Thursday, October 05, 2006

Infinite names for an Infinite God: Toward a multi-dimensional God

Communal Prayer

God who is . . .
Higher, wider, deeper, longer, than mere words can give expression;

God who is . . .
More beautiful, more holy, more just, more loving than humanity can envision;

God who is . . .
Beyond thought, wonder, reason, idea, knowledge, definition, imagination;

God who is . . .
Without border, without boundary, without limitation;

God who is . . .
God who was . . .
God who is to come . . .

We give you our praise, our lives, our love.

Infinite Names for an Infinite God

Like Uninvited Guests

One of the ways which women have felt excluded from the Table has stemmed from the Institutional Church’s claim to name God in exclusively male terms. Religion has given men a God like themselves – a God exclusively male in imagery, which legitimizes and seals their power. Through the use of androcentric language and patriarchal practices, women have been deprived of an image of God which affirms our being and dignity. Instead, we have been subjected to images of God which oppress and damage us and leave us feeling like uninvited guests, or more poignantly, like the dogs beneath the table catching crumbs the children drop.
Praxis – Briefly, share a story of a time when you felt like an uninvited guest at The Table of the Lord.

Limiting the Limitless

We are invited to reclaim images which give life and enable us to connect with the Divine. For, though humankind, male and female, were created in the image of God, The Divine is neither human nor a gendered being. Indeed God prohibits us from creating any sort of image of God saying - . . . take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure – the likeness of male or female, the likeness of birds, or snakes or fish . . . (Deut. 4:15b-17)

No word, symbol, image, or picture adequately names or describes God. God’s own self-naming reflects a state of absolute being “I am that I am”. To use only one or a few images/metaphors limits who God is. Metaphors are complex, implied comparisons, not direct comparisons. When scripture uses metaphors to describe God, it makes not claim that God IS those things. While saying God is LIKE something – a father, a hen, a rock – Scripture also sustains those ways that God is NOT like a father, a hen, a rock.

Praxis –

~What is your “default” name for God?
~What meaning does it have for you and why?
~In what ways might this default name limit your view of God?
~Give some examples of when using that default name might not “fit” or be “appropriate.”

Seeing Half the Picture, Hearing Half the Story

God loses that multi-dimensional self, and becomes a single-gendered image, graven with words in the shape of Father, He, Male, etc. But the balancing answer is not to use only the corresponding feminine images because again we become guilty of the same sin of limiting God. Adding the suffix ‘ess’ to every God-name is not a sufficient solution because the feminine aspects are perceived as somehow inferior to the masculine counterpart in a religious and social system that is patriarchal. Nor is it satisfactory to agree to some sort of ‘divine compromise’ where Father and Son are male and the Holy Spirit is expressed in distinctly feminine terms.

HOWEVER, many of us can identify with Sue Monk Kidd’s claim:
I needed a sacred space free of the stain of sexism with core imagery that embraced the feminine, a space that welcomed women to places of power, engaged them fully as equals, and helped to heal their wound and empower their lives.

That is, we may need time to detox, to fully immerse ourselves in the Divine Feminine, so as to move forward and embrace God’s more infinite and unlimited being.

Praxis -

~Explain how it feels to you when God is spoken in gender-exclusive terms.
~Describe what has been most helpful to you in renaming and re-imaging The Divine.
~How might we better raise awareness of the need to broaden our ways of naming an infinite God?
~Name some ways we might extend grace to those who way of naming God is sexist or exclusionary?

Unengraving the Image – The many names of God

Female imagery of God DOES exist, as our list below reveals. Unfortunately, there are not enough feminine metaphors to satisfy either those who think God is male, or those who are convinced God is not. And invariably, the accompanying male pronouns used in biblical writings still attach a specific gender to these distinctly non-male images. As is said regarding biblical examples of female leaders – given the cultural context it is truly amazing that they are in there at all.

While gender exclusive language for God leaves women feeling un-affirmed and even ignored, the goal of infinitely expanding our ways of naming God, is not simply that we women feel good about ourselves in religious contexts, but that God is accurately imagined and rightly honored. (Though in accurately naming The Divine, we will of necessity feel good – whole, accepted, like invited guests.) Such accurate representation of the Infinite One requires utilizing an infinite number of names.

The way to accurately name God is by employing authentic, full-spectrum images of God – human/non-human, material/non-material, attributes/actions and more. “Diverse people speaking of an Infinite God cannot settle on a single way to name who God is.” In fact Jewish feminist, Marcia Falk believes that:

One name does not equal one Divinity. The monotheistic vision can only be realized through a multiplicity of names and images, a diversity broad enough to include, and thus, unite all of creation.

Praxis -
Using the attached list of ways to name The Divine, write a sample prayer around specific images of God that are most appropriate to a specific situation or setting drawing from the vast array of ways to name God. That is, how might you address God when praying for a cancer patient, a couple whose baby just died, a group of middle school students, an all-male consistory, a senior in a nursing home, a victim of abuse, etc.

A Common Reading

Bring many names, beautiful and good;
Celebrate, in parable and story,
Holiness in glory.
Living, loving God.
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Strong mother God, working day and night.
Planning all wonders of creation,
Settling each equation,
Genius at play
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Warm father God, hugging every child,
Feeling all the strains of human living,
Caring and forgiving
‘Til we’re reconciled.
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Old aching God, grey with endless care.
Calmly piercing evil’s new disguises;
Glad of good surprises,
Wiser than despair.
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Young, growing God, eager, on the move,
Saying “no” to falsehood and unkindness,
Crying out for justice,
Giving all you have.
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Great living God, never fully known.
Joyful darkness beyond our seeing,
Closer yet than breathing,
Everlasting home.
Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

(Brian Wren, copyrighted by Hope Publishing Co. Carol Stream, IL)

A Bibliography of Many Voices

Dille, Sarah J.
Mixing Metaphors: God as Mother and Father in Deutero-
(London: T & T Clark, 2004).

Flinders, Carol Lee Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993).

Rebalancing the World: Why Women Belong and Men
Compete and How to Restore the Ancient Equilibrium

(San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2003).

Grenz, Stanley J. and Denise Muir Kjesbo
Women in the Church: A Biblical
Theology of Women in Ministry
(Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995).

Jewett, Paul K. Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

Johnson, Elizabeth A.
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist
Theological Discourse
, (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1992).

Kidd, Sue Monk
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey
from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine
(San Francisco:
Harper Collins, 2002).

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey The Divine Feminine
(New York: Crossroad, 1983).

Piper, John and Wayne Grudem Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991).

Rae, Eleanor and Bernice Marie Daly
Created In Her Image: Models of the
Feminine Divine
(New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1990).

Sumner, Sara Men and Women in the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity
Press, 2003).

Wren, Brian
What Language Shall I Borrow? God-talk in Worship: A Male
Response to Feminist Theology
(New York: Crossroads Publishing,


  • thanks so much for these thoughts. can I post a link from the Emerging Women blog here?

    By Blogger Julie, at 7:48 PM  

  • Great writing, Elizabeth!

    By Blogger Past the Wishing, at 8:41 AM  

  • Do you have that list of names on your blog or did I miss it? Thanks!

    By Blogger Charlotte Wyncoop, at 7:54 PM  

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