held up as normative and ideal for so long and to such an extent that it affords those who possess it a certain amount of power and privilege over those who don’t. In the same way, maleness has been idealized in such a way in culture—and especially in the Church—that men are granted power over women by default. So, if you are one of those guys who becomes defensive whenever maleness is critiqued, I hope you can understand what’s really happening here. The criticism is not about your genitals; the criticism is about the idea that your genitals are superior to those of others.
Another thing I often come across is men who think they’re combating sexism and being progressive by allowing space for the feminine aspects of God. They’ll downplay the “toxic masculinity” aspects of God and focus on the loving, nurturing components of the divine. In doing so, they feel as if they’re appeasing women by admitting that God does have a little bit of woman in him after all.
The problem with this framing, if it isn’t obvious, is that it still envisions God as a man—just as a nicer, more compassionate man. In her master work of feminist theology, She Who Is, Elizabeth A. Johnson explains why constructing a male-centered God with female characteristics falls far short of what it seeks to accomplish:
“Even with the introduction of presumably feminine features, the androcentric pattern holds…God persists as ‘him,’ but is now spoken about as a more wholistic male person who has integrated his feminine side. The patriarchy in this symbol of God is now benevolent, but it is nonetheless still patriarchy…Men gain their feminine side, but women do not gain their masculine side (if such categories are even valid). The feminine is there for the enhancement of the male, but not vice-versa: there is no mutual gain. The feminine can never appear as icon of God in all divine fullness equivalent to the male. Inequality is not redressed but subtly furthered as the androcentric image of God remains in place, made more appealing through the subordinate inclusion of feminine traits.” (48-49)
One final objection I hear to the proposal of abolishing male-centered language around God comes from even some of the most progressive Christian men (and women) I’ve spoken with about the subject. Indeed, there was such a man present in the discussion group I mentioned at the beginning of this article. He could see the persistent problems in the church attributable in no small part to the patriarchal God-language we use, but here’s the thing. He’s a “high church” guy and, well, the Lord’s Prayer is just off limits…
The guy went on to draw an analogy from sports. We were meeting in a suburb of Cleveland, home of the Major League Baseball team called the “Indians” whose mascot is a cartoonish Native American figure named “Chief Wahoo.” This [white] man was a lifelong Indians fan and had strong emotional ties to the name and mascot. Despite the blatantly racist connotations of the team’s nickname, this man insisted that he wanted to keep the name and mascot because he felt deeply nostalgic about it. It’s what he had always known and to change it would mean letting go of something that gave his life a great amount of meaning.
Similarly and probably to an even greater extent, we can’t get rid of or alter the fundamental language of the Lord’s Prayer, because we have a profound emotional and spiritual connection to that particular language. It’s comforting and spiritually centering for a great number of people in the Christian tradition—men and women alike.
I can certainly see where this guy is coming from. However, I think his perspective really gets at the root of the problem. Holding onto traditional language or imagery that is exclusionary or discriminatory just because it makes us feel good is, in my view, morally reprehensible. My right to feeling nostalgic does not trump another’s right to equality.
To you, Chief Wahoo may be just a quirky character that brings up fond memories of cracker jacks at Jacob’s field with your grandpa, but to a great many native people, it’s yet another symbol of dehumanization. Paula Deen may have felt the idea of a “southern plantation-style wedding” was just a harmless throwback to the “good old days,” but to a great many African-Americans the memories of that time and the ideas associated with them are downright traumatic. And we may feel that thinking of God as our “heavenly Father” is a benign image that simply reminds us that God provides for his children, but to a great many women it is a reminder that God’s image is more fully reflected in men than it is in them.
So, I’m just going to say it.
We need to get rid of, “He.”
We need to get rid of, “Him.”
We need to get rid of, “Father.”
God is appearing to us yet again in that iconic burning bush, calling us to carry out a message of liberation. Only this time, when people ask us who sent us, God is giving us a different name to answer in reply.
“Tell them,” God is saying, “that She Who Is has sent you.”
*Editor's note: We fully acknowledge and affirm that possessing medically-labeled male genitalia does not a man make. This conversation, framed in a cisnormative way, is a reflection of the conservative Christian perspective on anatomy and gender, and does not echo the perspectives of Fundamentally Free or our author here.