The Psychology of Christianity: Part 3, "I Believe in God, the Father..."

After noting the lack of research regarding the Christian Trinity, the first section of my chapter dealt with God. Right out of the gate with the Apostles' Creed we face these words:

I believe in God, the Father...
Christians believe in a "personal" God. That is, Christian believe they are "in relationship" with the Creative Force of the Universe. Consequently, Christians deploy a variety of anthropomorphisms to grasp what this "relationship" looks like. One of the most common anthropomorphisms is that God is a "parent" and we are God's "children." Generally, God is understood to be "Father," but God is also metaphorically experienced as "Mother." Some of the parental--paternal and maternal--images in the bible:
[God speaking to his people:] “As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13)

[Israel speaking to God:] “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.” (Isaiah 64:8)

[Jesus teaching his followers how to address God in prayer:] “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

[God comparing his love for his people with a mother’s love for her child:] “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?” (Isaiah 49:15)

[Jesus comparing his love for the people of Jerusalem to the protective behavior of a mother hen:] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how I have often longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34)

[God comparing his love for his people to a parent teaching her child to walk:] “When Israel was a child, I loved him…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms.” (Hosea 11:1,3)
Although there is a mix of parental metaphors in the bible, the Apostles' Creed "genders" God: God, the Father. This is perhaps understandable as the paternal metaphors for God in the bible greatly outnumber the maternal metaphors.

I'm sure we all realize that these metaphors are hotly contested. Rightly so, in my opinion. By gendering God in this way we marginalize femininity. Worse, when we have a woman introducing sin into the world we have a toxic brew on our hands. In my opinion, if Mariology has any appeal to Protestants it is as a theological prophylactic against a latent misogyny within the Christian faith.

(To lay my cards on the table, I attended a Catholic middle and high school and, as a result, have a soft spot in my heart for Mary. After years of Mass, although I never said it out loud as a child and adolescent, I remain able to recite the Hail Mary by heart. Such is the power of liturgy. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee...)

Beyond issues related to gender and power, the gendering of God also creates problems for those who struggle with their fathers. That is, "father" is a relational schema that might be happy and healthy or unhappy and unhealthy. Consequently, when we deploy relational anthropomorphisms we can create emotional obstacles for those who have toxic associations with those metaphors. For many people "God as Father" is like sand in the mouth. Too much hurt and abuse is packaged into the notion of "father." True, God might function as an adopted Father for these persons, but we should be sensitive to their initial and possibly lasting distaste for the metaphor found in the first line of the Creed.

And in those cases, how strongly should we insist upon the gendered metaphor?

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33 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 3, "I Believe in God, the Father..."”

  1. I don't think there's any deep confusion in Christianity about God being either male or female. God transcends that and humanity (male and female) is created as eikons of God. With that said, I think your entire analysis missed the fundamental reason the creeds call God, the Father 'Father'. Jesus called God 'Father' and taught us to pray to him using that name. I believe that's the creedal basis, not anthropomorphism or based on the preponderance of the imagery in scripture.

  2. And that's "Scott Morizot". I can't see what I'm typing in the Disqus box as I type. (Firefox on Windows XP) After I type I have to highlight it so it shows up in reverse image. Missed the leading 't' in the name.

  3. Professor Beck,

    I think reading "God the Father" in church's confessional creeds as a gendered metaphor is a mistake. Rather, the church calls God "Father" because God, in revealing himself through Jesus Christ, has named himself as "Father". It is not a metaphor, and especially not a metaphor we project onto God, it is a name. If we define "Father" metaphorically we project the human biological terms onto God, following the lead of Arius in the Arian-Nicene Debate. Jesus evacuated the patriachal, sexist connotations of the name of God as "Father" when he commanded his disciples "do not call anyone on earth 'father', for you have one Father, and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). I think that in understanding the name of God to be Father we have to then interpret it analogically by comparing it with human fatherhood.
    James Torrance has an excellent discussion on the issue in his "Worship, Communion, and the Triune God of Grace".

  4. Perhaps the reason that God is referred to as Father in the Bible is because the scriptural word, like the Incarnate person, enters into a context of space-time where its (or Christ's) entry submits to the contingencies of history. It seems that a pretty major part of being a Father is possessing male genitals, and having mated with a woman to produce progeny: no Orthodox ideology would allow for either. So when God speaks to a culture in which women are by, any common sensical measure, second class humans, an understanding of deity (when forced to take on male or female grammatical identity) is forced into the lesser of two metaphorical compromises. What I always find deeply revealing (on a psychological level) is when Jesus' ethic is paralleled with certain, fundamentally feminist, values and the audience recoils (usually in a classroom) in a viscerally dramatic fashion (I've seen this on multiple occasions). I think the same culturally and ecclesially conditioned intuition that rejects veneration of Mary (a level of veneration roughly approximate to Protestant sanctification of Paul), is the very same cerebral loci that knee jerk kicks against the questioning of God as gender neutral deity: unexamined, scripturally sanctioned misogyny.

  5. Are we to understand, Dr. Beck, that there is really no preponderance of the male metaphor in the Bible, that for every "father" reference there is a mitigating or compensating "mother" reference of equal weight? That's what your selective list seems to try to communicate.

    Maybe as a scientist you'd prefer a more overtly statistical evaluation of Ho: "biblical references to God as father or male are no more numerous, in some appropriate connotation/denotation-weighting scheme, than biblical references to God as mother or female." And surely Ha is single-tailed, but qb will concede the two-tailed alternative for the sake of argument.


    And the veneration of Mary is "roughly comparable to Protestant sanctification of Paul," Mark? Wow. That's a breathtaking assertion. Do any of your Protestant friends pray to Paul as if he were able to intercede for them before the throne of God? Really?

    BTW, all this is not to say that qb thinks God is actually a male or that sexuality even makes concrete sense in speaking of purely spiritual beings. It's just that the historically verifiable Jesus was enfleshed as...a male, named Jesus, not "Chris" or "Pat" with an ambitious sexual identity. And given Luke's propensity to focus on Jesus' favorable attitudes toward oppressed women, does it not seem odd that Jesus addressed God as "father" in Luke 11? Surely if Jesus were all that concerned about sexually neutral language for God and had an axe to grind about it, he had many options at his disposal that left sexual metaphor out of the game altogether, and Luke would have picked them up even if Q (!) did not.


  6. We're too sensitive. Many people down through the years have been abused in various ways by vicious church authority, and yet we're not summarily dispensing with the gentle, pastoral metaphors that the Bible brings to us! This whole thing has the tinge of pandering, a solution in search of a problem.

    Of course some fathers have abused their daughters with a predictable and tragic psychological result. But contriving new language and metaphors to soften the blow of that and engaging in linguistic sleight of hand just seem a bit, well, silly. Not every pastor is like that abusive priest, and not every man is like that abusive father.

  7. Richard,

    As much as it pains a generally politically liberal to agree with qb, I think that culturally accommodating translations and use of metaphors are sometimes but rarely necessary. Ruins the Bible, ruins other literature. Some bowdlerizing PCers are such literalists and sterotypically counter-Victorian. Because God is overwhelmingly referred to as Father (or male) in the text (or creeds) does not mean that God on that account somehow damages the human psyche (male or female) or has patriarchy as agenda. E.g. fudging the Greek "brothers" in the NRSV (which is in general an excellent translation) to read "brothers and sisters" does not guarentee inclusiveness but rather, uhh, fudges with the hope that no offense will be given and inclusiveness will follow. Any language is anthropomorphic when it speaks of the "true nature" of God as in "now we see darkly as in a glass . . . ."


  8. Of course, qb meant "ambiguous...identity," not "ambitious.". But upon reflection, that works, too.

    And Coop, enjoy the bracing air up here where opinions are generally true! You are not far from the kingdom.

    giggling qb

  9. QB-- No, I don't have Protestant friends that pray to Paul. Though, when one sees the central place he has been informally given in naming the predominant categories of concern for Christian theology, Ecclesial understanding and the vocabulary of Gospel speech (namely sanctification and atonement, rather than say, 'practicing the weightier matters of the law'), one would think they had been. And Protestants giving Paul the last word on treatment of women and slaves, as well as postures on political authority, for centuries, would fall into this same folder labeled "Practices Which Reflect Paul as the Unofficial Founder of Christianity." In traditions in which Mary is venerated (Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) the Saints are called upon for veneration/intercession as well, so I suppose it is a non-sequitur, unless we want to start measuring veneration by degree (e.g. How many icons of Mary in the average Catholic Church compared to icons of Apostle X ?). I think when we recognize that Paul does not constitute half of the New Testament canon, we have to start asking why he was of such central, and definitive, use to the Church magisterium through the centuries (I think our Anabaptist brethren could venture a few theories).
    That Jesus referred to God, as Father, is unquestionable. It seems that we're waffling on our position of God's gender when we oscilate between speaking of divine gender as conceptually silly (Ovaries or testes? That's absurd!) and then point out that Christ was revealed as a man. Which is it?

  10. A good friend of mine addressed this in a blog post recently, and although I don't necessarily agree with him, it seems worth quoting the relevant paragraph in full here as it is bang on point;

    "When I think of the Father, I think of the essence, meaning and being of God. I think of the infinity of God present in everything, yet somehow personal enough to give particular attention (love) to individuals. I think the parental metaphor is important because it helps us understand some sense of likeness (we’re made in God’s image) and also some sense of distinction (we are children not parents – there is a “generational” boundary between us). Less politically correct, I also think that it is important that the primary metaphor is that of Fatherhood with a secondary metaphor of God being also maternal. Normally, I’m for inclusive language, but I believe there is a strong psychological argument for why God as Father works better for us (and therefore why God chose to reveal himself to us more often through a paternal metaphor, perhaps?). Ancient cultures were quite capable of considering a female god – in spite of obvious patriarchal tendencies – but I believe the psychological effect of relating to a female god is developmentally regressive (appeals too much to our unconscious desires to be mothered like infants) and tends to be sexualised in religious practices and imagery. Ideally it might be preferable to consider the gender-neutral term “Parent,” but to make something gender-neutral is to make it artificial and un-personal. Metaphors have power because they relate to experience and we have no experience of a gender-neutral parent."

    Now I'm still not sure if I agree with my friend, but I do think he raises some interesting issues. Thoughts...?

  11. Some additional thoughts related to many of your comments and questions:

    1. I don't have any clear recommendations about how to fix any of this. And, like many of you, struggle with changes/additions like "Our Heavenly Parent" or "Our Heavenly Father or Mother." However, the question I tend to ask myself when I resist gender-inclusive language like this is if my discomfort is due to orthodoxy or something darker within myself. Generally speaking, I tend to distrust my feelings and judgments, particularly in these matters, being male and all. I don't think I'm properly placed to be objective. Thus, while I might find certian language about God to be "too politically correct" I get the intent of these translations and value it as prophetic pushback in my spiritual life.

    2. This post, and the ones to follow, are less about theology than psychology of religion. That is, while it might be orthodox to call God "Father" (as Jesus did) I'm really not concerned about that. I'm interested, here, in the social-psychological experience the schema "Father" creates (legitmate or not) and the conflict and tensions it creates within the religious experience, socially and psychologically.

    3. Finally, if I lean too far for some toward inclusivity and political correctness in these matters I can only explain this as standing with the "least of these." Rushing to defend "Father" in light of how the church, now and then, treats women is unseemly. I would rather sit with the discomfort than too quickly explain it away by an appeal to the bible, the Lord's Prayer, or creedal orthodoxy. The first Christian response is to always stand with the powerless, with those who do not have the power, then or now, to label reality and specifiy the gender of God.

  12. "The first Christian response is to always stand with the powerless."

    - No, it's not. The first Christian response is to stand with good over evil and right over wrong.

  13. Thank you for this clarification Richard. I personally am much more interested in the psychology of gendered God language and its effect on our religious sociology, rather than issues of orthodoxy and creed. Hence my interest in my friend's comment that "the psychological effect of relating to a female god is developmentally regressive"
    Do you know of any research or studies that lend credence to such a claim? My personal experience of trying to meditate on the identity of God as Mother and Father, in relationship with one another (much in the way that orthodox images of the trinity attempt to paint) has been fruitful for me and helped to steer me away from my own instinctive patriarchy and dark conservatism.
    Thanks for sharing as always

  14. Who's defending "father" as it pertains to God? It's not even interesting. What IS interesting is the psychology of contriving new pretexts for claims to victimhood in a society like ours and then speaking of those almost microscopically narrow pretexts in solemn tones as if they were a top-tier consideration. The "least of these" certainly deserve our attention and help. But the professionally offended fail the test of "powerlessness."

    why not leave biblical language as it stands, along with Jesus' sexual identity and the terms he apparently used to refer to the Creator, and begin there instead of monkeying with texts that most average readers will view and use as a primary source?


  15. For starters, Mark, there's no inconsistency if God and Jesus are distinct persons. qb

  16. If Jesus' gender is foregrounded as something intrinsic to the second person of the trinity (which in a discussion of this sort seems implicit, otherwise that observation would be 'neither here nor there'), then there is a trinitarian problem because of a break in the ὁμοούσιος ('sameness of essence'). That nothing is intrinsically true of Christ that is not true of the other persons of the trinity is something that the Nicene Council, and later ecumenical councils, sought to guard against.

  17. You're absolutely onto something. I have long since thought it's more that `male and female are of God' than the other way around.

    To address the original article, I find it utterly misses the point to consider use of feminine genders as a way of overcoming the shortfalls in masculine terminology. The point is that God is transcendent - orthogonal, perpendicular, to such things.

    I dispute the statement that "Christians believe in a personal God". A personal god is a reduction of God down to this planet, macroscopic objects, socio-psychological interactions (who stones who to death for why). God transcends all aspects of this pettiness. It is still meaningful to call oneself a Christian and not have such a restricted view of God. After nearly two millenia, it is high time this simple rationalization were reflected in Christian practice - simply *ban* the use of all gender-specific (pro)nouns when talking about God!

    It makes sense to me to say that, in Jesus' time, people of theological inclination (Jewish leaders such as Pharisees, rabbis and disciples) were bouncing-around the idea of God as "Father". You can see a stub of a divergent line of thought in the arguments about "if Abraham were your father...", etc. In short, at that time, "Father" terminology was doing the rounds.

    That's why I agree that the creedal basis was the language of Jesus.

  18. "I would rather sit with the discomfort than too quickly explain it away by an appeal to the bible, the Lord's Prayer, or creedal orthodoxy".

    - This continues to confuse me. Assuming you acknowledge that Jesus said "Father", then you're basically saying that you deny Jesus' words in favor of discomfort. That's entering some really, really dangerous ground, and would hard qualify one as a "red letter" Christian.

  19. Well, pardon qb for heresy if need be, but ISTM that essential sameness is an insupportable doctrine without going through a lot of sophistic contortions of the text. So maybe qb simply parts ways with the creedists. But Jesus having a distinct sexual identity poses no fundamental challenge to the idea that pure spirit is sexless. qb

  20. On the surface, of course this is correct. But the words "right vs. wrong" and "good vs. evil" are simply ciphers, buckets to be filled with all manner of things. So we need to ask what is the Christian view of good? And evil? This is where language like "standing with the powerless" is theologically more robust; it gives a criterion to judge "the good." A Hitler could send six million Jews into gas chambers as "the good." But he couldn't do that while claiming to "stand with the powerless."

    Thus, I'll stick to my language here.

  21. Hi Drew,
    I wouldn't consider myself an expert on this, but I find the claim of "psychological regression" to be pretty dubious. It's just looks like patriarchy dressed up as psychoanalysis.

  22. Richard,

    You speak of the "social-psychological" experience of Father. But were Mother involved such would, and does in the case of Mother Church and "Mariolotry," cut both ways. As to "Our Heavenly Parent" and other such phrases, they seem to me, regardless of intent, trendy and too abstract to communicate. But who really knows? Maybe those who want gender inclusive language also have the potential to operate out of something darker in themselves. Those Trinitarians among us might produce prophetic pushback by blessing folk in form in the name of the Parent, the Child, and the Breaking Wind. Try that in a Sunday School class.


  23. I disagree, and can use similar examples. What if pedophiles are "the powerless", or ax murderers, or atheists, or any number of groups who can fall into that category? Simply stating that we have a first responsibility above all else to stand "with the powerless" is meaningless unless the right vs. wrong / good vs. evil question is answered first.

    When we make our first priority "standing with the powerless" we open ourselves up to making bad decisions. Sometimes "the powerless" are on the wrong side of an issue, and thus standing with them simply because they're "powerless" is wrong.

  24. This just helps me make my case. But I can't tell you you noticed that. (Suggestion: Read through your comment with a Girardian lens.)

  25. I'm not reading the 28 comments so this might already have been said but...

    I'm interested in how "Father" became the primary way of referring to God in the NT. God is only called father something like 15 times in the Old Testament--Paul says "Father" that many times in Ephesians 1. The Old Testament seems a lot more liberal with its gender description of YHWH/Elohim than the NT.

  26. For a presentation of (some) evidence and argument around the use of motherly language and imagery about God in the Bible and Christian tradition (i.e. the theology of all this rather then the psychology) which you can discuss at paragraph level (hopefully to get really targeted discussion), please see my Not Only a Father

  27. New to post here...

    I'm wondering if the "Father" aspect of God was to speak primarily to our heredity and identity? Correct me if I'm wrong, but in that ancient culture, wasn't it assumed that heredity came (primarily) through the male?

  28. I would think that the difficulty some of us have with the Fatherhood of God is not that God is Father as Jesus continually pointed out but the individual perception of fatherhood or fathers or males. Does that mean we throw the concept out? That's kinda like throwing out all the OT 'angry and mean' God stuff away because it chafes against our NT vision of God.

    If we go that route are we not turning the character of God into a divine Mister Potato Head? Picking and choosing the bits we like and discarding the bits that rankle? That's not a God worthy of worship. Isnt the problem more with our rankling than it is with God's character?

    Though I'm not a Biblical scholar or an advocate for inerrancy my thinking is that if a term like "Father' is used so unequivocally by Jesus - regardless of cultural or historical inflection - then there's something enormous and beneficial in getting God's Fatherhood. 

    It's a bit like repentance. For the arrogant repentance is an act tinged with danger as it concedes that we arent OK and need to acknowledge it. For those who embrace it, however, it is the beginning of the liberation from Self and of moving into a deeper knowledge of Life. Should we discard a Gospel of repentance then because it gets a few people annoyed or promote it because it leads to greater freedom?

    In the same way God's Fatherhood is not merely a cultural leftover but an essential part of relationship with him. If nothing else God is the Father on whom all our perceptions of fatherhood should be patterned. 

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