Reading Coakley: Father, Mother..oh Brother

This is the seventh post in a ten-week series on reading Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions with my friend and mentor, Pastor Jason Byassee.


I appreciate your candor about the courage it takes to know when and how to mix gendered metaphors in worship. I pick this theme up again partly because I found Coakley’s chapter on the ‘Social’ Doctrine of the Trinity overwhelming and partly because I found my commitments to feminist language questioned when preaching a sermon for the very first time in church this past Sunday.

I wasn’t going to change the language of the text itself. I read from Isaiah 56:1-8, one of the Scripture readings in the Catholic liturgy, and preached on the need to play all parts in the Christian narrative. To play all parts isn’t to erase all identifying markers of gender such as the persistent “he’s” and “him’s” peppered throughout our text. But the calling to find ourselves in union with God alone,  a creator who is neither male or female as you pointed out last week, is to ultimately acknowledge the transience or fluidity of our gendered identities and the parts we play in them.

Rush was leading the worship music in what I jokingly called a good ol’ husband and wife variety hour. I had to tread carefully in my critiques. I left the masculine pronouns but was a bit more picky about the title of ‘Father’. Would you call Father and Son titles? names? metaphors? I sense their orthodox use throughout history has you committed to their continuing utility for our post-modern era. Coakley even points out Gregory of Nyssa’s belief that these words were authoritatively given in revelation.

But there are other titles, names, metaphors like Master and Servant that we’ve used more sparingly in recent years and and in certain communities for the connotations they have with slavery. I wonder if Father and Son haven’t lost some of their radically intimate natures and become tainted by their sexist connotations. Do we keep the words and insist on different meanings or do we keep the intentions and insist on different words? Even Gregory acknowledges “father” and “mother” have the same meaning. Was God then simply giving people a revelation – one that included masculine titles – because God, like us preachers, was worried about what they could stomach? In the end, I only changed a paltry Father to Maker in one song, and Father Almighty to God Almighty in the creed we spoke.

Of course, my sermon itself provided the greatest space for creative use of language. And as much as I wanted to sprinkle the blessings of “she” for God’s personhood, I neutered it, every last gendered marker available. As a guest preacher, I measured the effectiveness my words would have on an audience I barely knew and one with whom I’d have little ongoing opportunity for conversation.

Does neutering or mentioning no gender for God really go towards Coakley’s vision of the abolition of the “sex class system”? Or does it simply fall into the trap Coakley lays out in her seventh chapter that the neutral person often stands as a substitute for the normative male? But if she reads Gregory correctly, that human transformation is “unthinkable without profound, even alarming, shifts in our gender perceptions,” then who are we to not usher people along in these shifts by any – radical – means possible?

Thinking, thinking, thinking,

5 responses to “Reading Coakley: Father, Mother..oh Brother

  1. Nothing ruins a good church service like masculine pronouns for God. I can’t concentrate, worship, or fellowship.
    The solution, however, as you have intimated, is not clear. If you are interested, I have a paper a wrote on this topic for Dr. Wainwright in Doctrine of the Trinity.

  2. In my book The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female, I showed that the Bible ofers a variety of female God-images to help us bring about the needed revolution in attitudes about gender. And in Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach, I showed just how damaging our current binary gender construct has been to many lives. These resources might help as you continue thinkingm thinking, thinking. –Virginia Mollenkott, Ph.D.

  3. Elizabeth Bowman, M.D.

    I empathize with your struggle, Erin, and echo Michelle’s remark that masculine pronouns for God in worship disrupt my worship and my concentration on God. I find myself constantly translating into gender-neutral or feminine terminology to enable myself to feel included. I think our language will languish in having adequate non-gendered terms as long as we cling to the binary gender construct that Dr. Mollenkott wrote about so eloquently. Erin, I find it easy to listen to sermons that just call God “God” and which use Parent, Maker, or Mother/Father instead of using only one gender for God. That takes a lot of work, but justice and inclusion never come easily.

  4. It’s always telling how an issue strikes a chord by the comments and convictions it raises amongst readers. As much as the church tries to appease those who might be “put off” by seemingly unorthodox language, it forgets those who like Michelle are put off by the seemingly unorthodox theology that God is mostly a man. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many retorts to Virginia’s insistence on the feminine images for God that point out the sheer lack of volume these images have in our cannon. What I think is a more compelling focus these days is what Virginia and Elizabeth mentioned as the deconstruction of the gender binary. That God and even I are not one thing or another thing but a ball of energy and mystery and transformation.

  5. As I admitted in The Divine Feminine, there are far fewer female images of God in the Bib le than masculine ones. But I also pointed out that the difference in volume is only natural in a highly patriarchal society. Why would it occur to anyone to image God as female when the intention was to honor God, and women were considered secondary and sinful? Only the Holy Spirit could have caused that to happen! But I also trust that inclusive God-language should help us deconstruct our society’s foolish gender roles and rules. Women and men are “opposite” in very few ways compared to our zillions of human similarities! Therefore I refer to the “other” gender, rather than the “opposite” one.

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