Gender and God language in Voices Together
This article is part originally appeared as a part of the Mennonite Church USA MennoSnapshots series on Voices Together.
Last week the committee working on the new Mennonite hymnal and worship book Voices Together released a statement: “Expansive Language in Voices Together: Gendered Images of God.” The statement describes the theological reasons why the committee decided to expand gendered images of God as well as retain familiar images. It outlines the processes used to make specific decisions about language. Questions for reflection and discussion for individuals and communities are provided. In this blog post, Mennonite Worship and Song Committee member and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) and Grebel Professor Allan Rudy-Froese reflects on his personal experience of images of God in the committee process.
Allan Rudy-Froese, Ph.D., is beginning his tenth year of teaching at AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana. He teaches in the area of preaching, storytelling, voice and performance theory. With the end of the Voices Together project, Allan is pursuing certification in Kristin Linklater’s voice method and practice. Allan divides his time between Elkhart and Kitchener, Ontario, where his wife Marilyn, and young adult children live.
My understanding and experience of the Triune God has broadened and deepened considerably by working with the Voices Together team over the last three years. A significant aspect of that understanding and experience has included a new appreciation for, and affirmation of, feminine images of God.
When I was a student at AMBS in 1991 we sang some of the ‘new’ hymns under the direction of Mary Oyer and recorded them before the launch of Hymnal: A Worship Book. Among the songs we rehearsed and recorded was “Mothering God.” We sang of mothering God, mothering Christ and the mothering Spirit. I recall enjoying this song immensely. While the song was new to us, it was not new at all, but an old song: the lyrics were penned by Julian of Norwich in the 14th century.
What was new in the early 90’s was not the image of God as mothering, but that we were appreciating and thanking God, Christ, and the Spirit for mothering us in worship, with our voices raised in song. Feminist theology and readings of the Bible were alive and well at AMBS at the time as well as in many circles in the U.S., Canada, and around the world. In biblical and theological works, it was common to refer to the Spirit as feminine and with the pronouns she or her. ‘Spirit’ in Hebrew (ruach) is feminine and in Greek (pneuma) is neutral. While God and Jesus were exclusively referred to as male – he and him – I could strongly affirm with that steady bass line that both God and Christ were mothering me as well. Yes, in addition to the Spirit, God and Christ were also mothering me, the church and the world. Mothering God offered us a holy moment to praise the Triune God for mothering us.
Naming God, whether father, Yahweh, rock, anchor, mother, he or she, is not a new issue. The Bible testifies to the perplexing issue of how to name (or not name) God and how to name (or not name) God’s actions. Naming is difficult, first of all, because words matter deeply in all aspects of human life. We live-in to concepts and words so it is difficult to use new words for that which or whom we cherish. Thus, words matter deeply as we gather to worship, address and praise God.
The Bible offers caution throughout when naming God. Any one name for God could make God into an idol. God’s vocal response “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” spoken to Moses is a string of four Hebrew letters that is almost impossible to pronounce. It sounds a lot like heavy breathing with some glottal stops. We sometimes translate these four letters as Jehovah or Yahweh, yet to this day many Jewish people still will not utter this name, but rather address God as Adonai or Lord, or sometimes a silent pause.
And here is the rub. We are compelled and even instructed to speak to, commune with and worship God, yet we are cautioned on how to imagine, name and address the Holy One.
Said another way, God transcends gender, space, time, the natural order, or virtually any category we can muster, and yet God has created the earth and all that is in it.
More, God made humans in God’s own image, which evokes intimacy and familial relationship. While totally other, God is approachable, yearns for our prayers, and welcomes our thanksgiving and worship.
I am glad that the song “Mothering God” is included in Voices Together, and now with a different tune. You will discover other hymns which celebrate the creating, birthing, nurturing and mothering image of God. Among the other hymns which celebrate feminine images of God, I would like to highlight two hymns, which have us singing of God in ways that might be new to us. Take a look at #74 “O worship our God.” This was formerly “O worship the King,” but here the king metaphor is let go for a strong woman leader. Verses 1 and 2:
O worship our God, all glorious above, and joyfully laud, her power and her love; our shield and defender the ancient of days, pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.
O tell of her might, O song of her grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space. Her chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form, and dark is her path on the wings of the storm.
Note that on the facing page will be #75, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven!” Here on two facing pages is a story of the complexity, and yes, the beauty of naming our God. We have a woman leader who is a strong defender, and a king who is nurturing and parent-like.
Another feminine image for God, this time from Luke 15, is the lamplighter. In #299, “God Lights a Lamp,” by Katie Graber Anneli Loepp Thiessen, the woman who lights a lamp to find the coin becomes an image for God who lights a lamp to search for me and you:
God lights a lamp, and she searches everywhere. When she finds you, oh she sings: “I have found my treasure, my precious silver coin. I have found my love!”
I commend these hymns and many others to you as you explore and sing from Voices Together. This collection is meant for a diverse denomination. We have much to teach each other and celebrate together. New images and language for God, while it might surprise and end up in controversy, is itself a crucial aspect of the Christian story.