By: Stuart White 23-11-2018
Categories:HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White,
Christians these days need thick skins and good debating skills. I say this because their religion is so often picked on and picked apart. Take the figure of Jesus, for example. Critics have long complained that he is depicted as European in features in most religious paintings and icons. They argue that since the faith had its origins in the Middle East, then surely he would have looked quasi-Arabian – dark hair, swarthy complexion and facial features in keeping with those of the region. His European-ness, say the detractors stems from mediaeval and Renaissance painters who painted in their own image – long cloak and tunic, bearded and paler in complexion than the other side of the Mediterranean.
Curiously, those same detractors have so far declined to point the same accusatory finger at the Virgin Mary, ever seen equally white-faced and dressed somewhat nun-like in long, blue shift, hair demurely covered with a wimple, yet presumably the same argument would hold water. There is, perhaps, a stronger argument for depicting Mary and husband Joseph as middle-eastern in appearance since we know from the bible that they were residents of Galilee who travelled to the city of Bethlehem for the purposes of a census and would therefore have undeniably been Arabian in ethnicity; Jesus, on the other hand, if we accept the biblical writings of the virgin birth, would therefore not necessarily have to be genetically related to either his mother or father, but might have had whatever racial and other features his heavenly father chose to bestow on him…….but wait, stop right there. Did I say ‘father’?
Another week, another controversy but this time the theological argument comes from the highest priest in the Anglican Church, none other than the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has stated that God is neither man nor woman but gender-neutral.
The Archbishop told an audience at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in London’s Trafalgar Square that God should not be referred to using a gender because 'our father' was not male or female. According to the Most Rev Justin Welby human language is inadequate to describe the Christian deity and that despite the use of words such as 'king' and 'lord' – he is not male in the human sense.
“God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable. It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ. We can't pin God down.”
He may, of course, have a point. In the Anglican hymn ‘Immortal, Invisible’, the verses tell us that God is ‘ in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes’, which rather suggests that He has a form unrecognisable to us mere mortals, by implication nothing like the human shape s that we inhabit.
There is however a counter-argument in that almost every Christian pamphlet, scripture, treatise or papyrus scroll he is referred to in the male gender. The Catechism addresses ‘God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost’, the Holy Trinity which even the Catholic Church can’t quite define. The Lord’s Prayer begins ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ and everywhere in the Common Prayer Book God is referenced as ‘Father’ and ‘He’. Also, if not a he or a she, that only leaves an ‘it’ which even the devoutest of atheists would surely consider a bit impertinent. So, what’s the Archbishop on about?
Well, he’s not the first church leader to make this assertion. The Catholic Church catechism of 1993 stated ‘God transcends the human distinction between the sexes, “He is neither man nor woman: He is God.’
Ah, but when God sent his only son down to earth to help us mortal sinners, he certainly had human form, even if it’s rather Italian in all the pictures?
So what does the Bible, the Christian manual, so to speak, have to say on the subject? Well, even there it is not cut and dried. Mostly God is referred to as a man, but there are feminine references, too – “like a woman in labour” in the book of Isaiah, “like a mother hen” (Matthew), “like a mother eagle” (Deuteronomy). Scholars suggest patriarchal Judaism was building on the foundation of earlier matriarchal religions but that argument doesn’t hold much water since those few references are greatly outweighed by the preponderance of those to ‘He’ and ‘Father’.
And with apologies to the Archbishop, the Bible is fairly clear that God created man in his own image. I give you some of the many references
Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created.
1 Corinthians 11:7
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.
"Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.
With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;
Well, that’s fairly consistent, then. And now, as we find ourselves in the run up to Christmas, the birthday of the Son of God, this is as good a time as any to debate such issues but, wait! There’s another controversial statement. Apparently there are many clues in the scriptures indicating that Jesus wasn’t born at this time of the year at all, cold, wet and wintry in the Levantine, but in much balmier conditions, warm enough for shepherds to watch their flocks all night, living out under the stars, so almost certainly not December then. And of course, it would also be a fair question to ask why God gave Mary a boy child, not a little girl, but perhaps we shouldn’t go down that particular path today!