The nature of God: McFague


For AO1 you need to know:

  • The issue of male language about God
  • The pastoral benefits and challenges of the model of Father
  • Sallie McFague and God as Mother

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The validity of referring to God as mother

The gender of God in the Bible

God as male in the Bible. In Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the New Testament, God was consistently referred to as male, Father and with the masculine pronoun ‘he’ (e.g. Genesis chapter 2). God is likened to a human father in that he provides for his children, disciplines and loves them. Jesus was the Son of God, his human form was that of a man.

God as Father in the Bible. Jesus called God father and taught his disciples to do the same (e.g. lord’s prayer). The term father is suggestive of God as the creator, having authority and being loving. God refers to himself as King, not Queen.

The Issue of male language about God

Cultural issues. The society of the Old Testament and New Testament was patriarchal. It was in that cultural context that male language about God originated. Feminist theologians argue that this has the effect of benefiting and perpetuating patriarchy by associating masculinity with divinity. Mary Daly put it like this: “If God is male, then the male is God”. The cultural belief and system of male power over women is enshrined by the claim that God, the highest authority of all, is male. Daly further argued that this association between masculinity and divinity had the function of making male supremacy seem like a fact of the universe which could not be challenged. If it’s just the way things are that God is male, then people will feel unable to challenge male power in society. Whereas in actuality, male supremacy is not a fact of the universe but just the way we happen to organise our society. Belief in a male God is a tool of male power which gives it the appearance of being beyond challenge.

Theological issues. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is argued by some to be patriarchal, because the terms Father and Son are male language. It doesn’t seem inclusive towards females. There is a modern new version of the Trinity, which is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. This gender-neutral language is more inclusive.

Ecclesiastical issues. Male language about God influences the issue of the ordination of women. Catholics claim that women should not have a role where they represent Christ – which means they cannot perform certain priestly duties in religious services where that is required. Catholic Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe said ‘A woman can no more be expected to represent Christ than a man could represent the Virgin Mary’

Pastoral issues. Women might not feel included in a male-centric religion and this might create pastoral issues in that women woud be less likely to seek pastoral care or to feel fulfilled by it. Some feminist theologians suggest that women being saved by a male saviour is patriarchal, and some question whether a male saviour can save women.

Sallie McFague; God as Mother

Language about God is metaphorical. Sallie McFague argued that the language involved in Christian theology is ultimately a human creation and at best an interpretation of God, but too it is taken as a literal description. God is beyond our understanding, but people overlook that theology must therefore be metaphorical.

“we construct the worlds we inhabit, but … we forget we have done so”.

All language about God is metaphorical, so it doesn’t tell us about God’s true nature. Failing to understand this causes us to turn metaphors into idols, so we end up worshipping metaphors rather than God. McFague claims that theology is “mostly fiction” but that metaphors “can and should enhance and enrich our models of God”, especially in ways fitting “for our time”. Each generation needs to create new metaphors to help deal with the ethical issues they face. The pressing issues of our time for McFague are gender equality and ecological disaster.

McFague’s critical realism: metaphors are about use, not accuracy. God is unknowable. So, the value of a metaphor, construct or model of God is not whether it corresponds to the reality of God, but how useful the metaphor is for life. The value of a metaphor is not its accurateness but its usefulness. The way we assess whether a construct is “meaningful and true” is by whether it is “useful in the conduct of life”.

McFague “stresses heavily the implications of certain models for the quality of human and nonhuman life”.

McFague sees her work as unmasking “simplistic, absolutist, notions of objectivity” in theology. This includes feminist critiques, that images and understandings of God are often based in patriarchal cultural systems.

A successful metaphor, for McFague, is one which gives an impression of an all-encompassing world-view. This is why the maleness of God has been so successful – it establish a powerful world-view – but only for men, though it explains the attraction of men to it. When Christians call God Father, they are using a metaphor which is useful for patriarchy. This is the issue with male language about God.

The metaphor of God as mother. McFague argues that the creation of the world ex nihilo suggests a God distant from creation. She proposes that seeing God as mother would suggest a God more intimately connected to the world. This metaphor is better for our time as it means we should not destroy our environment. McFague thinks that ultimately God is beyond gender – neither male nor female. There are problems with emphasising God as either male or female, she thinks, but the metaphor of God as mother is helpful for our time. Currently, masculine language about God is encouraging of domination of the natural world and the domination of women by men.

McFague draws on the work of Daphne Hampson who argues that the early church suggested the world is God’s body. McFague developed the metaphor of God as Mother and the world as God’s body, to encourage gender equality and ecological care for the planet (ecofeminism). She is not saying that God is a Mother or female, or that the world is God’s body, but that using these metaphors will enable gender equality and love for the planet. If God is called mother, then that says that the world is part of God’s body/ womb. To harm nature would be to harm God. It also suggests women should not be dominated by men because femininity is given value by being associated with divinity.

The metaphor of the world as God’s body involves three metaphors corresponding to three traditional titles, three Christian doctrines, three ethical elements and three types of love.

Mother- instead of the traditional title father. Doctrine of creation. Agape/ selfless love which is the type of love God has for the world.

Lover- instead of the traditional title of Son. Doctrine of salvation. the ethical element of healing- Eros/ desire, the way that God’s love works in the world.

Friend- instead of the traditional title of Spirit- Doctrine of Escathology. Element of companionship- Philia/companionship- the way humans should act in the world.

Trevor Hart, a Barthian theologian (Barthian theologians are sola scriptura), claimed that McFague is “cutting herself loose from the moorings of Scripture and tradition” and appealing only to experience and credibility as her guides. If Human constructions determine how she describes God, then she is anthropologizing.

We could defend McFague by pointing out that her critique is that scripture and tradition themselves fail to take the mystery of God seriously enough, because they attempt to describe God as father, which is impossible to do so literally because God is unknowable.

If instead we view this term ‘father’ not as a description but as a socially constructed metaphor, we see that it causes many issues for human and non-human life.

McFague thinks that her metaphor of God as mother could actually do a lot of good in the world. She takes care to point out that she is not attempting to actually describe what God is but is merely trying to replace a harmful socially constructed metaphor with a helpful socially constructed metaphor. So, she would deny that she is using ‘human constructions’ to ‘describe’ God. She isn’t describing God, she is creating a helpful metaphor which allows humans to relate to God through their behaviour in a way that benefits life.

David Fergusson criticised the lack of a transcendent element to McFague’s work, claiming that deficit made her theology “fixed on a post-Christian trajectory”. This means Fergusson thinks that McFague, by failing to focus on the transcendent aspect of Christianity, is on her way to a non-Christian theology.

McFague defends her work by claiming it is a “turn of the eyes of theologians away from heaven and towards the earth”, which she thinks is needed in our time.

Aquinas on analogy. Aquinas acknowledged that we cannot know what God is, but thought we could make claims about what God is ‘like’, via attribution and proportion. So, applying Aquinas to male language about God, when we say that God is a father, we mean that God has the attribute of fatherliness in a way that is analogous to and proportionally greater than human fatherliness. This could be argued to be an accurate claim, not metaphorical, and so McFague is wrong to think we must resort to metaphor when describing God.

Metaphor is using language about something totally different to hopefully explain a thing in a useful way. Analogy is not using something totally different but something that is ‘like’ or analogous to.

            Criticisms of Aquinas’ analogical theory of religious language would be relevant here.