God as Mother: Julian of Norwich and Our Language for God

The following is a paper that I wrote for my Christian Thought and Culture class at Regent College. It was a challenging and rewarding topic to research. And my prof, Iain Provan, liked it – enough to give me an A! 🙂 Although he was not completely convinced by my argument. Hmmm, what do you think??

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‘Who is like Yahweh’…judge, king, warrior, father!
‘There is none like Yahweh’…artist, gardener, doctor, mother, shepherd!
There is none like Yahweh, who lives inside a rich, open, generative rhetoric, whose character arises from daily life, and who refers back to daily life in governing and sustaining ways. (1) -Walter Brueggemann

All language we use for God is analogous and inadequate; there is no perfect metaphor that would sufficiently capture all there is to know about the multi-faceted nature of our indescribable God. In addition, language is not static; it has morphed over time to reflect changing culture. Because God uses our own language to communicate something to us, God naturally accommodates God’s ways and ideas to use language and images that we are familiar with within the limits of our particular culture and place in history.(2)  In this paper I would like to focus on this latter aspect of the language we use for God: accommodation. I will argue that just as God chose to accommodate to a less-than-ideal patriarchal Hebrew society by revealing Godself using masculine imagery and language, God also chose to accommodate to certain 14th century medieval concepts of motherhood and medical physiology to reveal Godself, using maternal imagery and language, to the English mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian’s portrayal of God as Mother should then serve as an example to contemporary Christ-followers that as culture and language morphs over time, for better or worse, God will continue to accommodate to our own cultural perceptions in order to meet us where we are at. Some will argue that this issue raises several concerns, including whether or not we are permitted to ‘invent’ language for God, and while I am sympathetic to them, I believe they are unwarranted and can be eased by a deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of our language for God and its relationship to changing cultural contexts.

In order to understand Julian’s use of maternal imagery in her own cultural context, it will be helpful to first examine the purpose of masculine language for God in the cultures of the Old and New Testament. Although the language for God in Scripture is mostly masculine (there are feminine references to God in Scripture that I will reference later), most serious theologians throughout the ages have agreed that the masculine language used in these terms does not imply that God has “genitalia or other indications of human maleness”, for God is spirit.(3)  So if God is not male, why is the majority of language used in Scripture masculine? I submit that God chose to accommodate to the less-than-ideal patriarchal Hebrew society as portrayed in Scripture by revealing Godself using masculine imagery and language.(4)  For in order to communicate God’s transcendence, power, authority and majesty to the people of the Old and New Testament, God had to use images of lord, king, ruler, and judge, all positions that were, in that time and place, and as a result of an fallen unjust culture, held only by men.(5)(6)   Also, in order to supplement those images with ones of immanence, intimacy, relationality, and love, God used the image of a parent, predominantly father, for culturally specific and appropriate reasons. The Talmud, the central text of mainstream Judaism, teaches that the father’s responsibility towards his son consisted of three things: “to circumcise him, to teach him the law, and to teach him a trade.”(7)  Thus it was the father’s responsibility to teach his son “the meaning of life and to pass on secrets of the family trade.”(8)  Fathers, then, had a special relationship to their children that mothers did not. Also, in that particular culture, only fathers had the social and legal authority that is shared by both fathers and mothers today.(9)  Revealing Godself in feminine terms to people in ancient Hebrew culture would not have made much sense, for women had few legal rights, were oppressed and often treated like property or prostitutes. God also revealed Godself to be a spouse and a lover in order to convey God’s love and intimacy. If God had revealed Godself in asexual or trans-sexual terms, the people would have had no earthly image or common ground through which to relate to God.(10)  God took great care to communicate Godself using culturally specific language and imagery that would most accurate convey what God meant to be conveyed about Godself at that particular time and place in history.

In the same manner, God accommodated to 14th century medieval notions of motherhood and medical physiology, as well as to Julian of Norwich’s own experience with her earthly mother, in order to most accurately communicate certain aspects of God’s character to her. For in order for God to reveal God’s creative, sustaining, nurturing, and utterly devoted love and care, for Julian it was most helpful that God, and in particular Jesus, be understood as Mother. For in medieval England, four views of the mother existed. First, she is generative, that is, the fetus is created by her and is made of her very matter.(11)  In a similar way, Julian believed that we are created by Jesus and are made up of the same substance as him, in the sense that he took on our humanity yet mysteriously retained his divinity, and likewise we are fully human yet take on Christ’s nature through our salvation. She writes, “And so Jesus is our true Mother in nature by our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking our created nature.” (12) Whether through our first or second birth, Jesus is the creative source of life.

Second, in medieval England it was widely noted that the mother is willing to endure birth pangs in order to give life.(13)  Julian believed that in a similar way, Jesus endured ‘birth pangs’ on the cross in order to give all of humanity new life. She writes, “In accepting our nature he gave us life, and in his blessed dying on the cross he bore us to endless life.”(14)

Third, in Julian’s culture it was a common belief that the mother is nurturing and sustains her children with her own bodily fluid. (15) Medieval medical physiology taught that breast milk was actually processed blood, so the mother actually fed her children with her blood, the essence of her own life.(16)  Julian believed that Jesus is our Mother then in the sense that he gives us nourishment from his own body and blood, an image of the Eucharist. She writes, “The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, more courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.”(17)  Both a mother and Jesus sustain their children with food that is themselves.

Fourth, in medieval England it was widely perceived that the mother is loving and tender and has a natural instinct to protect, comfort, discipline and guide her children at all costs.(18)  Julian believed that Jesus as our Mother performs all of these high duties out of his abundant and instinctual love for us his children.(19)  She writes, “The mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest. No one ever might or could perform this office fully, except only [Jesus].”(20)  In Julian’s experience with her own mother, who she notes is by her bedside throughout her entire illness and during the revelations, these words are as true of mother as they are of father.(21)  Also, Julian also describes the mother as one who guides and disciplines: “And when [the child] is even older, she allows it to be chastised to destroy its faults, so as to make the child receive virtues and grace.”(22)  Just as a mother seeks the best for her children by meeting their needs, protecting, loving, guiding and disciplining them, so Jesus performs these duties with great natural ease and joy.

God’s accommodating revelations to Julian of Norwich of God as Mother can teach contemporary Christ-followers that God accommodates to people’s understanding of motherhood and fatherhood as constructed by their own particular culture, essentially meeting us where we are at, in order to most accurately reveal Godself to us. Thus I believe that in today’s cultural context in North America, where women alongside men hold equal status, equal parental responsibilities and roles, as well as equal legal rights over their children, it will be helpful to many to perceive and address God as their Mother, depending upon their own notions and experience of motherhood.

Some will argue that this raises several concerns, and here I will only be able to address a few. First, some believe that using Mother will lead to an abandonment of the traditional language for God. In no way am I advocating this, nor did Julian of Norwich, for she used a variety of images for God throughout her writings. Addressing and describing God as Mother should serve to complement and expand upon all other language we use for God. Second, some are worried that this feminine language will change the religion or will mean a slippage into pagan goddess worship. I believe that as long as good teaching about precisely what is meant – and what is not meant – by God as Mother accompanies this title, than this fear is unwarranted. Implying that by viewing God in feminine terms automatically equals pagan worship is personally insulting as a woman, as there are many male pagan deities as well! Third, some believe that we are not permitted to ‘invent’ new language for God. But I do not believe by referring to God as Mother we are inventing new language, rather we are simply translating the meaning behind God as Father – that God is an intimately relational, caring, authoritative (etc.) parent – into a word that also captures the similar meaning for us today. If we really believe that God is not male, that the purpose of the ‘father’ language is to convey God’s relational intimacy, love, guidance, and so forth, and that both male and female are equally created in God’s image, and mostly enjoy this status in today’s North American culture, than we must stop acting like God is solely male by continuing to view God solely in these terms. For if our language is not static, and the masculine terms ‘man’, ‘mankind’, and ‘he’ no longer refer to both men and women, than is it possible by retaining masculine-only language for God we are actually then changing the religion?(23)  Since language has changed, Paul Smith, author of Can We Call God ‘Mother’? believes that “if we fail to update our religious language, it will become increasingly masculinized. It is then that we ultimately change our religion from worship of a God who both encompasses and transcends male and female to a God who is exclusively male.” These are thoughts worth considering.

While language and culture continually are morphing and changing around us, we can be thankful that our God does not. While God accommodates for us, God’s eternal qualities of both transcendence and immanence, power and kindness, justice and love, have always been and always will be. I am grateful for Julian of Norwich’s faithfulness in recording her revelations from God, so that those after her can be encouraged and renewed by the image of God as our creative source, our nurturing, loving, and sustaining Mother. To God alone be the glory.

___

Endnotes

(1) Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme, and Text (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 266.

(2) John G. Stackhouse, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 120.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid., 120-121.

(5) Ibid., 121.

(6) I am presupposing an egalitarian view of gender in this paper. Although there is no time to flesh this out completely here, I believe that the biblical text is thoroughly emphatic that both men and women are created equally in the image of God and that the patriarchal system in which women were treated as less than human, kept from positions of leadership, and oppressed for thousands of years was a result of the fall and was critiqued and overthrown by Christ, as “there is neither male nor female…for all are one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)

(7) Paul R. Smith, Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), 29.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Stackhouse, Finally Feminist, 121.

(11) Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 131-132.

(12) Julian of Norwich, Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 296.

(13) Bynum, Jesus as Mother, 132.

(14) Julian of Norwich, Showings, 304.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Bynum, Jesus as Mother, 131-132.

(17) Julian of Norwich, Showings, 298.

(18) Bynum, Jesus as Mother, 131-132.

(19) Julian of Norwich, Showings, 299-302.

(20) Ibid., 297.

(21) Jennifer P Heimmel, “God Is Our Mother”: Julian of Norwich and the Medieval Image of Christian Feminine Divinity (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1982), 49.

(22) Julian of Norwich, Showings, 299.

(23) Smith, Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?, 35.

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11 Responses to “God as Mother: Julian of Norwich and Our Language for God”


  1. 1 Les Galicinski December 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Great paper Jen. Bravo… Well Done.

  2. 3 Theran December 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Hey Jen,

    Awesome paper. We get exposed to so many interesting things in lectures that we can’t all explore and research (unless we do it after we graduate – when we actually have some time again!) So it is super interesting to read someone else’s paper and get the benefit of their research and insight.
    Shot! thanks for posting it. Well done on the grade!

    T

    • 4 joyforaweek December 3, 2010 at 12:58 am

      Thanks Theran, appreciate it! Yah, I wish everyone would post their papers cuz from what I heard there were tons of very interesting topics. It would be fantastic winter break reading!

      Peace,
      Jen

  3. 5 sdonaldson December 13, 2010 at 3:29 am

    I’ve just stumbled across your website and really enjoyed reading your paper. Very interesting.

    Just one thought I had, though. You seem to assume that in the scriptures God chooses to reveal himself/herself/itself, and willingly accommodates this revelation to the limitations of the language of the time, in order to best reveal God’s nature to that situation:

    “For in order to communicate God’s transcendence, power, authority and majesty to the people of the Old and New Testament, God had to use images of lord, king, ruler, and judge, all positions that were, in that time and place, and as a result of an fallen unjust culture, held only by men.(5)(6) Also, in order to supplement those images with ones of immanence, intimacy, relationality, and love, God used the image of a parent, predominantly father, for culturally specific and appropriate reasons.”

    But much of the imagery mentioned above, especially in the old testament (but also sometimes in the new), presents God as a violent and vengeful deity, possibly almost antithetical in nature to the God revealed by the person of Jesus – see Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s “Jesus Against Christianity” for an interesting exploration of this. Could it be that the majority of the imagery of God found in the old testament (and also some of the imagery found in the new) is not merely only culturally and historically limited but is just plain misleading, presenting a picture of God as an all-powerful and ultimately violent God who demands our repentance in order to avoid his wrathful judgement, rather than a gentle and self-suffering God whose love for us all is absolutely unconditional? Is there a need to move increasingly towards an understanding of God as mother and away from God as father?

    • 6 joyforaweek December 13, 2010 at 10:20 am

      Thanks sdonaldson for your comment. Your idea that the OT imagery is misleading is interesting and valid, however I think it needs to be nuanced some. I’ll have to reply in detail later this week however, as I’m in the middle of studying for my OT exam right now! Will get to this next weekend. Be sure to check back!

    • 7 Jen Galicinski December 25, 2010 at 10:28 pm

      Hi sdonaldson,

      thanks for your patience waiting for my reply. While I do share your concern about the violent imagery in the Old Testament, I would have to say that a careful and contextual reading of the text – the whole of the Christian Scripture – reveals a God who is altogether compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in love. And yes, this is after I just finished a course in the OT, so I realize there are some pretty horrifying passages that could suggest otherwise. But I do believe it is dangerous to read modern-day standards of pacifism and non-violence back into history – especially a historical a cultural context that is at least 4000-5000 years ago and hundreds of thousands of miles away.

      Other cultures of the Ancient Near East presented gods that were unjust, manipulative, petty, jealous, and violent at random and without cause. The concept of one God who created everything and then communicated ethical principles that would present the best way to live (for those people in that particular time – such as the food laws, give to the poor, welcome the stranger, love your enemies, etc) was fairly unheard of. A God who created for LOVE – and not to be the slaves of the gods – like the Babylonian creation myth – was unheard of. And yes, Yahweh was angry – at injustice. At the oppression of the poor. At Yahweh’s people ignoring the needy – the strangers and the widows – and at idolatry – which was really the people turning from reality (one God who created all things in love) to unreality (worshiping no-gods, which were impotent to deliver on their promises). As for the violence – yes Yahweh commanded whole people groups to be wiped out, there is no skirting around that issue. I do struggle with this a great deal. But want my professor, Iain Provan, explained to us this term, which was helpful, was that because Yahweh is creator, Yahweh also has the right to judge – but we can rest assured because Yahweh’s judgment is just and fair – and that these people were wicked. Like child-sacrifice wicked. Like so far gone and were warned multiple times (just because its not directly in the Hebrew Scriptures doesn’t mean it didn’t happen). Like oppressing the poor wicked. And Yahweh held Israel to the same standard of justice – and allowed them to be defeated and thrown into exile when they were wicked themselves. The question that was helpful for me was “If Yahweh is not appalled and angry at injustice, is Yahweh really good?”

      Of course, I believe with Jesus, the concept of Holy War is null and void – after Jesus, the fullness of Yahweh revealed – it’s a ‘never ever again’ type of situation. Like the flood – never again will God judge humanity that way.

      So while I still struggle with the violence in the OT, putting into a historical and cultural context is helpful.
      Also, I have no problems with the terms King, Lord, Master, etc, because I believe God revealed Godself to be a loving, compassionate, merciful King, Lord, and Master, yes, even in the Old Testament. I think to say that all kings and rulers were wicked is a bit of an overstatment – there were examples of just and fair kings (but not many, which is why the monarchy was never God’s Plan A – but God allowed the monarchy in order to relent to Israel’s cries. There can never be a fully just and good and fair King but God himself). So yes, I guess I do not believe that the masculine language is BAD in itself, I just believe that feminine language and imagery would be helpful to expand our conception of God and to release any grasp we may have that God is male or masculine ALONE – for God is spirit, and is neither.

      • 8 sdonaldson December 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

        Hi Jennifer,

        A very interesting reply. Made me think a lot. Again, here are some of my thoughts:

        In terms of the portrayals of God in the scriptures, I personally would tend towards the view that there is not one overwhelming image or character of God coming through the scriptures but rather many different images – in fact, not unsurprisingly, each separate author seems to present different pictures of God, some very similar, some totally incompatible – depending on the individual mindset and social/historical context of the individual writer. Unless one accepts this then one ends up in the unenviable position of trying to justify a God who commits genocide, when in the end we all know that genocide could never be an appropriate response to injustice, however grave. I completely agree that if God is love, then God must be moved to respond appropriately to injustice, but I think that what is so amazing about Jesus is that he shows us that the way God responds to injustice is not through violence, but by going and living with the weak and oppressed, refusing to bow down to the dominant systems of violence, and even suffering death for the sake of others. The God Jesus reveals to us takes injustice so seriously that he/she/it is willing to suffer in protest against injustice and in hope of a better future.

        When it comes to the use of images like King, Lord, Master etc, my main problem with the use of them of God is that they imply that God is an all-powerful person, where power is here understood in the sense of a King’s power – i.e. the power of violence. I personally cannot reconcile the existence of an all-powerful person in this sense with the existence of horrendous evils in the world and therefore think that such imagery is usually inappropriate of God.

        While I agree that God is neither male nor female, I would tend to align myself with the tradition of negative theology, and so if we are going to say that God is spirit we must also simultaneously say that God is not spirit. All such imagery and language ultimately fails of God but some imagery seems to be more in keeping with the revelation of God in Jesus. Going back to the original discussion, I think that female imagery of God as a whole is overwhelmingly more in line with this revelation than male imagery, portraying a God of unconditional love as opposed to a God of power and conditionality.

        And finally, I’ve recently finished reading a book on the issue of images of God, called “God: His and Hers”, by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel and Jurgen Moltmann, which raised a lot of interesting issues and is definitely worth a read if you get a chance.

        Sam

  4. 9 sdonaldson December 16, 2010 at 8:14 am

    All the best with the OT exam. I look forward to reading your reply.

  5. 10 Sharolyn March 17, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Wowsers. This is why I’m not studying at Regent myself (yet?). So complicated. And yet you seem to have a good handle on this topic Jen and I found your article fascinating. Thanks, I look forward to reading more!

  6. 11 Sam Donaldson May 3, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Hey Jennifer,
    Your blog popped into my head again recently and I realised I was interested to know whether your thinking had moved at all since writing your essay in 2011. I’d love to hear any new thoughts you may have on the topic of revelation, accommodation and feminine images of God.
    Hope all is well and that your still enjoying the course and finding it challenging,
    Sam


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