Remember learning about similes and metaphors in 5th grade and writing all sorts of strange sentences to practice the concept? Metaphors are actually more important than your 5th grade teacher led you to believe. Metaphors, and language in general, are really powerful. Metaphors spark our imagination and influence how we interpret and see people, places, and as I will demonstrate, God.
Metaphors are so deeply woven into our language and culture that we often fail to realize their presence and prevalence. Even the Bible is replete with metaphors for God, for humanity and for creation. Metaphors ignite our thoughts and emotions and help us to relate to other subjects or understand others. This is partly why film, art or poetry are so powerful. They express things through image or language that hold far deeper meaning than the mere words themselves. Words can hold immense power, and two or three words strung together can radically influence how you interpret something. Allow an experiment. The following list of metaphors make statements, but the statements are jam packed with assumptions, questions, beliefs, and biases.
1. The Bible is truth
2. This bread is the body of Christ
3. God is love
4. God is King
Far from an attempt at deconstructing these theological statements, it becomes apparent that our theological statements and beliefs are deeply entangled and even dependent upon particular metaphors. What does it mean, then, that the Bible is truth? What is truth and what does it mean to equate the Bible with such an idea? What does it mean that bread is the “body of Christ”? What is love? And what does it mean to equate God with it? Lastly, what is a king? Who are kings? How do kings function, and what does it mean to refer to God as a king?
This monarchical––and gendered––metaphor is a glimpse into the patriarchal language embedded into Christianity that dominates theological discourse, worship, the ways in which people relate to God, and even anthropology. Such monarchical metaphors may simply express a reverence for God, but the reality is that such reverence subtly speaks to our views of both men and women in ways that align divinity and power with men over and above women. Feminist critiques of Christianity have driven this point home for decades, but dominant Christianity has been unable to disengage its beliefs and declarations about God from its traditional, historical metaphors created by patriarchal cultures. In other words, Christianity has allowed imperfect images and language to determine the boundaries of acceptable ways to talk about God, humanity, and the universe. By imperfect images, I am referring to the ways in which our language always falls short of fully encompassing reality. This is no more true than within our language about God. What we say about God can never fully capture who God is, but are attempts at describing the Divine.
Here is a simple exercise in how this plays out and why we must rethink the ways in which we speak about God. Claiming that God is King assumes that God is male. Do you believe God is a man? Probably not. Do you believe God is a woman? Of course you don’t. However, you are likely to be far more comfortable relating to God as a man than as a woman because centuries of tradition, art and worship have declared God to be male, and for God to be more feminine than masculine would denude God of power. Consequently, this associates women with inferiority, weakness and a lack of power. Unfortunately, this is exactly how Christianity has treated women for the majority of history. This subtlety in language about God shapes a multitude of cultural assumptions and biases about men, women, power and equality that always tip the scales of privilege toward the male experience. Christianity must recognize this, resist it, and refuse to be constrained by a limited vocabulary, and in so doing begin to move closer toward mutuality and gender equality. Rethinking our language is a vital step in the process of rethinking our images, our identities, and who God is.
The powerful metaphors “God is King,” “Jesus is Lord” and “the Kingdom of God” are not only unhelpful, but damaging because of the assumptions they make about who God is, God’s relationship to the world, engendered power structures, and because of the problematic association with a hierarchical and royal relationship which is no longer relevant in the 21st century West and elsewhere.
So what do we do and where do we go from here? It is important to rethink how we speak of God. We cannot escape gender, but we can escape gender exclusivity in a way that matches our language to what we believe about who God is. While one option is to avoid gendered pronouns altogether (using God, Godself, etc.), I think it is important to make use of both male and female pronouns together. That means we need to get comfortable referring to God as She and praying to our Holy Mother. Next, we come up with better metaphors and images and language by which we capture and describe participation in the life of God that makes sense to and values all of our gendered bodies and experiences and reconcile them to Christ. It is through this movement that we will begin to reconcile ourselves to one another, living in mutuality, love, and honor for others.