How can anyone think that God’s love is less maternal than a mother’s love, when all the love of mothers… is only a drop in this ocean of God’s maternal tenderness?
– Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence
In recent weeks, the #1 bestseller among Catholic titles on Amazon has been Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. It is a formidable follow-up to his God or Nothing, and worthy of a slow, prayerful read. Indeed, many people are reading it, which means some may be confused by or misread the selection quoted above. After all, God is our Father, right? This passage from Cardinal Sarah offers an opportunity to think about how we talk about God, and why the ways we name Him matter.
For context, Cardinal Sarah appeals to the image of divine maternal tenderness when discussing God’s apparent silence in the face of human evil. Far from not caring, God is actually “the first victim” of evil, Cardinal Sarah states, in the sense that evil exists because His love is rejected (p. 147). He continues,
How can God be struck by evil? Imagine a mother with her sick child. She can suffer for her child through love and identification. A completely healthy mother can experience her child’s agony more painfully than the child himself by reason of this very identification of love with the beloved. Her love is capable of this. How can anyone think that God’s love is less maternal than a mother’s love, when all the love of mothers, including that of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary herself, is only a drop in this ocean of God’s maternal tenderness? This is why no creature is struck without God being struck in it, before it, and for it. (pp. 147-48)
Cardinal Sarah grounds this beautiful sentiment in Scripture, citing Is 49:15-17. So how do we reconcile this use of an Old Testament image of divine maternity with, say, Jesus’s revelation of the first person of the Trinity as “Father”?
It seems a mark of God’s generosity to give us various ways to think on, conceive of, and name Him. But, as St. Thomas Aquinas observes, “everything we know is named by us according to our knowledge of it” (ST Ia, q. 13, Prologue). That means any name we apply to God must accurately reflect our knowledge of Him. So when it comes to “Father,” as opposed to “Mother” (taking the image of “maternal tenderness” to mean we could call God our Mother), we need to distinguish between a personal name revealed by God Himself and mere metaphorical speech. Both are true utterances of God, but in different respects.
Let’s start with the divinely revealed personal names. To call the first two persons of the Trinity “Father” and “Son,” and to use “He” for the Holy Spirit, is not the effort of the Church to cling to some oppressive patriarchal hegemony. Rather, to use these names is to accept God on His own terms, to speak His language. As Archbishop Augustine Di Noia stresses, the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are “unsubstitutable self-descriptions of the persons of the Trinity. These are the names by which God has chosen to be known.” We would do well to honor this preference.
To speak of the first person of the Trinity as Mother, on the other hand, would be an inaccurate and confused literal utterance. To appeal to God’s “maternal tenderness,” though, is an acceptable metaphorical concept—a figure of speech that the Lord Himself provides us in the inspired words of Scripture (over and over again, along with other such metaphors, such as “lion,” “warrior,” and “rock”). It is not as if the divinely revealed personal names are true and our metaphorical speech about God is not, but the two are not true in the same way, either. The metaphorical terms are grounded in our experience as creatures. God far surpasses our experience as creatures. So when we ascribe maternal tenderness to God, we mean that God operates as lovingly in His works as a mother does in hers, though the Creator’s works are of an infinitely higher order than the creature’s.
In his discussion on the nature of evil, then, Cardinal Sarah is appealing to the way in which a mother’s tender affection is a participation in and reflection of God’s love for us. Not because God is our Mother, but because He is our God.
Image: Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Mother