Divine Omnipresence and Human Language


About 35 years ago, when I was about 50 years old, I was carefully applying what I had learned about interpreting literature from my Ph.D. studies at New York University. As part of my cautious breaking free from fundamentalist “certainties” about the Bible, I was researching and writing about the Bible’s various images of God as female: images of human birthing, breastfeeding, and mothering, as well as images of God as a woman named Wisdom, or as mother eagle, mother bear, mother hen, and the like.

Nobody in the church of my youth had ever mentioned that God could be imagined as female in any form whatsoever. I was taught that the Bible referred to the Holy One as God, never Goddess, and used exclusively masculine pronouns concerning Him, completely in line with the male supremacy of its era - and our own.

But after seeing the female depictions of God in the Bible, and after learning that the culture surrounding the Hebrew Scriptures did indeed have males holding most of the power in homes, in religion, and in society generally, I began to wonder. Why would it even have occurred to a male author to use images about God that honored Her as a powerful female? I wondered whether this unusual imagery, shining nurturantly against a field of authoritarian, militaristic and domineering God-imagery, might be a clear sign that the Scriptures really were divinely inspired. Why else would a male writer, surrounded by a society controlled by powerful men, suggest that God could be imagined in the form of a female? Wouldn’t the authors question their own sanity for choosing such unusual and humbling depictions of God’s nature? Unless… Perhaps they wrote in the confidence that they were being inspired by something or someone larger than themselves!

Gradually, the Bible studies I was researching and writing were published in the Chicago-based Christian feminist magazine called Daughters of Sarah. And eventually I gathered them and added additional chapters to build my 1983 book The Divine Feminism: Biblical Imagery of God as Female, soon translated and published also in German, French, and Italian. It was also published online at www.gale.com and republished in 2014 by Wipf and Stock in Eugene, Oregon.

Once my research had convinced me that the Bible really does encourage us to imagine and speak of God in female as well as male manifestations, I got up my courage to use enhanced and inclusive language about the Holy One. I stuck with the male term God because I did not want to appear polytheistic, as the female term Goddess would certainly imply. And as an English language professor, I was aware that language rarely changes by simply inventing new spellings, such as Godde. So I say God, but use exclusively female pronouns for Her.

At the time my 1983 book was published, I thought that once people understood that the Bible really did depict God as female and male, they would be glad to affirm the entire human race in their words about the Holy One. In this way, for no financial expense, people could make a significant contribution to justice for everyone. After all, it is hard to abuse an adult or a child once that person has become associated with the Divine Presence.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that even though many Christians claimed the Bible as their only rule for faith and practice, the Bible’s use of female God-imagery did not matter to them one little bit. I was disinvited from churches when they realized that I would advocate for enhanced God-language. A man railed at me for calling one of my books Women, Men and the Bible, thus “getting the order wrong.” A woman bawled me out for undermining God’s holiness by associating Him with female embodiments. Four times Christianity Today printed claims that I believed god to be literally “a woman,” until finally I wrote to them asking whether their masculine pronouns proved that they literally believed God to be “a man”!

When the National Council of Churches released its Inclusive Language Lectionary, members of the press could not believe that people thought God was literally a man. But they changed their minds when people on the streets assumed that because God is “He,” God is probably a man. Of course, the pronoun “He” inevitably and automatically delivers a male image. So Mary Daly was correct when she warned that in our minds, “If God is male, then the male is God.”

And now, 35 years from the earliest rumblings of enhanced language, there are available some excellent study guides such as GCSRW's God of the Bible. Nevertheless, the vast majority of pastors still speak about God in almost exclusively male images (father, king, warrior) with masculine pronouns to match.

Meanwhile, girl children and grown women continue to do most of the world’s work and own very little of the world’s wealth. Southern Baptist women are commanded to “contently yield” to the will of their husbands. Plymouth Brethren women may not speak in church and must wear hats to signal their subordination to any and every male, even their own sons. Catholic women are told by the Pope that they will never, ever be eligible for ordination to the priesthood.


When I submitted my 1983 book to Crossroad (a Catholic Press), my title was simply Biblical Imagery of God as Female. I was embarrassed when Crossroad changed the title to The Divine Feminine and printed the book that way without telling me, let alone asking my permission. Why was I so embarrassed? Because I have never believed that there is any such thing as a wispy disembodied “feminine” (or “masculine”) concept. Bodies can assume traits that match such designations, but there is to my mind no filmy eternal category of divine gender traits. Rather, as Genesis 1:27 states, both males and females are made in God’s image, as also was the Earth Creature who subsequently was divided into male and female to provide companionship (Genesis 2:20-23). So God’s image includes all human genders because God extended Herself to include people of every possible human designation. If we ever hope to be fair and just and mutually respectful as a global community, our language must reflect God’s enormous diversity.

What many of us do not realize is that our language shapes our categories of thought. It also sets the boundaries that limit our imaginations. Most of us know that God is Spirit - and that Spirit is not limited to men or women, but is an energy that “flows through all things.” We acknowledge that God’s Being is beyond anything we can describe. She has created millions of stars and planets and creatures beyond the understanding of any one human being. Yet if we persist in calling God “He,” we have put down a boundary that cuts us off from honoring over half of the human race. Calling God “He” persuaded us that we have penetrated the “cloud of unknowing” with an actual fact about God’s nature (namely, that God is “masculine.”) This unrecognized assumption then governs our behavior toward human males (superior) and females (inferior). And thereafter our own behavior strengthens our original assumption. Male superiority becomes so obvious that it would be silly to question.

Study of history shows us that in the first and second centuries of Christianity, believers’ focus on the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the stories of Jesus and the teaching of the Gospels and the apostle Paul, caused an uptick in gender equality that temporarily subverted the inequities of the surrounding cultures. Jesus himself was free of all male power prerogatives: he was not a husband, not a father, not a politician, not a warrior; just a low-paid craftsman.[2]

But as the centuries wore on, the actualities of Jesus and his Judaic reform movement tended to lie forgotten. The church fathers spun stories of Eve and Lilith as examples of women’s corruption and inferiority. (For instance, Sr. Albertus Magnus wrote in the 13th century that “woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his… One must be on one’s guard with every woman as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil”).[3]

So here we are in the 21st century, faced with the job of transforming our imaginations and behaviors by transforming language. Ungendered language (such as repeating the word God to avoid pronouns) does nothing to transform a mind already burdened by centuries of androcentric assumptions. (And besides, God is already a masculine form). Facing these facts, we know that there is no hope for human justice unless and until we are willing to smash through our former boundaries. We must repeatedly and consistently utilize images and pronouns that depict God as female, in order to counteract the domination of androcentric language.


According to John 1:18, “Nobody has seen God at any time,” although Jacob saw God as a wrestler during a dark night (Genesis 32) and Moses was with God in the “thick cloud” of Sinai (Exodus 19). The biblical point is that the nature of God is beyond human knowledge. God is mysterious, and therefore must be described through the use of images, stories, similes, and metaphors. The fact that the Bible uses a wide range of such images, stories, similes, and metaphors gives us, believers, permission to do the same.

We deceive ourselves when we pretend we know for sure what God looks like or what God thinks of certain groups, or why God “causes” certain things to happen. All of these “certainties” are part of human “knowledge” and will, therefore, vanish away when faith, hope, and love are all that will remain (I Corinthians 13:13).

So we must never forget that all of our language about God is metaphorical language and that we must choose what kind of metaphors we want to utilize. Will we choose stories and comparisons that support human justice for all? Or will we choose stories and comparisons that marginalize and injure certain groups of people?

Whether we want to or not, we must take responsibility for the choices we make as we speak about God in relationship with humankind. I have noticed that although omnipresence is routinely taught in Sunday schools as one of God’s basic attributes, our treatment of other human beings often constitutes denial of that attribute.


My Big Question to pastors and priests and Christians everywhere is this: if you do not care enough about fair treatment of girls and women to change your language (something you can do free of charge), then how can you expect me to believe that you care about respecting the Divine Presence in everyone? Do you believe that God is omnipresent? Even in girls and women? For those who don’t love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, how can they possibly love God whom they have not seen? (I John 4:20).

And yes, our language matters. Enormously! It either reflects divine Love, or it doesn’t. And Love is the most worthwhile investment I know anything about because Love is eternal.

So here I am, 35 years later, still pleading for expansive language about God that honors the sacred core of every creature. May we never give up, until little girls and grown women are honored as manifestations of God’s female aspects, just as little boys and grown men are honored as manifestations of God’s male aspects. And the same for all non-human creatures everywhere. That is what God’s omnipresence is all about.

[1] Christian Century (Dec. 7, 2016), p. 9.

[2] Stan Goff, Borderline (Cascade Books, 2015), p. 65.

[3] Stan Goff, Borderline, p. 67.

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