by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
“What do you mean God isn’t an old white European male? When did that happen? That’s exactly who it was, last time I saw a Sunday School flannelgraph…”
You know? I’ve tried. And recently I tried again to pick up books from Donald Miller’s catalogue to make my way through them. And yet, despite the number of times I’ve been told how refreshing they are, how these books open up a whole new world of Christian faith, how we’re able to blow apart the box we’ve created for God, I’ve still got some issues. Maybe it’s just me…If I were capable of speaking objectively, I’d talk about many life-giving aspects of these stories. I like the flow, the heart-on-sleeve honesty, and the On The Road kinda feel.
But here’s my problem. And maybe it’s just that this has become my new Kryptonite, but the capital-He God still really bugs me. And He is everywhere in those books. He’s in multiple sentences per page. He just looms throughout the stories. And I suppose that could be quite intentional.
I don’t know when it happened, when I moved on from old white male God. I haven’t even read The Shack, although I think I might like it. But it seems that sometime recently, no matter how fluid the prose, no matter how innovative and improvised the lyrical flow, capital-He God has become incompatible with my system.
Rewind ten years. I was attending a meeting of QCF, the Intervarsity group at Queen’s University in Kingston. A couple of guest speakers had come in that Wednesday night to talk about something. I actually can’t remember quite what they were actually going on about. They were visiting from California, or some other far-away place, and may (or may not) have been former students in Kingston. Whatever the case, in the process of their talk, they referred to God as “she.”
For this kid who grew up in Capital-He-God, Capital-E Evangelical land, this was a bit of a shock to the system. My God-box was under siege.
And yet, over years of processing this, of working to dismantle the white-man-with-long-white-beard-in-the-sky images of God, I’m coming to retrospectively appreciate that unsettling moment in my life. It was in the midst of a troubling time, a time of doubt, a time of really wrestling with how or if Christian faith could actually say anything about the world I was encountering for the first time. And it was another piece of my worldview that had fallen to the ground.
That was a time in my life where the worlds of existentialist philosophy, and sexual history, and postmodern literature were all a part of my studies. Each of my classes was contributing to this questioning of my neat-and-tidy God-box. Each of them offered new challenges.
I don’t know what it was, but part of it was that I hadn’t really faced challenges before. I had been comfortable in my faith. I knew the way it was, I knew I had accepted Jesus, and I knew that even though I wasn’t okay, God had made everything okay on the cross. I knew the secret handshake, and heavenly paradise was assured.
This one time, after hearing from the Californians, I tested these ideas with the leader of my bible study. I told him I was wrestling with these new notions of God, I was starting to question some assumptions. Reassuringly, I was told not to think about it. “He’s a He in the Bible. Father. Son. Spirit. That’s all there is.”
It didn’t exactly resolve things for me. It wasn’t exactly a comfort, but I did put the questions to the side for awhile. I had enough to worry about without questioning God’s gender identity. Male? Female? Somewhere in between?
Sometime later that school year, after delving deeper into Nietzsche, Sartre, Mann and Foucault, I approached the same bible study leader again. I was wandering through more struggles, trying to reconcile these versions of history, these worldviews with the one I’d inherited. They were at odds, it seemed, to what I’d grown up with. And yet at the same time, many of those struggles were rooted in the contrast between outward appearances and inward reality.
For me, this was the valley of the shadow of doubt, and yet in the midst of all that, my bible study leader told me “all you need is to have more faith.” Looking back, I both get it, and I don’t. In one very real sense, that is the answer. In another, it is completely the opposite – because faith and certainty are not the same thing. And what I think he was actually advocating in those moments, was that I hold on to certain propositions about God, rather than to truly exercise faith in the midst of that palpable tension.
These experiences, these tension and question-filled moments marked a transitional moment in my faith journey. All that was solid may have been melting into air, but at the same time, a sense of freedom and wonder at this new world was emerging.
Part of that emergence included a discovery of the feminine images of God throughout scripture. The discovery of the Wisdom tradition. Starting to see God’s self-revelation as a mother caring for her children. Encountering strong and noble women created in God’s own image (as it was in the beginning). Focusing on the stories of Deborah and Ruth and Esther.
Through all of this, I started to run into descriptions of God’s femininity in passages like Isaiah 49:15, Hosea 11:3-4, or Luke 15:8-10 amongst others. These were not images I grew up with, and yet they were there, in the heart of scripture, pointing beyond the male God-box.
I guess that’s one thing about imaging God. Sometimes we create God in our own image. God may be spirit. We may even acknowledge that God is spirit. And yet, if much of history (and certainly the majority of Christian histority) is dominated by the male voice, perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked to encounter the man-God at every turn.
It’s here that I find myself nodding in assent to Karl Barth’s words: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” This quote comes from before the popularisation of inclusive language, And yet, I’m not sure that in case there’s any need to update it. We’ve spent so much time projecting a male persona on God that maybe, just maybe, this is exactly the corrective we need to make.