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God and Gender: How Do We Address God?

 

from an address at Woodbridge Presbyterian Church, 28October 2001

God and Gender: How Do We Address God?

 

I: — Prostitution is tragic under any circumstances. Prostitution is demeaning. Prostitution, however, that is enjoined as a religious act and defended by a religious argument is more than tragic and demeaning: it’s disgusting.

In the city of Corinth one thousand women were attached as religious prostitutes to the temple of Aphrodite. Needless to say the Christian congregation in Corinth stood out starkly against the backdrop of the temple and its sordid traffic in devotees who did obeisance to Aphrodite and all that the goddess represented. At least the Christian congregation in Corinth largely stood out starkly against the backdrop of sexual irregularities. We know, however, that the spirit of Aphrodite always lapped at the Christian congregation and occasionally infected a member or two of it.

Centuries earlier the Canaanite nations that surrounded Israel had trafficked in religious prostitution too. The word to Israel that had thundered from Sinai, however, had repudiated such degradation. The prophets in turn denounced it unambiguously. Even so, the spirit of sexual irregularity always hovered over Israel, always had to be guarded against, and occasionally had to be exorcised.

Throughout the history of humankind, whenever a goddess has been worshipped as the arch-deity, wherever “Mother-god” has been held up, the final result has always been religious prostitution and widespread sexual promiscuity. For this reason Israel refused to call God “Mother”, and refused as well to speak of the deity as “goddess”.

Throughout the history of humankind goddess-worship (Mother-god-worship) has been associated with the worship of fertility. The worship of fertility includes fertility of all kinds: agricultural fertility, animal fertility, human fertility. A key element in such worship, a key element in the chain of events, has been “sympathic magic”. Sympathic magic means that when humans are sexually active the god and goddess are sexually active too. The sexual activity of god and goddess in turn ensures the fertility of animals and crops.

When Israel was led to call God “Father”, Israel didn’t think for a minute that the God of Israel was equipped with male genitalia rather than female. Israel knew that the true and living God is not equipped with genitalia of any kind; God is not gender-specific in any sense. In calling God “Father”, however, Israel was deliberately refusing to call God “mother”; Israel was deliberately repudiating everything that the fertility cults around it associated with female deities. Israel repudiated the notion that the deity is sexually active, the notion that human sexual activity is sympathically magical, the notion that the entire enterprise is sacramentally abetted by sacral prostitution, the notion that the concomitant promiscuity has any place at all in God’s economy. Israel repudiated all of it.

Yes, Israel did occasionally use female imagery to describe God. In scripture God is said to be like a mother or a nurse or even a she-bear not to be trifled with. But while God is said to be like a mother, for instance, God is never said to be a mother, never called “mother”. On the other hand God is said to be a father and is called “Father”. Why the difference? — because of everything detailed above.

As soon as we name God “mother” and “goddess” we play right into the hands of Canaan and Aphrodite where sexual intercourse among the deities creates the universe. (In the creation stories of the bible there is no suggestion anywhere that the universe came into being as the result of sexual activity among the deities.) We also play into the hands of the old notion that when a worshipper is sexually joined to a religious prostitute, worshipper and prostitute themselves become the god and the goddess. In other words, to speak of “Our Father and Mother” lands us back into everything that Israel’s prophets fended off on account of the character of Israel’s God. A contemporary hymn exclaims, “Mother and God, to you we sing; wide is your womb, warm is your wing.” This hymn squares perfectly with the fertility cults of old, together with their sacral prostitutes and their religiously sanctioned promiscuity.

II: — All of this denies the transcendence of God. By transcendence we mean the truth that God is “high and lifted up”, as Isaiah tells us. Later a Hebrew prophet, knowing himself addressed by the holy One Himself, finds seared upon his own mind and heart, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is radically different from His creation, radically other than His creatures.

The distinction between God and His creation is a distinction that scripture never compromises. “It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves”, cries the psalmist. This distinction is the heart of God’s holiness. The root meaning of “holy” is “set apart” or “different”. God is holy in that He is radically different. God is uniquely God. His creation is other than He, different from Him. To be sure, His creation is good (good, at least, as it comes forth from His hand, even though it is now riddled with sin and evil); but while God’s creation is good it is never God. The creation is never to be worshipped. Idolatry is a horror to the people of God. The creation isn’t God; neither is it an extension of God or an aspect of God or an emanation of God. God remains holy, high and lifted up. He and His creation are utterly distinct. He alone is to be worshipped, praised and thanked. We who are creatures of God are summoned to trust Him, love Him, obey Him, and therein know Him. We are summoned to know God (faith is such a knowing); but we are never summoned to be God. Indeed, the temptation to be God, to be our own lord, our own judge, our own saviour — this is the arch-temptation. Any suggestion that any human activity can render us divine (as is the case with sacral prostitution) is a denial of God’s transcendence. The old hymn known as “The Doxology”, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise Him all creatures here below…”, reflects God’s transcendence. A modern version of the Doxology has been altered to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise Him all creatures high and low…”. “All creatures here below” affirmed the truth that God is above us; “All creatures high and low” makes no such affirmation. In the mother-goddess mind-set God is no longer radically other than His creation; God is no longer discontinuous with the world; God and the world are a function of each other. Here God is an aspect of the world — which is to say, God (so-called) is useless to the world.

The loss of God’s transcendence is reflected in the near-disappearance of “LORD” from contemporary hymnbooks. The reason given for this disappearance is that “LORD” is hierarchical and therefore oppressive. The hymnbook committee is correct concerning one matter here: unquestionably “LORD” is hierarchical; God is above us; He is “high and lifted up”; he does transcend us infinitely. But does this make Him oppressive? So far from making Him oppressive, the fact that God is above us is the condition of His being able to bestow mercy upon us. Only if God is above us, only if God transcends us, is He free from us and therefore free to act for us.

The loss of God’s transcendence shouldn’t surprise us in view of the fact that the New Age movement has infected everything in our society, the church not excepted. The New Age movement endorses pantheism (that heresy, says C.S. Lewis, which always tempts the church). Pantheism insists that God is the essence of everything or at least that God is in everything. If God is in everything or the essence of everything, then there is nothing that isn’t God. However, if there is nothing that isn’t God, then evil doesn’t exist, since evil is that which contradicts God and aims at frustrating Him, that which He in turn opposes. And if evil doesn’t exist, then neither does sin, since sin is that expression of evil that has overtaken humans. In other words, the loss of God’s transcendence plunges men and women into a confusion, a maze, where such crucial bearings as sin and evil are lost too.

Yet we are plunged into more than mere confusion; we are plunged into hopelessness. When God’s transcendence is denied, God is unable to judge us (the New Age movement finds this convenient). However, the loss of God’s transcendence also means that God is unable to save us. Only He who transcends the world so as to be able to judge it is also free from the world so as to visit it with mercy. Only the “hierarchical” God can finally be for us. Hierarchy is the condition of God’s helpfulness. The God who isn’t LORD is the God who has been handcuffed.

III: — As soon as God’s transcendence is compromised, the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity, is undervalued. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is no surprise. After all, if God isn’t to be called “Father”, then God certainly isn’t going to be known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Why is the doctrine of the Trinity important? How is it foundational to the Christian faith? The question “Who is God?” is a question scripture never answers directly. By way of answering the question “Who is God?” scripture always directs us to two other questions: “What does God do?” and “What does God effect?” “What does God do?” refers us to God’s activity on our behalf, what he does “for us”. “What does God effect?” refers us to God’s activity “in us”.

What does God do for us? He incarnates Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. He redeems His creation in the death of Jesus, restoring its access to Him. He raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus and declaring him to be sovereign over all, Lord and Messiah.

What does God do in us? He visits us with His Spirit and seals within us all that He has done outside us. He steals over our spiritual inertia and quickens faith. He forgives the sin in us that He had already absorbed for us on the cross. He brings us to submit to the sovereign One whose sovereignty He had declared by raising him from the dead. In short, the God who acts for us in His Son acts in us by His Spirit so that all the blessings provided in the Son may become ours as well.

What God does for us in the Son is known, in theological vocabulary, as Christology. What God does in us through the Spirit is known as Pneumatology. Christology and Pneumatology add up to theology. Who God is is made known through what He does for us and what He does in us. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In place of the Trinity (“Father, Son, Spirit”) we are hearing increasingly “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer”. But the two expressions are not equivalent. “Father, Son, Spirit” speaks of God’s being, who God is in Himself eternally, as well as of God’s activity, what He does for us and in us in time. “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer”, on the other hand, speaks only of God’s relation to the world in time. According to scripture God’s relation to the world means that He is also judge, sovereign and inspirer. Then instead of “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” we could just as readily say “Judge, Sovereign and Inspirer” — plus ever so many more. We could say them all with equal justification, even as we still wouldn’t be saying what is said by “Father, Son, Spirit”: namely, that God is for us and in us in time what He is in himself eternally, and He is in Himself eternally what He is for us and in us in time.

There is another point to be made here. “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is sub-personal. But God isn’t sub-personal. God is Person in terms of whom we understand what it means for us to be persons. Again, for this reason, we must call God “Father” even as for reasons already mentioned we mustn’t call God “Mother”.

There is yet another point to be made here. When we speak of God (or speak to God) as “Father, Son, Spirit” we are calling God by that name wherewith He has named Himself. My name is “Victor”. I always introduce myself as “Victor” because I expect to be called Victor. I don’t care to be called “Vic” or “slim” or “mack” or “You, there”. I think it’s only courteous to call me by that name wherewith I name myself.

Surely we can be no less courteous to God. Yet more than a courtesy/discourtesy is at stake concerning God. According to our Hebrew foreparents name means nature. A change of name means a change of nature. “Jacob” means “cheater”; his name is changed to “Israel” — “he who wrestles with God”. Why the name change? Because the man himself has ceased to cheat and has become someone who will wrestle with God for the rest of his life.

To change the name of God from “Father, Son, Spirit” to anything is to repudiate the nature of the true God and to pursue a false god. To trifle with the name of God at all is to reject the One who is our only God and Saviour.

IV: — It’s only fair to admit that there are some modern hymns are very fine. The puzzling feature, then, is why the fine and the wretched are mixed up together in many contemporary hymnbooks.

On second thought I don’t think there’s a puzzle. I think the mix-up is the result of the age-old temptation of syncretism. We human beings are exceedingly uncomfortable when we face a fork in the road anywhere in life. We prefer to “have our cake and eat it too.” We don’t want to have to say “No” to anyone or anything. It’s always easier to include all the options and endorse all the alternatives. We are syncretists in our fallen hearts.

Syncretism is a temptation that has always tempted God’s people. When Joshua, successor to Moses, confronted the people with his ringing challenge, “Choose this day whom you will serve. The deities of the Amorites? The deities of the region beyond the Jordan? Choose! But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!” — plainly Joshua knew that his people could serve either the LORD or the Amorite deities but not both.

As a matter of fact Israel wasn’t customarily tempted to repudiate God; Israel was tempted customarily to combine God and Baal, God and Ashtareh, God and whatever deity the neighbouring nation was extolling. The temptation is easy to understand. God promised His people His fatherly care and protection; Baal promised the people unrestrained licence. Why not have both? Why not have holiness and hedonism at the same time? Holiness guaranteed them access to God, while hedonism guaranteed them endless self-indulgence. Why not have both? Why not have God and mammon? Why not? Because Jesus said it’s impossible. Because the prophets before him said it’s impossible.

All of which brings us to a refrain that reverberates repeatedly throughout God’s history with His people. The refrain is, “I am a jealous God.” God is jealous not in that He’s insecure and He needs to have His ego strengthened; neither is He jealous in that He craves what someone else possesses just because He lacks it. God is “jealous”, rather, in that He insists on our undivided love and loyalty. He insists on our undivided love and loyalty for two reasons. One, since He alone is truly God, He alone is to be worshipped and obeyed. Two, since He alone is truly God, He wants us to find our true wholeness in Him. He knows that since He alone is truly God we shall fragment ourselves if we don’t worship Him alone. He cares too much for us to allow us to fragment ourselves. If we persist in gathering up the gods and goddesses and add the Holy One of Israel for good measure we shall fragment ourselves hopelessly.

Everybody knows that exclusivity is of the essence of marriage. To say that exclusivity is of the essence of marriage isn’t to say that husband and wife live in a universe of two people, ignoring everyone else. But it is to say that at the heart of marriage there is that which can be shared with no one else. Two married people who relish the marvel and the riches their union brings them don’t then say, “Since marriage is so rich with the two of us in it, let’s make it richer still by adding a third person.” So far from enriching a marriage, adding a third person annihilates the marriage. To the extent that exclusivity is of the essence of marriage, then, there is a kind of jealousy that is necessary to marriage.

Israel always knew that “God and…” , “God plus…” meant “not God at all”. Syncretism is fatal to our life in God.

Some contemporary hymnbooks combine fine hymns and terrible hymns on the assumption, apparently, that “nothing should be left out; no one should feel left out; there should be something here for everybody.” For this reason what we call the “Lord’s prayer” has been re-written, “Our Father and Mother.”

But the one God we are to adore knows that if our hearts go after Him and after some other deity then we shan’t have Him and we shall fragment ourselves utterly. Apart from the folly of our self-fragmentation, He insists on being acknowledged for who He is: the One alongside whom there is no other God, even as the Hebrew language reminds us that the word for “idols” is the word for “nothings”. He is a jealous God, knowing that adding another deity will affect the marvel and richness of our life in Him exactly as adding another party affects the marvel and richness of marriage: it terminates it.

V: — What’s at stake in all that has been discussed tonight? Is only a matter of taste at stake (some people like old-fashioned hymns while others don’t)? Is only a matter of poetical or musical sophistication at stake? What’s at stake here is a matter of life or death, for what’s at stake here is nothing less than our salvation.

As soon as we understand what’s at stake here — everything — we understand the intransigence of our foreparents in matters of faith. Jude insists that we are to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) Why must we contend for it? Because the faith once for all delivered to the saints is under attack. It is assaulted from without the church and undermined from within the church. The assault from without isn’t unimportant; nevertheless, the undermining from within is far more dangerous. Unless we contend for, fight for, the faith once for all delivered to the saints, the truth of Jesus Christ will be cease to be known.

Peter cautions his readers against false teachers. Peter tells us that false teachers “secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.” (2 Peter 2:1)

Paul accosts the Christians in Galatia who are already flirting with gospel-denial, “…there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ….Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 1:7; 3:1)

Jude, Peter and Paul aren’t horrified because an alternative religious opinion is being made known; they aren’t heartsick because disinformation is being disseminated; they react as they do inasmuch as they know that where the gospel is diluted, denied, compromised, or trifled with, the saving deed and the saving invitation of God can’t be known. Where the gospel is sabotaged through “destructive heresies”, the salvation of God is withheld from men and women whose only hope is the gospel.

We must be sure we understand something crucial. We don’t contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints because we are quarrelsome people who relish controversy. We don’t contend because we are ill-tempered people are annoyed with anyone who disagrees with us. We don’t contend because we are doctrinal hair-splitters who wish to make conceptual mountains out of molehills. We contend, as apostles and prophets contended before us, because we can’t endure seeing neighbours whom we love denied access to that truth which saves.

Then contend we shall. But of course we can contend properly only if we are discerning. For this reason John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1) Will our discerning, our testing, and our contending prevail, or are we going to be defeated? We shall prevail, for “faith is the victory that overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:4) Once again the apostle John writes, “…you are of God, and have overcome them [the false prophets]; for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

Victor Shepherd     October 2001