God vs. Goddess

Influences on our Image of God

Motherhood of God

Jesus and Divine Parents

The Church as Mother

God versus Goddess

Why do we imagine God the way we do?

Meredith Sprunger argues that our own understanding and experience of God heavily influences our naming of God. In Western culture, she explains that the characteristics generally attributed to God are spirit, infinity, perfection, limitlessness, personality, justice, righteousness, mercy, truth, beauty, goodness and especially love. Sprunger cites Richard Niebuhr who argues that our axioms of God are based on what we find certain in our relationships with other people. Sprunger argues that the "highest objective of God language, therefore, is to select terms which connote divine love in personal relationships"(1). Our families are the earliest and most influential places we experience love. Therefore, parental and family metaphors are sometimes the most effective and touching way to conceive of God. (Sprunger 1)
God coming to Saints Magdelene and Bartolommeo, France 1509
image from
Lycos Image Gallery and Pictures Now

Human experience of gender complicates the determination of God's image. The differences of women and men are also complimentary. Because God acts in both masculine and feminine ways, conceiving of him as male and female is natural. References to God as either gender need not contain within them sexual references or other human limitation. The theologian Mary Daly believes that the reference to God as "Our Father" is a product of human imagination and "castrates women"(Sprunger 2).

The Motherhood of God

You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. ~ Deuteronomy 32:18

For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant."~ Isaiah 42:14

Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. ~ Isaiah 49:15

As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. ~ Isaiah 66:13

Bible Gateway

Throughout Christian history, there have been many expressions of the mothering quality of God. The Gnostics discuss the Motherhood of God, Jesus' mother Mary has been considered an intercessor, and such people as St. Anselm of Canterbury and Julian of Norwich have called God mother. Sprunger argues that the original name of God YHWH, "I AM," can be considered the ontological mother of humans. (Sprunger 3)

Jesus and Divine Parents

If the primary purpose of Jesus Christ's mission of Earth was to provide humans with a more complete revelation, he must be believed to have had special, authentic knowledge of God. In the four gospels, Jesus uses the words abba (father) 170 times to describe God's relationship to humans and his very nature. However, scholars disagree on the meaning of abba during Jesus' lifetime and the exact use of the cognate pater in the first century C. E. Judaism. So why did Jesus not call God mother? For one thing, the patriarchal society he lived in would probably not have accepted or understood God in that way. Judaism had long been trying to eradicate the influence of fertility and goddess cults of the Levant (geographical region east of the Mediterranean). So, Jesus used the language of his day to communicate to the patriarchal society he lived in. Despite the language he used, Jesus treated women as equals to men and helped them find spiritual freedom from the patriarchy they lived in. Jesus did use maternal language to describe divine ministry:
"O Jerusalem . . . How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" ~ Luke 13:34

Christ Blessing Children de Rosa, Paceco, 1625 image from Lycos Image Gallery and Pictures Now

Groothuis argues that Christ's incarnation is significant in his becoming human, not male. Also, biblically, Christ's maleness never constitutes any spiritual significance. (Groothuis 5) If God were essentially male, then Christ would also need to physically be male as an incarnation of God's metaphysical maleness. From this idea, one could then conclude the male gender is divinely superior in representing God and therefore human males have authority in possessing God's gender, over that of women's. The idea that men bear God's image more than women is part of the notion of women's divinely ordained subordination to men's spiritual superiority. However, this idea is not consistent with the biblically supported principle of the essential spiritual equality of women with men. (Groothuis 7)

The Church as Mother

You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother. ~ Cyprian, 3rd century C. E.

There is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, [and] nourish us at her breast . . . [A]way from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation. ~ John Calvin

Peter J. Wallace examines what he believes is an unwillingness of the Evangelical church to simultaneously explore the implications of its church being the bride of Christ while it actively calls it such. He notes that few Evangelicals refer to their church as the mother of believers. He believes that a lack of recognition of the church as mother has led feminists to seek out a place in the scripture for feminine language despite the mother imagery that is essential to Christian worship and theology. He also states that the church has been denied its rightful place of necessity in salvation. Wallace believes that in their relationships to humans, God is our father, Christ is our husband, and the Church is our mother. These are not sexual relationships, but part of the relationship leads to what Wallace calls "spiritual reproduction"(1). The collective people of God are the mother of the individual people of God. (2)

In Matthew 12:46-50, when Jesus learns that his mother and brothers want to see him, he tells his disciples, "Here are my mother and brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (12:49-50) Jesus does not single out one person as his mother. Rather, he refers to all of his disciples and the church as his mother. Wallace argues that because Jesus adopts us as his sisters and brothers we are also children of the church. (Wallace 2)

Wallace looks to Revelation 14-16 to demonstrate the necessity of the mother church. There Paul says that the gospel must be preached to the people in order for them to believe. He says:

"Therefore, the church, as the bride of Christ, is the womb in which the infertile unbeliever encounters the gospel, is impregnated by the Holy Spirit by the preaching of the word. It is she who nurtures us, feeding us at her breasts with the pure milk of the gospel, later giving us the solid food of sound doctrine and discipleship. She guides us with her long wisdom, taught to her by the Holy Spirit from the Word of God, over long ages of her history--the very wisdom of God in Christ, to whom she submits. And her divine-human Bridegroom cares for her, leading her and loving her, teaching us through his Word and by His Spirit--in her church." (Wallace 2)

God versus Goddess

When speaking of visualizing the divine, particularly the feminine aspects of the Christian God, it is important not to forget that prior to the prominence of Christianity many female deities existed. Especially with the modern day advent of "Goddess worship" in all its varied forms, a look at the goddesses and how Christianity has influenced them impacts on how the image of the divine has changed over time.

The Historical Nature of Goddesses

Brigid, goddess of Inspiration, Nature and the Forge

Goddesses have been popularly conceptualized as motherly, nurturing, caring, and warm figures. However, at least historically speaking, these are not always characteristics assigned to goddesses. Much more often than mothers, goddesses are feral hunters. They possess forms and tempers which instill fear instead of love in those who worship them. Examples of such deities are the Hellenic Diana/Artemis and the Egyptian Sekhmet. Most often, it was these goddesses who were honored by blood sacrifice and ritual hunts -- logically hoping that these would sate the hunger of such deities.

At the same time, it is important to point out that not all goddesses fit this mold. Celtic Goddesses particularly were noted for their roles as personifications of healing, knowledge, and birth. The Celtic Goddess Brigid (sometimes spelled Brigit or Brigt), patroness of Druids, was both a teacher of wisdom (having taught mankind to forge metal) and the source of inspiration. She was also a protector of maidens and young brides particularly regarding childbirth. At the same time Brigid was a goddess of martial arts and war, her forge most frequently associated with weaponry.

"The Patriarchal Conspiracy"

If goddess worship was very prominent in human culture, why is the Christian tradition dominated by a male god and priesthood? Mary Daly, influential feminist scholar, presents an almost conspiratorial theory. According to Daly, the Christian patriarchy systematically both assimilated and destroyed many goddesses as the faith expanded in the pagan areas of the western world. Certainly there is a great deal of evidence to support her theories. Most prominent is the transformation of Daly's female "Trinity," the goddess archetypes of Maiden, Mother, and Crone into the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The manifestation of these female types is very prominent in the pagan world. Some examples are the Greek fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos; the Norse Norns Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld; and the Celtic Morrigan, Badb, and Macha. Also, the effacement of female deities by the patriarchal Christian system was widespread. The aforementioned Brigid was adopted as Jesus' foster-mother St. Brigit, who bears most if not all of the traditional symbols of her pagan origins. Also, the Virgin Mary incorporates features of more maternal deities such as the Egyptian Isis into one maternal goddess-like figure.

However it is important to note that cultures where prominent goddess figures appear do not in any way guarantee an egalitarian culture. All the above named societies are examples of goddess worshiping cultures whose societies remained patriarchal.

Barbara Ehrenreich suggests a different approach. She theorizes that this phenomenon may have come about as a result of changes in society as humans moved from being prey to becoming predators. Ehrenreich links the change to the urbanization of humans and the domestication of animals for the use as livestock. By living in large stationary groups and both hunting for food and raising livestock, humans escaped becoming prey for larger predators. This gradual change was reflected in religions which began to place greater power in the (male) hierarchy of human society than the (female) hunters that used to haunt the night.


Mary Daly, GynEcology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston, Beacon Press, 1978

Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites, Henry Holt and Co., New York, NY, 1997

The Encyclopedia Mythica, M.F. Liedmans, 2000

Bible Gateway

Contemporary Theological Issues: Gender-Inclusive Language for God By John Cooper. Theological Forum Vol. XXVI, No. 3&4, December 1998

Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/Dess? By Mark Brumley

God Language By Meredith Sprunger. Spiritual Fellowship Journal, Fall 1993

San Francisco State University class project site

Sexuality, Spirituality, and Feminist Religion by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis