Gerard Hughes, who wrote the wonderful book, God of Surprises, paints a picture of a character he calls Good Old Uncle George. To look at, this gentleman bears a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, and indeed Uncle George encourages you to ask for presents, although you soon realise you never get quite what you wanted. One day, while you are still young and impressionable, your parents take you to visit Good Old Uncle George. Mum and Dad tell you that they love Uncle George very very much, though you can’t help noticing they seem somewhat nervous in his company. After a bit of polite chit-chat, Uncle George asks you if you’d like him to show you around his house, and there’s something about his voice that suggests to you that you had better say ‘yes’. And so he takes you downstairs to the basement. The deeper you get, the hotter it gets, and you begin to hear some dreadful screams. Good Old Uncle George explains that he loves you very much, and he insists that you visit him once a week. As he says that, he opens the door to the basement, in which reluctant men, women and children are being thrown into pools of molten brimstone by maniacally-laughing demons. ‘And this is exactly what will happen to you if you don’t behave yourself, or if you don’t visit me every week’, Uncle George tells you with a genial smile. On the way home in the car with mum and dad you’re probably feeling a little subdued, but then mum asks you, ‘are you beginning to love Uncle George with all your heart and soul and mind and strength yet?’, and of course you answer, ‘abso-cotton-pickin’-lutely’.
Gerard Hughes is making a very important point, which is that our mental image of God makes a huge difference. If deep down we think God looks and acts a bit like Uncle George – as Hughes suggests many Christians have been brought up to do – if we think of God, in other words, as an unstable lunatic who pretends he dotes on you but secretly is just waiting for you to put a foot wrong and then – bam! – if that’s really what we think God is like then we also start acting in ways that are capricious, judgemental and contradictory. If your image of God is that of a stern judge who sees everything you do and doesn’t like it very much, then that makes it harder for you to love and forgive yourself, and you gradually learn to project feelings of inadequacy and guilt onto the people around you.
But Gerard Hughes’s cartoon image of God is compounded even further when Jesus comes on to the scene. Because in much of the traditional theology of the church, God – aka Good Old Uncle George – has been having a hissy fit for the last 6,000 years or so, in fact ever since Adam and Eve liked the look of those apricots (apples are so boring, did you know the word ‘apricot’ comes from the same Latin roots as ‘precocious’? Now that’s a more sinful-sounding fruit). So grumpy, in fact, that God’s just about ready to give the whole thing up and go and make another galaxy when Jesus comes along and says, ‘come on Dad, isn’t it about time to let bygones be bygones’? But God is determined that somebody somewhere is going to have to pay. So Jesus makes a tricky deal – ‘well, what say I go down there and become one of them, and then you can take it out on me? Real blood and gore, I know how much you like that’. It’s an offer that Good Old Uncle George can’t refuse, so he says, ‘OK, but they’re going to have to be pathetically grateful!’
You’ll have guessed I don’t buy any of this. I don’t buy the idea of God as Uncle George, and I don’t buy the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die because God couldn’t let us get away with being less than perfect. There are better ways of understanding what it means for God to take on human form in Jesus of Nazareth that emphasise not how disappointed God is in us, but how desperately God loves and needs us, how tenderly God cares for us. And when we start to see it this way around, we find we also need a human metaphor, an image of God that’s a bit closer to the mark than Good Old Uncle George is.
And so we look around us for a way of describing a God whose love and care for creation is so unconditional that – far from God acting towards us in ways that are capricious and vengeful, God always stays in love with us even when we ourselves act in ways that are violent and self-centred. Which means God is vulnerable to us in the same way a loving parent is vulnerable and is so often hurt by the behaviour of a wilful toddler or a self-centred teenager. And so it seems natural to imagine God as a loving parent who perseveres with us despite our temper tantrums, whose discipline is always intended to strengthen us and help us grow in character, in resilience and in love. When it comes down to it, we humans can only think in human terms, and when we want to imagine a God who loves us as least as much as any human being could ever love us, then for many Christians it’s natural to think of God as a parent.
There are, however, a couple of flies in the ointment. And the first is that the Bible comes to us from a world that was rigidly, almost without exception, dominated by men. We do find some strong female characters in the Old Testament, think of Rebecca or Ruth or Bathsheba – but mostly the contribution of women in Old Testament stories is to have children, and then fade into the background. Which is not to say that’s what they did in real life! But in the culture of the ancient Near East, where women were regarded in the same way as possessions, God was virtually always imagined as masculine, as a Father with the masculine quality of strength, as a protector rather than a nurturer. And because the masculine bias of the Bible has been carried through, almost into our own time, with a masculine bias in Western culture, when we talk about God in church much of the language also emphasises the power and transcendence of God, and for many Christians it seems natural to continue the tradition of talking about God as a ‘he’. Jesus himself used the Aramaic word for ‘Daddy’, ‘Abba’, to talk to and about God, and that can be a strong and tender way for us to think about God, especially if our experience of our own fathers has been loving and protective.
Except that if we only think of God as a father, then we miss the whole world of meaning that might open up if we allow ourselves also to think of God as a mother. In recent years, Bible scholars have found many of the rare and tender passages in both the Old and New Testaments that speak about God in feminine terms, like in Hosea, chapter 11, where God assures Israel that she is like one who lifts an infant up to her cheek for a kiss, like one who nurses a baby - or in Isaiah chapter 42, where God protests that she experiences the pain of Judah’s exile like a woman gasping in the pangs of labour. And in the New Testament Jesus also uses feminine images to describe God’s compassion, comparing God to a woman who searches her house from top to bottom, looking for a lost coin, or speaking words of comfort to the doomed city of Jerusalem, who he longed to shelter like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing. When we want to express our understanding of God’s presence within creation, and the intimacy of our relationship with God, then imagining God as a mother is natural and helpful.
But then there’s the second fly in the ointment, which is that none of our human relationships are perfect. Whether we think of God as a mother, or as a father, we remember that our earliest relationships that form us as human beings and teach us how to be independent and how to love – can also be fraught with pain and regret. For many Christians, the idea of God as a father – or God as a mother – can’t help but be associated with the pain of loss, or the anger and bewilderment of betrayal. I sometimes wonder how helpful it is to tell a person that God is like a father, if for that person Dad was never home, or worse, if Dad took out his own feelings of inadequacy in acts of domestic violence. Or how helpful it is to tell a person that God is like a mother, if that person is unable to have children of her own, or if he is carrying around a load of pain because his birth mother couldn’t care for him. On Mothering Sunday we need to recognise the ways in which God’s love is like that of a mother, but we also need to remember, to forgive or to ask forgiveness in our hearts for all the ways in which our own experience of motherhood has been a source of pain or regret.
Ultimately, we can’t claim God as a mother – or as a father – without recognising that God’s relationship with us gathers up both the positives and the negatives of our human experience. To call God our Mother is to make motherhood holy, to gather up both the joy of intimacy as well as the bitterness of alienation into the place where healing is possible; it is to make a profoundly theological claim that at the same time deepens our understanding of God’s tenderness and involvement in our lives, and recognises our human relationships as the arena of God’s love and forgiveness.