Mother God Goes to Children’s Church: Feminist Theology for the Toddler Set
— Tuesday, May 25th, 2004 —
There are places one expects to find feminist theology: the university doctoral seminar or the New Age spirituality section of the neighborhood bookstore. One does not expect to find radical feminist theism at sing-a-long time at Vacation Bible School or church camp. That may be about to change.
Feminist theologian Jann Aldredge-Clanton, a Baptist, has teamed up with North Carolina Baptist minister of music Larry E. Schultz to author “Imagine God!”—a children’s musical that uses “a variety of feminine,
masculine, and non-gender images of God.” The musical also draws on panentheism, the concept that God is the life presence within all things, an idea popularized within feminist circles by process theology and “creation spirituality.” Thus, the lyrics of the musical state: “God is in us and above, She and He and so much more.”
With this the case, children in this musical sing lyrics such as “Our God is a Mother and a Father too, and God is a Friend who will always see us through/ Our God is a Sister who loves you and me, and God is a Brother who sets us free.” The lyrics speak of God as “Mother Eagle,” refer to the Deity with feminine pronouns, and appropriate the “Sophia” devotion currently popular among feminist groups in several mainline Protestant denominations.
At first glance, it might seem that this children’s musical is just fringe spirituality outside the orbit of the local congregation. But the musical is published by Choristers Guild, a major producer of music for churches. And it comes with the hearty endorsement of Baptist theologian Molly T. Marshall, until
1994 on the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and now perhaps the preeminent theologian of “moderate” Baptists in the South. Marshall writes that Aldredge-Clanton and Schultz “perceptively understand that transforming the church’s language for God can profitably begin with children,
whose imaginations are less bound to traditional images.” Marshall notes that this musical “offers a fresh vision of the Triune God who reveals self in all of creation, especially through human creatures who share the divine imagination.”
The feminist theologians are correct indeed that it is easier to transform the imaginations of children in thinking about God. This is precisely what is so dangerous here. Children are indeed “less bound” to “masculine” images of God as Father, Lord, and King at an early age than they will be after years of teaching from the church. But the question is: from where did the church get these images?
The answer, of course, is from the God who has named Himself through His apostles and prophets in Holy Scripture. He is the One who “imagines” Himself as “He”—and as “Father” and “Son”
and “Lord.” This was not mere cultural accommodation. After all, the Canaanite landscape was filled with “feminine images for the divine (Judges 6:25-26),” and yet the people of God remained with God’s
self-revelation about Himself. The first-century Roman world was indeed ready for language about “Mother God.” They, after all, adored female deities such as Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:24-35). And yet, Jesus and his followers consistently spoke of God as “Father.” The concept
of the “Mother God” or “Sister Spirit” was embraced early on after the ascension of Jesus by the Gnostic heresy movements—and these theologies were rejected resoundingly by the apostolic and post-apostolic
fathers precisely because they violated God’s self-revelation in Scripture.
What is at stake here are not whether the church will accommodate more “gender inclusive” language, but instead the doctrines of God and revelation—and indeed the Gospel itself. Aldredge-Clanton argues in the preface of the musical that such language—indeed all language for God—is “metaphorical”
and thus there are many ways the church can “imagine” the Deity. Marshall’s comments, as brief as they are, are tortured in their attempts to avoid using personal pronouns for this genderless Deity: God doesn’t
reveal Himself or Herself or Itself, but just “Self.” This is precisely the problem. Feminist theology abandons all of God’s self-revelation to “metaphor” at the cost of the personal nature of God. God no longer
is Father; He is like a Father—or a mother or an eagle or a baker-woman.
Thus, it is a sad trajectory to watch as feminist theologians continue in their respective journeys, speaking of God ultimately in impersonal terms such as “the Divine” or the “ground of being”—anything to avoid speaking of Him as “Him.” Such an impersonal vision of God is closer to the unblinking Allah of Islam than to the “Abba Father” of Jesus and the apostles.
Most evangelical churches would never see such a bizarre musical performed. And yet it is a reminder of how serious the stakes are for the theological grounding of our children. We must remember that the heretic Arius spread his views of Jesus as a created Being by teaching children to sing ditties about the time when “He was not.”
Today too many of our churches see music for children not as an opportunity to pass on the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but as an entertainment opportunity for adults to watch their children “perform” for them. Too many of our churches see children’s Bible study as babysitting—and so we choose Sunday school teachers more gifted in crowd control than in the teaching of the oracles of God.
There is too much at stake for this. Instead our churches must recapture the priority of grounding our children—through music as well as through instruction and example—in the biblical revelation of the God of Jesus Christ. And that means we must embrace the ancient truth of what is increasingly seen as a counter-cultural and outdated theological claim: “Praise Him, Praise Him, all ye little children/ God is love, God is love.