Hugo Schwyzer doesn’t mind a gender-neutral God, but the last thing he wants is for people to think that only a female God can be nurturing and compassionate.
In one of the first religious studies courses I took in college, the professor made a point that the God of the Bible is neither male nor female. We learned that to call the Lord, “He” misrepresented the original intent of the Torah, and that we’d be better off not using pronouns at all. If anything, my professor said, citing Genesis 5:1-2, God was both male and female—and more as well. After all, how could both men and women be made in God’s image if God didn’t have a feminine aspect?
A few years later, when I was auditing courses at the Graduate Theological Union and exploring a possible vocation to the priesthood (an idea that didn’t last long), I encountered feminist theology. I learned about God’s feminine aspect. For example, Hosea 13:8 describes God as a mother bear robbed of her cubs, while Jesus compares himself to a mother hen in Luke 13:34. I remember one of my classmates, a woman studying for ordination as an Episcopal priest, remarking that the more she studied Scripture, the more she realized that God was more female than male. “God is a nurturer,” she noted, “more like a mother than a father.”
While considering that career as a Catholic priest, I saw how the refusal to acknowledge the feminine aspect of God led to an intense devotion to Mary. The Virgin, I was told, was the tender intercessor who could plead for humanity to a more judgmental (or at the very least, less gentle) masculine God. The implication was clear: not only was God male, God’s masculinity was a barrier to empathy—hence the need for a woman to intercede to remind Him to go easy, like a mother pleading with her husband to lighten up on the discipline.
What I found frustrating was that the feminist theologians arguing for the primarily feminine aspect of God and the conservative Catholics wrapped in Marian devotion were essentially saying the same thing: maleness can’t be nurturing. My friend, the liberal Episcopalian, believed God was tender—and therefore female. My traditionalist Catholic buddies believed that a thoroughly masculine God had largely outsourced His compassion to Mary. Both ignored the obvious other possibility.
Of course, many people have excellent reasons to be put off by masculine language and imagery for God. For men and women who’ve had strained or abusive relationships with their own fathers, calling God, “Father,”doesn’t happen easily. For many straight Christian men, the romantic vocabulary of evangelical culture can also be off-putting. (One of the standard critiques of contemporary praise music is the ubiquitous “Jesus is my Boyfriend” theme in so many worship songs.) For people who have been wounded by father figures, or who struggle to imagine intimacy with a man, using exclusively male language for God can be a real barrier to spiritual connection.
But at the same time, we need to acknowledge the radical and simple truth that men can be as tender as women. A father can nurture his children with every bit as much love and devotion as their mother. A fully adult man doesn’t need women to intercede to remind him of his responsibility to be compassionate. But when our only vocabulary for gentleness is feminine, we don’t acknowledge men’s capacity to be gentle. And when we label every loving action of God as evidence of God’s femaleness, we miss the point that God’s male aspect is every bit as kind.
From both a spiritual and historical-grammatical standpoint, God is neither male nor female—and at the same time, both male and female. It’s vital that we listen to what feminist Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Wiccan theologians are saying about the feminine aspect of the divine. Yes, God is a mother figure. But that’s only half the story. The paradox is that God is also a father figure—just a very different kind of father than the one celebrated in Western culture.
We need to see that from a biblical perspective, God isn’t “being male” when he gets angry and “being female” when he weeps over human suffering. God is both when he does both. In that light, perhaps the rigid gender roles we prescribe in our culture aren’t God’s plan, but instead a man-made consequence of our inability to discern God’s intent for our lives. By embodying what are stereotypically male and female characteristics simultaneously, God just may be reminding us that we too are called to break out of the gender straitjacket.
In a world where so many men do abandon their responsibilities and where violence (almost) always wears a male face, there’s something revolutionary about acknowledging that a father figure can be forgiving, empathetic, gentle, and reliable. There’s also something equally significant about acknowledging that a mother figure can be a passionate, bold, relentless—even angry—advocate for justice. Anything less not only robs God of God’s full divinity, but robs us of our full potential as human beings.
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the gender of God. But I do know that following God means moving beyond the confines of traditional, limiting roles. As a dad, I appreciate the reminder that papas can and should be every bit as tender and loving as mamas. And so sometimes, this professor of gender studies calls God “father.” Not because that’s all God is, but because those of us who are also daddies need a reminder of just how loving, passionate, and tender we are called to be.