this weekend, in the middle of a two week discussion on God and gender in my 'Images of God' class, I attended church on Sunday morning at Haygood UMC, which is where I'll be serving next year for my contextual education internship. As we progressed through the traditional elements of the service--the Apostles' Creed, the doxology, the gloria patri---I was starkly aware of the proliferation of God-language as father. I mean, this should have been pretty obvious (even in the title of one...gloria patri = dead giveaway) and this is the language that I've always heard and been perfectly comfortable with. But it's funny how focusing on the overuse of masculine language for God in classroom theorizing will immediately highlight the reality of it in practice. My question on Sunday was why? There's no real reason for the creed to say, "I believe in God the father, maker of heaven and earth" instead of, "I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth."
Where does this imagery come from? Certainly it's legitimate--I'm not questioning that. Jesus called God, "father" (abba) , and in our traditional trinitarian understanding, God is father to Christ the Son. Yet a deeper look at biblical imagery will certainly reveal a God that is not all male. For just a few examples, consider Wisdom-Sophia, consider the maternal imagery of second Isaiah, and of course consider both male and female as the imago Dei in the creation account.
the key point is this: all these images for God are just that--images, metaphors. God is beyond comprehension, beyond definition, beyond gender. When we assign these roles to God--father, mother, and so on--we are only trying to conceptualize the inconceivable. The danger comes in focusing too heavily on any one of these images. Recall the second of the ten commandments: you shall not make for yourself an idol. What else are we doing when we focus exclusively on one image of God, which is, again, a mere means for representing the divine--what else are we doing but creating an idol? God is father, yes, but not just that. God is so very much more. We are limiting God by calling God only father. It is an idol of our understanding, of our tradition, of our patriarchy.
I willingly admit that I have trouble with this. I am extremely comfortable with calling God, "father" and have never had problems with imaging God as male. I find it challenging to picture God as female, to call God, "her" or "mother." But it is this very discomfort that awakens me to my own idolatry of God as male and challenges me further to enlarge my understanding of God, to draw closer to the holy mystery by exploring other metaphors and images of God.
The practical question is this: how, as a future church leader, can I bring this notion into a congregational setting? You can't just up and pray in front of a roomful of unsuspecting parisheners, "God our mother" or repeatedly drop "She" as the divine pronoun. I think it would be healthy for us to get to a place where we do feel comfortable making those adjustments, but you can't make such a drastic shift without losing everyone in the process. Pushing these boundaries of our understandings of the divine can't happen overnight. I wander where to start though--I imagine it will be in one-on-one conversations or smaller group discussions. There's plenty of things I would want to do if I were to go home and plan/lead a service at my home church, but I might be chased out with torches and pitchforks and dropped into the lake with a stone around my ankles. We discussed this particular challenge at a recent religious education retreat I attended, and one solution is called innovative traditioning. You've got to start with what people know, and then tweak it.
I may not probe too deep into this next issue right now (I've got OT midterm studying to do that I've been expertly avoiding thus far), but another big part of this discussion is how exclusivist male imagery for God has become oppressive and subordinating to women. We are cast as the 'anti-image' of God and cannot know fully what it means to share in the divine being if God is father. I do not think this is a biblical intent, but it has certainly become a historical reality. And while we explore different metaphors, images, and language for the holy mystery, the divine other that is God, I hope, too, we can return to Scripture and look at it with new eyes, with the lens of patriarchy removed, and find in its pages a God who deeply cares about all people, not just white males. I say this because a couple of weeks ago, someone in our class suggested wishfully that we should just rewrite Scripture as a means of correcting these gender imbalances. It was almost funny how my body instinctively reacted to this proposal--I got hot and my face turned red and I had to take a few deep breaths! I don't think we're in any place to rewrite what has been given us. We just need to start treating it as the holy word that it is, instead of as an instrument of exploitation and oppression.
on an unrelated note: got oddly excited about two things today: (1) discussing our upcoming exegesis paper for OT and (2) giving a mini-presentation in class...which included standing behind a lecturn and writing on the white board. future in biblical teaching? yes, i think so. good to get these confirmations every now and again. though i also am thinking more and more that i'm going to need a job that will also allow me to preach. sometimes, i fantasize about preaching...as in, i write sermons in my head and imagine myself giving them. the book on top of my summer reading list? Ellen Davis's Preaching the Old Testament. She, in fact, embodies everything I want to be--teacher, preacher, OT scholar. Good news, Mom and Dad! I've finally figured it out: I want to be Ellen Davis when I grow up!!
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Today in my 'Images of God' class, we talked a bit about gender socialization and discussed in small groups our personal responses to a journal prompt on this topic. When it was my turn to read, I shared about my upbringing and how I was pretty much all girl, all the time. I told my classmates about the hand-crafted dresses that my mother made for my sister and me, complete with a matching bow for everyday of the week. I loved dolls and always colored with a pink crayon, I said. I made the transition into how these behaviors have shaped the woman that I am today. I laughed as I pointed out the headband I had on:
And then my classmate pointed to my notebook lying open on the table.
Yep, pink pen. Still the little princess who likes to play dress-up I guess.
There are so many more things I could say about this subject (including whether or not it's now a good thing that I like to play princess and how systematic theology may betray more patriarchal biases than one might immediately notice), but for now, the pile of homework beckons (as it has for the past several weeks--sorry that the blog has been one thing to cut out!) I will share one more quick story though. During our discussion, I was reminded of the little boy in my preschool class last year who loved to play dress-up and wear the sparkly blue Cinderella dress. He absolutely came alive when he put on that outfit (not that he wasn't a lively boy without it!) and went straight for it every morning. But my co-teacher finally got to the point where she was uncomfortable enough with it that she hid that dress and we had to dig out the army hat and the doctor's scrubs for him to play in from then on out. She was afraid his dad would catch him in it when he came to pick him up, or that the other moms would see, or that our director would walk into the classroom. How sad that this poor three-year-old couldn't play in a way that made him happy because of the gender roles we all have been assigned from birth. Interesting to ponder what it is that shapes us (and subsequently our understandings of God).