Not Only A Father #1: What’s Wrong with this Picture? [Guest]

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1 April 2013 by thaliakr

Introducing Dr Tim Bulkeley, who taught me everything I know about the Old Testament!

TimandMicaela

Tim has been a social worker in Belfast during ‘The Troubles’, Father Christmas in a department store, pastor of a Baptist church, missionary in darkest Africa, refugee for a couple of days, Bible teacher in universities and seminaries in five countries (at Carey Baptist College for the longest period). He and Barbara have four grown-up children and Tim is now house-husband and stockman on their lifestyle block in the hills, where he makes his own cheese and beer. He has a homepage listing some of the other stuff he does. 

Thalia invited me to write guest posts presenting my book Not Only a Father (as well as the paperback there is an online version a which enables discussion of the content). The book argues that Christian spirituality and theology are strengthened when we speak of God using motherly language and imagery alongside fatherly pictures. Here I’ll present some of the key ideas in a shorter form. Thank you, Thalia, for this opportunity  :)

Not Only a Father, Dr Tim Bulkeley on seeing God as Mother | Sacraparental.com

Why talking of God as motherly matters: anthropological and theological reasons

The Ineffable God

Let’s start with a basic assumption of Christianity, that the One True God is beyond human understanding. God is beyond all talk, pictures and even thought. Anything less is merely a god, an object within the sphere of human thinking and understanding, even invention.

Yet, we need to talk about and to God. So, we need to ‘imagine the person on the other end of the telephone.’ Word pictures help. Before Jesus’ time Jewish people had stopped calling God by name (Yahweh) but substituted ‘lord.’ This is still one of the commonest word pictures for God. God is the boss, the lord or king. Because Jesus often called God ‘Father,’ or ‘my father,’ this is also a very common word picture (for more on this wait for post 3 in this series, or see the section Jesus Called God Father in the book).

It’s worth asking ourselves about our favourite word pictures, and examining how they limit our thinking about God.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

What’s wrong with this picture?

Most of us ‘know’ (with our heads) that images of God as an old (or at least mature) man with a white beard are not ‘true.’ Yet the wording of our prayers and sermons often conjures Ian McKellen’s Gandalf or Michelangelo’s God rather than any less gendered or aged image. Our talk makes those of us who are theologically literate incoherent. We believe with our heads that God is beyond gender, but our ears or lips tell us ‘he’ is male.

There’s a problem using ‘he’ for God: it sounds male. But what alternatives are there? I’ll use ‘he’ (with the scare quotes). What works for you?

The pastoral problem

It can be worse! If our human father was a less than stellar example, calling God father (but not mother) risks a warped view of God. Sue, for example, finds it difficult to believe that God loves her despite her failings. She tries, but can’t achieve the standards she believes God requires. Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11ff.) gives a different picture of God as father, but although Sue knows this story, her human father ‘gets in the way’ and she loses the experience. (On this parable see Not Only a Father section 3.2.)

The theological problem

Michelangelo’s God is male. Some Christians argue from the supposed ‘maleness’ of God (often nuancing their language in sophisticated ways) to the inability of women to properly represent God.

CS Lewis was a surprising example of this move:

Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as God-like as a man; and a given woman much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.

Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to Our Mother which art in heaven as to Our Father. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride.

(CS Lewis, Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 193.)

As always, Lewis makes his point with admirable clarity. He is also aware that language shapes our thought. Yet, he is not faithful to an important Scripture passage here.

In Genesis 1:27 we read of the creation of humankind (‘adam in Hebrew here is not the name of the first human, but has its more usual usage as ‘people’ or ‘a person’), explicitly identified as ‘male and female,’ ‘in the image of God.’ Genesis 1-3 is the foundation of Scripture, so how can Lewis square this claim (‘male and female in the image of God’) with his own? (For more on this see Not Only a Father 5.1 Grammatical gender and sexual nature.)

God and gods

Thinking in pictures is dangerous. All picture thought illuminates some aspects of truth but ignores others. But if God (the one true God) transcends our categories and pictures then we are left with little to say. Some atheist thinkers, as well as many believers, take the pictures too seriously. The god they talk about is the sort of superpower that the ancient gods represented, Zeus or Baal throwing thunderbolts around, strong but limited by the human capacity to picture them. We need pictures as we try to ‘eff the ineffable’, but they are dangerous, and never tell the whole story. (See Not Only a Father 1. Talking Pictures)

Thunderbolt-throwing god, photograph by Tilemahos Efthimiadis

Thunderbolt-throwing god, photograph by Tilemahos Efthimiadis

In this series I’ll be suggesting that if we use motherly pictures (alongside fatherly ones) as we think and speak about the Christian God we will be distorting God less.

This is part of a series from Dr Tim Bulkeley, based on his recent book, Not Only A Father. He is happy to carry on discussion in the comments so please do leave your thoughts below.

What pictures have been useful or unhelpful in your own experience of God? Do you tend to think of God as particularly masculine or feminine, and does that tendency match your intellectual understanding of God’s nature?

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14 thoughts on “Not Only A Father #1: What’s Wrong with this Picture? [Guest]

  1. Steph says:

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the posts in this series! I read another book on this subject a few years ago but it wasn’t very intellectually satisfying. It sounds like I might need to read a copy of Tim’s book.

  2. […] Thalia invited me to do a series of (by my standards) longish posts over at Sacraparental. They introduce briefly some of the key ideas from my book Not Only a Father. The first has just appeared: What’s Wrong with this Picture? […]

  3. […] briefly some of the key ideas from my book Not Only a Father. The first has just appeared: What’s Wrong with this Picture? This is a podcast of that […]

  4. SKATERAK says:

    This will definitely be an interesting series. Thanks for whetting my appetite already. Is there any chance you could though in some advice on how to present God to children, as well?

    • Tim Bulkeley says:

      Eek, another series! When this series is over I could think about it (having helped raise four children and taught “Sunday School” since I was 15 I have ideas on the subject) though it is something that might be better as a group project… I would certainly try to make sure that children do not miss out on the motherly (and other feminine) pictures of God that are in the Bible. Since many are in prophetic or poetic books they are usually left out of children’s “lectionaries”. That at least would be a start.

      Most adults, shocked by how literal children can be (and remember in Piaget’s terms we don’t even start to get “formal operational thinking” [the ability to think in non-concrete ways] till quite late) oversimplify and dumb down too much. Children are smarter than we are, they are just literalists ;)

      (Not literal lectionaries, you understand but the informal list of passages that they read/are taught about or from.)

  5. Rachel Broadbent says:

    Such an interesting topic. I was strongly reminded of Paul Young’s book The Shack, when reading this post. In this book he explores the feminine side of God in a most startling manner, by characterizing God the father as a large black women. It is both confronting and refreshing and has helped me ‘enlarge’ my picture of who God is, if you like

    • Tim Bulkeley says:

      Rachel, that’s a really interesting way of combining the two parental word-pictures in one. Overall, the Shack is a really striking attempt to speak God in a 21st century story. (Though, like any attempt to encapsulate God in a story there are other things it does not “get” quite as well.) Well worth recommending to anyone who has not tried it.

  6. […] A warm welcome back to Dr Tim Bulkeley who is posting this series based on his book, Not Only A Father, looking at gendered language for God. For more on Tim’s background, see the first post. […]

  7. […] You may have spotted Michael/SKATERAK’s comment on Tim’s first Not Only A Father post. […]

  8. […] eg a strong protector, but God is not like a rock, eg unable to respond. That’s why (see the first post) we need complementary pictures, to minimise the error. Picturing God as a father is a better image […]

  9. […] Dr Tim Bulkeley is posting this series based on his book, Not Only A Father, looking at gendered language for God. For more on Tim’s background, see the first post. […]

  10. […] Not Only A Father #1: What’s Wrong with this Picture?  […]

  11. […] humanity, male and female, to bear God’s image. The extent to which the genders are different represents the breadth of God’s character. We need both men and women to help us meet […]

  12. For those who want more detail, Tim has some articles on these topics now published. Start here: https://www.academia.edu/8571224/God_as_Mother_Ideas_to_clarify_before_we_start

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