Imaging God by Tiffany Steinwert

There are some words a mother never wants to hear. For me, those words came one evening as I tucked my 3 year old son, G, in to bed. We had just finished reading  God’s Dream, a children’s book by Bishop Desmond Tutu, and were discussing what God might want us to do. The conversation went something like this:

G:           “I think God wants me to share.”

Me:        “I think so too.  God likes sharing.”

G: “        “Yeah, He likes it when I share.”

SCREEEEECH!!! Insert here the sound of the needle suddenly scratching and falling off the record.

He?

Where did G get that? With two theologians as parents, G’s religious world has been carefully and intentionally constructed since birth. Nowhere ever did we refer to God as “He.”

Perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue, a mistaken pronoun, an unintentional lapse. God/dess knows I pride myself on my child’s gender fluidity. I take his vacillating male and female pronouns as a sign of early queer, gender non-conformity. Though, I suspect others might interpret that as part of normal verbal development. You choose.

Whether intentional or unintentional, I decided to nip this in the bud once and for all.

Me:        “Oh, honey,” I said with a gentle chuckle, “God is not a man.”

G’s retort was quick and clear.

G:           “YES. HE. IS!”

I paused, shocked and more than a tad befuddled. Where did he get this?

It would have been easy to follow this conversation to its expected end with a series of “No, God isn’t” and “Yes, He is.” We’ve had our fair share of those parental power struggles…though usually over more quotidian crises as nap time or eating what is on the plate.

This was a parenting dilemma for which I was not prepared. I had taken it upon myself early and often to teach my child about the nature of God in the most inclusive ways. I never gendered God, but rather preferred to use descriptors like kind, compassionate, just, caring, forgiving, strong, vulnerable, wise.  Knowing that in the absence of specific gendered language our culture often assumes male by default, I was intentional about pointing out the way in which Divine attributes were present in all. God is like a mama’s hug, a daddy’s cuddle, a baby’s laugh, a dog’s kiss. God is after all the Divine spark within us all.

“G,” I explained, “God is that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when we hug. God is in you and in me.”

I worked hard to help G see the Divine in himself and in the world around him. Everywhere there is goodness, kindness, compassion and love, there is God. God is not a static being, but a way of Be-ing in the world.

He? He? How had this happened?

In that instant that felt like an eternity, I began to wonder if perhaps the problem was not in G’s understanding, but in my own. Perhaps G understood my lessons better than I did.

Had I not told him we all embody the Divine?

“God is in you and in me.”

And, for G that “you” looks very much like a 3 year old little boy.  Isn’t this what I wanted after all? For my child to see the Divine in himself? To see himself as a reflection of God’s love in the world?

If I was serious about imaging God as the divine spark in humanity, why couldn’t that spark take on male attributes? Had my ideology become so dogmatic that I could not allow my child to see God in himself?

Gendered God language is much more complicated, political and powerful than this conversation with my toddler. It is not sufficient in a patriarchal, often misogynist, world to simply allow God to be reflections of individuals, no matter how beloved to us they may be. Gendered language for God matters…not just in how we raise our children, but in the concrete ways in which that language privileges some while marginalizing many. Language constructs our reality. As Mary Daly said, “If God is male, the male is God.” Make no mistake, it matters.

But this encounter allowed me to remember something profoundly important to me about my own theology. It is not enough to simply absent the oppressive male image of God. Rather, for me, what is more important is calling forth and making visible the qualities and characteristics of the Divine that help create a better, more just world for us all. At best, God is made real and present through concrete actions in the world. God is Be-ing, after all. This means that God is “he” every time a little boy exudes kindness, compassion, mercy, justice and wisdom. God is known in all those who work toward the vision of peace with justice that we in the Christian tradition name as God’s kin-dom, Commonwealth or Beloved Community.

My own committed feminist theology is about using expansive language to describe the Divine, language that ought to include, but not be limited to the vision of God reflected in and by my child. G understood that God is found in everyone and everything….even in little boys.

Tiffany L. Steinwert serves as the Dean of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University and is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. As a feminist-liberationist theologian and activist, she has spent her career working at the intersections of faith and social justice. In her many roles as pastor, scholar, and organizer, she strives to empower people of all faiths and no faith to build relationships across difference, craft meaningful communities and create change through collective action.

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Categories: Feminist Theology, General, God-talk, Mary Daly, Naming

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10 replies

  1. Your commentary is meaningful and thought provokimg. If we really listen to the children in our lives, their innocence gives us a fresh perspective. Clearly , some of us have gotten so swept up in cleansing religious patriarchy we have perhaps not adequately acknowledged interpretations of the males in our lives. I have shared this with the other board members of our spiritual community. The men will love it!

  2. Did you ask him why he thought god was a man?

  3. I can’t help but wonder if G has a male parent and, yes, did you ask him why he thought god was a man. I like the phrase “God’s kin-dom.”

  4. I’ve got two sons, so I appreciated this overall. I, too, wondered if you asked him or more info/why he thinks God is a man? (because man IS different than three year old boy and so speaks of a conception beyond the Divine within) I find with my sons that the Divine as Goddess is a very natural/logical concept for them, because of their relationship with me, their mother, their literal creator–they know they were born from my body and thus, by extension (as I believe was also logical for ancient peoples), it only makes sense to them that, “the Goddess gave birth to the earth” (as they’ve drawn pictures of before, etc.) I do see as they grow older that they seem to be seeing the Goddess is just a “mom thing” or something for me, rather than them, and so I’ve been thinking about inclusiveness lately.

    I also thought of an experience in which my six year old said, “hey, mom, wouldn’t it be weird if there was a Goddess that was a BOY?!” While on one hand that made me feel concerned–like he feels left out–on the other it actually delighted me. My interest in Goddess was first political and only later more personally, intimately spiritual. So, to know that it IS possible to steep children in female imagery of the Divine so that THAT image becomes their original, default image (rather than the old white man in the sky so many people have as default, regardless of religious connection/orientation) felt pretty profound and socioculturally transformative. But, it left me with a worry–if patriarchal religion excludes ME and womankind in general, will my sons find no place, home, or identity validation in the arms of the Goddess?

  5. Interesting post, you don’t say if you use female gender inclusive language as well as male gender inclusive language–God She and God He, but from what you do say, I suspect that you don’t. I think it is important to use both, otherwise, everyone is likely to revert to the “norm” which is God He. When we say God She and Goddess then there can be no ignoring the fact that God is also She. And for you son and in mixed company, say both God She and God He at different times… That would be my suggestion.

  6. When my two daughters (now 29 and 25) were little, I used female pronouns and imagery with them (as an attempt to counter the larger cultural preference for male imagery and language)– much like some immigrant families in America speak only the language of origin at home until the children enter school and begin to learn English, to ensure they are bilingual. One day my older daughter came home from kindergarten to announce, incredulously, “Mom, did you know some people think God is a boy????”

  7. In the early days of the 2nd wave of feminism, we all thought that it was best to use non-gendered language, thereby opening a space for women in our linguistic constructions. But as you noted, Tiffany, in the absence of specific language our culture assumes masculine by default. When I read the studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s that showed this, I began to use female-gendered language whenever appropriate, saying with my language that we women are here, you need to deal with us. I think the same thing is necessary in religion. We need to say Goddess. We need to say God, She. Otherwise, even those Divine characteristics that are feminine will not be raised up, because under patriarchy the culture not only demeans women, it also demeans kindness, compassion, and mercy, care, love, and any other attribute that our society unnecessarily categorizes as feminine.

  8. The problem we’re facing here is the problem of hierarchical dualisms. Our language structures things in this way, and it’s a straightjacket that’s hard to get out of. Of course, as Tiffany says in her post, language also privileges some and marginalizes others, and sisters, we know who those others are.

  9. As an addendum to my previous post, I would hope our children and grandchildren will view God as genderless. Using The Inclusive Bible has helped our community achieve this.

  10. Can we be in God’s image of we cannot imagine a gendered God? The inclusive Bible does not present postive images of the female being and the female body that women are so starved for…

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