Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Let Get in Touch with God's Feminine Side: Just Because We Call God "Father" and "Lord" Doesn't Mean We Can't Name God in Other Ways, Too

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Let Get in Touch with God's Feminine Side: Just Because We Call God "Father" and "Lord" Doesn't Mean We Can't Name God in Other Ways, Too

Article excerpt

A RECENT CONVERSATION WITH MY 15-YEAR-OLD daughter went something like this: When you think of God, do you think of God as male or female?" I ask.

"I don't think of God as male or female."

"How do you think of God?"

"As a being, a person, but not as male or female."

"Well, when you pray, how do you pray?"

"I just talk to him."


"Oh--that's weird," she says, laughing at the inherent contradiction. "Well," she emphatically states, "I don't think of God as a man."

A day later I join friends for breakfast. Married women and mothers, we are all active in ministry or catechesis.

"When I'm looking for a card for a Baptism, if I see the word he or him for God, I put the card back," one comments. The others acknowledge they do likewise, and not only for Baptism cards.

"We couldn't refer to God as he when writing papers," notes another, a recent graduate of a major Catholic school of theology.

During the same week I speak with a 60-year-old religious sister, a respected spiritual director and retreat leader, who says, "I haven't used the word Lord or Father in my prayer in years." She goes on, "Try addressing God as 'you.' It's not a new idea." She then directs me to a prayer from the fourth century attributed to St. Gregory of Nazianzus:

   O you, the One beyond all things,
   how could we call you by any other name?
   What song can be sung for you?
   No word can express you.
   What spirit can perceive you?
   No intelligence can comprehend you.
   You alone are inexpressible....

Inexpressible, yes, but still we must use words to name the one to whom we pray, the one with whom we are in relationship. Each of the women I've mentioned is seeking words that are faithful to her understanding and experience of the divine. Their experience is new wine for which the old wineskins are inadequate.

WHY DOES IT MATTER WHAT WORDS WE USE TO NAME God? Because words have power to shape us and change us. Think of how we feel when someone we love speaks words of endearment or forgiveness. Consider the way language is used during wartime to demonize the enemy, making it possible to use violence that would otherwise be unthinkable.

Likewise, the language we use in prayer, whether our personal, private prayer or our public, communal prayer, is potent--why else would we pray? So it is fair to ask what happens to us when we consistently use the pronouns he and his for God.

The first chapter of Genesis tells us that humankind, male and female, is created in God's image. What images of God mirror this divine image to young girls and women? How are we created in the image and likeness of God?

A number of years ago controversial feminist theologian Mary Daly shocked many into awareness with her statement, "If God is male, then the male is God." While that may seem extreme to many, it's worth pondering. Why, for instance, is the Vatican so insistent that God always be "he" and that humankind be "men" or "mankind" in the English liturgy?

Such decisions remind me of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is very sure that "God was God's name...." And while the French may say Dieu and God would understand that a French person was praying, "God's real name was God."

We know that God is neither male nor female, that our words for God function as metaphors, symbols, and images that help us approach the mystery of God, who is ultimately ineffable, beyond all names. But isn't that precisely why we shouldn't limit God to "him"--or to anything else? …

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