A friend points me to this:
Half-jokingly, I teased him as to why we were assuming God was male, not realising by ‘him’ the poster intended to pick out ‘Jesus’.
But it gave rise to a question I’ve barely considered before: what does it even mean to say God the Father? If God is an immaterial entity then in what sense can he be male? Intuitively (perhaps even this is too kind; it might be by definition), ‘male’ refers to a distinctly physical property supervening on the presence of a reproductive organ. So insofar as ‘father’ entails ‘male’ and ‘male’ entails ‘has penis’ or its equivalent, whilst at the same time ‘God’ entails ‘immaterial’, it seems ‘God the Father’ is destined to entail ‘immaterial penis’. Which is hardly great.
Presumably, then, the get out is to say the central phrase isn’t to be read literally. Father, rather (!), is perhaps intended to induce thoughts of paternal love and merely pick out this property of dads. So it’s just supposed to reflect the fact that God is caring.
Given the impressions we get given in the Old Testament, though, it’s hard to resist the feeling there might be more to it than that. At the same time, it feels as if the vengeance dished out there might explain why God came to be understood as a (particularly violent) father, and to that end the characteristics intended to be conveyed are strength, dominance, authority.
If either of those suggestions are correct, though, the implications are significant. The first thought implies ‘God the Mother’ would be perfectly adequate, if not better. The second suggests that now dads aren’t so aggressive, the thought would better be captured by a phrase like ‘God the Man’, or maybe even ‘God the Law’.
On all plausible readings, though, it seems that God must in any meaningful sense be genderless. And I suppose that’s one of the many mysteries as to how exactly one can have such an awesome relationship with a being that resembles you in so few ways, and who, as a non-human (but presumably with reason and language), has no concerns that constitute our identity and give our life meaning.
Comments would be much welcomed.
Update: So it looks like there’s plenty of passages to support the phrase ‘God the Mother’. Amusingly, one of them even manages to maintain the image of strength in doing so:
“Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” Hosea 13:8