There are two forces we call centripetal and centrifugal. Centrifugal is the force we feel when we spin on around and around on something and it wants to cast us out from our seat. Centripetal is the force that keeps something moving in a circular arc directed toward the center. One keeps us connected to our location and the other pushes us outward. This is physics. We experience these two forces continuously in a much different, non-physics way.
Some people love to live in the town they grew up in and wouldn’t think of moving anywhere else. Others are crazy enough, centrifugal enough, that they want to fly to Mars, explore, and maybe even live there. Someone wants to have the same job for her whole life; another can’t imagine working in the same location doing the same or similar thing for forty years. Some of us are more centripetal in our personality, more homebody, routine bound, and traditional. Others of us are more centrifugal, want to get out, see the world, change it, do new things. Comfort for one is a cage for another. Freedom for one is foolish to the other. If you’re not much for trying new foods, perhaps it’s because you’re a centripetalist. If you love tasting something different, you’re probably a centrifugalist.
These two forces work together fine in physics—I’m not sure the same can be said among people. They clash much more than harmonize. These forces conflict all the time. They’re in conflict when it comes to talking about God, specifically when it comes to talking about God as Father but not as Mother. We say God and say He, but we don’t say She. We don’t include, at least many people, don’t include or want to include a She or Mother when God is talked about. Including the third person, feminine personal pronoun is called inclusive language.
But what better day than Mother’s Day to talk about letting God be a she, at least partially?
Who needs inclusive language, that is, language that doesn’t prioritize male over female? Is it important to include female pronouns when we talk about God? Is God female? Is God male? Well, we know what that means when it comes to humans and anatomy. But if God doesn’t have genitalia, and hormones can’t be considered the issue, then what are we talking about? Does Jesus calling God the Father, or rather, Abba, require that the Church do the same forever and ever, even if the word Abba is supposed to mean Jesus was calling God “Daddy” as some people want to tell us? After all, why couldn’t Jesus have called God, Mommy?
I understand some folks are more comfortable with this than others. Some folks, probably centripetalists, the ones more comfortable not going to Mars or trying lots of new things, don’t know what the big deal is. If God has “always” been called Father, who are we to change this. There are others, centrifugalists, who say it’s not good or helpful when God is considered male alone, or male at all, at least through our language. This needs to change.
Language is important, as we know. How we talk about someone means a lot. I want to give you examples from folks asking that others reboot the words they use when talking about them. Before I go through them, here’s my point: Put yourself in their position. What if you were the one who was talked about in terms that really didn’t work for you, made you feel underappreciated, disrespected, less than others. Wouldn’t you want others to listen to what it is like from where you live? Of course. After all, what’s the harm in doing it for others? What does it really cost us to include their perspective in our words? Nothing, I say.
So, take a listen to preferred language vs. non-preferred, as it’s caused, when it comes to people with a disability. Generally, describing people only by their disability can have the effect of over-emphasizing that attribute or equating the person with it. Preferred: Audrey was new to the church today. Will you give this to Audrey? She has blond hair and is in a wheelchair near the front of the church. Not Preferred: Audrey, the woman in the wheelchair, was new to the church today. Will you give this to Audrey? She is in the wheelchair.
Generally, it is preferable to use “person-first” language and to avoid euphemisms and terms that reduce people to their disability, that assume the disability is negative, and that overextend the severity of a disability. Preferred: Person with a disability rather than the disabled. People with schizophrenia rather than Schizophrenics. A child with an intellectual disability rather than a mentally disabled or retarded child. Barbara uses a wheelchair rather than Barbara is confined to a wheelchair or Barbara is wheelchoir-bound. Marcy is living with epilepsy rather than Marcy is afflicted with epilepsy or March suffers epilepsy.
I can imagine having a tough time learning what to say like this. It’s not easy to know what to say, and yes, it’s not easy because people are requesting preferred language and the preferred language may after awhile become the less preferred when a better and now more preferred language is requested. It can feel like we’re being made to jump through someone else’s hoops, which makes us want to be left alone to say things as we always said
them. It’s a bit tiring to have to be on your toes, verbally speaking, says the centripetalist.
If we travel out of country, not knowing the language is hard. We hope we run into someone who speaks English. One of the things every expert in travel says is even if you don’t know the language, showing up and knowing just a couple of words or phrases makes a difference in how you’re perceived by the native speakers. Our effort to learn thank you, good morning, where is the bathroom, tells them you respect them. Making an effort to meet others where they are bridges the distance between groups of people.
When I hear or read God the Mother, it sounds different. When I once in a while write in a sermon or for the prayer of confession something like, “She created us” instead of God created us, it sounds different. I always wonder if you notice it.
It’s tough to believe God is more male than female, even if using masculine words such as he and his are more comfortable. It’s how it’s been said or written for so long. But it doesn’t seem possible God is male, right? Or rather, God is as much male as female because either is as far off from the truth as the other, even if we’re much more accustomed to referring to God in the one over the other.
But if God isn’t male, and the fundamental way we think of male is in biological terms, and if God isn’t female either for the same anatomical reason that God isn’t male, then what gives? Why does God have to be referred to as male rather than female? Doesn’t it make it completely based on custom or expectation?
Perhaps you’re thinking who cares? Why is it a big deal? Well, if it’s not a big deal if we do it one way, then it won’t be a big deal if we change it to the other way. That’s one way of going about it. Of course, it only gets us right back to the original point of why it’s a big deal to include female or not exclude female pronouns from God-talk because then the person can say it’s a big deal because I’m used to saying it this way and I don’t want it to change, but it’s only because I’m used to it being this way. This puts the burden on the one who wants it to change to make the argument that it’s important enough to upset someone’s centripetal, wanting things to stay the same, religious view.
I’m not going into reasons why it’s important to include female into male because I’m not going to roughen up someone’s position about this. I also don’t think giving point by point reasonable reasons why someone should change something is all that effective. But I will say this again in a different way: If the shoe were on the other foot, if female imagery and
pronouns were used exclusively to describe and speak about God, the most important three letter word in the English language, would you not want things to be more inclusive? Objectively, that is self-evident, obvious.
Personally, God doesn’t belong more to me and my two sons than she does to Marit and our three daughters. There’s no way, Cameron, Lucas, and I are more God like than Marit, Courtney, Linnea, and Elise. It makes no sense when you put this in those terms, but that’s exactly what is argued when people say God is the Father over the Mother—God is male because God is male like; therefore, males, boys and men are more God-like than females, women, and girls, which is of course patently absurd when it’s said bald-faced like this—and there is no other way to say it. This is precisely what’s at stake and what’s proclaimed, even if it isn’t admitted to by male-only God language advocates.
I know this: Compassion is a divine quality. Compassion isn’t gender-specific, though often it falls under feminine traits. It’s not possible to understand Jesus’ ministry without turning to the concept of compassion. Whoever is better at it, regardless of gender, is closer to who God is.
The fact is certain behavior seen as the domain of one gender over another is basically never accurate or complete or even best, for anyone. Things change. Expectations change. Who a dad is and what a dad does and who a mom is and what a mom does can and do change. Gender-based God language is built on a slippery slope.
This past weekend, a movie came on that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Marit, Linnea and I watched the last hour and a half of the 1988 movie, Midnight Run, starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Grodin is so good as the straight-faced, inquisitive, and kind “criminal” that DeNiro’s bounty hunter spends the whole movie trying to bring to jail. At one point, we learn De Niro is divorced. When he shows up at his ex-wife’s doorstep looking for money and help, we find out he’s a dad, also, to a 14-year-old daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was much younger.
When the mom leaves to get money, dad and daughter stand awkwardly for what seems like a long time, with dad saying nothing to his desperately seeking attention and acknowledgment from her dad who is standing right in front of her daughter. DeNiro shuffles his feet, looks at her several times, is embarrassed and distant. He asks one question: what her age is, then nothing more. It’s painful to watch today, but I guess back then it was more or less alright to put that type of distant fathering on display. It would never happen in a movie today. As he was leaving, his daughter runs
out and offers her baby-sitting money to her “dad.” He said he couldn’t take it, the only right thing he did during that whole episode.
My point isn’t that there are crummy dads out there, so how could God be a dad—because there are crummy moms, too. My point is society’s view on what makes a valuable dad changes. Cultural norms should hardly be the basis for describing the almighty Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, and doing so to the exclusion of more than 50% of the human population, much to their detriment, it has been argued and shown.
Our scripture readings express God in wonderful language that could be taken as female. Being a mother is probably the most wonderful thing anyone could do. Sustaining in one’s body, waiting for your infant to be born, and giving birth to your baby would have to be at the top of anyone’s greatest moments in life ever. But not every woman gets that opportunity, right? What about them? Not even everyone has a mother or a mom, at least after birth. Things are complicated.
On this Mother’s Day, I would like to share with you again what Joy Mead offered when she talked about what mothering is and does. It’s a beautiful description of part of what God is and does in Scripture, that is, God’s waiting and watching over her children and creation, and the hope revealed in Christ’s resurrection.
“We tend to see motherhood as an accumulation of rather mundane and private actions, activities, and feelings. So, we develop language and imagery around individual mothers, but not for that universal concept of mothering at the heart of life and nurture.
Mothering is silent. Mothering waits.
Mothering of its very nature encompasses the waiting that bridges the gap between being and doing. Mothers have always known about giving of the body, waiting at a birth, as the infant feeds, at the bedside of the dying, for news of missing sons and daughters. There is stillness but there are times when you do not dare look into their eyes.
Mothering is a way of being that cherishes and gives all in relationships one to another and to all life. It is birthing and sustaining, watching and trusting. It waits through winters of suffering for spring and new growth, for resurrection joy.”
Every father should have mothering inside of him. Every mother should have fathering inside of her—perhaps we can talk about that next month. God is mother because God mothers; God is father because God fathers. God is both and neither because God is God alone, the one, the first and last, the true one, the almighty and all compassionate, sovereign, maker, lover,
sustainer, redeemer, our savior, and home, the one who gives all and remembers all, the light of the world and the deepest darkness that grants peace, the just one, the holy one, the eternal God, the one above all and in all, now and forever.
Can the church say Amen?