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I’ve been thinking a lot about my deepest held images of God: why do I hold them? Where do they come from? What do they say about the Christian faith I was raised in? What do they say about me? How do they hold me back? Or how could they possibly be liberating?

I used to be afraid to think about images of God. I used to think that if there were no more images of God, God would disappear for me.

Yet, personal religious experiences that I’ve had recently have changed my mind.

I believe there’s Something there, something bigger and more amazing than I can comprehend. Something that feels like love and sings wisdom into my heart. I call that something God.

It’s hard to talk tangibly about something, though, ya know?

So, here we are, humans with limited (as amazing as they are) mental capacities, which are reigned in even further by the confines of language. And we need to talk about. . .

Something. 

I imagine the writers of the Bible had this problem. How to write about something?

And like good writers, the Biblical authors explained this unfamiliar something by comparing it to something their audience would find familiar.

We need images of God. They help us talk about God. They help us pray. They help us understand. They help us fight injustice.

But sometimes these images take hold. Sometimes they become idols.

God is also not a white dude...

God is also not a white dude…

Instead of worshipping God, it seems like often we worship a father.

We worship a king.

We worship a lord.

But we don’t worship I AM WHAT I SHALL BE. We don’t worship God.

We worship men.

As Elizabeth A. Johnson says in her book She Who Is, “The theistic God is modeled on the pattern of an earthly absolute monarch, a metaphor so prevalent it is often taken for granted.” She reminds us the hard truth that, “even when [this monarch] is presented as kindly, merciful, and forgiving, the fundamental problem remains. Benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy.”

I think sometimes we let our patriarchal, imperialist, domination-based society dictate our faith.

We lose sight of Jesus as God with us, and focus on God over us. 

I think even masculine images of God can be extremely useful in confronting patriarchy, and other systems of injustice. If God is king, then I am not subject to earthly rulers. If God is father, then I am not subject to men.

Yet these images are so easily appropriated by those in power. If God is king, then king is God. If God is father, then father is God.

I don’t suggest we leave images behind. But I suggest we stop, and we think. And we remember.

We must remember God is not really a king. 

If Jesus is any indication as Christian doctrine says, God looks nothing like earthly kings. God died a mockery of their robes and crowns. God rose in victory over death–the strongest threat that powerful men have in their arsenal–and in all God’s victorious glory God . . . went and fried up some fish and chilled with some friends.

The heavens are not literally God’s throne and the earth is not literally God’s footstool.

God is not really a king, and we need to be extremely careful when images of ruling men in a patriarchal society begin to inform our faith. That is when religion’s power of liberation gets wrestled away by the very oppressors it once challenged.

God is not a man.

God is what God shall be.

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A new recipe for humble pie

I once read a manifesto by the anti-feminist True Women Movement that stated as one of its points:

Selfish insistence on personal rights is contrary to the spirit of Christ who humbled Himself, took on the form of a servant, and laid down His life for us.

Though I cringe when I read this now, I once thought the same thing about humility. To be humble, I mustn’t assert my right to anything. Humility meant viewing myself as I was taught to believe God viewed me (without Jesus’ intervention of course)–as a filthy, disgusting, vomit-inducing sinner that deserves no more than eternity in hell. Humility meant, in the face of oppression, I was to be submissive. I was to let people hurt me, take advantage of me, and I was never to retaliate in any form.

Humility meant there was nothing good about me. Humility meant I didn’t deserve anything. Since I was no good and didn’t deserve good things, the greatest expression of humility meant to be “like Jesus (who was good and worthy, of course, but was acting in my place),” and submit myself to anyone that I felt might be oppressing me.

There was a huge double standard in all of this, of course. The feminist movement was prideful and selfish for wanting to help women, while white, male, Christian leaders were allowed to rant about how oppressed they were because the cashier at Walmart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Basically, the standards of humility were most heavily enforced on those who were already oppressed in order to prevent them from rising up against their oppressors who, (surprise, surprise!) were often white, male Christian leaders

Humility, as I learned it, was not a Christian virtue but a twisted tool of oppression.

Jesus spent his whole life standing up to religious leaders, asserting his rights and the rights of the oppressed. He spent his whole life boldly asserting himself. Jesus’ death did not occur because he humbly submitted himself to authorities but because he did the opposite. He terrified the authorities and they killed him in a desperate attempt to put his followers in “their place.”

Knowing what I know about Jesus, I can’t buy into that idea of humility anymore. However, I don’t believe I should throw the concept of humility out the window either. I have to find a new way to express the virtue of humility–one that allows me to stand up for myself and others, to boldly assert my personhood and to define my own identity in Christ, to speak my mind and to claim my rights.

Rosemary Radford Reuther–whose book, Sexism and God-Talk has recently become one of my favorites–offers a different perspective on humility.

One gains humility in one’s criticism of arrogant egoism in [oppressive groups]. Humility here is no longer a tool of timidity and servitude but assumes it’s rightful meaning as truthful self-knowledge of one’s own capacity for oppressive pride.

Oppression is complicated. There isn’t always a black and white divide between the oppressed and the oppressors. Most of us occupy a context that situates us as both. I am a woman, therefore, in the context of patriarchy, I am oppressed. I am engaged to a man, therefore, in the context of heteronormativity, I am potentially an oppressor.  I have a mental disability, therefore in the context of our ableist culture I am oppressed. I am white, therefore in the context of racism I am potentially an oppressor.

So, what if we made humility about recognizing where we stand in the matrix of oppression? What if humility could mean that, as I criticize the way powerful men treat women, I stopped for a moment to listen to my own words and to rethink how I treat people of color? What if humility could mean that, as I demand that mentally able-bodied people listen to me before they judge people on medication for mental illnesses, I also remember to listen to the stories of LGBT people or poor people or people from different countries?

If we rethink humility, it can become a powerful virtue that breaks the cycle of oppression and sets captives free. A bit of humility can keep us in check, making sure that we’re always fighting for justice, not just fighting for a seat at the table of power.

Distorted, power-hungry Christianity may try to use this virtue to tear down movements of justice, but we can reclaim humility. We need to reclaim humility, because without it, power structures stay in tact. Without it, nothing changes.


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Mother-Father God

I’m still reading through Sexism and God-Talk by Rosemary Radford Ruether, and seriously, y’all, this book is breathing new life into my dying faith. There’s another quote I’d like to share with you all today because it feels particularly relevant to my life.

Ruether is continuing her discussion of images of God–whether they reinforce existing hierarchies that oppress the weak and thus become idolatrous, or whether they empower the oppressed of society to find freedom by asserting that God is their only master. One image of God that she discusses is the image of God as parent.

According to Ruether, the model of God as parent, especially when it includes images of Mother God as well as Father, has positives. “Parents are a symbol of roots,” she says, “the sense of being grounded in the universe in those who have gone before, who underlie our own existence.” Parents, family, heritage are all important and potentially empowering.

However, the parent image of a “Mother-Father God” can be used to control people as well.

It suggests a kind of permanent parent-child relationship to God. God becomes a neurotic parent who does not want us to grow up. To become autonomous and responsible for our own lives is the gravest sin against God. Patriarchal theology uses the parent image of God to prolong spiritual infantilism as virtue and to make autonomy and assertion of free will a sin…To that extent parenting language for God reinforces patriarchal power rather than liberating us from it. We need to start with language for the Divine as redeemer, as liberator, as one who fosters full personhood and, in that context, speak of God/ess as creator, as source of being.


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Is patriarchy idolatry?

I’ve been reading feminist theology lately and learning to view Christianity from angles that I never even imagined. Take, for example, this quote from Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk: 

Israel is to make no…graven image of God; no pictorial or verbal representation of God can be taken literally. By contrast, Christian sculpture and painting represents God as a powerful old man with a white beard, even crowned and robed in the insignia of human kings or the triple tiara of the pope. The message created by such images is that God is both similar to and represented by patriarchal leadership…Such imaging of God should be judged for what it is–as idolatry, as the setting up of certain human figures as the privileged images and representations of God.

Ruether claims that this idea of idolatry–that viewing any human image as a literal description of God rather than as an analogy that aids human understanding and breaks earthly power structures–must be extended to verbal imagery as well.

When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous…The revelation to Moses in the burning bush gives as the name of God only the enigmatic “I am what I shall be.” God is person without being imaged by existing social roles. God’s being is open-ended, pointing both to what is and to what can be.

Ruether’s words challenge Christians to think about what images (visual or verbal) of God we are using, and why we are using them.

Do we call God our king as a way of declaring that our allegiance is not to the flag of an imperial state? Or do we call God our king, and then form God into a tyrant whose decrees sound an awful lot like our own beliefs?

Do we call God our father in order to undermine the patriarchal authority of men who seek to oppress wives and daughters? Or do we call God our father and then insist that mothers (and other women) have no authority in the church, because Christianity has a “masculine” feel?

Many of the verbal images of God we find in the Bible were meant to be taken as analogies that empower us to “obey God rather than man.” They were not meant to be seen as literal ideas of who God is, what God looks like, and especially which of us humans get to be the most god-like.

Image

Behold, white Jesus!

Our images of God should challenge oppressive power structures, rather than simply providing a mirror for them to gaze into. Those images of God should free us to speak and to serve and to love, not simply entangle us further in the chains that society has already placed upon us.

When our images of God simply become a way of making God look just like oppressive men and husbands and fathers and kings and popes and pastors and white people, and, in turn, making those people look an awful lot like God, maybe we need to repent of our idolatry.