UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Our Father and Our Mother

Our Father and Our Mother thumbnail

Elizabeth Johnson

The holiness and utter transcendence of God over all of creation has always been an absolutely central affirmation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. God as God—source, redeemer, and goal of all—is illimitable mystery who, while immanently present, cannot be measured or controlled.… In Augustine’s unforgettable echo of the insight of earlier Greek theologians, if we have comprehended, then what we have comprehended is not God. This sense of an unfathomable depth of mystery, of a vastness of God’s glory too great for the human mind to grasp, undergirds the religious significance of speech about God; such speech never definitively possesses its subject but leads us ever more profoundly into attitudes of awe and adoration….

Was John Paul I a heretic when he addressed God as our Father and Mother?… While the Pope’s use of both genders was “daring,” God goes beyond all images and can be named in concepts taken from male or female reality….

It is beyond dispute that we have no completely adequate name for God. Nevertheless, at first hearing, inclusive naming of God in the image of male and female may seem strange. Exclusively male naming of God has predominated in the tradition and is deeply rooted, so that the shift of usage being envisioned here is indeed “seismic” in quality. Given the new situation in which we find ourselves, however, this issue is ignored at peril of losing the relevance and, even more, the long-range credibility of the faith. There is a psychological inevitability of at least a degree of anthropomorphism in our idea of God. Even the sharpest, most self-critical mind can avoid only with difficulty (and then not always) the inclination to invest God with qualities of human personal reality with which one is well acquainted, among which gender is essential. God, however, is utterly transcendent, neither male nor female, yet creator of both in the divine image. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other and clinging to that image has the religious effect of making God less God, at once restrictively expressed and too well known.

Since the concept of God defines and orients a whole way of life and understanding,… the exclusive masculinity presumed in the traditional doctrine of God has also had profound consequences beyond the idea of God. It has led to a distortion in Christian anthropology whereby men have theorized that the fulness of the divine image resides only or primarily in themselves, while women are derivatively or secondarily made in the image and likeness of God and thus subordinate.…

Image-breaking is a part of religious traditions, because focusing on a fixed image not only compromises the transcendence of God, but petrifies and stultifies human beings into the likeness of the image worshiped, inhibiting growth by preventing further searching for knowledge of God. Calling into question the exclusively male idea of God does not spell the end of male imagery used for God; what has been destroyed as an idol can return as an icon, evoking the presence of God.

Using female imagery for God does not introduce a distraction from belief in the one God of the Judeo-Christian tradition; the use of startling metaphors opens up the possibility of new religious experience of the one Holy Mystery. The proposal to name God in the image of male and female holds the promise of renewing the tradition in line with one of its own best insights into the mystery of God, at the same time that it allies itself with emerging understanding of the human dignity of women. Our speech about God becomes more truly analogical at the same time that we slip the bonds of the stereotyping and subordination of persons…. the truth of the mystery of God and the liberation of human beings grow in direct and not inverse proportion.