When my son was maybe three years old, he told me one night while I was putting him to bed that God was a man during the day and a woman at night. I have previously written about this and about the children’s book that Ithink planted this image in his head. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever had with him - the kind of moment that makes for a really schlocky sermon illustration attempting to make the point that the older we get the further away we are from our instinctive understandings and experiences of God.
I knew pretty soon after (based on my experience talking with teenagers about God) that someday in the future he will have no memory of his radical theological statement, and will most likely answer any question I have for him about the gender of God with an indignant, “What? Oh yeah, right.”
Already by now, at age eight, when I talk to him about the gender of God he puts me off a bit with a “yes, yes, I know God is both a man and a woman - can I have your iPhone back now, please?”
As a 36 year old I would be in a position to claim the title “post-feminist.” Though I do not, I can see how it might have happened. I will never forget being asked what I thought about inclusive language for God in the course of being examined by the board of elders at my church at the end of my Confirmation experience. After they explained to me what “inclusive language” was (it was not a part of our Confirmation curriculum), I earnestly assured them that the term “Father” was a very positive one for me: it represented strength, love and care. I can still see the smile on my own father’s face from the back of the room. But it was the truth. At 14 it had never dawned on me that calling God Father would be a bad thing.
And for me it still is not. I still feel all those things about my own father and about God…but…in the course of broadening my appreciation both for the women who came before me within the Christian tradition and for the women of my own generation who do not have the same positive associations with that kind of male language, I came to deeply value the idea of thinking of God as my Mother as well.
In those years of broadening my understanding of the role of women in the church and the Bible, I came across the woodcut above.
I was in college in Washington, D.C. and often sought introverted refuge from campus life by walking the exhibit halls of the National Gallery of Art. On one visit, I discovered a special exhibit of pieces by the turn of the century German artist Kathe Kollwitz. Kollwitz was a painter, sculptor and print maker, daughter of a socialist and granddaughter of a Lutheran pastor. Much of her art captured a compassion for the poor and the less fortunate, especially women and children and victims of war.
The drawing above is called “The Mothers.” At the exhibit they actually displayed the variations she had created on this theme, including this woodcut but also a sculpture called “The Tower of Mothers", and a similar charcoal sketch. I was inexplicably drawn to this piece and returned multiple times to visit it; even on my meager college allowance I purchased a coffee table book of the entire collection.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I fully understood the power of the piece, and its significance. Kollwitz herself was mother to two boys, one of whom died in World War I. I love the fierceness of the image, and the strength and resolve of the mothers in protecting their children from the harm of the world.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I understood the real power of calling God Mother. Suddenly, the God of the Old Testament, not just the one compared to a nursing mother who will not forsake her child but the God of Genesis, made so much more sense to me. Finally I understood how one could hold at one and the same time a primal love for a being that you have created and a deep desire to wipe it off the face of the earth. Suddenly, I embodied the complexities of God. Finally I understood the power of God’s grace in the face of our humanity.
Of course, any one image for God is not enough and cannot fully express the complexities and perfections of God - that’s what’s wrong with Father and Mother when used exclusively. That’s what I like about this Tower of Mothers: the multiplicity of the image.
God is not my mother or me as a mother. God is what sometimes happens when mothers come together in this kind of barrier against the pain of the world.
This Tower of Mothers reminds me of a very New Testament image as well: that of the mother hen who takes her wings and surrounds the city to protect it from evil. This is what Jesus imagines doing for Jerusalem – exhibiting the fierceness of a hen, willing to be pecked to death for the sake of her children. In Kollwitz’s tower I can see the combined arms of these mothers melding together to create those very wings.
While I had planned in this post just to reflect on this one piece of hers and its reflection of the divine, I can’t help but include one more. After her son Peter died in the war, Kollwitz began work on a monument to him that would embody her grief and that of her husband. Some have said that her piece “Grieving Parents” is her greatest sculptural achievement – a kneeling man and a bent woman. Below is a woodcut on the same theme that she did during the over 15 years she worked on the sculpture. Its title: “The Parents" - a similarly beautiful depiction of the multiplicity of God and the complexity of God who though powerful against the pain of the world also deeply grieves as a Mother and Father when any one of his/her children are lost.