Thursday, June 02, 2005

Jesus our Mother?

Following up on an earlier discussion about God as mother, a colleague of mine recently pointed out that St. Anselm of Canterbury calls Jesus our "mother." Anselm says, he wrote:
"But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother? Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chickens under her wings? Truly, master, you are a mother" (Prayer 10 to St Paul).
My observation:
Marine sargeants also sometimes tell recruits during boot camp: "I'm your father, and I'm your mother now."

Point: though Anselm's language is metaphor ("you ARE a mother"), it's based on the biblical simile ("LIKE a hen"), which redounds upon function rather than substantial form. In other words, the basis for Anselm's comment is a simile in which Jesus is said to be like a mother. So Anselm's metaphorical license in saying that Jesus "is" a mother shouldn't be read as an attempt to define Jesus' nature as female, but as a poetic way of paying tribute to the maternal characteristics that can be found in His compassion and mercy. In terms of His substantial nature, Jeus is no more a mother than a drill sargeant is.
Anselm also speaks of the apostle Paul as a mother in his prayer. In fact, this manner of speaking was popular in the High Middle Ages, according to Caroline Walker Bynum.
I see that as poetic license.

Otherwise, I offer you this dare: next time you're present at one of your worship services, without any explanation, during the time when they allow extemporaneous prayers from the congregation, offer a prayer in the name of "Jesus, our heavenly mother." If you decline this dare, I'll know that whatever you may believe about Jesus being LIKE a mother, you don't really believe that's WHAT He is.
While Mt 23:37-39 suggests that Jesus is making a comparison between his concern for Jerusalem and a mother hen's concern for her chicks, Anselm speaks metaphorically, asserting that S (Jesus) is P (a mother). Yet, I do not believe that Anselm is imputing gender to the Lord Christ Jesus in the prayer above. Rather, he is asserting that S is P, but recognizes that there is a sense in which S is not P. That is to say, metaphor, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, dialectically preserves the tension between the "is" and the "is not." Finally, metaphor asserts an unfamiliar identity synthesis between S and P. This does not mean that an ontological identity persists, however, between S and P.
I agree with your account of metaphor generally, but I think you also may be interpolating a bit of the non-identity between two terms of Matthew's simile into the non-identity between the two terms of the metaphor, which, in any case, I'm sure you will agree are not the same thing. There is a sense (is there not?) in which the metaphorical "is" holds the two terms together in a closer identity synthesis than can be found in the simile's "is like."

I want to very strongly oppose the liberal demythologizing theological impulse to denigrate the identity-synthesis of metaphor into an empty Tillichean "symbol" that has no really existing referent. In fact, I want to say that metaphor ("God is our Father," "Angelina Jolie is a bomb," "the Lion is the King of animals," etc.) can bring us CLOSER to reality than a clinical scientific description in many cases (cf. Thomas Howard's Chance, or the Dance?, or see the two first chapters online here--paying especial attention to the role given to imagination in ch. 2).