Winter 1988, Vol.40 No. 4, pp. 333-344.

Carolyn Osiek:
      Images of God:
           Breaking Boundaries

Conceptualizing God in our image and likeness has diminished the image of God in women and men and calls us to a reformation in religious imagination.

Carolyn Osiek, R.S.J.C., teaches biblical studies at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois. She is associate editor of The Bible Today, and author of many articles and reviews. Most recently, she co-edited Scripture and Prayer, a festschrift in honor of Carroll Stuhlmueller

THE story is told of a man who died, went to heaven, saw God, and returned to tell of it. "Do you know what?" he said, "She's black!" It's an old story, which probably everyone has already heard. It belongs in the classification of "joke." The problem is, people still laugh. Why is that? It is because Celie's image of God, in response to Shug's question, "Tell me what your God looks like, Celie, " is still with us:

He big and old and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted.
Blue eyes? she ast.
Sort of bluish-gray. Cool. Big though. White lashes, I say.
She laugh. Why do you laugh? I ast. I don't think it so funny. What you expect him to look like, Mr. _____?
That wouldn't be no improvement, she say. (1)

Let's try something a little better. In the mosaic depictions of the Genesis creation narrative in the medieval churches of Monreale and Palermo in Sicily, I discovered what I have since learned is a commonplace of Byzantine iconography: God is still an old white man, but the face on Christ, Adam, and Eve is the same as his; the Imago Dei. It is one very beautiful way of saying visually that we bear a very recognizable resemblance to God.

Yet another: there is the beloved fourteenth century Rublev icon of the three visitors to Abraham, understood at the same time in Eastern Christianity as the Trinity, in which all figures are identical young men. Or better yet: the Trinity with the Holy Spirit portrayed as a woman, as in the fourteenth-century church fresco at Urschalling in Bavaria, reproduced on the cover of L. Swindler's Biblical Affirmations of Woman.(2) To my knowledge, the world still awaits a depiction of the Trinity as three women -- young or old.


The history of interpretation of the Imago Dei is complex. Over it all hangs the cynical remark attributed to Voltaire: "Dieu a cree l'homme a son image, et l'homme le lui a joliement rendu. (God made man in his own image, and man has returned the compliment.)" I keep the exclusive language deliberately, because it depicts more accurately what has really happened. If an androcentric humanity believes it is created in God's image, can its God be anything but androcentric as well? Or, to turn it around, if humanity thinks of its God as male and patriarchal, can its image of itself be anything other than androcentric and patriarchal? Humanity has indeed returned the compliment. But which comes first, our imaging of God or of ourselves? God's imaging of us or ours of God?

In other words, our image of ourselves has everything to do with our image of God, and our image of God has everything to do with our image of ourselves. Moreover, both are crucial for personal spiritual growth. When we encounter women who are fearful of acting, who are fearful of offending the authority figures in their lives, who are caught in cycles of abuse and oppression from which they will not extricate themselves, or who simply, vehemently oppose the participation of women in roles that have traditionally been filled by men, it is their image of themselves and of God that must be addressed if there is to be any movement forward.

To return for a moment to The Color Purple, it is only when Celie can free herself of the image of God as those who have oppressed her, whites and males, that she is able to acquire some respect for herself, and it is only by growing in a sense of self that she is able to be open to a God who is full of promise for the future. It is not clear in which direction the cause-effect relationship works for Celie, but that is not the point. Both factors, self-image and God-image, work closely together in the person of faith. We take the assertion that we are made in the image of God more seriously than we perhaps know, for unless our God allows us to be free, we cannot be free. Conversely, unless we can be free, our God cannot be free.

How often does it happen that we must ponder the mystery of a person who does not feel loved by God, others, or self, and wonder which needs to come first in order to make the others happen. Will it be being loved by another? But most often that love cannot be received by one who does not feel lovable. Will it be an experience of God's love? But how are we to know God's love unless we can build on the experience of human love? Will it be love of self? But how is that to happen without the others? And so the vicious circle continues until, somehow, the power of grace breaks through at some point.

We are just beginning to realize the effect on women of our habitual exclusion from God-imaging. I said above that it is not clear which comes first, whether we first fashion an image of God and then build our self-image accordingly, or whether we first create images of ourselves, and then project them onto God. The delicate interplay between God-image and self-image can be either a vicious or a constructive circle. Clearly, however, we do project such an image onto one another as well. In the words of Sandra Schneiders, "Women's sense of the inappropriateness of women's participating in the sphere of the divine is a projection onto their sisters of their own sense of themselves as alienated from the divine."(3)


What associations do you bring to the word "Goddess"? Let me suggest some of the traditional ones: pagan, sensual, exotic, forbidden. If you have had occasion to be familiar with this image more recently and more positively, perhaps your associations are different: creative, loving, caring, familiar, intimate. Your very reaction or response to the word tells you much about the power of images to mediate faith. It also says something about how deeply you are involved in, and committed to, the transformation of patriarchy.

What associations do you bring to the word "God"? Depending on your experience, your associations will probably fit into one constellation or another: either powerful, almighty, ruler, lord; or father/mother, caregiver, companion, helper.

Some would talk about the Goddess, by which they mean the primordial manifestation of the divine in the world, the one before whom there is no other. I find that use of the definite article has just the opposite effect on me: it seems to objectify what is meant to be subjective, for in Judaism and Christianity, we do not speak of "the God." Is the image of Goddess jolting, revolting, or exciting to you? Does it say "foreign and repulsive" or does it say "like me"? After all, we are created in Goddess' image. If you are a woman and you find this uncomfortable, what does it say about your self-image? If you are a man, you need not think this does not apply to you. What does it say about your security in your masculinity and femininity? Can you identify with a feminine Goddess in the same way that women have been expected to identify with a masculine God?

In some corners of our world, male God-images are in crisis: in others, they remain the norm. This is the culture gap in which we find ourselves today. The critique of the male patriarchal God is not entirely modern, but has never been so intensely pursued as it has within the last twenty years. In spite of many fine attempts to explicate the feminine imagery and feminine experience in the Bible, we must face the reality that biblical Godimagery is overwhelmingly male.

There are exceptions, of course. Phyllis Trible (4) and others have shown that even beneath the masculine pronouns, there is much activity ascribed to God that is maternal: giving birth to and nurturing children, for example. Yet God is never directly addressed as mother, or in feminine terms. In the wisdom literature, there is the wonderful portrayal of Lady Wisdom as the one who enlightens, guides, and presides over creation and wise persons. But as exalted a figure as she may be, she is never identified with the one God.(5)


What are we to make of the fatherhood of God, an image so closely related to Jesus' own experience of God that to many it seems a sacrosanct article of biblical revelation with which we dare not tamper? Some would say that Father and Son are the only names that can adequately express the nature of the trinitarian relationship, indeed, the proper names of each person in their relationship with each other, so that the terms themselves are constitutive of the very nature of the Trinity. They would therefore be immutable data of divine revelation.

That Jesus used father-language for God, I think, is probably historically accurate. But he, like anyone else, used it according to the analogy of his human experience. Fathers in ancient Mediterranean cultures were heads of households with powerful legal prerogatives over everyone under their control, including in some instances the power of life and death, even over the eldest son who was being groomed as heir. Thus Jesus must have used the title father within that cultural context to express not only a loving, intimate familiarity, but at the same time the acknowledgement of God's absolute dominance over his life.

The symbols of kingship had tremendous hold on the Near Eastern popular imagination. Rulers not only ruled by divine right in the place of God, representing the manifestation of God to the people. They also collectively embodied the destiny of their people and, as it were, summed up the national self-image as patriarchal head of the national "household." Herod the Great was king in Israel during Jesus' infancy, and some of his sons divided up his kingdom after his death. As hated as Herod was by many of the Jews, his image may have continued to hold the popular imagination for some time, if only as a negative example -- and Herod killed some of his own sons because they had been accused of treason against him. I cite this by way of recalling that the image of father in Jesus' culture was not one hundred percent cozy. Nevertheless, calling upon God as father must have meant something considerably more intimate than king, warrior, or lord, though still not entirely without connotations of coercive force.


Would it ever have been thinkable for the supreme God to be imaged as female in any significant way? Here we must return to the complex pattern of God-image and self-image, and introduce another obvious factor: a society's self-image. If ancient Israel saw itself (as have most Christian societies since then, too) as a culture in which the male is the norm, could its God have been different from that human norm, supposedly created in "his" image? But what are we to make of those cultures surrounding Israel which did indeed have female as well as male gods? Does this mean that they were simply freer to associate femininity, sexuality, and fertility with divinity? This is a question for which at present there is no definitive answer. It seems to be closely connected with the evolving Israelite sense of monotheism: there can be only one God. Now we are back to the presuppositions of an androcentric culture. If there is only one God, who is imaged in human terms and therefore imaged as having gender, guess which gender will be assigned? We are thus left with the image of a male God who is able to generate life all by himself, the stereotypical male who needs no help, but must be self-sufficient.

Regardless of the ambivalent connotations of "father" mentioned above, it is probably safe to say that the way Jesus uses the title to imply a unique kind of relationship was meant to be liberating. It was meant to proclaim that God is not distant, but near as patron and protector to each person and to the community who would call on God by that title in the name of Jesus, for whom God was Father in a way that "he" was to no one else.

Precisely here we find a cultural paradox. We are caught in the current of changing symbols. An image that was once meant to be liberating and inviting to greater confidence has today just the opposite effect on many. It is becoming increasingly a symbol of oppression which reminds women that this is, after all, still a patriarchal world in which the powers that be, so long as they can claim God as father, can continue to operate according to the more dominating aspects of paternal role-description. It would seem that today in order to have the effect intended by use of that image on the lips of Jesus and his first followers, a new image must be evoked. Perhaps "mother" is that image. To speak of God as Mother today is probably functionally equivalent to what the first Christians did in their use of "father" for God. In other words, it effects the same kind of breakthrough.


Let us not be deceived into a maternal euphoria, however, as if that solves everything. A matriarchal mother-God could become every bit as oppressive as a patriarchal father-God. Using any kind of paternal image is only one way to go, and to be Mother's child can create just as many problems as being Father's child. Parenting is just one human experience that can serve us for imaging God. I am, however, continually amazed when I see the difference it can make in women's spirituality to be able to image God as the one to whom they are alike, rather than as the Other. And I am impressed and humbled when I encounter women who are themselves mothers, who relate to Mother God not as parent but as reflections of themselves in their parenting role, so that they come to a new understanding of being made in God's image. But there are many other life experiences and relationships upon which to build analogies for our relationship with God. Recently, Sallie McFague has admirably developed some other ways of imaging God in personal relationships, such as lover and friend.(6) Perhaps the solution is neither to fight nor to switch, but to complement. Let us find ways, without abandoning tradition-honored images, to include the minority voices of that tradition.

Let us consider the femininity of Jesus. Jesus has been portrayed as wisdom in human form, in the Bible most clearly in the gospel of John, though elsewhere as well: the logos/sophia, who does what Wisdom does as agent of creation, giver of the water of life and the bread of heaven, the feminine birthgiver and nurturer. The mystical tradition of early Christianity caught this image of Jesus as mother, and echoed it here and there. The Odes of Solomon, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, and Augustine could speak of the maternal aspect of God and of Jesus toward us as mother. The second-century Montanist prophetess Maximilla could speak of her vision of Christ who appeared to her as a woman (not, interestingly, as mother), and of course there is the rich spirituality of Jesus as mother, most familiar to us in the writings of Dame Julian of Norwich, actually one of the latest representatives of this development.?

Anyone who is aware of the exclusion and repression of women's gifts that have been perpetrated in the Church in the name of the male Christ will appreciate the breath of fresh air that a return to the motherhood of Christ would bring. Yet the same ambivalence is again present. By retaining parental images of Christ, do we continue to perpetuate hierarchical relationships among ourselves by assimilating images in the realm of spirituality to those of social structures? Do we continue to fashion our own dealings with one another after our fashioning of God, or in this case, Christ? And, vice versa, do we continue to relate to God after the pattern of only certain limited and limiting human relationships?


We have so far neglected the Spirit, the one member of the Trinity most often imaged in non-human ways: dove, fire, water, wind; the one whose primal name is not gender-related precisely because it is not taken from our human experience of ourselves, but rather from other elements in our world.

There is of course a long but not strong tradition of feminizing the Spirit for a number of reasons. The first is that the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, is feminine, though the Greek equivalent, pneuma, is neuter and the Latin spiritus is masculine. Those symbols commonly chosen for the Holy Spirit indicate the sense of elusiveness, mystery, beauty, and grace that is connoted by her action. Usually anything to which those qualities are ascribed will be seen as feminine: in the United States of America our own Miss Liberty is a good example.

It is depressing to note that even though we are most familiar with feminine language for the Spirit, to refer to her thus can still provoke nervous laughter. Even with this minimum of feminine God-talk, we are not comfortable.

While certainly not opposed to it, I have ambivalent feelings about the helpfulness of stressing feminine imagery for the Spirit. The first reason is that it can too easily become an evasion regarding the whole question of complementarily in God-images: isn't one out of three enough? Do you have to have a majority?

The second reason for my ambivalence is that even this God language has been used in oppressive ways. For example, it is often said that the deaconess in the early Church was compared to the Holy Spirit, and indeed this is true. It is a beautiful imageuntil you consider what was very soon done with it, which apparently not everyone does who invokes the image. The source of the reference is the Didaskalia Apostolorum, a church order document that probably comes from third-century Syria. The text was reworked as the Apostolic Constitutions. While the deaconess is to be honored as a type of the Holy Spirit, the deacon is likewise to be reverenced as Christ, and the bishop as God.

In the reworking of the theme in the Apostolic Constitutions, probably in the fourth century, new comments are added which reveal both trinitarian and church order concerns. The bishop is, among other things, high priest, guardian of knowledge, mediator with God, teacher, ruler, and powerful king, who takes the place of God on earth. Just as Christ is always present to the Father and does nothing of himself but only what pleases the Father, so the deacon is to do with regard to the bishop. Likewise, just as the Paraclete does or says nothing of himself, but glorifies Christ (Apostolic Constitutions 2.26.4-6; John 16:13), so the deaconess is to do nothing without the deacon. It is trinitarian theology at the service of an ecclesiastical power structure.


It is not enough to image one member of the Trinity as feminine. We need to re-image the Trinity every bit as much as we need to re-image ourselves. If a past age imaged the Trinity as a hierarchical power structure, and then fought over who proceeds from whom (the "Filioque" controversy), our age is imaging the Trinity as a communion of persons, as community. Trinity is the bold statement that even within the nature of God there is egalitarian relationship. Here there are three persons, separate but equal -- where alone that seems to work. Yet they are three persons who share one life. If we have come so far as imaging the Trinity as three men (the Rublev icon), or as two men and one woman (the Bavarian fresco) already in the fourteenth century, perhaps it will be our century that will dare to image the Trinity as three women, living the communion of sisters (in the non-canonical sense) that today's feminism envisions. The groundwork is already laid, deep within the tradition, in the maternal aspects of God, the feminine wisdom theology of Christ, and the feminine imaging of the spirit. Yet, to my knowledge, no one has dared to put them all together at once.

The effects of the exclusion of women from divine imaging and from sacral positions have been profound. The damage done to women's experience of God and of themselves has been inestimable. It is still measurable in the presence of women in the communion line on Sunday morning who will cross over rather than receive communion from a woman minister of the Eucharist. It is still measurable in the women who say they would never go to Confession to a woman priest. It is still measurable, though less obvious, in the countless women who fear to speak out publicly or to accept positions of leadership that they would really like to accept, because they lack the power to believe in themselves as persons sent by God to minister. It is most painfully measurable in the many women at the edges of society who are forced into homelessness, prostitution, and domestic abuse because they see no other way -- and about who we do nothing, or not nearly enough.

On the other hand, there are certain advantages to being excluded from the center of the action. The oppressed, once they become aware of their oppression, have an energy for change like that of no one else. While this is not to be construed as an argument against the ordination of women and married men, I am quite certain that the wondrous flowering of lay ministry in the Church today would not have happened if those who felt called to minister could have presented themselves as candidates for ordained ministry. Had women always been fully included in the decision-making structures of church and government, the kind of revolution we are experiencing today in the transformation of those institutions would never have happened. The power for change lies with those who most feel the need for change.

I invite you to reflect on your own images of God and of yourself, and to examine whether they empower or impede you. In the words of Nellie Morton, one of the finest of this century's foremothers in the faith, "Concepts can be corrected and changed, not so images. They must be shattered or exorcised."(8) Those are violent words. Perhaps that is because images are violent realities. They take hold of us and keep us in their grip until we can prove to ourselves that they no longer have power over us.

We are a new generation, who are called upon to do things that women have never before been asked to do, at least not in such large numbers. If we are to respond to the call, some things will have to be given up, some things that we would have preferred to keep: the security of a familiar role, the protection afforded to those who do not take risks.

An androcentric, patriarchal, and hierarchical humanity believed that it was created in God's image. Accordingly, it "returned the compliment;" as Voltaire says, by fashioning an androcentric, patriarchal, and hierarchical God. If an inclusive, egalitarian humanity were to believe that it is created in God's image, what would its God be like? I believe that our God is sufficiently patient with us and has a sufficient sense of humor to let us return the compliment again, if only we are courageous enough to try.


  1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanich, 1982), pp. 176-77.
  2. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979.
  3. Sandra Schneiders, "The Effects of Women's Experience on Their Spirituality," Spirituality Today 35, 2 (1983): 111.
  4. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).
  5. See the marvelous portrayal of the figure of Wisdom as the "Wisdom Woman" in Kathleen O'Connor, The Spirituality of the Wisdom Literature (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, forthcoming).
  6. Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).
  7. See Ritamary Bradley, "Patristic Background of the Motherhood Similitude in Julian of Norwich," Christian Scholar's Review 8 (1978): 101-113; Elaine H. Pagels, "What Became of God the Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity," Signs 2, 2 (1976: 293-303.
  8. Nellie Morton, The Journey is Home (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), p. 143.