Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why We Call God Father: a response to Simon Chan

God is the big girl in the sky.

Simon Chan's article, Why We Call God Father, addresses a topic I regularly think about and discuss as a Christian theologian married to a priest at an Anglo-Catholic parish that employs very traditional liturgical language for God. Though the parish is theologically diverse--it does, after all, include me, a non-Episcopal, stubbornly Church of Christ theologian with an interest in cyborgs--the longstanding identity of the parish as the leading example of Anglo-Catholicism in New Jersey means that you don't mess with the liturgy. You just don't.

And so every so often, my husband and I delve into the issue of gender-inclusive language in liturgy, and the difficulties of balancing theology and aesthetics and tradition and justice. In fact, a couple nights ago we sat in the living room and prolonged our speeches until midnight. This is how we have fun around here.

While you might assume, as apparently Simon Chan does, that all self-avowed feminist theologians want to "expunge" all masculine language for God from our worship and Godtalk, that's not my position, nor is it in my experience a dominant and certainly not, as Chan claims, a "unanimous" stance among feminist theologians. If you read, for instance, Elizabeth Johnson, it is clear that her prescription is a multiplicity of language, one which does not expunge masculine language or traditional Trinitarian language, but instead employs it as one way among many others for speaking of God. Chan actually goes on to describe something like this as the proffered feminist solution, which I find confusing. It may be a minor point, but a lead-in which mischaracterizes all of "formal feminist theologians" with a "unanimous" declaration that masculine language "must be expunged" is inaccurate (and worse, inflammatory)--and Chan's own further description seems to indicate that he's aware of this, as a plurality of images including masculine ones is hardly "expunging" the Trinity from our worship. 

So, I'll be honest; that puts my back up a bit. It's certainly not the best way to start the conversation.

But, let's set that aside. What's the actual argument offered for the necessity of masculine language for God? Why, as the tag for article in my twitterfeed claims, would calling God something other than Father leave a "void" at the heart of the Christian story?
I'll leave the biblical text argument to biblical scholars; suffice to say, I'm pretty sure I remember enough of my OT Theology from my MA days to claim with a certain degree of confidence that God was not addressed as "Father" by the Israelites. There's that whole thing with the Tetragrammaton and avoiding saying the name of God, and all that. So when Jesus addressed God as "Abba," that was a pretty innovative shift. 

Chan makes two things out of this. First, he identifies this Father language by Jesus as a Trinitarian claim, and on this basis implicitly presumes an inherently masculinity of the Trinity itself. Second, he points out that Jesus extends this intimate relationship with God the Father to his disciples.

With regard to this second point, as Chan points out, the significance of Jesus teaching his disciples to call God "Father" is that "the loving relationship he has with the Father from eternity now extends to those adopted into God's family (Rom 8:15)." I agree with this; my priesthood-of-all-believers CofC background has consistently interpreted this as an indication of relationship with God that provides direct access without the need for priestly mediation. We may directly address God, and address God on intimate terms.

I'm unsure, however, on what basis Chan makes this further claim: 

The father-son relationship is the most intimate personal relationship, one marked by reciprocal love and respect, and it is God's supremely personal and loving nature that the term father is meant to underscore.
Now, I'm neither a father nor a son. So maybe I'm just missing out on the definitively "most intimate personal relationship" in all of creation? Maybe I just don't know what I'm missing, but still...I can't help but pause here and say, um...what?

I am a mother and a daughter. And a sister. And a friend. And a wife. And all of those relationships have their own intimacy. And if someone forced me to I might make the audacious claim that "the most intimate personal relationship" I've experienced is the one where I carried another person inside my womb for 40+ weeks, and then nursed her for another couple years, and wiped her butt for another after that--and I'm still watching raptly as that tiny body put together inside me keeps growing and changing and maturing and never loses its fascination for me. I might then be tempted to make that experience paradigmatic for intimacy for everyone--but I'd resist that temptation.

(Other people might want to make the argument that sexual intimacy is the paradigmatic "most intimate personal relationship"--after all, you're putting parts of your body into someone else's body, and stuff, and that's pretty, well, intimate. 
But I digress.)

Of course, the problem is not just this incredible and unsupported claim of the unique intimacy of father-son relationality; it's that this is also supposed to be paradigmatic for all people in their relation to God. Jesus relates to God as Father and invites us to relate to God in this way, and so we all relate to God in this supremely unparalleled father-son relationship.

So now what? Apparently, women are supposed to keep doing what we've always done: mentally write ourselves into masculinity, because we just somehow know after all that we're supposed to be included there:
To claim, as many feminist theologians do, that the very presence of masculine metaphors for God excludes women simply does not square with the way Scripture uses them. Masculine images of God do not always convey exclusively "masculine" qualities. For example, Isaiah 54:5–7 refers to God as the Husband who with "deep compassion" (a stereotypically "feminine" quality) called estranged Israel back to himself (see also Isa. 49:13). The term father, then, excludes not feminine qualities, but rather the idea of a distant and impersonal deity, which is precisely the picture of the supreme being still seen in many primal religions.
Let's deconstruct this a bit. First--again!--there's a mischaracterization of feminist theologies here. It's not "the very presence" of masculine metaphors for God that is exclusive. It's the exclusive presence of masculine metaphors for God that is exclusive--and the way that this exclusivity paves the way for the further reification of those masculine metaphors into the non-metaphorical nature of God as Father. Which, not incidentally, is a one-sentence summary of Chan's position in the article.

Second, I certainly agree that "masculine" and "feminine" qualities are social constructions with very little basis in embodied reality, and we do well not to project those gender constructions onto God--whether as Father or Mother. For Chan, however, this becomes an argument for folding in all "feminine" qualities into the still-masculine Father, and this is somehow supposed to make father-son relationality inclusive of women. I don't quite follow that, so that's my best shot at understanding the argument here.

Chan also makes the argument that Father implies Creator, and thus that decentering Father language for God implies jeopardizing the Christian doctrine of creation. 
Second, the father metaphor points to God as the Creator (e.g., Isa. 64:8; Mal. 2:10) "from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name" (Eph. 3:15). Father captures in one word two seemingly contrasting characteristics: God's love for his creatures and his lordship over all creation. Here again, we see the difference between Israel and ancient Near Eastern cultures. In the Judeo-Christian faith, God the Father created the world as something separate from himself, whereas in Near Eastern societies, the mother metaphor pictures the mother-goddess giving birth to the world (which makes it an extension of the deity's body). Calling God Mother undermines the Christian doctrine of creation by implying that God and the world are made of the same stuff and virtually indistinguishable. So, we need Father in order to get to the right doctrine of creation.
Again we see this working assumption that "Father" exclusively, comprehensively and uniquely captures in one word God's relationality to creatures/creation by signifying both love and lordship. Chan further argues that calling God Mother in relation to creation would necessarily obligate us to ANE cult thealogies (I'm not sure why this would be so) and suggests that the relationship of Mother to creation would be one marked by ontological undifferentiation rather than the proper ontological distance and supremacy indicated by Father and its concomitant notion of "lordship," which is presumed to be obviously orthodox though it remains completely undefined here.

I can guarantee you that my relationship as Mother to my little creations is marked by all sorts of ontological differentiation. Sometimes in the form of tantrums. And since a distant deity is one of the things Chan points to as problematic that Father language is supposed to uniquely correct, I'm a little confused as to why ontological distance is now suddenly a desirable quality in a deity.

In the end, Chan rests on something much less like an argument and much more an operative claim: 

The term Trinity is simply shorthand for the Christian story of God the Father, who sent his Son Jesus Christ and gave us his Holy Spirit. Who is the God that Christians encounter at worship? He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To quote Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the proper name of God. Relating to the triune God is what makes Christian experience truly Christian. Simply using the name God, even with many qualifiers (compassionate, gracious, loving, almighty, and so on), does not sufficiently distinguish the God of Christian revelation from other monotheistic faiths. If we leave out God's nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we risk turning the Christian story into another story.
In this paragraph it becomes explicitly apparent that the real issue for Chan is not the primacy of the metaphor of Father as the best representation of the relationality of God to Jesus, humanity, and all of creation--despite the attempt to make this argument. The real issue is simply that Father is not a metaphor. It is God's actual ontological identity.

So it's not about how to best articulate God's relationality within Godself or to creation; it's not about liturgical elegance or faithfulness to tradition or even biblical warrant for Godtalk; it's about who God really is. And it turns out that some people really do think God is a man.


SJ said...

Bah. Very nice dissection. I really really like to think that most people don't think like this. But then there is writing like this. This is the 'feminism' I'm really interested. Male centered doctrine is not easy to shed light on as you have.

Justin Burton said...

The reconstruction of male as objective, distant, generative and female as subjective, close, reproductive (which seems to be shorthand for "derivative") is particularly troubling in this insistence that God can only be "Father." Chan ends up not only mischaracterizing feminist critical theory and pushing aside some truly resonant embodiments of God as Mother/Sister, but also, in these acts, constructs a God who, frankly, would be quite the lousy God indeed.

Here we have a God whose male personhood must be understood to have been crafted in opposition to ancient cultural traditions (to avoid those icky female cults) but who is now completely trapped by current cultural traditions of patriarchy that continue practices of domination and appropriation in the name of this same God who has been fashioned in misogyny's image.

No thanks.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to see God as a male, as long as men are sometimes "aggressive".

Adam Shields said...

It is frustrating to keep reading comments that suggest that Chan was right and that God has only reveal himself as Father and Son. Is our theology and biblical literacy so low that people actually believe that?

Anonymous said...

Please find an essay which describes how the conventional (mis)-conceptions of God and Reality are the projections of a childish (even infantile) emotional-sexual mentality. It also provides a completely different Illuminated Understanding of Truth & Reality


Plus a unique Illuminated Understanding of She, or the Goddess or Shakti