At chapel on Tuesday our lecturer in church history and historical theology played this video:
The first line is "God is not a man", with the rest of the verses continuing that exercise in negative theology, eventually leading to choruses of affirmation: God is love, and God is good.
Of course any theology student knows that God is not a man, but our imaginations fuelled by our language tells us something very different. God is not mother but father. God is not she but he. God's is not hers but his. God is not queen but king. To refer to God as anything but a man seems at best a helpful deviation from the norm, at worst an utterance of blasphemy. Our images of God, the language we use to describe God, is what we know of God. And based on our use of images and language, God, for all intents and purposes, is a man. It is written into our trinitarian confession - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
To describe God as a man is of course biblical. The almost exclusive use of masculine words as descriptions of God is a practice rooted in Scripture. We are taught by none other than Jesus to pray "Our Father". But as I said a couple of posts ago, what is biblically faithful is not necessarily theologically faithful. I am not arguing the case for liberal protestantism. I am not wincing at the particulars of Scripture. Quite the opposite, I am questioning whether it's faithful to turn those particulars into universals. In much theology today, God as Father is no longer a culturally embedded expression in a certain time and place, but a literal description that transcends time and space.
The Bible makes no apologies for being a product of its culture, nor should we. Even as a product of its culture, it was always challenging the status-quo, always standing as a witness to a more excellent way. If we are to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we will speak of a God who does not baptise the status quo (even the status quo of the Bible), but who offers an alternative vision for life in the world. This vision begins with our language about God. We can say that God is not a man. We can say that God is not a republican. We can say that God is not a unionist. We can say that God is not a capitalist or a democrat or a conservative or a liberal. But these isolated statements are not our theology. Our theology is the songs we sing in church, the sermons we listen to, the prayers we utter, the evangelism we engage in, the kind of love we show to enemies and friends. Our theology is rooted in our life as members of the church, and that life is nothing less than an alternative to the politics of the world.
The world understands God imaged as a man, though biblical faith moves against our presumption that we know what kind of person we are talking about when we use the word "man". The world does not understand God imaged as a woman, and neither does the church. Perhaps we can only know what it means to pray "Our Father" when we learn to pray "Our Mother". God is at once neither and both.