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Discovering The Mother Heart of God

Written by: on March 16, 2020

I had just arrived at the dinner table this evening, having finished up my reading of Katia Adams’ Equal and Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women. Both are remarkable works that, through careful exegesis, conclude that women and men are uniquely suited for equal roles of leadership and authority in the life of the church. As I joined my wife and daughter for a simple supper, my head was still spinning from two of their opening lines. Adams asserts that the “whole world is waiting for Christians to stand up and lend their voice to bringing freedom and equality to both men and women.”[1] Peppiatt declares that “there is an increasing conviction that the Christian faith, rightly understood, contributes to the overturning of an entrenched patriarchal order in the world.”[2]

This “entrenched patriarchal order” that Peppiatt speaks of was formed by powerful men, reinforced by powerful men, and, to this day, is accepted as doctrinal truth by many American Christian women and men. While I’m with Adams and Peppiatt in their biblical take on gender equity, I’m left to wonder: when we’ve gotten it so wrong for so long, is the world really waiting on Christians to get this right?  Or has it moved on? And when you consider even a few of the egregious statements by the original purveyors of Christian theology, can we blame the world from moving on if it has?

Men should not sit and listen to a woman…even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is the of little consequence, since it came from the mouth of a woman.[3] ~Origen

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On accoung of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.[4] ~Tertullian

…the (female) sex is weak and fickle….[5] ~Chrysostom

. . . the woman together with her own husband is the image of God, so that that whole substance may be one image; but when she is referred separately to her quality of help-meet, which regards the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.[6] ~Augustine

With these thoughts in mind, I directed a question at my daughter: “Do you think it’s okay for women to be pastors?”

“Of course,” she responded without delay. With the accompaniment of many other strong women pastors and leaders, we’ve been raising her to be an alpha female. Her theology on this issue is solid.

“Do you think God is a man?” was my next question.  This one stumped her a bit more.

“Well, Jesus was a man. And God is referred to as “he” in the Bible. So…maybe….” It was more of a question than a statement.

Since that conversation, I’ve been wondering about the construction of God that led the early fathers to assume and then indoctrinate the idea of the superiority of men over women. Did they believe that God was a man? Peppiatt explores this question in detail, concluding that the use of the male pronoun for God is not a gender assignment, but is an emphasis on “the experience of the presence of God, (and) the idea of God’s nearness, protection, watchfulness, and even embrace….”[7] Again, I like her exegesis, but it doesn’t get to how God was perceived by the patriarchs.

Six years ago, I sat in the home of Haddasseh Fromman. She is the widow of Rabbi Manachem Fromman who was referred to throughout the Middle East as the “Peacemaking Rabbi.” Her influence on contemporary Judaism within Israel is as strong, if not stronger, than his ever was. There is one moment from that encounter that has stuck with me.  In a conversation about peacemaking in the midst of the conflicts we find ourselves in, she said, “Our understanding of the divine is far too informed by maleness. ‘God is a warrior.’ ‘God is a vengeful judge and a stern father.’ If we’re going to join the divine in healing the world, then we must discover the Mother Heart of God.”

I had no idea what she as talking about.

The image of God I had been given and had been reinforced through mentors and literature was that God was white, male, and powerful. I had never questioned the incompleteness nor implications of the “Father” image of God…I had no reason to. First, I was privileged to be cherished by my dad and the experience shaped my understanding of God as a good, kind, loving Father. Second, I knew that the Scriptures were written and compiled by men in patriarchal contexts and featured a lot of men. Third, as a dominant culture male, this understanding of God served me well. Why question it?

Yet her comment struck a chord for me and propelled me into a journey that is remaking my understanding and experience of God. As we consider again the maternal attributes of God that Peppiatt lists out for us,[8] as well as the ways in which Jesus subverted misogyny in every encounter with women, perhaps we will discover that rather than gender-less, God is gender-full. If we do, then maybe we’ll also encounter the Mother heart of God in a way that will dismantle the patriarchy that has atrophied our souls. The Mother heart of God received not as a replacement to the Father image, but as completion to it could cause us to become what the world is looking for.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.” ~Julian of Norwich

~~

[1] Katia Adams, Equal: What the Bible Says about Women, Men, and Authority. David C. Cook, 2019. 24.

[2] Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts. IVP, 2019. 2.

[3] Origen, Fragments on 1 Corinthians. https://steveharris0.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/origen-on-1-corinthians-fragments-1-5-11-english.pdf (Accessed March 16, 2020).

[4] Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarium (On the Apparel of Women), Chapter 1. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0402.htm (Accessed March 16, 2020)

[5] Chrysostom, Homily 9 on First Timothy. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230609.htm (Accessed March 16, 2020).

[6] Augustine, On the Trinity, 12.7.10 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130112.htm (Accessed March 16, 2020).

[7] Peppiatt, 21.

[8] Ibid., 19-20.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Discovering The Mother Heart of God”

  1. mm Joe Castillo says:

    Jer great stuff. I was think about the question of Why did God becoming man become incarnate in a male person? Why in turn has this “Son of God” taught us to address God by calling him, Father? The concepts that we forge of God often come from properly human concepts. Our nature is human and therefore it is accustomed to moving in those parameters, and even more after the enlightenment, rationalist and positivist currents where everything that does not fall into human categories of reason or everything that cannot be known by the senses are worthless. God is God. Neither male nor female, but beyond gender categories.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Good thoughts here, Joe. It is interesting to consider how God became a human male so that we could understand something of powerlessness and love. For a male to subvert every system that diminished human beings must have been so counter-culture. So counter-culture that they killed him for it.

      I also do wonder at how we make God in our image. The research I’ve been doing has me dumbfounded by how the work of the early fathers in cementing the maleness of God and the inferiority of women is one of the “teachings” that we haven’t yet recovered from. That’s why I appreciated Pappiatt’s work on the use of the male pronoun so much. It seems that she is suggesting that its use has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with intimacy.

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Loved this post. I have often wondered if our limited view of God, especially failing to see Him as you state “gender-full” is due to our inability to comprehend the unknown and our need to anthropomorphize God in personal terms. I like many found it easy as a man to just let the cultural norm paly out until I started raising daughters. The desire for change is even stronger now that I have a granddaughter.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Amazing what raising daughters will do to a humble faith leader’s theology. I can’t even imagine what it may be like to welcome in grand-daughters.

      Yes, this idea of gender-full-ness is intriguing to me. Especially in light of the conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation that are being battled out in our world today. This is probably a thought for a whole additional post, but if God is neither male nor female and is, instead, more gender-full, then what are the implications for the ways in which we perceive of our gender-ambiguous, gender-confused, transgender, gender variant, gender fluid, bi-gender, and agender relatives?

  3. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, in my interviews last semester post-discovery session, the idea of capturing the “Mother Heart of God” was something that one of my interviewees hit on. She recommended a book called Forgotten Feminine (I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t attest to what it says), but we were talking about the idea of how the church can become a community that nurtures its members. She mentioned that she felt the church ceased to be a nurturing environment because there isn’t a motherly love within the church. I do think we’re missing something vital though. As you pointed out, the role of women and persona of women has been neglected, abused, and underplayed throughout church history.

    There’s also a question though of whether the characteristics that we ascribe to God as being “masculine” are mutually exclusive to a male persona. Maybe part of it is that because men play such a prominent role in history (by which I mean men tend to take center focus; not that they’re inherently superior), we overlook when women show those same characteristics.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I agree with your friend. In my opinion, half of the church’s soul is atrophied as a result of the silencing, diminishing, and disregarding the authority of women.

      And thank you for bringing up the fact that masculine doesn’t necessarily mean male. It’s amazing to me that the very (masculine) characteristics that are celebrated in men as necessary for “strong” leadership are criticized in women.

      A step further, my largest critique of this week’s two books is that neither addressed our LGBTQIA+ relatives. I get that our two authors are fighting hard for equity for women…yet I’ve also found in the advocacy and activism culture that women are often the largest proponents for LGBTQIA+ rights, inclusion, and affirmation of authority. I was dismayed when, having read through Equal and then watching a brief intro video on the book by Adams, she referred to her book as a comprehensive study of gender equity. Her silence on this issue was understandable but disappointing.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        These books may have limited their scope to women, but I think they both offer a launching point and exegetical framework to extend the conversation to other groups of people for whom the Scriptures have not always been good news.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, I also was curious to see what my children would think of some of the issues from this week. I asked me son, “Who do you think is in charge in the relationship between your mom and me?” “Ummmm…. no one…. both….. right?” was the response. I remember asking him when he was about 4, “Whose job is it to cook – the man’s or the woman’s?” He looked at me and said, “That’s easy…. the man’s.” Though swapping stereotypes isn’t the goal, I did have to chuckle. Jer, I am really eager to see more of your work from what you’re finding among the Patristics.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Ha! It’s the same in our household. Daddy is the meal-maker, book-reader, and bed-time snuggler. Momma is the business administrator/financier/resident Bad Ass who keeps us all alive.

      Connecting your comment to Dylan’s post, it sounds like marriages of equals who are fully complimentary in giftedness and mutual in collaboration. In my case, this is different than the marriage that was demonstrated for me. It makes me wonder about the observations that my kiddos will have of Jaci and I and our partnership as they mature in their thinking and how they will embrace, nuance, and differentiate should they find themselves in covenant partnerships.

      Ah the early fathers. Geez man. I’m bewildered.

      • mm Shawn Cramer says:

        You know (and not to turn this into a counseling session), but I used to internally give my dad a hard time for not aspiring to more challenging goals, promotions and the like, but he really served my mom, putting his career on the back burner, and allowed her to pursue advanced education and be an excellent teacher while he provided more around the house. The older I get, the more I respect that guy.

  5. mm Chris Pollock says:

    That Origen quote, wow! Rough. And, it wasn’t the last one you shared that was thoroughly (embarassingly) ‘not cool’ of particular Christian Church ‘Fathers’.

    The beginning of your post had me wondering: ok, so what religions from their foundations support gender egalitarianism (or, equality)?

    Sikhism.
    Paganism.
    Baha-i.

    These were a few that I found. Perhaps we could learn a few things from these faith groups whose deep respects for both men and women together, have been equal and unswerving? Christianity has something to catch up on in this way (we all need help and some correcting, sometimes). However, I think it would be a little arrogant to think that we could take the lead on this conversation of religious egalitarianism. These faiths previously mentioned (and, others I’m sure) are the forerunners in this way.

    How do you think we could join into the anthem with these religious faiths that are already (and, have forever) upheld egalitarianism in their corporate expression?

    Thankful for your openness and care!
    God bless you. Always nice to see you in the chats too.

    Yes, God made us in ‘his’ image, male and female we have been made in ‘his’ likeness so the scripture in Genesis goes. Female and maleness of God right there. How just it would be (and, a sweet beginning point to some kind of reconciliation) to offer more than half the pronouns describing God in the English Translation of the Bible to the pronoun, ‘she’?

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