Roxy is the chaplain at St. Cuthbert’s college in central Auckland.
At the Presbyterian schools conference in August I heard a presentation by the Right Reverend Ray Coster as a White Ribbon ambassador. He spoke eloquently with a thoughtful and wide ranging approach to the issue of domestic violence. He recognised that this issue is essentially about inequality between men and women; that it is overwhelmingly men who have a problem and women who suffer for it. And he recognised the part that major religious traditions – including the Christian church – have had in perpetrating and protecting the man’s desire for and sense of entitlement to power and control over women and children. This is not news, but it is always deeply disturbing to hear.
There were many positive signs of change offered and positive suggestions made as to how we in our schools of special character can support the formation of boys and girls who, aware of the issues, are moved to act to bring change. But one area which we cannot seem to touch, one area we seem to protect and vigorously defend is the language and images we ascribe to God.
Everything we say about God is only ever partial, limited, and incomplete. Everything we say is a metaphor and signpost pointing to the One who is beyond our words, beyond our full understanding. We are willing to recognise this at an intellectual level. But then we insist that God is Father. Not Mother. We insist that God is he and not she. Can we really imagine our own equality as men and women made in the image of God if we cannot allow that God is as much Mother as Father?
As Father’s Day approaches, I have been reflecting on how children begin to imagine God as a super version of their parents – at first, usually the characteristics of both parents rolled into an upsized version, but our language offers them only a heavenly Father, and so God is imagined less and less with mother-like qualities. God becomes firmly male.
In the past, this would make me angry. But now I just feel deep compassion for the burden placed on every father’s shoulders – a burden of imaging God for our children that our language keeps firmly in place and won’t allow to be shared. And I feel compassion for all those who cannot find a bridge of trust to the Father God, because of the relationship with their own father.
I wonder what it is we are really scared might happen if we expand our vocabulary.
I wonder what it is we resist when we quickly justify the limitations of our language.
I wonder if we will always be the last ones to see what is clear to those who stand outside of our traditions.
God loves us, and so we need language and images for God that let us move and grow into a relationship of love, trust, and deepening intimacy with God. We need metaphors and symbols that affirm the wholeness of human being and that offer us the broadest reflection of the wholeness of God’s being – which ought to be at least as broad as our shared experience.
Don’t you think?