Using Inclusive Language and Feminine Images of God in Prayer
By Adeline Fehribach, SCN
Part of the Toolbox for Prayer series
We all know that God is spirit and as such has no sex or gender. Unfortunately, language is too limited to describe an infinite, transcendent, non-human God with whom we desire to have a “personal” relationship. We can only talk about God in metaphors, knowing that we will never fully be able to describe God.
While male metaphors for God abound in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament),
there are female metaphors to help offset an overly male God view.
Deuteronomy 32:11-12 – God described as a mother eagle
Deuteronomy 32:18 – God who gives birth
Numbers 11:12 – God as conceiving and giving birth, carrying her offspring
Isaiah 66:13 – God as a comforting mother
Isaiah 49:15 – God compared to a nursing mother
Isaiah 42:14 – God as a woman in labor
Hosea 11:3-4 – God described as a mother
Psalm 131:2 – God as mother
Psalm 123:2-3 uses both master and mistress as metaphors for God to describe how people of that day related to God.
“As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a
maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, God….!”
Using both male and female metaphors for God allowed both men and women to relate to the passage. In Luke 15:8-10 Jesus compares God to a woman looking for a lost coin, after having compared God to man looking for a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). Again, describing God with both male and female images, helped women as well as men connect with his parables.
Yes, in some of the Gospels Jesus addresses God as “Abba,” which is closer to
“Daddy” than the English translation, “Father.” What we fail to realize, however, is that the use of that address for God is descriptive of Jesus’ spirituality in those Gospels, not a definition of who God is.
“God is commonly seen as solely masculine and even male; the rich feminine imagery of the Bible and of the early church is missing or, at best, minimized. This imbalance distorts the view of women in the church and can cause them to be treated as spiritual inferiors, rather than as equal image-bearers of God. Broadening God-language has the potential to begin changing the toxic gender hierarchy in the church. Incorporating feminine imagery into the church’s God-language will help men and women together form a fuller, richer, and more biblical imagining of God and one another.”1
1 “Imagining a Feminine God: Gendered Imagery in the Bible” by Abigail Dolan. Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International, July 30, 2018.
While we have no control over the official language the church uses at Mass, we can, in some locations, use inclusive God-language as lectors. I have even claimed the freedom to use inclusive language in my responses at Mass by not using the word “Lord” for God and never using a masculine (or feminine) pronoun for God. I figure, the male leadership of the Church may script the responses of the faithful, but ultimately my response is my response. I do this because language not only reflects culture, it also has the power to help form culture. If we want to change our ecclesial culture, we can start by changing our language.
Beyond trying to insert inclusive language at Mass, we can easily use inclusive God-language in our own personal and communal prayer. Doing so will help balance our own spirituality, affirming women to be image-bearers of God. As Scripture says, “God created humanity in God’s own image…, male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27). Using inclusive language in our personal and communal prayer might also help balance humanity. The world today is partially out of balance because God is viewed only in male terms. As long as God is perceived as solely masculine or male, some men will perceive themselves as gods and the divine feminine within humanity is diminished.
Untitled painting by Ruth Schreiber
I started to be more inclusive in my own approach to God in my personal and
communal prayer by using songs that have female vocalists like Kathy Sherman singing God’s words to me/us in the first person. “Be Still,” “I Am With You,” and “You Are Mine,” by Kathy Sherman, are examples of such songs that can all be played from YouTube. To hear a woman’s voice singing “I am God,” helps to offset the male stereotypical pictures of God with which we were raised.
I have also used modern day versions of the “Our Father” that begin with, “God, our heavenly Father and Mother, holy be your name….” After all, in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, he says, “Pray “Οὕτως,” which means “in this way or like this.” Jesus does not say, “Pray these words.” Very early in life I realized that life was not “fair” for girls and I really did not want to be one. Later in life, as I encountered men who had not embraced their feminine side, I was glad I was not a man. Using inclusive language for God has helped me to balance and embrace the woman I am and I wish the same for others.
1) Have I ever experience inequality between men and women in the church or society? How did it make me feel?
2) Have I ever approached God as feminine? How did it feel? How do I feel about this article presenting a feminine side of God?
3) What difference might it make in my life and in the life of the Church to use more feminine images of God?
is presently one of the Vice-Presidents of the Congregation. Prior to being in leadership in the community, she was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Spalding University. She holds a Ph.D from Vanderbilt in Religion where she majored in New Testament and minored in Hebrew Bible.