Read an Excerpt
The Freedom of Letting Go Revised and Updated Edition
By Richard Rohr, Peter Heinneg
The Crossroad Publishing CompanyCopyright © 1990 Claudius Verlag Munich
All rights reserved.
God the Father – God the Mother?
* * *
Whenever we discuss the image of God, there's always a lot of controversy and misunderstanding. It takes a long time for us to allow God to be who God really is. Our natural egocentricity wants to make God – and all other people, for that matter – into who we want them or need them to be. It's the role of the prophet to keep people free for God. But at the same time it's the responsibility of the prophet to keep God free for people.
I'd like to begin with something that looks like a cliché: the First Commandment. It says that we're not supposed to make any images of God or to worship them. We've never taken the First Commandment seriously. God created human beings after God's own image, and we've returned the compliment, so to speak, creating God after our image. Thus God or the gods were, as a rule, turned into a mirror image and projection of our own selves. In the end we produced what was typically a kind of tribal god. In America God looks like Uncle Sam, or Santa Claus, or in any case a white Anglo-Saxon. In England, God evokes the British Empire. A Swiss God, perhaps, resembles a banker or a psychologist.
Normally we find it very, very difficult to let God be, a God who's greater than our culture and our projections. In patriarchal Europe we prefer to see God as a man. And yet it says right there in Genesis: "God created humankind in God's own image; male and female God created them." (Gen. 1:27) That says point blank that God cannot be strictly masculine. And still we seem to need more proof.
Despite all our theology, when this sort of question arises the dominant culture normally carries the day. Or rather, what ultimately prevails is the human ego. We always seem to find a way to keep things firmly in our grasp. And so we've created "God" to go on playing our game: a God who fits into our system. A God who stands outside our system and calls to us is something we can't endure. Thus, for example, we've continually required a God who likes to play war just as much as we do. We've required a domineering God, because we ourselves like to dominate. And since we're so fixated on this, we've almost completely forgotten and ignored what Jesus told us about the nature of God.
At first glance the First Commandment deals only with carved or handmade likenesses of God. But it refers above all to those images of God that we hold in our heads. The great figures of faith are always letting go of their momentary, self-related images of God. But that calls for a high degree of distance from oneself. Perhaps that's why faith is so rare and religion so widespread: because religion is very often a means to maintain our familiar image of God, even when it's pathological and destructive. We feel better with what we know, even when it does us in.
But faith always invites us to a new and unfamiliar place. Thus we can see in the Book of Exodus how the Israelites preferred to go back to slavery in Egypt rather than be led into the wilderness, where they didn't have God in the palm of their hands. As we grow, our image of God and our self-image normally move forward on parallel tracks. And if one of the two breaks down, the other has to come apart too. We stick to both of them, and both stick together. Every crisis of faith implies that one or the other side is cracking up. If you are truly to grow in faith, then in my opinion this process of disintegration ought to take place at least every two or three years. This is the darkness of faith: when you've had to drop the old for a time but haven't yet found the new. It's the terrible space in between, where nobody wants to live. We want to retreat to a spot where I know who I am and who God is – even when our self-image and our image of God destroy each other, which often happens.
The journey of faith demands that we let go of our image of God and our image of ourselves. But we can't do that in our head or on our own; it's done to us. The only thing we have to do is live, but live openly and honestly, letting the truth of the world get through to us. We're not converted in our heads or by sermons from the pastor: we're converted by circumstances – if we really let the circumstances speak to us. And when we let reality get through to us, then conversion doesn't take very long. The Santa Claus image of God stops working, and the masculine image of God doesn't last very long either.
Since we need a license to hurl thunderbolts, we've created a Zeus-god who hurls them too. But as soon as we go on an inner journey and discover a place of tenderness and softness, full of compassion, broad and vast, the Zeus-image of God no longer works. Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, (Matt. 4:2) where he got rid of his images. He was emptied. And that's the real meaning of fasting: to be emptied of your own images. Only when Jesus was emptied of his self-image could the Father give him a new image and call him "dear son." And we can't deny that Jesus was pleased to call his God "father."
Presumably that also had something to do with his patriarchal culture, even if he did dare to call his God "abba" (the word little boys used, like "papa" or "daddy" in Western culture). It probably also says a lot about his human father, Joseph, and about his relationship with him. But Jesus' parables and metaphors often use father-God images we would call feminine. This is especially true of the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) as well as when Jesus says that God would gladly be a hen and take us under his wings like little chicks. (Matt. 23:27)
Retreats and counseling for priests are a main feature of my work. And although these men know a great deal about theology, I've found to my surprise that their image of God is ninety percent a mixture of the image of their own mothers and fathers. And for some reason they themselves are always amazed when they discover this. If their mother was harshly critical, so is their God. If their father was distant and cold, likewise their God is distant and cold. I would encourage you to examine the extent to which this applies to your life as well.
Again, we have to break through the images to find who God really is. I promise you there's nothing to be afraid of here. But you have no basis to believe that until you take the journey yourself. People who pray always know that. People who empty themselves in the wilderness always meet a God who is greater than they would have dared to hope. The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a man who had a great deal of influence on me, describes this experience as "mercy, within mercy, within mercy." There's always a lot of anxiety and insecurity in letting go of your current images of yourselves and your images of God. Only God can lead you, and all you can do is let go. The spiritualities of all great world religions teach us letting go, or how to step aside.
I believe that we have, especially in the northern European countries, transformed the Gospel into self-control. On the other hand I'm convinced that the Gospel itself is about self-surrender. Self-control is a masculine way of thinking. But self-surrender is perhaps rather a feminine form of thinking. We haven't allowed God to teach us to surrender.
One of the dominant peer group movements in America is comprised of Twelve Step programs. The concept was created more than a half century ago by a man named Bill Wilson, when he founded Alcoholics Anonymous. While the Church talks about self-control, these groups talk about self-surrender. They don't gather in rectangular churches with a pulpit in the middle. The pulpit symbolizes the centrality of the sermon, which normally enthrones the left hemisphere of the brain, the more masculine kind of thinking. Twelve Step group members gather in a circle, and the participants share their pain with one another. No therapist comes in to psychoanalyze them, and no minister comes in to pray over them. When people share their trust and their pain, it's purely and simply the mystery of the naked body of Christ.
When people get together in solidarity and unity, not out of power but out of powerlessness, then Christ is in their midst. And honestly, I find a lot more healing in these simple groups than in most of our churches. I also have a sense of these gatherings as having a much more culturally feminine image of God: God as a healer, as one who participates and doesn't just think – which is not to say that women are always healing and men are always thinking; I know these are stereotypes, but for whatever reason, stereotypes that are rather common cross-culturally.
Like many other people I've continually wondered why Jesus came to us as a man and why he chose twelve men as disciples. I have only my interpretation for this and no proof that it's right. But I think that if Jesus had come as a woman, and had this woman been forgiving and compassionate, and had she taught nonviolence, we wouldn't have experienced that as revelation. "Oh, well, a typical woman," we would have said. But the fact that a man in a patriarchal society took on these qualities that we call "feminine" was a breakthrough in revelation. So he spent three years teaching twelve men how to do things differently – and they almost never caught on. And for two thousand years many men in the Church have never caught on, because we men wanted a God of domination. We've needed a God who would allow the Germans to kill the French and the French to kill the English. A feminine God wouldn't have gotten the job done. The Sermon on the Mount was oft neglected. In the men's Church there is little room for turning the other cheek and forgiving one's enemies.
Ever since the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel and Western civilization have been on a collision course. But the collision course turned into a one-way street. And the winner wasn't Jesus; the winner was Western civilization. We've taken Jesus over and placed a crown on his head, not a crown of thorns, but a royal crown, which he expressly rejected. But we need kings to keep England, France, and all the other countries in line. Especially after the Edict of Milan in 313, when Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire, we have read the Gospels from the perspective of power instead of from the side of the poor and the disestablished.
So he taught his twelve apostles how it could be done differently. We see, for example, in the Gospel of Mark how he tells his disciples three times: we must die, we must lose, we must be powerless. And each time they either don't get it or they change the subject. And the last one to catch on is Peter, the so-called Prince of the Apostles. (By the way, this is also the only time Jesus calls one of his beloved disciples a "devil," (Mark 8:33) implying "You haven't understood at all what I'm after.")
Until the end of Mark's Gospel it's always the men who don't understand what Jesus is talking about. The women, on the other hand, always understand. And the first witness to the resurrection is not a man, but a woman who was considered a sinner, Mary Magdalen. For the Church's first thousand years she was called an apostle. This can now be proven from liturgical texts. She was even called the "apostle to the apostles." The fact that she was just that is clear from all four Gospels.
The Gospel text reveals the beginnings of the bias against women. Mary Magdalene and the women are not taken seriously as witnesses by the apostles, even though the text also reveals what they could not deny: after the Resurrection, Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene first, and she was sent first to those who became the official witnesses. The Gospel is a portent of what really was to happen: we would have a hard time with a feminine face for God, a God of ordinary human contact, a God who is a lover instead of a God who is merely known intellectually. Where did Jesus learn to wash the feet of his apostles? (John 13:5) In the previous chapter his own feet are washed by a woman, Mary of Bethany! (12:3) This is no theology located in the head, but a theology that feels at ease in the body.
I've had the wonderful experience of preaching in almost all the parts of the world. And it's becoming increasingly clear to me that people in different parts of the world feel comfortable in different parts of the body. The population of Europe undoubtedly feels most at ease in the head, while the Africans, for example, perhaps feel most at ease in their bodies without all the shame that most of us sense when we look at our bodies. I believe that if we had a more feminine image of God, we wouldn't have the terrible problems with authority and sexuality to struggle with in our Church and culture.
During the Middle Ages we attempted to even out the masculine/feminine imbalance through the image of Mary. We Catholics have often exaggerated her significance. It may have been bad theology to treat Mary as if she were God, but it was very good and even necessary psychology. We needed a feminine face for God. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries most of the churches in Europe were called "Notre Dame" or "Frauenkirche." It was as if the whole soul were longing for a God as tender and gentle as Mary was.
I remember a time when I was a little boy in Kansas. Our priests and nuns, who came from Ireland, tried to encourage us little Catholics to pray the rosary. They said: "When you get to heaven, St. Peter will be standing there at the gate. Of course, he's got the key, but he's a man. And you can peek through the gate, and there you see Jesus, but he's a man too. And then you look past Jesus, and there sits the old man on the throne." But, these good Irish sisters said, "There's a secret entrance way" – nowadays this will sound super-Catholic and extremely heretical – "Go to the back entrance to heaven! If you're a good boy, and you've prayed your rosary, Mary will be at the back window, and the rosary will hang down and pull you up into heaven."
Horrible theology – but a good idea, once you understand it, because most people grew up with conditional love from their father and unconditional love from their mother. Actually that wasn't true for me: I have a good German-born mother, who was in charge of discipline in our family and never let us get away with anything. My father, on the other hand, was very soft. He may also be the reason I've written books on masculine spirituality and why I feel very comfortable with the image of God as a father.
As you can see, what's at stake here is not so much theology as the question: how does God come to each one of us? Sometimes God must come as a friend and at other times as a lover; at other times it may be good if God comes as a father. But if you continue on your spiritual journey, I promise you that sometimes God will reveal himself in feminine form: himself as herself. And for some of us that may be the first time that we fall in love with God.
Many people, I find, don't love God at all – maybe even most people, even very many religious people. To my surprise I've discovered that many religious men and women even hate God. Naturally they can't admit that to themselves. How many people are afraid of God, how many experience God as cold and absent, how many people have a sense of God as someone who might toy with them or undercut them? They have nothing to be afraid of. All we have to lose is that false image that doesn't serve us, that image of ourselves that's always too small and that image of God that's likewise too small. We need to ask God to teach us to let go.
After my meanderings, I invariably come back to the image of Mary. Her response says it perfectly. It is all about being empty and teachable, with a "beginner's mind" that is ready to let go of what her own theology told her about God. I can see why some teachers called Mary "the touchstone of orthodoxy." How she did it is how all humanity must do it: enlightenment or salvation is not something we do; it is something that is done to us when we become empty and free.
No monotheistic Jewish girl at that time could ever have been prepared for the Incarnation. God is perfectly transcendent and beyond everything. And if she believed the rabbis' teaching that God comes in words, in the Torah and in the Commandments, then nothing prepared her for believing that God could become flesh and body.
Excerpted from Simplicity by Richard Rohr, Peter Heinneg. Copyright © 1990 Claudius Verlag Munich. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.