God is more than two men and a bird

Catholics, particularly Catholic women, have been offered a very limited and sometimes unhealthy spirituality, says Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M.

This U.S. Catholic interview with Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., author and New Testament scholar, originally appeared in the May 1990 issue.

Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M. wants to know why among the hundreds of images of God in the Bible—God as mother, father, friend, sower, baker, lamb, gate, water, wind, fire, light—Christians have chosen the image of Christ the king as their predominant image. Schneiders, a renowned New Testament scholar and associate professor of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, says the overwhelming message in Scripture is that humans can’t define God: “God is beyond anything we can box into one image or category.”

The author of Women and the Word (Paulist Press, 1986) and numerous articles on Christian spirituality, Schneiders argues that Catholics, particularly Catholic women, have been offered a very limited and sometimes unhealthy spirituality: “We need some theological therapy of the religious imagination.”

How can Catholics do that? For starters, Schneiders says, they should avoid all sexist language and come to understand that just as men in Scripture “are role models for all Christians, so too are the women in Scripture role models for all Christians, male and female.”


What are some New Testament images of God that Christians often overlook or misinterpret?

Because our theological and homiletic, or preaching, tradition has so overemphasized masculine images of God, such as king, father, shepherd, or farmer, many Christians don’t hear or recognize the feminine images of God in Scripture. For example, when people hear the story of the man who sowed the grain of mustard seed in Matthew 13:31, they know the sower is God; but often they miss the parallel image that follows in Matthew 13:33 where God is presented as a woman hiding leaven in three measures of meal. Or, to use another example, Christians realize that the shepherd who left the 99 “good” sheep in the wilderness to search for the one lost sheep is God (Luke 15:3–7); but they usually don’t recognize as God the woman who searches for the lost coin in the passage that immediately follows the parable of the good shepherd (Luke 15:8–10). Or they fail to recognize the maternal image of God when they hear that Jesus says we must be born spiritually, as we were born physically from our mother’s womb, if we wish to enter the reign of God (John 3:3–6).

So it’s okay to imagine God as a woman?

It’s not only okay; it’s necessary if we wish to have a healthy, balanced image of God operating in our spirituality. God is spirit, neither male not female. All our language of God is metaphorical. Metaphors are tensive image. That means they are simultaneously to be upheld and negated. God is our father and God is not our father; God is our mother and God is not our mother. If we forget the “is not,” then we create an idol—that is, we make God into the image of a creature. By keeping many metaphors of God active simultaneously, we keep ourselves aware that none of them is to be taken literally and that none of them is adequate to the Holy Mystery who is God.

How should we view nature images of God?

They’re extremely useful. The Word of God, who is the second person of the Trinity, is also a seed sown in the ground. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “I am the water of life” (John 4:10). These nonhuman images can keep us from turning God into three people, which is the constant idolatrous tendency of humans. We try to make God into our human image instead of the other way around. God is not a human being. Nature images of God help us remember that fact. They also offer insights about God that human images can’t.

What does it mean to say, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5)? If you look at a vine, you’ll notice that it’s almost impossible to figure out where the vine ends and the branches begin. Jesus is saying something about the unity of life that goes beyond even the image of a husband and wife. No matter how close spouses get, they’re still two people. The vine and the branches really aren’t two people. The vine and the branches can’t bear fruit, and branches without a vine can’t survive. To say that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, then, gives us a sense of the mutuality between God and us that a human image of God can’t capture.


When Jesus says, “I am the living bread; anyone who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:51), what is he telling us? Think of what happens when you eat food. It literally becomes you, and you become it. If Jesus is the living bread, what does that say about our relationship to Jesus and his relationship to us? In some sense we become part of each other; we indwell in each other.

What’s the significance of saying the reign of God is like leaven being inserted into a mass of dough? Is that the description of a great conquest, whereby everyone is forced into submission? No, that’s not how leaven works. Yeast gradually works to transform the dough to make it rise. So, if the only image of the coming of the reign of God we use is that of Christ the conquering king, for example, then we have a very narrow image of the reign of God and the process by which it is achieved.

So we should take nature images of God more seriously?

Absolutely. The nonhuman images in the Bible, which are in no way inferior images, give us an entirely different perspective on the mission of the church. These images say things to us that simply can’t be said using human metaphors. Such images of God as mother, father, shepherd, sower, and baker are very useful, but so are such nonhuman images as lamb, lamp, gate, and water. What we need to do is get all of these images into the Christian imagination and experience so that they constantly play off one another and keep any one single image from being idolized. The mystics have always known this.

Scripture tells us God is light; God is darkness. God is the gentle breeze; God is the whirlwind. God is the earthquake; God is fire. God is the harvester who separates the wheat from the chaff; God is the fisher who inspects what comes into the net from the day’s catch. Once we are made aware of all these images, we keep moving around among them and realize that the message is that God is beyond anything we can box into one image or category.


Why is it that Christians willingly accept Christ the king as the predominant model for imaging Christ in the world, but not Jesus as the mother hen? He was likened to both of these images in Scripture. Neither is more valid than the other. Just as it would be absurd to celebrate a feast of Christ the Hen, so is it absurd to celebrate a feast the feast of Christ the King if the king one has in mind is a sixteenth-century monarch.

How do you explain the Trinity?

No one can explain the Trinity! But if you mean what are we to do with the tradition that the Trinity is Father, Son, and Spirit—which, in many people’s imagination comes down to an old man, a young man, and a bird—I would say we need some theological therapy of the religious imagination.

First, God is not three people, much less three males. God is one, the Holy Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). We experience God according to our limited capacity under various personae, (a word which in Latin means an “actor’s masks”).

Notably, we experience God as divine origin, source, or ground of our being; we experience God as divine communicator, divine communication, and redeemer; and as we experience God as divine energy, mover, transforming power, the One who makes us holy by enlivening us with God’s very life. The use of language such as Creator and Parent, Word and Wisdom, Spirit and Breath of Life helps express our multifaceted human experience of the one God.


Jesus’ use of Abba for God canonized the use of father language for the “first person” of the Trinity, even though Jesus also used feminine images for God, such as baker woman or female householder. God is not literally a father, nor is the reality of the “second person” of the Trinity exhausted in the image of son. Jesus claimed to be Wisdom in Matthew 11:18–19. Thus, the Word of God is also the Wisdom of God; and Wisdom is a feminine persona from the Old Testament (Wis. 8:22–9:18).

Because Jesus was a male human being, his experience of being a child of God was an experience of being a son rather than of being a daughter. As Christian faith came to understand Jesus as Word or Wisdom Incarnate, the son language was applied to the “second person” of the Trinity, who is neither male nor female but whom Scripture presents as both Word (masculine image) and Wisdom (female image).


In short, for a theologically sound spirituality, Christians need a solidly monotheistic faith (one God, not three), in which God is experienced through a multiplicity of metaphors that are both masculine and feminine, human and nonhuman. Finally, one moves beyond these metaphors into the brilliant darkness of mystical experience where God, who is pure spirit and ultimate mystery, is no longer confined within human metaphors at all.

But didn’t Jesus, when he taught us to pray, refer specifically to God the Father?

The New Testament presents Jesus as using the word Father for God in his own dialogue with God. Jesus also assured his disciples that, because of their relation in faith to him, they, too, could call God Abba, or Father (John 20:17). In view of the Old Testament’s reticence about using this familiar title for God, Jesus’ use of it manifests his own intimacy with God; and his initiation of the disciples into that intimacy was a great gift.


The “father” Jesus gave us, however, was: 1) not only a father but also a mother, a friend, the Sending One, the great “I am,” and not an exclusive description of God; 2) not a patriarchal authority figure but the paternal, even maternal, figure of the parable of the prodigal child in Luke 15:11–32; and 3) not the only image of God that Jesus himself had or used, but it was one image that understandably became especially dear to the first Christians. It has, for that reason, been over-stressed and is in need of being balanced today with other images.

Some people prefer to say, “Our Mother-Father God.” As soon as you say mother-father, you know there is no human who is mother and father, so you’re breaking that one-to-one correspondence with a masculine image of God. You’re putting the masculine and feminine in dialogue with each other, but you’re also evoking the rich images of both motherhood and fatherhood. So something like that can be very imaginative and lead to a healthier spirituality.

You probably don’t like the phrase “kingdom of God,” do you?

I always translate kingdom of God as reign of God. That helps somewhat to break the monarchical stranglehold on the imagination. The image of the reign of God goes back to the Old Testament, where God talks about being the king of Israel. That imagery is meant to keep the human kings in check. If God is king of Israel, then what human kings do is quite relative. The real governor or controller of reality is God. And God say, in effect, “Don’t ever get it into your royal heads, David, Solomon, and company, that you’re calling the shots. If you do, the day will come when the Babylonians will mop up the terrain with you; and then you will know that it is not by your power, your horses, and your chariots but by my loving providence that anything gets accomplished.”

To talk of the reign of God as opposed to the kingdom of God stresses the dynamics of God’s justice at work. The reign of God is that human situation in which the love and justice and mercy of God will control all relationships and govern all human affairs. It’s not a place where the Catholic Church is in charge; it’s not a power structure in which God’s representatives are ruling everything else. It’s not a time when armies will go forth to conquer and turn everyone into Christians. The reign of God is a time of universal well-being in which human structures, human society, and human relationships will be centered on love and justice. The reign of God, therefore, is in you; it is among you; it is operating wherever the Spirit of God is at work.


So the reign of God is in contrast to human kingship and is meant to keep human kingship from its arrogance. This same type of contrast is evoked when God is called father in the New Testament. The image of God as father directly opposes the patriarchal conception of fatherhood in which the human father was seen as the little king of the family. Jesus shows that such an image is not what divine paternity is all about. Paternity is really about the infinite forgiveness the father offers his prodigal child. It’s about the gift of life and love that has nothing to do with domination.

The images of God as king and father are meant to correct perverted human realities, but what humans have done is use them to legitimate human patriarchy. The concepts of king and father (and it’s no coincidence that popes, bishops, and priests are called Father) have taken on an aura of divinity rather than being definitively de-divinized by applying these titles to God.

Do you think Christians should avoid all sexist language?

Yes, just as they should avoid all racist language. A healthy Christian spirituality has always been considered to be based in community—that is, based in the body of believers where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, male nor female. This inclusive characteristic of Christian spirituality is firmly grounded in Scripture. Every time we use sexist language, we’re legitimating male domination, which is anti-Christian. Sometimes we say, “Well, that’s not what we mean. We’re just referring to humans as men and God as he, for example, because that’s what everybody says. It’s easier for practical purposes.” But what we’re really saying is that it’s okay for a male-dominated world to exist.

One of the most revolutionary things we can do is change language. When blacks said, “No, we’re not Negroes; we’re blacks,” the white establishment’s initial response was, “Blacks, Negroes, what’s the difference? They mean the same thing. Negro is simply Latin for ‘black.’” But blacks said, “We’ll name ourselves.” At that point blacks claimed their own identity, and whites had to learn to respond to that identity.

Whoever names something claims it. The powers-that-be know this simple fact, and that’s why they are so resistant to changing language. The imagination is so loaded with exclusively male language that it’s going to take a lot of effort to change and reshape it. We’ve got 2000 years of almost exclusively masculine God-images in the public sphere. So the more we can avoid male-exclusive language the better. We need to open up to the Holy Mystery that is neither male nor female. If we do use gender-specific language, then we must balance it as much as possible. We should use masculine and feminine images together so that they clash and in one sense cancel each other out and in another sense enrich each other.

But what about the sexist language in the Bible? What will help women, especially, get around that stumbling block?

The total reform of the church. In the meantime, however, what’s going on in feminist biblical studies is the only kind of long-term solution.

What do you mean by feminist biblical studies?

I’m referring to the effort of biblical scholars who are trying to find a way to make the biblical tradition spiritually and theologically useable for women. That involves realizing that the biblical tradition is male-centered, sexist, patriarchal, and highly problematic in its language. Feminist biblical scholars ask, “Is there a way to get to the core of Jesus’ message that is accessible to women whose consciousness is raised? Or is the Bible a hopelessly dominating and oppressive document that legitimates the oppression of women and is finally itself so oppressive that nothing can be done with it?” Some scholars have come to the conclusion that Scripture simply won’t work for them personally.

That poses quite a problem for Christians because our experience of Jesus is mediated by Scripture in some way, shape, or form. There’s no Jesus available completely apart from apostolic preaching as it comes to us in Scripture. What can happen, though, is that in a person’s prayer life, in his or her own encounter with Jesus, he or she may become aware that the texts are not totally faithful and the hierarchical church is often not very faithful at all. In other words, in prayer the person has access to the real person of Jesus through his or her own experience.


For example, Saint Teresa of Avila used to say things like, “Yes, I always defer to the learned male theologians who know so much more than we poor weak women. I would never say anything contrary to authority. However, if anyone tells you thus and so, you tell that person for me that he’s wrong.” How did Teresa know that something some theologian said was wrong? She knew from her mystical experience, which simply took her beyond sixteenth-century Christology. So if one perseveres in one’s prayer life, he or she may attain to a liberation that goes beyond Scripture (though not contrary to it) and beyond the official purveyors of Scripture, whose knowledge of God is always limited.

Is the problem that Scripture is being misinterpreted?

Sometimes the text is misinterpreted, but that’s not as much of a problem as discovering that the text really does say something awful—something sexist or anti-Semitic, for example. The question then becomes: did the New Testament writer misinterpret the experience; and if so, how do we know? How can one get through the text to what was really going on?

Theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in her master work, In Memory of Her, proposes a number of principles for interpreting problematic texts. She says, for example, when you find Paul saying something like, “Women absolutely must not preach in church,” you can either read it as God having said through Paul that women must not preach, or you can read it with the understanding that Paul was obviously very threatened by the fact that women actually were preaching and felt justified in doing so by their Christian faith.

So, in these problematic passages in Paul’s letters, what we have is the foot-stamping of male chauvinists in early Christianity, who were trying to limit the freedom of women. Unfortunately, what we see in subsequent times is that these oppressors won out. But what Paul said may not have been what Jesus meant. If you believe it wasn’t, then you’re led back to the Gospels to ask, “Is there any indication that Jesus’ message wasn’t about putting women in their place? Maybe it was about helping women out of their place.”

Have you found evidence of that?

Yes, a lot. One of the very interesting conclusions of feminist research is that nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus put down women. Jesus defends women; he does for them what he does for men. He included women among his apostles and disciples. Jesus never takes the oppressive role other men took in relationship with women. So the downplaying of women in the early church cannot be traced directly to Jesus.

You said Jesus included women as his apostles. What do you mean?

Mary Magdalene, for example, is very clearly a female apostle. The risen Jesus appeared to her and personally commissioned her to preach (John 20:11–18), which are Paul’s criteria for an apostle. Tradition, however, has turned her into a great sinner, whose sole claim to fame was that Jesus forgave her.

The Samaritan woman in John 4 has the special role of being the only person (after John the Baptist) in Jesus’ public life, according to John’s Gospel, who actually preaches the Gospel. She’s the only one who shares with Jesus his own apostolic identity. She understands him to be the Sent One, and she brings people to Jesus through her preaching. But tradition merely wrote this woman off as someone who had five husbands whom Jesus exposed and therefore converted. Mary of Bethany, who sat at the feet of Jesus as a Torah scholar would, is studying the new Torah, Jesus himself; but tradition hasn’t appreciated the role she played. She was understood to be sitting silently the way women should, unlike Martha, who was complaining about all the work she had to do.

So the tendency to sexualize, trivialize, and demonize women is part of the tradition of biblical interpretation. The process of making biblical women either sex objects, silent dodoes, or housekeepers has affected the way that most people, men and women, have experienced the women in Scripture. Part of feminist biblical scholarship is to take a closer look at Scripture and ask, “Is that really what the text says, or is that what men have told us the text says?”


What more do we know about Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is an extraordinary figure in early Christianity and in her cult after biblical times. She is supposed to be buried in Marseilles, France where she traveled by ship. Numerous paintings in early churches also show her at lecterns preaching; and in one depiction, she is consecrating Lazarus a bishop.

There was a powerful cult of Mary Magdalene, which makes one wonder who she was in the early church. She probably was a disciple parallel to Peter. Whenever Scripture talks about male disciples, they talk about Peter, James, and John. They represent male disciples in the New Testament. We know very little about the other male disciples; and, in fact, what we know about John and James is that they are usually associated with Peter. So Peter is the main male representative of the experience of Jesus, of being called, of following, of not understanding, of coming to better understanding, of falling away, of denying, of being rehabilitated, and so on.

Among the female disciples, there is also a representative group—Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Martha. Whatever is going to be said about women disciples is usually attached to one or the other of these women just as what was going to be said about male disciples was usually attached to Peter, James, and John. Who was at the transfiguration? Peter, James, and John. Who was in the garden? Peter, James, and John. The same grouping takes place with the women. Mary, Mary, and Martha. Who welcomed Jesus and made a feast for him in their house? Mary and Martha. Who was present at the cross? Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.

Peter is at the head of the group of male disciples, and Mary Magdalene is at the head of the female group. What do we know specifically about these two people? Peter apparently did deny Jesus three times, yet he was reconverted and commissioned to strengthen the frightened community (Luke 22:32). Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross; she saw where Jesus was buried; she was present for the attempt to anoint the body of Jesus on Easter morning; and according to the three gospel testimonies, she was the first to see the risen Christ and was commissioned by him to preach the resurrection message, thereby strengthening the frightened community (John 20:18).

You haven’t mentioned that she was a prostitute.

Scripture does not say she was. There are five different stories of women in relationship with Jesus that involve anointing his head or feet or weeping over his feet, being sinful or being his friends that all tend to run together because of the common names of the women or the similarity of the scenes. Most likely nobody knew which women actually did what any more than they knew which male disciples did what.

The notion that Mary Magdalene is a sinner probably comes from Luke 8:1–3, which names some of the women who went about with Jesus and the Twelve and provided for them out of their resources. Among these women was Mary Magdalene, out of whom, Luke says, Jesus had cast seven devils out of people all the time. One man had a “legion” of devils cast out of him, enough to fill a herd of 2000 swine (Mark 5:1–13); yet no one has ever suggested that this man was a sinner. Being possessed by an evil spirit meant having some affliction, such as epilepsy. But when it came to a woman, tradition interpreted the fact that she had devils in her to mean she was a sinner—and you know what kind of sins women commit!

Mary Magdalene’s identity also gets confused by running her character together with the woman in Luke 7:36–50, who comes and weeps over the feet of Jesus when he is at table with Simon the Pharisee. Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he’d know who and what sort of woman was touching him. She is a sinner.” There is no proof, however, that this woman, whose sins Jesus forgave, was Mary Magdalene. So you have Mary Magdalene turning out to be a great sinner when actually we have no biblical evidence at all that she was a sinner.

Could the perpetuation that Mary Magdalene was a sinner be the sin itself?

One could come to that conclusion. That’s why women are going back to the text and reading it with the eyes of women and trying to understand what is really in the text about women instead of what men have told them is in the text about women. Feminist scholars are also calling into question the attitude that women in the Bible are only role models for women. Just as Peter in his repentance and the beloved disciple in his tender love for Jesus are role models for all Christians, so too are the women in Scripture role models for all Christians, male and female.


Men must ask themselves, “What can I learn from seeing myself as the Samaritan woman or Mary Magdalene or Martha?” They’ll realize that they can learn a great deal about human relationships to Jesus. Women in the New Testament are presented in much more personal richness than most of the men. Most male characters are presented as coming to speak their piece; there’s very little sense of them as personalities.

No one in the New Testament, including Peter, is presented with the fullness of the Samaritan woman in John 4, Mary Magdalene in John 20, or the woman who comes to weep at Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. These women are presented as subjects of spiritual life in ways that the male disciples seldom are. All Christians can learn from their example.

Did Jesus ever talk to women specifically about their experience as women?

I’m always leery when people want to discuss the specifically feminine or masculine religious experience because you have to accept certain stereotyping of masculine and feminine to get into that conversation. On the other hand, there are certainly differences between men and women. So some things Jesus said are going to speak to women and men differently.

When the woman in Luke 11:27–28 raised her voice in the crowd and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” she was probably talking out of her experience as a woman in the culture of that time. Where did a woman get her identity in that culture? She was the daughter, wife, or mother of a very important man. Her value as a human being was derived from the value of the men in her life. So when the woman in the crowd spoke out of her experience as a second-class citizen, saying blessed in your mother because she bore such a wonderful son, what does Jesus say to her? “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

Jesus is specifically talking to this woman, but he’s also talking to his mother and to all women and to all men. He’s saying that bearing great men is not where a woman’s reality, her value, her dignity comes from. It comes from exactly the same place that the dignity of other human beings comes from—from hearing the word of God and keeping it.

Did that woman hear something that a man in the crowd wouldn’t have heard? I bet she did. I bet she was hearing a liberation into identity that someone who had never been robbed of personal identity wouldn’t have heard. People who are oppressed have a particular capacity to hear the good news of liberation and salvation, and women are the most oppressed in every class to which they belong. So Jesus’ words may have spoken to the woman’s experience specifically—not because she was a woman but because she was oppressed.

Can feminist biblical scholarship help the church as a whole?

It is devoutly to be hoped. One of the main problems with the church is its male-dominated exclusiveness. Feminist scholarship is challenging the scriptural basis for the church’s patriarchal structure and its oppression of women.

When the document against the ordination of women came out in 1977, many scholars, both men and women, checked the footnotes and found that many of them quoted texts out of context or contrary to the proper sense of the texts being cited. The document contained the type of biblical fundamentalism and literalism that any scripture scholar would find objectionable. For example, one could ask why we don’t take literally the line in 1 Tim. 3:2 about the bishop being the husband of one wife, and yet we’re very serious about not suffering any woman to teach or have authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12).


Catholic women have been offered a very limited and sometimes unhealthy spirituality. But when individual consciousness has been raised, they begin to say, “What you’ve been telling us about ourselves is not true.” Women are saying, “What do you mean when you say we can’t image Christ? You mean to say that the real image of Christ as a human being is not his humanity but his male anatomy? Do you realize that’s the difference you’re talking about? Is that really what you want to say theologically?”

Many women and men know that what’s going on in the church in relation to women’s participation is not right. How long can the oppressors keep the oppressed oppressed? The Catholic hierarchy’s coercion techniques are losing their effectiveness. People don’t accept anymore that there are certain human beings who are privileged with the special secrets of the faith that everyone else would never be able to understand. Catholics increasingly want to judge for themselves the evidence for church teaching and discipline.

Perhaps we should say that theology is, in a sense, a very serious game. Theology is the way that humans interact with revelation so that they may enter more deeply into the Holy Mystery. But we must take a light approach to our judgements, be very tentative about our conclusions, realize that we are intellectual children in the face of the deep mystery of God. If we ever begin to think that we can actually describe God, know what God thinks—much less control God’s free interaction with humanity—we’ve created an idol, which cannot save us but may well destroy us.

This article appeared in the May 1990 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Image: Unsplash/卡晨