Towards An Inclusive Image Of God

Protus O. Kemdirim


  1. Introduction
  2. The “Father” Image - A Critique
  3. The Biblical experience
  4. The Patristic Tradition
  5. The African perspective
  6. Inclusive Liturgy
  7. Inclusive image
  8. Conclusion
  9. Endnotes

The feminist or womanist theology which arouse, like every liberation theology, from the experience of being wounded, no doubt became a serious theological enterprise in the last century. Growing from the destruction inflicted on the lives of women, whether conceived in economic, political, social intellectual or psychic terms, the theology features towering individuals as Rosemary Reuther, Elizabeth Schrussler Florenzer, Tacquelyne Grant, Elasa Tanez and others. In Africa in particular, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, mary Getui, Teresa Okure, Musimbi Kanyaro and the present writer are no less figures in the propagation of the feminist agenda. While reflecting on women’s experiences and engagement with their culture and addressing doctrinal themes, these theologians (men and women) underline the need for inclusive language in liturgy and worship. Indeed, the fact is that, if in the last century our traditional language for God is challenged, in this century, the challenge will be about choosing to use female language and images to speak of God. The issue is not simply about changing pronouns for the sake of political correctness or even to satisfy current trends about inclusive language but more importantly about shaping and articulating spirituality which is at the heart of the biblical tradition and the Christian doctrine of creation.

In this short piece, my task is to critique the many series of anthropomorphic images of God such as King and Sovereign Judge and Lord, shepherd and Father. Second, I will attempt to uncover the occasional tests and stories within the biblical, the patristic and African traditions which speak of God as female. Finally, I will underscore the liberating effect of the concept of God as father and mother and the relevance of the study for the growth of the church in the third Millennium.

The “Father” Image - A Critique
In Western theology, images of God such as King, Lord, and especially father have been dominant with resultant consequences. For one thing, these concepts have made it possible for men to see themselves in God’s image to the extent of internalizing the truth of the doctrine. For another, and sadly too, women have no corresponding images to enable them to see themselves as also made in the image of God.

There is perhaps no metaphor of God that is as ambiguous as that of the father. As an easy target to be misused for authoritarian religion, the metaphor hardly conveys fully what God is like. It only takes on the facet of what is familiar to point to a reality that is less known.1 Thus the question is raised whether the image of God as father is biblical. This is more so as the exodus tradition, which forms the crucible of the first biblical image of God, gets by without the ‘father’, as also does the creation account. To be remembered here also is the vision at the burning bush,2 in which God gives the name, “I am what I am” or I will be what I will be”. This inexpressible, unutterable name of God which remained sacred and the unpronounceable within Jewish tradition does not by any means transmit a father theology. Indeed “the revelation of the names”, as Paul Ricoeur writes, “signifies the annulment of all anthropomorphic conceptions, all forms and shapes, including the form of the father. The name stands against idol”.3

Furthermore, in the Hebrew Bible, the designation of God as father is scantly, occurring only in about twenty places. In Hosea, Jeremiah, and in Third Isaiah where the father’s name emerges within the prophetic message, to recognize the father does not mean to illumine the mythical origin of the people but to seek the coming of the Kingdom.4

In fact, the father’s name is always indicated in the context of the prophetically understood future of a new creation. (cf. Jeremiah 3: 19). Apparently this eschatological orientation continues on into the synoptic gospels wherein the Kingdom of God and the heavenly father is the central message. Accordingly, “Our father in the heavens” is not one of flesh and blood, but rather the divine figure imagined from the petition for the coming Kigdom.5 In this line also, Jesus labels the relationship between the children and the father in the sermon on the mount as one of asking and giving, “….Or what a man of you, if his son asks him for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish will give him a serpent? If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:9-11).

It is obvious as Riccoeur points out that asking and giving is either an oedipal or a servant-Lord relationship. What is of utmost importance is the universality of God, who relates to all as children like a father, giving, nourishing and bestowing. Arguably all human language about God is metaphorical. It is inappropriate, however, to conceive or believe that God is literally, biologically a “father” or a “king” in the historical and political sense in which kingship is generally understood. The tendency is to think in terms of opposite and hierarchies, in which male is superior to female, spirit to body, reason to emotion, culture to nature.6 this dualism inherent in the masculine image of God is what feminist spirituality seeks to challenge.

The Biblical Experience
The biblical tradition is remarkably very rich in images or metaphors, pictures, stories that speak well of God in many different ways drawn from human experience. In the New Testament, though parables are dominated by men and male activities, women are also models for the true characters of God. For one, there are parables where God is a woman baking bread (Matt. 13:33); a woman sweeping a room (Luke 15:8-10); a shepherd searching for a sheep (Matt. 18:12-14) and the owner of a vineyard. Also in the NT….the “I am” saying of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is the vine, the door, light, water, and the rich imagery of the psalms – where God is rock, a lamp, a mother’s breast, a shield, a fortress – are indeed enough resources in the biblical tradition that are available and use different metaphors to speak of God.

Indeed within the biblical tradition, there are occasional texts or stories which speak of God as female after the images or concepts of womb, spirit and wisdom although few of these texts are explicit. The following texts are instructive: Jeremiah 31:20, “I will truly show motherly compassion upon him”. Here God speaks to Ephraim through the prophet Jeremiah. In biblical tradition, the womb, which is uniquely to the female, is the vehicle for conveying the compassion of God.

In the biblical texts – Gen. 1:2, Ps. 139:13, Ps. 104, - the spirit is dramatically presented as showing activities that are feminine in nature. In the first place, the Hebrew term ruach is a feminine gender. Thus the spirit is associated with a feminine reality, thus, the Bible is explicit about the vital role of the Divine Spirit in creation. Accordingly, the book of Genesis depicts the spirit hovering over the primordial chaos as a nesting mother hovering over the egg (1:2) Psalm 139:13 describes the spirit too as a woman knitting together the new life in a mother’s womb (139:13). In Psalm 104, the spirit gives life to created things.

In Lk. 1:35 we read: “Thus angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you therefore the child to be born will be called holy, son of God”. The idea of the maternity of God through the Holy Spirit is here expressed. Through the spirit, God’s great plan in producing the incarnate son is realized.

The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus as a dove at Jesus’ baptism is significant. It points to the action of the Spirit as female in the same way as the maternal hovering over of the Spirit at creation. It should be remembered that the New Testament considers baptism as a second birth (See Luke 2:22; Matt. 3:16, Mk. 1:10, Jn. 1:35).

Jn. 3:5-6 states: “Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless, one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”. The activities of the Spirit as maternal are accentuated by Jesus at his conversation with Nicodemus. In fact Jesus makes it clear that the Spirit of God as mother brings forth new life through childbirth.

Wis. 7:22 describes the spirit as “fashioner of all things.” She can do all things and she can renew all things” or “effects all things”. Wis. 8:5. Wisdom is commonly regarded as a term for a female God. In Hebrew, the word for wisdom is Hochmah, a feminine noun. Indeed in the scriptures, it is portrayed as a female (cf. Sir. 14:22 ff.). In fact, in Proverb 8, the figure of Wisdom is personified and put alongside God as co-creator thus pointing as it were to the maternal nature of God. Truly in the Hebraic tradition (I.E. in the earliest Jewish thinking), wisdom is active with God in creation; it is associated with universal providence, and is the guide to living in harmony with the created world.7 Thus wisdom is the mother of all creation.

Indeed, the Bible is replete with many passages that speak well of the double-sided image of God as father-mother. (cf. Ex. 4:23, Isaiah 49: 15). Besides the Genesis account wherein both man and woman constitute the image of God (Gen. 1:2-27), the Book of Esdras offers a more concrete evidence of this reality. There God as Father and mother speaks thus:

You have not as it were forsaken me, but your own selves, says the Lord. Thus says the Almighty Lord, have I not prayed you as a father his sons, as a mother her daughter, and a nurse her young babies, that you would be my people, and I would be your God, that you would be my children, and I should be your father? I gather you together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings.8

The Patristic Tradition
There is no doubt that patriarchal and gender bias was the bane of patristic tradition. Negative attitude towards woman’s nature and role was widespread. Consequently, the concept of God as female was played down. Nevertheless, in the early church, the use of female images to depict God’s nature and activities appeared in the writings of some Church Fathers. To be remembered are the reference made to Christ as mother in the great writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Ireneaus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine.9 In particular, Clement of Alexandria developed a profound theme of God as mother.10 Also in the medieval period, in spite of the similar strong negative attitude towards the female, the thought of Jesus and God as both father and mother was popular with some notable Church leaders. A good example was the eminent Anselm of Canterbury who thought of God the Father as the one who rules and God the Mother as one who loves. Furthermore, in the thirteenth century, Albert the Great and Bonaventure, saw wisdom as a female partner with God in creation. In the words of Albert, “the wisdom of God is the first mother in whose image we have formed”11 For Bonaventure, wisdom can be compared to a good woman. The influential theologian further writes:

There is a principle of fecundity tending to conceiving, the bearing and the bringing forth of everything that pertains to the University of the laws. For all the exemplar reason is conceived from all eternity in the womb or uterus of eternal wisdom12.

The African Perspective
The image of God as Father –Mother is not totally alien to many African societies. In the first place, it is not unknown in traditional religion that deities are classified as male and female or that women own deities and function as priestesses, diviners, prophetesses seers, intermediaries (intact-sibyls) to the gods, the ancestors and society13. Or that some societies as the Ohafia-Igbo of Nigeria, Akan of Ghana and Northern-Sotho of South Africa are of matrilineal descent. The fact is that while, many African societies may not address God explicitly as Mother, they however attribute maternal qualities to Him. Among the Igbo, for instance, the Earth-goddes (Ala), a female deity, is goddess of fertility. She is the queen of the underworld, the owner of men and custodian of public morality in conjunction with the ancestors. More importantly the strictly maternal, are the well known few African societies that explicitly call God Mother. In fact, the Muba people not only call God Masala i.e. to “Great Mother” but use feminine pronoun to refer to God.

The Akan are perhaps the best known group that expresses belief in motherhood of God. There are female images of God expressed in prayers, songs, poetry, proverbs, myths and symbols. God is also characterized by care, nourishment, protection, shelter, patience, affectivity, receptivity, tenderness and life14. Another African society that is known to speak of God as male and female is the Ndobele of Zimbabwe. In fact, they think of God as father, another and son. In Africa then, the use of inclusive imagery for God is relatively widespread. God is seen not only as the creator but one who feeds his children, an activity that is largely feminine.

Inclusive Liturgy
Looking at the traditional language and imagery for God used in worship, hymns and prayers, one thing is clear, namely: that terms for God as male and hierarchical are based on a concept of transcendence and “power-over”. The fact, however, is that for a more inclusive liturgy, different images for God female articulation, men-gender images, those which express mutuality rather than hierarchy would be urgently needed. A good example is the prayer, Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess which expresses a sense of God as creator, mother of all earth. Thus the prayer reads:

Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess

Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess
Give birth to us, give life to the world.

In your darkness all is conceived
Nurtured in warmth and wetness until
Creation emerges, kicking and screaming
In the violence of birth.

Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess
Give birth to us, give us life.

We are held in your embrace…

The memory of intimacy is imprinted in
Our yearning for passion and tenderness
Our longing for the delight of your breast.

Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess
Nurture us, give us life,
We have rebelled against your purpose
Violating you in the name of freedom
Choosing reed and arrogance
Over the justice your hold in your lap.
Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess.

Forgive us, give us life.
Older than the hills, changing like wind and sun
You call us to share in your creation.
We are the individual you choose as you
Labour to give birth to the world
Mother of Earth, Holy Goddess
Redeem us, give life to the world.

Perhaps the Akan of Ghana are the best known Christian Community that have a well developed Father – Mother God faith expression in worship. In the Preface for Masses on Feast Days and Sunday’s, God is addressed as both Father and Mother.

Okokroko Nyame ee
Okyememekuku a oda sie mu
Obaatan Pa Nyame ee
Omfa ne Sunsum Nkata mu so daa
Nyamemma ee

Almighty (Father) God
Great and indomitable God
Mother God
May She/ He send His/her spirit
Upon you God’s Children

Also in the prayer of the faithful the inclusive image of God is commonly expressed. One typical prayer of the faithful reads thus:

God our Father and our Mother, we thank you for bringing us together. We thank you for bringing Jesus to show us your love, help us to extend this love to one another.

Similarly, songs that portray both the paternal and maternal nature of God abound. In fact, some Akan hymns portray God’s image as exclusively mother. The following are excellent examples.

Nyame a woye Obaaa pa
Wonno bi na won tan bi
Odomfo Nyame a wodom yen
Wo mma rose fre wo
Hu yen mpaebo
Tre yen mpaebo
Tie yen sufre Adekye yi

Yoda wase, yeyi wo aye
Onyame Obaata pa, yeda wabe
Onyame Obaata pa, yeda wase

Sugu me so oo na megye wo oo
Sugu me so oo na megye wo oo
Meye Onaye, Obaatan Nyame ee
Sugu me so oo na megye woo o

God you are Good Mother
You love all
Gracious God who offers grace
Your children cry out to you
Have mercy on us
Listening to our prayers
Hear our cry

We thank you, we praise you
Good Mother God, we thank you
Good Mother God, we thank you

Cry out to me and I shall hear
Cry out to me and I shall hear
I am, God, a Mother God
Cry out to me and I shall hear.

Though these insights may seem strange and unfamiliar, God’s graciousness tenderness, compassion and maternal love towards humankind are well expressed, The insight not only enriches the enterprise of feminist spirituality but shows that Christian faith itself can remain meaningful with new images and symbols.

Inclusive Image
For women and indeed feminist theology and spirituality, the challenge is undeniably the predominance of male images for God within Christian theology and worship. The belief is that both male and female are made in the image of God, yet woman do not seem to have no corresponding images to enable them to see themselves as made in the image God. However, considering that metaphors have power to redefine and transform concept, it does not seem unduly optimistic to look for images that speak of the divine in terms of female reality and experience. The question of course is not whether it is possible to find new names for God which speak directly to woman’s experience of being female and made in the image of God. Or whether the so-called new names, viz mother, sister, lover-weaver, dancer, rock, light, abyss, river, have difficulties15. The task is to speak of God in a way that brings a sense of new life and vitality to woman’s prayer and spirituality. Of particular importance, therefore, is the inclusive image of God as Father-Mother. As earlier observed, there is a seeming parallel of the concept both in the Bible and African traditional concept of God and worship. The liberating effect of the concept to woman is altogether remarkable. For one the use of such an image for God would enable women to begin to appreciate themselves more as also made kin the image of God. In fact, for many women, it would mean a tremendous experience of self-affirmation and recognition. Indeed it could mean being able to see themselves, claim their womanhood and femaleness, as being made in the image of God herself Simplicite. The fact is that, in contrast to a God who is powerful and authoritarian, there is need for a God (Goddess) who is challenging in her demand for justice, who baffles her people with her mystery, and who searches out the depths of her children with her knowing wisdom16. To be noted, of course, is the fact that female language brings the otherness of God home to many women.

No one is to doubt that “Father” is one mode of speaking about God. The problem arises when it is made to be the only and absolute mode. Thus the symbol becomes God’s prison! (Little wonder that Pope John Paul I opined that God is at least as much a mother as a father17. In worship, therefore, it would not be out of place to begin with the words: “In the name of the Father and Mother of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Certainly, for the new and empowering image, the labour may be difficult, painful and risky. But what emerges would be a spirituality that has all the toughness of new life. Indeed it is a spirituality born out of the desire for symbol and images with non-authoritarian qualities or free from dominance.

Sequel to this is the fact that today women are becoming more conscious of their situation and place both in Church and society conscious of their situation and place both in Church and society. In the Nigerian church, for instance, women are so visible that no project (physical or moral) is successful without their active involvement. It is women, for example, who mobilize through crusaders, retreats and protest marches to challenge Islamic insurgency occasioned by Nigeria’s alleged membership of organization of Islamic conference (OIC) and the introduction of sharia legal system in the Nigerian polity. The activities of women in the church would mean growth – a new awakening and improvement. This would however, be greatly sustained if only familial symbols of God such as father-mother are articulated. This would have a liberating effect not simply because they alleviate the dehumanizing oppressive characteristics of patriarchy but because they bind us to nature and to the human family – the family of God the Father and God the Mother. This is the challenge and relevance of inclusive theology in the third millennium.

End Notes

  1. Jan Berry, “Naming God” in British Journal of Theological Education, vol. 9 No. 3 (1997/98), 20-35
  2. Exodus 3
  3. Paul Ricoeur, “De vetergestalt-vom phatasiebuld zum Symbol” in Hermeneutik and psychoanalys” De, Kantik der Interpretation II Munich 1974), 337.
  4. Dorothee Soelle, Theology for Sceptics, London, Mowbray Publication Co, 1993, 23.
  5. Dorothee Soelle, Theology for Sceptics, London, Mowbray Publication Co, 1993, 23 – 24.
  6. Jan Berry, “Naming God” in British Journal of Theological Education, vol. 9 No. 3 (1997/98), 20-35
  7. Jan Berry, “Naming God” in British Journal of Theological Education, vol. 9 No. 3 (1997/98), 20-35II Esdras 1:27-30.
  8. George Kwame Kumi, “God’s Image As Equivalently Father and Mother, An African Perspective”, in African Ecclesial Review vol, 38, no. 4 (1996) 205-228).
  9. Clement Alexandria Paedagogus, Book 1, Chapter 6.
  10. Magni A. Postilla Super Isaiah 49:15 Dennis Nowakowski Baker elaborates on Albert’s divine maternal symbolic Julias of Norwich’s Showings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 190.
  11. Saint Bonaventure, opera Omnia.
  12. Protus O. Kemdirim, “Towards Inclusiveness for women in the African Churches” in Mission Studies vol. XII, 1, 23, 1995.
  13. George Kwame Kumi, “God’s Image As Equivalently Father and Mother, An African Perspective”, in African Ecclesial Review vol, 38, no. 4 (1996) 205-228).
  14. Strictly speaking the image of God as mother has its difficulties of their experience of giving birth and mothering; for others who today see motherhood as a backward idea, a social fetish, the concept is repudiated. Others too who are childless feel excluded by the one-sided female image.
  15. Jan Berry, “Naming God” in British Journal of Theological Education, vol. 9 No. 3 (1997/98), 20-35
  16. Pope John Paul I in a Sunday address, on Sunday September, 1978.

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