Naming God

Some feminist Christians have apparently abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God is known as ‘father, son and holy spirit’. Others still use these words, knowing that all human  language is symbolic and inadequate for naming God and that gendered words do not make God male.

However, the political and pastoral uses of an implied maleness in naming God have always affirmed and empowered men, in preference to women, in the church. How should that be weighed against the danger for the church in abandoning the doctrine?

Alternatives that name three functions instead of relations, for example ‘creator, Christ and companion’, can only be accessories, not central in doctrine or liturgy. Alternatives such as naming God  ‘mother’ and suggesting the spirit is female do not seem to find wide acceptance in ordinary congregational life. Perhaps they only create the same problem differently. Perhaps they founder  on the facts that Jesus was a man and that his naming God ‘father’ was very distinctive.

But the use that Jesus made of claiming God as his ‘father’ is equally distinctive, if less discussed. It had radical implications for him and his political and pastoral relations with others… which  were not good news for patriarchy.

According to Mark’s Gospel, unclean spirits recognised that Jesus was the son of God, but two important groups of people did not. Religious leaders accused him of sorcery, and Jesus’ own family  accused him of insanity. Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters attempted to restrain him (3:19b-22). And yes, this does mean real brothers and sisters; Mary’s other children. But where was  Joseph, who, we imagine, begat these other children? Surely it would take a father, the real authority in a first-century Palestinian household, to restrain a first-born son like Jesus, not younger brothers, or sisters or a mother?

In fact, Joseph does not appear at all in Mark’s Gospel. Perhaps he had died. If Joseph had died, would Jesus not have liked the new family-of-faith he was calling into being to provide him with spiritual father-figures? Apparently not. Lost earthly fathers are notably absent from the list of those who will be replaced (Mark 10:29-30). The new family-of-faith Jesus described here may  provide him with brothers and sisters and mothers… but never with fathers. Jesus and his new family have only one father, and that is God. And as God the father’s son, Jesus needs no man to  authorise him. In obedience to God his father, he was famously and dangerously self-authorising.

When fatherly power is taken into human hands, it too often perverts into controlling and punitive patriarchy. It was religious and secular patriarchy that crucified Jesus.

Perhaps we need to distinguish ‘patriarchy’ from wholesome male, procreative parenting. A man’s begetting and being a good dad is one thing, patriarchy is quite another. Patriarchy is not about  procreation. It is about locating controlling power with men… in some parts of the church, particularly with men who are not supposed to beget any physical children. Patriarchy was as damaging to Jesus of Nazareth as it has remained to millions since, particularly, but not only, to women.

In Jesus’ new family-of-faith, the authoritative power of the father is meant to rest with God alone. No man may exercise it (Matthew 23:9).

In terms of power, which was of constant, competitive interest to certain disciples, all men are to remain only brothers to all others, and younger brothers to the ‘firstborn’, Jesus Christ. Whether  the man in question is the Pope or a priest or a husband, in this new family-of-faith, he is never the top dog. Women who imitate patriarchal style also need to note Jesus’ reformation of our  relations to power and to one another.

Human language always betrays human limitation, but true safety and equality for women and men in the church may rest on living the political and pastoral implications of knowing God precisely as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Rev Margaret Tyrer, minister at St Aidan’s Uniting Church Claremont

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