God our Father, God our Mother?

revmikeatrallyI believe that God is bigger and more wonderful than human beings can fully comprehend. When we talk about God, we use images and metaphors to express our understandings of God, although these images really only describe a tiny fraction of all that God is. But while Christian tradition and scripture have a wide range of images and metaphors that are used to describe God, we seldom hear God referred to as “God our Mother.”

Maternal images of God may be absent from most modern Christian churches, but they are certainly not absent from Christian scripture. In Isaiah 66:13, God states clearly, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” In Hosea 13:8, God tells the people of Israel that they should understand God as an angry mother bear, robbed of her cubs – an intense and powerful description of a protective, maternal God. In Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:37, Jesus states that he has long desired to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, a warm and gentle maternal image. Our holy writings tell us that God and Jesus use maternal imagery to describe themselves. But are modern Christians willing to do the same? 

In 1983 and 1984, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago did a survey of two thousand people to see what images were likely to come to mind when they thought about God. Around 85% of the respondents reported that they were extremely or somewhat likely to think of God as “Father.” This is not surprising given the language used in most houses of worship when the survey was done. At the same time, however, the survey also reported that around 50% of the respondents were extremely or somewhat likely to think of God as “Mother.” Our churches may choose to ignore the feminine and maternal imagery for God used in scripture, but somehow the understanding of God as both Mother and Father has continued to be reborn in people’s hearts. 

I will admit, I was uncomfortable when I first heard a lay worship leader refer to “God our Mother” in a Christian context. I had the sense that he was trying to reshape my understanding of God for political reasons, and that didn’t feel right to me. However, my views have changed as I have learned more. The question for Christian churches is really this: are we willing to embrace the full range of imagery already present in Christian scripture to talk about the loving, maternal God that so many people already know?

– Rev. Michael Patrick Ellard, Former Senior Pastor of MCC San Jose


This reflection was originally published as part of MCC San Jose’s weekly reflection series. Please click the following link for more information about MCC San Jose’s weekly reflections.

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