Long before I became familiar with the academic debates concerning calling God “Mother,” debates that I am now currently a part of as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was being raised in a household where I instinctively understood that the divine presence was manifest in the loving hands and arms of mothers, and most especially in the life of my grandmother who raised me. My grandmother’s kitchen was a theological laboratory where she taught me how to love people just as naturally as she taught me to make peach cobbler and buttermilk biscuits. I watched and listened as she ministered to the sick and the lost, with a Bible in one hand and a freshly baked pound cake in the other, despite having no official ministry role.
I knew that if God was real, if God truly loved me as a parent loves a child, then God was also “Mother” and not only “Father.” Only years of dogma and doctrine force you to unlearn what you know to be true in your own heart, demanding “Father” as the only acceptable appellation and concept for God.
Scholars who oppose the notion of God as Mother often focus on the gender of Christ and his naming of God as “Abba” or Father. Others argue that God is beyond gender, all the while privileging masculine language to understand God. There are also scholars, myself among them, who support the naming of God as Mother along with God as Father, deriving their support from biblical passages which privilege more “feminine” metaphors and analogies, including the image of God as a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15; Numbers 11:12); God as a midwife (Psalm 22:8-10); and God as one who gives birth (Isaiah 42:14). We do not have to choose only one form of address. God is Creator and Sustainer. God is Protector and Defender. God is Mother and Father. If we are humble, we know that human words and metaphors are incomplete and can never do justice to describing the majesty of who God is.
(MORE: Why We Question God)
I am among the millions of women facing Mother’s day without a mother, and now without my precious grandmother. There is no greeting card to capture both this powerful sense of loss, but also profound wellspring of memories. I experience what is known in theological terms as the “absent presence” of my grandmother. Though gone from my life, though absent from my everyday reality, my grandmother’s presence and wisdom are still here with me, guiding and shaping me. As a Christian, it is the same “absent presence” as my relationship with God: the knowledge that I am loved by the Divine, even and perhaps most especially in those experiences of absence and loss. I understand God as Mother because of all the mothers, aunties, grandmothers, “play” mothers, godmothers, and church mothers who were made in the image of God and who embody God’s loving care. As the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich eloquently summarized, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.”