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Rising Above Our Language

Reflections on Our Metaphors for God

This article appeared originally in "The Covenant Companion," May 1992, and is reprinted by permission.

We seem to be created with the instinct for metaphor. We give no training in it, yet we know it is a signal of growth in language when children begin to produce their own odd figures of speech. "This floor is a tar bucket," I remember my daughter saying one muddy afternoon when she was three or four. In adult discourse, we use metaphors to cover every purpose from making difficult concepts clear, to making difficult what is already clear.

If we used language only literally, we would have to spend tedious effort building dry, literal connections between concepts; communicating would be not only tiresome but colorless. But metaphor (or other figures of speech), applying the language of one concept directly to another, gives us an immediate – often intuitive – entry into the second concept. When it works well, we find we have fitted two words together in such a way that one reveals new dimensions in the other, illuminating our understanding; it might also be amusing, moving, or poetic.

Like all other areas of the human conversation, our language about religion uses metaphors and other figures of speech widely. "The Lord is my shepherd" is a good example. The Lord, of course, is not a shepherd, has no sheep, no rod, no staff, no green pastures – at least not in the sense that a human shepherd has these things. But by creating the metaphor of a shepherd, the psalmist draws us without ado into an appreciation of the protection and guidance of God. He uses a familiar image to give us this direct entry, making the abstract nature and behavior of God more comprehensible. And he does so quite poetically.

We find other metaphors throughout the Bible, in places of great and small importance. "Upon this rock I will build my church," "the body of Christ," "sharper than any two-edged sword," "this is my body," "the Lord is my light," "my Rock," "the Bridegroom," and so on. In some cases, we are so accustomed to hearing the metaphor that we forget it is one. The problem with this is that when we forget we're using a figure of speech, we also forget that the figure gives us only a partial picture, and a highly selective one at that.

This is especially true when it comes to the nature of God, which is so vast, abstract, and multidimensional that no single expression could hope to capture it. For example, when we focus on "the Lord is my shepherd" in David's psalm, we forget all about "the Lord is a man-of-war" in Miriam's song. These two images of God are hard to reconcile, except when we remember that each gives only a partial picture of an infinite being. God can be both shepherd and warrior, but only metaphorically speaking. And it's our job to remember that both are only figures of speech.

Maybe this is involved in God's injunction against making idols. Any single image, whether graven or linguistic, that we use to describe God will fall far short of the fullness of his nature. When, by constant use, we become dominated by a particular image, unaware, we begin to honor the image in place of the being it represents. That's idolatry.

A few lines above, I used the pronoun "his" to refer to God. I did that to raise the issue of a metaphor we treat quite literally: we speak of God almost exclusively as "he." If we were polytheists, probably some of our gods would be male, while others would be female – just like we are – and so the gendered words we use would be clearly appropriate. But when we think about it, we would agree that our Bible teaches that God is not a gendered being. "He" cannot be literally an accurate picture of God.

Gender has to do with the physical world; its functions relates to the reproduction of species. Yet the concept is so deeply embedded in human experience that it becomes almost a category of perception. In many languages, for example, not only animate beings, but inanimate objects, even concepts, ideas, and abstractions are "masculine" or "feminine." "Wealth" in some languages is a masculine noun, whereas "wisdom" is feminine; "day" is masculine, but "night" is feminine. In other languages, these might be reversed. We don't really think these concepts have gender as such; it's just that gender is such a fundamental category to life in the physical world that our languages apply it to the mental world as well. Gender, one might say, becomes a metaphor we use to make the nonmaterial world more accessible.

We find it especially difficult to refer to beings with personality, from animals to angels, without assigning them to one gender class or another. A devil is usually "he," it seems, while house cats, to some people, are always "she." Gender is even an issue in the naming of storms (which are not persons, but to which we apply the metaphor of personality as a way to deny their awful disregard for life); it has been only a decade or two since the National Weather Service admitted that maybe all hurricanes aren't feminine.

God has personality too, and so we gravitate toward gender words in religious discourse. "God" and "Lord" in many languages are masculine nouns. We call God "our Father," we say "he." We are speaking metaphorically, but the masculine language for God is so pervasive in our discourse that we use it largely without noticing. We forget that we believe God is a Spirit, not a physical, material being like us at all. We forget that gender is something God invented for the benefit of the physical world. Since we do not have God's creative power, if it were not for the gift of gender, plant and animal species would have survived only one "generation" after creation. Because of gender, it becomes possible for the creature bound in the material world to "be fruitful and multiply." And because it's so fundamental to our psyche, we tend to reflect the concept of gender in our talk about the Creator.

However, few of us would seriously defend the idea that God is a male of the "god species." That would imply that there is a female of the species, too, and then we'd be back to polytheism.

One of the many useful points that feminist scholars have brought to our attention is that the Bible also uses feminine metaphors to describe God. We can see this clearly in the teachings of Christ. For example, as a parallel to the story of the man who follows one lost sheep to the wilderness, Christ offers the story of the woman who pursues a lost coin (Luke15). If a woman loses a coin, he says, won't she light a lamp, move the furniture, sweep the corners until she finds it? And when she does find it, won't she call her neighbors to share in her joy at the recovered treasure? Then Christ clearly explains that the woman represents God in this allegory. We could fairly paraphrase the story like this: God is a woman who turns the house inside out to recover a lost treasure; the treasure is you.

Interestingly, Christ uses a feminine metaphor when he describes himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks (Matthew 23). And Christ puts the Holy Spirit in a female role – the role of giving birth – in his famous dialogue with Nicodemus. "You must be born again" is possibly the most widely known Christian metaphor, yet how often have you heard it noted that this figure of speech applies an inescapably feminine function to the activity of God? Not often.

Because our culture and our languages are traditionally committed to relating to God as a "man" and as "Father," it is extremely difficult for us to appreciate – or even to notice – the scriptural allusions to God as a "woman" or "Mother." Worse than that, since our culture tends to trivialize women, we might even feel it's disrespectful to refer to God with the metaphors of the feminine. This might all be quite natural, but it's something we need to rise above.

On the one hand, we need to rise above it for the sake of our theology. We need to acknowledge that the Bible uses metaphors of both genders to illuminate God's nature, and we need to remember that both are metaphorical – they are aids to our earth-bound understanding. As long as we allow our discourse to assume that God is male, our understanding will be dominated by an error. God created gender along with the world, and made it for our benefit as long as we live in the world. But gender is not a category that applies to God, even as it does not apply to believers in their spiritual nature, or in the hereafter (Matthew 22).

On the other hand, we need to rise above this language because it tends to disenfranchise and alienate half the human race. Scholars in language theory demonstrate that written discourse generally urges the reader to identify with it. Thus, when we use a generic "he," as in "the believer ... he," a woman reader is forced to identify with "believer" against her own self-concept as a "she." Or when our discourse insists on "God ... he," a man hears "God is like me," but a woman hears "God is not like me." How we relate to God is fundamental to the way we relate to ourselves. Try reading the Twenty-third Psalm, substituting "she" in place of "he," and you'll see what a difference it can make.

We need to take this one step further. One of the earliest teachings in the Bible is that the human race was created in the image of God. If we don't understand that we speak of God as "he" only for the sake of language conventions – more clearly, if we believe that God is truly male – then we are teaching that a man reflects God's image more fully than a woman does. We're teaching that the divine order of creation puts women at a more distant relation to God than men have, in fact that women are irreconcilably different from God. We imply that God's interest in women is originally and irrevocably of a lesser quality than God's interest in men. Historically, given the male domination of culture, this has not been an uncommon teaching. But it has always been heresy.

The Bible uses many diverse metaphors for God, including rock, light, mountain, shepherd, vine, woman, landowner, dove, warrior, lamb, father, mother, and countless others. We need to be aware of the diversity of these images as we build our concept of the person God is. If we let ourselves become fixated on one particular image of God, even a frequent one, we box in our minds. Not only do we miss the inspiring vastness of God's personality and activity, but we also lose a proper sense of the infinitely limited nature of our understanding of God. Occasionally we need to open ourselves to the other images – including God as a woman – in order to allow the fresh air of new understanding to enliven us.

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