Using Inclusive Language and Feminine Images of God in Prayer

Posted by Addie Woods

September 25, 2021

Using Inclusive Language and Feminine Images of God in Prayer

By Adeline Fehribach, SCN

Part of the Toolbox for Prayer series

Download in PDF format
Many people today are probably sensitive to the use of the word “man” in the so-called “generic” sense for “person,” or the use of “mankind” for “humanity” or “humankind.” Some may even be sensitive enough to use “police officer” instead of “policeman,” or “fire fighter” instead of “fireman” so that women in those professions do not remain invisible. What some may not be as sensitive to is the need for inclusive God-language.

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.

“We all know that God is spirit and as such has no sex or gender.”
Unfortunately, today, as Abigail Dolan states,

“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.

For Reflection:

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?

Adeline Fehribach, SCN has been a vowed member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth for 49 years. She grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and
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.
Want to read more from the Toolbox for Prayer series? Click the links below.

Creating a Toolbox for Prayer

Window Gazing on Travel’ emerged as a free form of prayer for me ever since I was introduced to contemplative Spirituality within the SCN Congregation.

Using Inclusive Language and Feminine Images of God in Prayer

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.

A Journey with Prophets

The novices were delighted to attend the class of Sister Jane Karakunnel on scriptures, especially on prophets and the Gospel of John from July 11 to Aug. 4, 2022

Creating a Toolbox for Prayer

Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” It is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques rediscovered 2500 years ago by Gotama the Buddha, and is the essence of what he practiced and taught.

Heart Meditation

This Toolbox for Prayer post is a video from Sister Chris Kunze. Sister Chris provides the opportunity to reflect on the idea that there is no greater gift you can offer, that the energy of an open heart. An open heart has the qualities of unconditional love, a healing presence, innate harmony, and compassion. Opening our hearts to these qualities allows for joy filled service to be possible. 

The Legacy of Mother Catherine Spalding

Catherine believed that God is truly present everywhere – in each person, in each circumstance of life she encountered. Through prayer and reflection she would discern, what is the loving thing to do here, right now? Then with confidence and faith she would daringly utilize all the various means at her disposal to accomplish the task that was before her and always with a gentle spirit and a loving heart.

Using Prose as a Stepping Stone into my Prayer Time with God

I often use my prose that I produce as a creative writer, as a stepping-stone into my prayer time with God.

Praying with Catherine Spalding: From the Known to the Unknown

What seems like a lifetime ago, during a third grade social studies activity about daily life for the Kentucky pioneers, I vividly remember taking turns churning
butter and pouring melted tallow into iron candle molds. I was fascinated by all they embarked upon on their journey. From an eight-year-old’s perspective, their
lives seemed unbelievably difficult – fraught with obstacles to daily survival, uncertainties about the future, and risk. I could not understand why someone
would choose this path; however, I admired the passion, grit, ingenuity and faith in God required to cross from the known into the unknown. All that I learned back then took on its own shape in my active 8-year-old imagination and I believe those early images of the pioneers awakened in me a curiosity and awe about acting on a dream. What was it like to be so strongly drawn to move into the unknown – willing to risk it all in the name of hope? I was captured by this pioneer spirit. As I grew older, my understanding became more informed, less imaginary and more inclusive of the various impacts of this westward movement. Today, it continues to be expanded as we search to recognize the full story of that era and our place in it – good or bad. We still have so much to learn. However, for this reflection, I will focus on the part that captured my interest as a child – spirit, passion and resilience.

Letting Scripture Speak

Lectio Divina is a special kind of Scripture prayer. The term means a “holy reading” or “a prayerful reading” of Scripture. It is a process of praying with Scripture in a way that invites us to be more open to hear a personal and meaningful message from within the passage. This kind of prayer also leads us to a contemplative stance in our prayer with Scripture.

In this article you will find the four basic steps of Lectio Divina: READ, MEDITATE, PRAY, CONTEMPLATE. I will attempt to explain these steps in a practical way. My hope is that this process will help us to pray with the Scriptures in a richer way. This reflection is meant to aid us in understanding and following the spirit of each step and also to help us to become more open to God’s word within the Scripture passage you select.

Two Wings of My Prayer Life

As an Indian Christian Religious, the two wings of my prayer life are Biblical and Indian Spirituality. At home, we had everyday family prayer which included Rosary and reading from the Bible. I was responsible to conduct it. It was a vocal prayer that did not touch my heart though there was devotion to do it. After coming to the Congregation too, prayer was mostly a recitation of psalms and singing of songs. Though I was faithful to it there was not much impact on my life. Prayer was like an activity I had to do but I did not enjoy it or experience anything in my heart.

9 Comments

  1. Liz

    My heart is full of gratitude! My heart is continuously stretched to be inclusive and then form words and prayer that reflect inclusivity! I’m now learning LGBT+ language… forever we learn.
    A woman told me that as a child her grandma was the only one who loved her so she prays to Grandma God!
    Thanks Adeline!

    Reply
  2. Clare McNeil

    Thanks so much Adeline for challenging us to expand and enrich our language when speaking of and to God. We needed your message so very much at this time. We have slipped.
    Clare and Dorothy

    Reply
  3. Amrita SCN

    Thank you Adeline for enlightening us to have the correct understanding of who God is for us.

    God who created this whole universe cannot be just one aspect of a human being.

    Reply
  4. Chris Beckett

    Adeline, thank you for your words! We can’t say enough how important it is to be inclusive in our language and images of our loving God!!

    Reply
  5. Higinia

    Thanks for the reminder, Adeline. I remembered having a workshop with you on the same topic a few years ago. It has made a difference for me. I hope to continue growing in this language awareness of inclusion.

    Reply
  6. Joel

    You have put out a much awaited, longed for theme for discussion/ reflection.. Thank you Adelene. In India God is depicted as Shakti (power) the feminine attribute. And addressed as goddess. Yet we religious,church people hold on to a masculine God!
    I hope your exposition will through light on us who insist on addressing God in the masculine.

    Reply
  7. Maggie Cooper

    Wow, Adeline! Well done! Hopefully it will influence many of us!

    Reply
  8. Anne O'Shea

    Thank you Adeline! Language is so important. It reveals our deepest beliefs. Our planet needs to be ever-evolving in our symbols,our. Images and most especially our language.
    Anne Marie and Ann

    Reply
    • Sarah Ferriell

      Adeline, You are to the point and straight forward. You open the door for us as you share. Thank you for helping us to see more clearly the importance of the God language we use.

      Reply

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