There’s an old story about an astronaut who went far out into space and upon his return was asked if he had seen God. He replied, to their surprise, that he had, and when pushed to describe what God looked like, he said: “She’s black.”
It’s not clear when this thought-provoking tale began circulating, but it’s usually been understood to be a reminder of how racist and misogynistic beliefs can creep into religion. The story often surprises its listeners because for centuries God has been predominantly described through male language.
It’s important to emphasise that the point of this story isn’t to argue that God is female, but to teach us that God doesn’t fit into a neat, little box. God is beyond all categories.
This belief is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it reads that God is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone and that he “transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God.” (CCC 239).
The teaching doesn’t mean that we can’t use masculine and feminine words to describe God. Rather, gendered language can be applied to God in the form of analogy to help us understand him in a better way. Traditionally God has been viewed as a parent figure, and so mother and father references are a suitable way to describe him.
“By calling God ‘Father’, the language of Faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasises God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man.” (CCC 239)
Throughout the Bible, masculine and feminine language is constantly used to describe God. For example, Ephesians 1:3 reads: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Yet, Isaiah 66:13 compares God to a nursing mother. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Leaving no opportunity for ambiguity, the Genesis account of creation most clearly shows the appropriateness of using gendered language to describe God. “Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them.” (Gen. 1:27)
While many Catholics refer to God as a mother in prayer because of verses like these, there is still debate about whether it is better to describe God in wholly masculine terms. Jesus – the best theologian of us all – for example, teaches us to pray the “Our Father”, and that baptism should be carried out “in the name of Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
As this debate continues, it’s important to remember that all the words we use to describe God are inadequate, as he is beyond all categories like race and sex.