Not that long ago, I would have fervently rejected the label “evangelical Christian.” Studying Christian theology at a moderate-to-progressive undergraduate institution had opened me up to another way of thinking, an imaginative approach to theology that (in some ways) sought to remain faithful to the biblical witness but was not afraid to think outside the box. But after a while, living with one foot on either side of the border of traditional Christian thought left me hopelessly confused. I found that I wasn’t able to live with such a high degree of uncertainty, and began looking for a “middle way.” That way, I would come to discover, was actually evangelicalism, the world of Martin Luther and Tom Wright and—yes, other Contrarians—Karl Barth. This was the third way, the road between the progressivism that had given me no solid ground and the stifling hyper-conservatism I had grown up with, which I had come to realize was actually fundamentalism. While it does tend to the conservative side of things, there is much more freedom within evangelicalism than I had previously thought.
But, as I have found it increasingly comfortable to return to my evangelical roots, I retain some of my reservations about this expression of Christianity—because, of course, being faithful does not mean being uncritical. One of these is an especially strict view of how Scripture is to be interpreted. I call it the “regulative hermeneutic,” as it loosely corresponds to the regulative principle of worship. Just as those who prohibit certain acts of worship because they are not explicitly endorsed by the Bible, regulative interpreters of Scripture shrink away from the use of imagination in theological reflection, insisting that we must only talk about God the way the Bible explicitly talks about God. A prime example of this is evangelical discomfort with using maternal language in reference to God. More and more of my generation are beginning to think of God as a mother, and are quickly told that that kind of language is inappropriate—the Bible, after all, says that God is our Father.
But what we will find is that maternal imagery for God may actually be more than appropriate. Giving a motherly shape to God’s kind, comforting, and nurturing nature adheres to biblical norms (hence a “normative hermeneutic”) and takes seriously the fact that human beings were created “in the image of God...male and female” (Gen. 1:27). Even God makes use of a maternal analogy in the book of Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her nursing child, or show no compassion to the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (see also Hos. 11:3-4, 13:8; Deut. 32:18; Is. 42:14, 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Matt. 23:37). Though it would be, in my mind, inappropriate to use this technique to support a contemporary understanding of gender fluidity, it can be incredibly helpful for women who are often made to feel “less than” by the Church, and that God cannot identity with them as easily as God can with male believers.
This last week I came across a compelling example of maternal imagery in theological discourse. Teresa Berger, author of Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women, explores feminine imagery in the crucifixion in a reflection on Good Friday. Finding grounds for her reflection in the medieval theologians Anselm of Canterbury, Aelred of Rievaulx, and Marguerite d’Oingt, the Yale Divinity professor claims that we are not only brought into an execution chamber at the cross; we are also ushered into a birthing suite, a room buzzing with activity in which the cries of both agonizing pain and new life are heard. She reminds us that in biblical times one could not imagine the birth of a child without facing the thought of death (“A womb and a tomb were not strangers to each other”), and this seems to me an appropriate and helpful reminder for considering the nature and effect of the crucifixion. It was through the “unimaginable pain searing through [his] body, and water breaking forth, and flesh being torn, and blood flowing profusely” that Christ brought the new world forth from within himself."* Realizing, then, that the cross is a sort of birthing table, we men stand to learn quite a bit from our sisters in the faith, as there is no way for us to fully understand the experience of childbirth. This is a unique and important way in which women can contribute to our understanding of the person and work of Christ.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for a renaming of the Trinity (Mother, Daughter, Spirit) or a change in understanding the nature of God. God has clearly revealed himself in Scripture as the Father of Jesus Christ—and that matters. More is communicated by the title “Father” than the basic parental image we contemporary Christians are most readily familiar with. There is a rich image of heirship and inheritance that comes with the ancient father-son relationship that is not communicated by the image of God’s motherly characteristics. All I’m saying here is that God does definitely exhibit feminine and motherly attributes, and that it would be beneficial for us to explore these. Our sisters in the faith have so much to teach us about how God loves and cares for us.
We may experience some initial discomfort here—I do, at least. And yet this new layer of meaning to be found in the crucifixion does not strike me as inappropriate or heretical. It seems that we really may say, without being subject to the accusation that our imaginations have run wild, that God is our mother as well as our Father. God bears us, nurtures us, comforts us, and nourishes us. In looking at the women in our own lives, we may see the face of God in a way that previously eluded us. In listening to their unique perspectives, we may find a new depth to the redemption story that, while not explicitly expressed in Scripture, is consistent with its witness to God’s work of renewal. I will close with the words of Katharina Schütz Zell, the sixteenth-century lay Reformer, on the crucifixion: “[Christ] gives the analogy of bitter labor and says; ‘A women [sic] when she bears a child has anguish and sorrow’ and He applies all of this to His suffering, in which He so hard and bitterly bore us, nourished us and made us alive, gave us to drink from His breast and side with water and blood, as a mother nurses her child.” The only thing I can add to this is a resounding, “Amen.”
*This may also prove to be a valuable concept for evangelicals, a group so concerned with rebirth, to meditate on as they consider the implications of that term.