Tile: The Father’s Womb
Texts: Psalm 110; Isaiah 49:1-3, 13-18; John 1:14-18
Date: Oct 9, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
I’m struggling with patriarchy these days, patriarchy and God, thinking of God as a Father, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” as we say in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, that Jesus taught us to pray. What does it mean to call God “Father,” to pray to God as our “Father”?
Last Sunday, during our response time, highlighted this problem for us. When we think about the Father and the Son, it seems like we can’t help but be drawn into a world of patriarchy. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we seem to be drawn into a relationship of patriarchy, a spirituality ruled by the Father, a hierarchy with masculinity on top.
I can’t say that I have a clear way to think about this. I don’t know how to make the problem of patriarchy go away. I don’t know what to do with God the Father. I feel like I’m at the edge of my thought-world, like I’ve reached the limits of my theology, of how I think and talk about God.
So, at best, today I want to take you to the limits of my imagination, and hope that you can find yourself at a place where your imagination can continue to guide us, to point out the pitfalls and invite us onto new paths into the mystery we call God.
Probably the most important thing I can say is that we don’t have any special language, any secret words, to speak about God. Even the word “God” is a borrowed word for us, borrowed from ancient religions, from the Greek pantheon: “pan-theon,” which literally means “all gods.” “Theos,” the word in our bibles that we use to refer to God, the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, the God of the Church — this word, Theos, has been borrowed from a very different religious context, a different religious world, where gods are like humans, fighting and sleeping around with one another. Those are gods, in the traditional sense, in the original sense of the word.
But, we have ripped it out of its original context; we’ve torn the word away from the beliefs systems, the world-ordering systems, in which Theos, or God, actually belongs. We’ve been using the word to talk about something very different, something not at all like traditional gods. Instead, we use the word God to help us talk about the mysterious power that spoke to Moses with fire from the burning bush, the silent movement that raised Jesus from the dead, the personal flow of grace that engulfs our lives and draws us into communion with each other, communion in a life that is truly life, the eternal life of God.
Another way to think about it is to say that our God is always dressed up in second-hand clothes; and these clothes don’t always fit God very well, but it’s the best we can do, it’s all we can do. These are the only clothes we have. With God, the clothes we use, the words we use, are stretched and ripped and re-sown and mismatched. The danger for us comes when we think that these clothes somehow reveal who God is and what God is like. She must be feminine just because she’s wearing a bra; or he must be masculine just because he’s wearing boxer briefs. But the clothes don’t reveal what God is like; they are simply all we have to describe a profound mystery. God is not one of the gods, despite what the word “God” might have originally meant, or what it means in other contexts.[i]
When we say God we are not talking about a God who is a being, an object, a person, a part of our universe. This is one thing we, as Christians, share with Muslims, Jews, and even Atheists — none of us think that there is such a thing, a being, called God.[ii]
In the same way we have ripped the word “God” out of its original context, I think we have torn the word “Father” out of its context too. When Jesus calls upon the Father, he is using a borrowed word, not a specialized word. Jesus is taking a word out of context, and using it to speak about the One from whom he came, the One with whom he is united.
But why did Jesus use fatherhood language? During Jesus’ time, the social unit was the paterfamilias, the father’s family. The mother, the children, the servants and slaves — everyone in the family was under the dominion of the father. The family was the building block of society. The political order was pictured as one big family, with a father as the leader, the ruler. To work your way up the ladder of power, you had to be a father who proved himself by running an obedient and successful family.[iii]
I think there are two ways to understand what Jesus was up to when he talked about his father, and invited his disciples to pray to the father. One possibility was that Jesus was just using the only language he had for authority. In his world, in his language, Father was the name given to the one the people should serve and obey. So, Jesus used the only word he could use to mean what he meant.
That’s the first possibility, which I think makes a lot of sense. But, for now, I’d rather go with a second option. I would like to think of Jesus as using the language of “father” as an act of theft, of verbal robbery, a subversion within the language of his time, an act of linguistic violence against his culture, against the system of domination. When Jesus uses the language of father, we shouldn’t forget what he says about the family, the building block of society: He says, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set humans against their fathers” (Matt 10:34-35). Jesus singles out patriarchy as a focus of his movement of subversion.
For Jesus to speak about his Father, and invite the people to imagine a different father than their human fathers, and to imagine a different father from the fathers who wield power in society—for Jesus to claim the word “Father” as a way to call upon God was to cut away at the authority of the fathers. If God is your father, then you no longer belong in the paterfamilias, you no longer fit within the systems of control, you no longer have to obey the powers that be. It was an act of subversion, an act of linguistic violence against the system of patriarchy: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set humans against their fathers.”
(This argument is usually made about how the language of “Lord” functions in the NT and early church. To call Jesus “Lord” is to say that all the other authorities no longer have lordship. Jesus displaces their power of lordship. I’m suggesting that this same thing happens with the language of “Father”)
The trouble is that patriarchy and sexism are powers that are always insinuating themselves into our lives, and into our words. No matter how revolutionary a movement might be, no matter how inventive we are with our language, we are never safe; we are never outside of the struggle. There is no perfect language; all of our words are dangerous, we always speak with a risk of misunderstanding and misappropriation. Even if Jesus meant to use Father-language as an act of subversion, the word was quickly reinvested with male power, manpower, with masculine control in the church.
I find some hope in the way people, from early in church history, found ways to mess with patriarchal visions of God the Father. So, for example, in the second century after Jesus, there was a lovely poem, a hymn, that created gender confusion for anyone who thought they knew what they were saying when they called God “Father.” Now, I should warn you, early and medieval Christians, for some reason, were much more comfortable with using bodily metaphors for God than we are. Just listen to this hymn:
A cup of milk was offered to me
And I drank it with the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father,
And She who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.[iv]
Apparently, according to this hymnist, the Father has breasts, breasts that flow with milk. What kind of Father has breasts for nursing? Well, the passage we heard from John’s Gospel mentions the bosom, the breast, of the Father: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). While it’s the case that men and women have breasts, the author of the poem we heard has no problem taking this to mean that the Father has a female breast. For what it’s worth, Augustine of Hippo takes this passage from John’s Gospel in the same way: the Father has female breasts.
And how about a womb — can you imagine a Father with a womb? That’s what the church Council of Toledo declared in 675 CE.
“One must believe,” it says, “that the Son is begotten and born not from nothing, nor from some other substance, but from the womb of the Father [de Patris utero], that is, from his substance.”[v]
It says, in Latin, “de Patris utero” — literally, from the uterus of the Father. A couple hundred years before this confession of faith, this confession of God with a womb, Augustine of Hippo makes a similar claim as he works through the passage we read from Psalm 110. Traditionally, Christians have taken this Psalm to be the words of the Father to the Son, “The Lord said to my lord,” as it says in the first verse. In verse 3, in the version of the Bible Augustine is reading from, the Father says to the Son, “out of my womb before the morning star I bore you.”[vi] Augustine writes, with Psalm 110 and John 1 in mind, and says, “Let us then understand the Father saying unto the Son, ‘From my womb before the morning star I have brought thee forth.”[vii]
To imagine a Father with breasts and a womb stretches our imagination, inviting us into very bodily metaphors, and to reach through them into God, into God’s life, a life that reaches through us and stretches out beyond us, affirming who we are, while inviting us to think beyond fixed genders.[viii]
God bends gender, this way and that, twisting genders into one another, forming life-giving combinations. As I sketched briefly tonight, there’s a rich tradition in the church of thinking about a God who fuses and transgresses our ideas about gender. When we say that God is a Father, we have to imagine someone with womb. But more than just imagining God in this way, as Christians we are invited into a relationship with this mother, into our mother, who holds us within her — this One who lives for our sake, letting her life flow into ours, providing a place for our bodies to grow within hers, being patient with us as we kick her from within the womb, forbearing us as we take over her body from the inside.
This is the One we are invited to praise. This is the One who bears us and nurtures us, who holds us as close as possible, within her womb. Because, after all, Can a woman forget her sucking child, can she have no compassion for the child of her womb? (Isa 49:15)
[i] Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, ed. by Brian Davies (London, UK: Continuum, 2002), 3: “We always do have to speak of our God with borrowed words; it is one of the special things about our God that there are no peculiarly appropriate words that belong to him, as with the language of carpentry or computer-speak. He is always verbally in second-hand clothes that don’t fit him very well. We always have to be on our guard against taking these clothes as revealing who and what he is.”
[ii] Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004), 9-17. E.g., “Incidentally, if ‘gods’ are now beings of a particular kind, then Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all have this, at least, in common: that none of them believe in gods” (10).
[iv] Quoted in Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 114.
[v] Quoted in Eugene F. Rogers Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 116.
[vi] This is what we find in the Latin Vulgate. The correct translation is not at all clear. As Hans-Joachim Kraus writes, “The text is in disarray.” Kraus, Psalm 60-150: A Continental Commentary, trans. by Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 344.
[vii] Augustine of Hippo, Enarrationes in Psalmos 109.10; quoted in Rogers, After the Spirit, 115.
[viii] “The potential here for a gender-bending use of gendered imagery—a Father with a womb—might very well present the best hope for avoiding the theological reinforcement of male privilege. Gendered imagery is ‘exceeded’ in a ‘baffling of gender literalism,’ as Janet Soskice puts it. ‘Roles are reversed, fused, inverted: no one is simply who they seem to be. More accurately, everyone is more than they seem to be… the Father and the Spirit are more than one gender can convey.’” Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 215. Tanner’s subsequent warning is important here: “Nothing stops, however, talk of a Father with a womb from simply erasing the contribution of real women by usurping their place: a man can do everything now!” (215). As I said earlier, no language, no metaphor, is perfect; everything is dangerous. With Tanner’s warning in mind, we can notice Thomas Aquinas gesture toward the way Father subsumes the place of the mother: “In the generation of the Word, Holy Scripture attributes to the Father all those things which in fleshly generation belong separately to the father and to the mother: thus the Father is said both ‘to give life to the Son’ and ‘to conceive and give birth’ to the Son.” Summa contra gentiles IV, 11; quoted in Rogers, After the Spirit, 117.