God the Father?

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

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4 thoughts on “God the Father?

  1. Along the same lines, surely due to the fact God is an “immaterial entity” how can God even be referred to as “a being” (genderless or not)?

  2. One or two points for thought:

    The Bible seems to suggest that we do resemble God in many (if in lesser) ways – after all, we are, according to the Bible, made in his image.

    And since the incarnation, God is human. So he does share an awful lot with us, having experienced pain, suffering, rejection, temptation etc.

    To consider how God might be best termed ‘Mother’ in relationship to us might be to pay insufficient attention to the implications of the ‘fatherhood’ that the Bible emphasises. In one sense, God as our creator has of course always been our father. But since Jesus Christ joined the Godhead to Man, paying the price for our rejection of that relationship, we are not only restored but raised to new and giddy heights of man-God relationship – we can now call God ‘Father’ in the sense that Jesus does, not merely in a way that resembles ‘Author’.

    Finally, C.S. Lewis provides an alternative interpretation of the relationship between sexual characteristics and gender, which you might find really interesting. Lewis sketches out this thought in his science fiction novel ‘Perelandra’:

    “Everyone must have wondered why innearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom [the protagonist – a philologist] has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in size and strength, partly exhibit, but also partly confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.”

    And also in ‘That Hideous Strength’:

    “The male… exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it.”

    What do you think about this alternative definition of sex and gender?

    • I’ve read the Lewis quotes a few times now, and I’m struggling. I get the conclusion – that, contrary to common opinion, gender is ‘more real’, primary, fundamental than sex – but I can’t locate the argument to justify it.

      To kind of spell out why I’m skeptical about such a project: sex could not be less fundamental for me, because it just refers to your fixed biological constitution. Gender, on the other hand, seems to merely be made up of social constructs that are contingent, not necessary; could be altered with time. So masculinity conventionally means strength, dominance, command and so on, but not all humans with penises need to be this way. Female politicians are contrary to the conventional concept of gender.

      I can’t figure out what Lewis’ response to this is?

      On the part before though, you wrote:

      “In one sense, God as our creator has of course always been our father. But since Jesus Christ joined the Godhead to Man, paying the price for our rejection of that relationship, we are not only restored but raised to new and giddy heights of man-God relationship – we can now call God ‘Father’ in the sense that Jesus does, not merely in a way that resembles ‘Author’.”

      I’m also struggling to see why this warrants the language of ‘father’ any moreso than it would ‘mother’? Could you spell this out, or do you accept ‘father’ over ‘mother’ is unjustifiable?

      Matt – I think I’ll do a post shortly on our little discussion about the meaning of God’s ‘existence’. I’m also thinking of a post on why I struggle with the idea of God manifesting himself as a man, so keep an eye out Rob!

  3. Pingback: the rebirth of God « JRFibonacci’s blog: partnering with reality

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