Monday, May 15, 2017

God Is Not My Father

I remember the first time I heard a priest refer to God as Mother from the pulpit.

I was in grad school, and was attending a special visit-day Mass with most of the theology school.  During his homily, the priest very casually switched out "Father" and used "Mother" when talking about God.  He didn't point it out.  Didn't say "look at this cool thing I'm doing."  He just did it, right there, in front of a Church full of theology students and prospective students, as if it were the most natural, normal thing in the world.

It blew my freaking mind.

I had, of course, heard people refer to God as Mother many times before this.  It wasn't a new concept to me.  I'd attended a non-Catholic undergrad, studied Feminist Theology in various forms, and explored the power of liturgical language over and over again.  Yet, I'd never ever heard a priest call God "Mother" in a formal Mass setting.  He knew what he was doing.  His casualness was intentional, meant to shake us up and make us think.  And for me at least, it worked.

Fast forward a few years, and another priest lectures me about why I should always refer to God as Father in the liturgical setting.  During a reading, I'd intentionally used non-gendered words to describe God in place of the gendered ones because I was no longer able to view God in that singular way.  According to this particular priest, however, I shouldn't do that because it somehow disturbs the community.  It's all well and good if I think that for myself, but I need to fall in line with everyone else.  Don't question, don't challenge, just do what I'm told.

I'm not very good as doing what I'm told when I don't think it's right.

Here's my issue with referring to God strictly as "Father".  It's so constrictive.  It limits my understanding of God and puts God into a tiny little box that defines how I always and forever view God.  That's not to say I always refer to God as Mother instead.  I don't.  I still don't think that's enough.  I try to use gender-neutral descriptions as often as I'm able.  It's not easy, and it usually sounds awkward, but I also know that my abilities as a human to comprehend God are limited.  So, in order to force myself to expand my understanding of God, I need to take God out of the tidy-little box that I grew up with.

Now, please don't take that to mean anyone who views God as "Father" is small-minded in any way.  If understanding God as a father-figure is the best way for you to develop a relationship with God, then that is what you need to do.  My main concern in this post is the ingrained patriarchal language used at the institutional level of the Church to describe not just God, but humanity in general.  So much of the tension in the Catholic Church can be boiled down to how it restricts itself by insisting on constantly portraying God as male, and only male, and upholding antiquated language that no longer reflects the complexity of human nature.

I get why God has been seen as male for so long.  God is the ultimate authority, and men have historically dominated society as its authority figures (because patriarchy).  Our understanding of humanity has also been extremely limited for most of our short time on this earth.  We used to think in much more black and white terms.  There were men, and there were women, and both sides had specific roles to play.  To deviate from those roles was to go against the "natural" order of things.  But, as we have found throughout the years, humanity is much more complicated than that.  We're not as binary as we once thought (though many continue to insist that we are).  What we've learned from science (which is not the enemy of religion, just by the way) and the observation of the human experience is that gender isn't as simple as men and women, and sexuality is a spectrum that we all fall on in different ways.  Our faith tells us that we are made in God's image.  So, if humanity is complicated, why do we insist on making God so simple?

It's impossible for humans to fully comprehend God.  We haven't had, and still really don't have, the language to describe God in a way that doesn't confine God to any one particular image.  We talk about God in ways that make sense to us, but in doing so, we risk closing ourselves off to other manifestations of God because what we imagine God to be cements itself in our heads as a result of the language we are constantly using to describe God.  Language is a powerful tool.  As we learn and develop, explore and grow, our language expands with us.  Words, phrases, and their meanings shift and evolve as our understanding of the human condition becomes more and more intricate and sophisticated.  Human beings need language to define our existence.  We use language to bring order to the chaos that surrounds us, sometimes to our detriment.  We use labels and categories to keep individuals in place, to separate the us from them, to create hierarchies of the privileged and the unprivileged.  We value some variations of language over others to create structures of power for a few and barriers for those whose personal language doesn't match up.

Once upon a time, God was a man because that made sense.  God was Father because that was how the people who worshiped God could begin to comprehend that awesome mystery.  But that's not enough anymore.  We need a broader understanding of God.  We need to stop trying to define God through our own, limited lenses.  What was once a way for humanity to better appreciate and relate to God has become a restrictive, damaging trap that creates greater opportunities for oppression than for redemption.

When God is only "Father", women are secondary to men.  Some would argue otherwise, but it's true.  How can it not be true?  If we worship a male only God, then it's easier to enforce and justify the submissive, subordinate roles that are so often forced on women within the Church, and within society at large.  It's easier to lock them out of leadership within the Church.  To deny them the right to fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church.  We're given excuses like "Jesus only selected male followers", and if you're reading the Bible literally, then yes, Jesus did only choose male followers.  But Catholics aren't supposed to read the Bible as literal history.  The Bible was written within the context of human history, in a certain time and place where societal norms would dictate how the story of Jesus would ultimately be told.  As the norms shift, as we learn and grow, our readings and interpretations of the Bible must also shift and grow as more truths are revealed to us in the world.

We're also told things like "only men can appropriately represent God because of the natural differences between men and women."  Yes, there may be natural differences between men and women, but both are necessary in order to fully understand God.  There may be differences between the genders, but all of those differences reveal a different facet to the mystery of God.  We need all sides to appreciate God.  God is all things, all people, all genders, and by insisting that God be always one way, we lose out on everything else that God is.

Granted, it's not an easy shift to make.  I still catch myself shifting back to male-specific descriptions of God when I'm not paying attention.  It's been ingrained into me my whole life, so it's my automatic reflex when my guard is down.  Just because that's how it's been so far, though, doesn't mean that's how it always should be.  God is more than we let God be.  The Church, as a whole, needs to do more to explore the many faces and facets of God, to recognize the true complexity of the human existence, and to appreciate the great beauty and freedom that lies within this broader understanding of God and of ourselves.  It is only when we allow ourselves the opportunity to see beyond our own limited scope of the world that we can come to truly encounter the divine.

In the name of the Creator, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.

Until next time,
Erin B.


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