Adequate language

One concept that I’m particularly interested in is our metaphorical language for God. How do our images of God, and therefore our names for God, influence our faith, worship, and love for neighbor (human and non-human)? What is implied by and what is embedded in our understanding of God through names such as Father, King, Almighty, Parent, Mother, Lord, etc.?

Sallie McFague has written a great deal on this topic, three main texts being Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, and The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. She contends that the God-language of traditional theism–God as sovereign king–is patriarchal and triumphalistic, and conveys an overly transcendent God-world relationship. Furthermore, these ideas are obsolete in our modern and industrialized global village. McFague works from the presupposition that all language we use for God is metaphorical and is drawn from human experience in relationship. The androcentric God-language of traditional theism, according to McFague, is dominated by this patriarchal and triumphalistic imagery, exclusively assuming the male characteristics of God at the expense of of other images such as Mother, Lover, and the World as God’s Body. These alternative images, contends McFague, emphasize God’s immanence without sacrificing transcendence, and therefore, provide avenues for greater eco-theological exploration.

I’m currently working my way through Stephen Bouma-Prediger’s 1995 text The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann. In it he offers thorough and helpful summaries of the ecologically oriented theologies of Ruether, Sittler, and Moltmann, and critical appraisals of their ideas. In his appraisal of Ruether, he touches upon this concept of God-language and gender that intersects with McFague’s work.

Ruether perceptively observes that while the strategy of envisioning God as mother as well as father is helpful in portraying the fullness of God, especially God’s relatedness to creation, nevertheless it can subtly reinforce harmful gender stereotypes since this approach assumes that maleness means distance and that femaleness means relatedness. Such assumptions feed the very stereotypes which have in part created a problematic view of God in the first place. Hence Ruether argues that until stereotypes of gender roles change and there is a new model of full human personhood that incorporates both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits, viewing God as mother as well as father, while helpful, will still not offer the kind of solution to language about God that is required. Like proposals for speaking of the androgyny of God, in which God has ‘masculine’ as well as ‘feminine’ characteristics, an alternative construal of God as mother as well as father continues to assume typical gender roles and thus is an ultimately inadequate response to the need to have more inclusive language and images of God. [1]

Basically, male-dominated language for God tends to be more transcendent and is interpreted to sanction hierarchical relationships to human and non-human life, whereas female language for God coupled with male language is preferred. However, Ruether contends that these assumptions are born from stereotyped gender roles that must be deconstructed if we are to discover a truly inclusive concept for God that goes hand in hand with an inclusive and non-oppressive/non-hierarchical relationship to all of creation.

Our perpetuated ethics of domination in our relationships to both humans and the earth is projected onto our understandings of God and how we speak of God. Similarly, how we view God and how we speak of God influences our ethics and our relationships to humans and to the earth. Finding adequate language for God and for the God-world relationship is of great importance.

How we image God shapes us tremendously. What is the likelihood of feminine images, or at least non-male images of God becoming incorporated into worship and prayer within dominant Christianity either alongside or instead of traditional images of God? Would you feel comfortable or uncomfortable in communally exploring alternative images? Do particular doctrines or theological positions hang upon androcentric God-imagery?

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Bouma-Prediger, Stephen. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1995.

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