Don’t let the dominators imagine God for you

Freedom in imagining God as Mother

I loved the talk Hana gave on the Third Sunday of Advent on Mary. She told us why Mary was so important to the world and to her, and then she carefully explained why she was uncomfortable with the way that the angel Gabriel told Mary she was favored by God and that she would give birth to Jesus. In our era of consciousness about the power of patriarchy such an ask develops a new meaning. Here’s the text from Luke 1:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Hana zeroed in on why this was uncomfortable for her. Our image of God has been colonized by the powerful—she called it “whitemalegod,” using the term coined by Christena Cleveland. And if we see God as an expression of the dominators’ power, such an ask is coercive and forced—it’s certainly not mutual or consensual. So how did she redeem the story and see it, perhaps, as Mary did?

She imaged God as a woman, God as mother, God as sister, as aunty, even. I appreciated her imagining God in a way that freed her, as opposed to relying on the way that the dominators imagined him (and yes, “him”).

Mary had an image of God too; the angel spoke to it.

This whole exercise got me thinking about how Mary was imagining God and how I do too. And what imagining God was all about.

I have to start by saying that theology, itself, is putting images on God. It is imaging God. Theology, or words about God, are to help us understand God who needs specifics, and particularly to be known and to be worshiped. God served us in the very incarnation by giving us a human-god through which to know him, worship him, and serve him. This is why Jesus is so important to Christians.

Mary was a Jew, however. Her image of God was not Jesus—or at least not before Gabriel visited her. Her image of God was divine liberator and deliverer. She was in her own Advent waiting to be delivered. And the way the angel delivers the news to her is in a very Jewish way, right in the way that she sees God. Even the idea of God finding “favor” with her is rooted in her own tradition. The “Son of the Most High God” is an explicit Jewish reference, as is the “throne of his ancestry David.” He’s reigning in the “house of Jacob,” as well. All of the images that Gabriel uses speak directly to Mary, her tradition, her understanding of God, and her circumstance. This entrance isn’t forced, it’s intimate.

For us, most of these images are not rooted in our history so they feel distant or unusual or ancient. That’s OK. That’s an appropriate response to the text, IMO. For the Bible, what’s more for God, to become alive to us, we need to develop intimacy with God the way that Mary did. We need to birth God ourselves in our own contexts, even.

God is a liberator, aligned with those who need liberation

For me, I see God as a liberator, as well, but one that will free me of my present oppression and circumstance. God will free me from the powers that surround me—the powers of hatred and violence—but also from my internal oppression—self-hate, self-doubt, the inability to accept God’s acceptance of me. But that’s the image of God I’ve drawn on and I’ve learned it from the liberationists like James Cone, but also psychologically-attuned Christians like Henri Nouwen, and also from the Anabaptists. That’s what I’m working with. It’s personal to me. That’s how I can personally relate to God.

However, we can’t just invent God in our own image. I think that’s how we go into the “whitemalegod” mess. So before we offer judgment, we can probably see how European men thought of God; just like any of us, they thought of God like they thought of themselves. The problem with that was the imposition with which they shared their image. Their image became ours. They forced themselves on us and the rest of the world.

Maybe they felt free to, and maybe they feel currently emboldened to, because that’s how “social construction” and “postmodernism” work. We can just invent God how we like. But God has an ontological basis—that is to say, God isn’t just a figment of our imagination. God exists in reality today. God is alive. God is real. And thus, God has an actual character and being. And if the words of Mary in her song are any indication, God is ontologically aligned with the oppressed. Put another way: God, in terms of who God is, is on the side of the poor and the lowly. Here’s the Magnificat:

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things.

Mary is describing who God is. And as we imagine God, let’s ensure that we remember this description. Our God is a God of the Oppressed. A God that exalts valleys, and lowers hills. A God that sets things right: who rectifies and justifies, who brings justice and righteousness. This is good news for all: oppressed and oppressor (because we are often both of those things in different contexts). That is the character of God, and it can never be undone by our imagination.

We aren’t inventing God when we imagine God

We imagine God to relate to God, not to invent God. The words about God we come up with serve our intimacy with God. We aren’t creating God. We aren’t becoming our own Gods. That’s an important distinction.

Hana imagined a God she could trust. She said we need to imagine God in the same way. And the best way we do this is in community. I think we create our “God image” together as community looking into God within us, God with us. Take that encouragement this Advent—we need a God we can trust, and a trustworthy God reveals herself in our community. That is what it means when we say Jesus is best revealed incarnationally. We worship, relate to, and know God together.

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