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Two ways of relating to God. The masculine and feminine in our perception of God by John Wijngaards

Two ways of relating to God

The ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in our perception of God

Adapted from chapter 14 of Living God’s Joy by John Wijngaards, St. Paul Publications, Bombay 1990, pp. 195-205.

A historical study of religion shows that there are two principal patterns of religious experience. The first is a merging in God as the Source of our Being; the second is an encounter with God as the Totally Other.

Nature religions tend to favour the first approach. God is perceived as a mystery underlying the whole of reality as we know it. God is the “immanent ground and operative principle of all being” (1). We try to unite ourselves to God partly by purifying our own imperfect notions, partly by partaking in sacred images by climbing God’s mountain or bathing in God’s sacred river; or simply by honouring the symbol that mediates God’s presence. In its highest forms this approach leads to mysticism. It is based on our experience of our mother.

Prophetic religions, on the other hand, present God as a Person who reveals a message and imposes his commands. By his word and his divine will he forces us to either accept or reject his lordship. His revelation comes through human mediators and addresses itself to concrete human realities. God is experienced as the unexpected, the totally other, the one to whom the believer submits in an act of obedience and surrender. It derives from our experience of our father (2).

Although either the one or the other may be more congenial to a particular religion, we frequently find both approaches at the same time. The two forms of religious experience are contrary poles which constantly attract and repel each other. Islam for example is very much a prophetic religion. Yet we find in its bosom, and almost in revolt against it, the mystical search of Sufism. There seems to be a psychological reason for this inherent tension.

Experiencing reality through our mother and our father

Our first experience as a child is the embrace of our mother. As we lie in her womb or suck her breasts we receive warmth, security and satisfaction. Psychologists call this the oral phase and characterise the experience as a participation in the oceanic oneness of universe. It gives us the basic trust we need for life, trust in ourselves and in others. Even when the mother is gradually withdrawn, we retain the original experience so that we can face the reality of living confidently. The same experience forms the psychological foundation on which and through which we can respond to the mystery of God. By our basic trust we can again experience participation in oceanic oneness, this time as a mystical approach to reality. Just as dolls and toys function as substitute mothers in our early life, so images and symbols can be the substitute “breasts” through which we feel one with the “mother” of ultimate reality (3).

In the genital or oedipal phase we have another basic experience. Through the face, voice and word of our father we learn our identity as a separate person. It is a step to becoming adults. We discover the otherness of other persons. We learn to see ourselves as distinct. We also acquire our super-ego, our conscience, which will guide us throughout life. Here, too, there are consequences for our religious awareness. The experience of the ‘father’ releases in us the possibility to respond to the prophetic pattern of religion.

Both forms of religious experience have their roots in crucial stages of our psychological growth. That is why they come so naturally to us and why we usually feel the need of both the one and the other. The psychological root does not cause the religious experience, as is sometimes asserted by agnostics. God would then be purely imaginary: a fictitious father or mother figure. No, God is real, but the forms of our relationship to God are transferred from our early human experience onto God, not unlike the transfer of our basic trust in our mother, or our respect for our father, to other people (4).

The scriptural approach to God

The overall emphasis of the Old and New Testament scriptures tend to rest on the ‘masculine’ aspect of God. In this sense the Bible presents a prophetic religion. But this is not the full picture. If we read the inspired texts properly, we discover that the other, more ‘feminine’ and mystical approach is also there. I will demonstrate this at the hand of St. John’s Gospel.

In what category does John’s Gospel place the Christian experience of God? The first overwhelming impression is that John presents Christianity as a prophetic religion. The Father speaks a word and reveals his will. Jesus approaches us as the Father’s ambassador. He comes with the reassuring message that the Father loves us and recognises us as his own dear children. Our Christian experience of prayer will therefore be a prayer of response, a prayer of accepting God’s gifts and of submitting to his will. In response to the proclamation of God’s word, Christian prayer will be vocal, explicit praising and thanking God for revealing himself as the Other and for making us what we are.

Some theologians have characterised this form of prayer as an “I-Thou” relationship (4). We have discovered God as an overpowering and all-loving (and male) “Thou.” He makes us an “I.” He gives us our identity. This relationship is, indeed, well illustrated in Jesus’ highpriestly prayer (Jn 17, 1-26). Throughout the prayer Jesus manifests how he owes his identity to the Father. The Father gives him his name (17, 11), loves him (17, 24), entrusts him with his mission (17, 4), supplies the authority needed ( 17, 2), attracts disciples ( 17, 6.9) and gives him glory (17, 24). It expresses dependence, but also self-identity. The Son glorifies the Father in return ( 17, 1.5) and can say, “All I have is yours; all you have is mine” (17, 10).

This form of prayer finds expression in the public prayer of Christian liturgy. We address the Father though the Son. We hear his word and receive his gifts. It is also found in those personal moments of prayer when we consciously address God as the loving Other when we give him thanks, ask for his favours, promise obedience to his will and submit ourselves to his guidance. While we pray to him we are aware of the fact that his love recreates us; that he treats us like his own sons and daughters, yes like successors to Jesus. But this is not the only aspect of Christian prayer.


If we were to read John’s Gospel only superficially, we might interpret it entirely as prophetic in character. But this is far from the truth. After receiving our identity from the Father, we are invited to move closer to God in unmistakable mystical union.

The oneness we are called to is a real mutual embrace with God, mediated through union with Christ. Although the term ‘Father’ is maintained in the Johannine text for the sake of consistency, the more natural appellation for God in this context would have been ‘Mother.’ To bring this out I have substituted Mother’ for ‘Father’ in the following representative passages.

“Mother, may they be in us as you are in me and I am in you.... I in them and you in me, so that we all may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and that you love them as you love me” (Jn 17, 21.23).

“On that day you will know that I am in my Mother and that you are in me, just as I am in you” (Jn 14, 20).

“My Mother who is life sent me and through her I live also. In the same way whoever eats me will live through me” (Jn 6, 57)

The purpose of Jesus’ coming is participation with God in a communion that goes beyond mutual knowledge and mutual affection. It is an indwelling, a sharing of life, a submersion in the other without losing one’s identity (6).

Jesus can mediate this union precisely because he is not only a prophet, but an image and a symbol. Seeing Jesus we see the Father. Joining ourselves to Jesus we lose ourselves in the Father. He is the vine, we are the branches. By remaining united to Jesus, we remain in the Father’s love ( Jn 15, 1-10). He is the new manna, the bread from heaven who communicates divine life to us by having us eat his flesh and blood (Jn 6, 53-58). This is not the approach of prophetic religion, but of participation with the divine through sacred symbols. It is the search of mystical union with the “mother” of all, with ultimate reality.

All created things are filled with numinosity. All are, to some extent, symbols pointing beyond themselves, revealing a glimpse of what ultimate reality must be like. All creatures are images that reflect more lasting and perfect values than they themselves possess. This is the basis of our natural religious experience when we reflect on the created world. By experiencing the existential limit of things, we are somehow touching the transcendental that lies behind it. But if ordinary creatures already allow us to reach out to ultimate reality beyond them, how much more Jesus who is the image par excellence, the Son, the great sacramental symbol uniting us to God. Christian mysticism thereby both continues and perfects the search for union of natural religion.

Such Christian mysticism is found as a necessary component of ritual and liturgy, if these be properly understood. For liturgical practices are not magic rites, by symbols: images leading to contemplation, signs allowing the believer to participate in the divine, to somehow touch and experience the nearness of God. Words are not important here, but the gesture of reaching out and opening oneself to God. It is not what we say, but the act of immersing ourselves in the reality that is God.

Also our personal prayer will show this element of contemplation. It will relish periods of silence, of quiet awareness in closeness to God. It will seek withdrawal from everything that distracts to focus attention on God alone. In this it will very much resemble contemplative prayer in other religions. What is specific to Christian contemplation, however, is that not a natural image but the humanity of Jesus is central as our means to partake in the divine.

Mature Christian prayer will show both aspects. It will be a prayer of response (to God as Father) as well as a mystical quest (of God as Mother).

John Wijngaards


1. RADHAKRISHNAN, The Hindu view of Life, London 1927, pp.24-25.

2. A.H. HIDDING, De Evolutie van het godsdienstig bewustzijn, Utrecht 1965; H. FABER, “Wisselende patronen van religieuze ervaring”, Tijdschrift voor Theologie, 11 (1971) 225-248.

3. E.H. ERIKSON, Identity, New York 1968; pp.96ff.; H. FABER, Cirkelen om een geheim, Meppel 1972; W. VELDHUIS, Geloof en Ervaring, Ambo, Bilthoven 1973, pp.11-16.

4. A. HARDY, The Divine Flame, Collins, London 1966, pp.l56-175; The Spiritual Nature of Man, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1979, pp. 134-136. Hardy traces the two approaches even further back in evolution. He relates them to two social bonds rooted in animal nature dependence on the mother and submissive attachment to the dominant leader of the pack.

5. The expression was coined by the Jewish theologian M. BUBER in I and Thou, Charles Scribners Sons, New York 1952.

6. M. VELLANICKAL, “Divine Immanence in St. John” Biblebhashyam I (1975) 312-332;J. DUPUIS, “Christus und die advaita-Erfahrung”, Orientierung 41 (1977) 168-172; J. McPOLIN, “Johannine Mysticism”, Way 18 (1978) 25-35. For a traditio-critical analysis, see M.L APPOLD, The Oneness Motif in the Fourth Gospel, Mohr, Tübingen 1975.

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