Is God a Man or a Woman?
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1
One common complaint against main-line Christianity is that it tends to elevate men over women. Those making this complaint say the church is bias because it refers to God in the masculine; eg, “our FATHER who art in heaven.” Is the church’s description of God unjustly slanted toward a view of God as being “male”?
In order to answer the question of the accuracy of the church’s view toward God we need to address the issues of apophatic and cataphatic theology.
Apophatic and Cataphatic Theology
Apophatic Theology considers God to be beyond human understanding and language. This system only defines God negatively in terms of what He is not (i.e. God is not finite, not sinful, etc.). The word “Apophatic” comes from the Greek preposition ‘apo’ meaning “from” or “away from.”
Cataphatic theology describes God positively according to what He has revealed of Himself in Scripture and nature. The word cataphatic comes from the Greek preposition ‘kata’ meaning “down from.” Cataphatic theology describes God from His revelation that has come ‘down from’ heaven, to humanity.
Orthodox theology recognizes the importance of both kinds of theology.
One place in our Badarak where we affirm our apophatic theology is in the prayers after the scripture readings. On behalf of the people the priest prays, “With your peace, Christ our Savior, which surpasses all understanding and speech, defend us and keep us fearless of all evil…… (Khaghaghootyamp kov Kreesdos purgeech mer, vor ee ver e kan zamenayn meedus yev uzpanus, amratso uzmez yev anergyoogh bahya hamenayn chareh.). In the aforementioned prayer we acknowledge our God is beyond our understanding and speech. In making this strong statement we affirm our apophatic theology. We recognize that, by its very nature, language limits us from descibing the one who is above all speech.
While we acknowledge God is beyond our minds and speech we simultaneously recognize that we need to use words and thoughts to describe God. The words and thoughts we use are not our creations, but God’s revelations. We understand that God has ordained certain words. When Jesus as asked by his disciples how to pray he responded, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name … ”. Therefore there is something efficacious in having an understanding of God as being our Father. There is something healthy and good about thinking of him as ‘holy’ (hallowed). That being said we must immediately confess (apophatically) that God is beyond our understanding of what ‘fatherhood’ is, and he is beyond our understanding of what ‘holy’ is. For God’s fatherhood is a perfect fatherhood, one broader and more loving and nurturing than we understand. And his holiness is so far above us, that we have a tremendously limited understanding of what we are even saying when we refer to God as being holy. After all how can we, who are so drenched in sin and living in the midst of a sinful world, fully appreciate or even begin to comprehend the tremendous holiness of God?
We not only understand scripture to be divinely inspired, but we also understand liturgical prayers and hymns to be similiarly inspired. During the Badarak we pray a prayer which recognises that our calling God Father is, in fact, an exaltation of our own humnaity.
Just before the singing of the Hayr Mer the priest prays,
“God of truth and Father of mercy, we thank you, who have exalted our nature, condemned as we were, above that of the blessed patriarchs; for you were called God to them, whereas in compassion you have been pleased to be named Father to us. And now, O Lord, we beseech you, make the grace of so new and precious a naming of yourself shine forth and flourish day by day in your holy Church…”
In God’s instructing us to refer to him as Father, he revealed to us that our relationship to Him is to be a tremendously intimate relationship; like that of a Father to a son or daughter. God’s love toward us is a fautless fatherly love. His love is not like imperfect, human, machismo filled, sinful, fatherly love. His love is, rather, perfect in all ways: loving in every respect, humbly sacrificial, fully mindful, wonderfully nurturing, unconditionally loving, and completely communicative. His love is sympathetic and empathic and responsive. His love is perfect fatherly love.
When we confess God loves us in a fatherly way, and when we call God our ‘father’, we must immediatley qualify our statements. We believe and confess that all the good qualities of love, (those which are tradtionally viewed as eaith male or female qualities), are contained in God. The bible acknowledges the presence of, what is tradtionally understood as ‘motherly qualities,’ within God’s love for us.
In the following passages we see some sample verses in which God’s love is presented in ‘motherly’ images:
Jesus, looking over the city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, said:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, 12 the LORD alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.
3 As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
Luke 15:8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she
has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with
me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in
the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
God’s love is perfect. It contains what are traditionally understood to be fatherly qualities. It contains what are traditionally understood to be motherly qualities. It can certainly be said that God’s love is parental. Yet the bible reminds us, apophatically, that God is beyond male and female. The bible tells us that “God is Spirit”(John 4:24 ). Spirit is neither male nor female; but in both male AND female we see the divine image present. On the sixth day of creation we read, “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
God’s image is not therefore solely male – nor female. It contains, yet is beyond both. Even though we can say a great many descriptive phrases about God; and even speak words about him which he has ordained for us to use, (such as Father), we must ultimately confess that our God is above our minds and beyond verbal description. God is beyond our understandings of male and female.