A recent Presbyterian conference on "re-imagining God" as a female deity has made apparent once again that many Christians and Jews are having a difficult time with the traditional masculine depictions of God.
The reason for this difficulty is the widespread belief that the only reason the Bible refers to God in the masculine is the patriarchy and sexism of the ancient world.
It's true that the Bible is written within a patriarchal context and that there is sexism in Bible-based religions. But these facts alone do not explain why God is depicted as a "father" rather than as a "parent" or "mother."
The depiction of God in masculine terms is, in fact, essential to the fundamental moral purposes of the Bible and Judeo-Christian society.
If you consider that the Bible's primary concern is moral behavior and that most perpetrators of violence against innocent people are males, several reasons for depicting God as a father suggest themselves.
* Boys take rules from men. When they are young, males need to feel accountable to a male authority figure. Without a father or some other male rule-giver, young men are likely to do great harm. Many mothers will tell you that if there is no male authority figure to give a boy rules, it is virtually impossible for her to control his wilder impulses.
For this reason, a God depicted in masculine terms--not a goddess, not a "Mother in heaven"--must be the source of "Thou shall not murder," "Thou shall not steal," etc.
Women who feel discriminated against because of the male depiction of God need to ask themselves whether any discomfort they may feel because of a masculine depiction of God is comparable to the pain they will suffer if boys are not civilized into good men.
Those who do not acknowledge the need for male moral authority only have to study the criminal population in the United States in the late 20th Century. They will find that, more than any other factor, the absence of a father or other male authority figure in the formative years of boy's life contributes to criminal behavior.
If the father-figure/rule-giver that boys need is not on Earth, a loving and morally authoritative father in heaven can often serve as an effective substitute.
* Males need a male role model. In order to transform a wild boy into a good man, a male role model is as necessary as a male rule-giver.
When the Bible depicts God as merciful, caring for the helpless and a lover of justice, it is not so much interested in describing God who is, after all, largely indescribable but in providing a model for human emulation.
If God were a female, boys and men would deem these beautiful traits as "feminine," and therefore, in their pursuit of their masculinity, reject them.
But if God--our father in heaven who is on occasion a warrior--cares for the poor and loves justice, mercy and kindness, then these traits are masculine, and to be emulated.
The argument that this is sexist, since girls need moral female models, is irrelevant and untrue. The problem of violence is a male one--and one the Bible is most concerned with--and girls are able to retain their femininity and their decency with a male-depicted God. Of course, girls need female role models--but not in order to avoid violence.
* The male is more rule-oriented. Law and order are not code words for repression, but rather the essential building blocks of a decent society. It is, therefore, natural and desirable that God will be identified with the gender that is more naturally disposed to rules and justice--males. Females are more naturally inclined toward feelings and compassion--essential qualities for a decent personal life, but not for the governance of society.
A final, personal note: I am a strong supporter of women's equality; my own religious life is egalitarian; I fully acknowledge that God is neither male nor female, and I regard the notion that either sex is superior as nonsense.
Yet, I find it ironic that some women in the name of feminism, are attempting to emasculate the God of Western religious morality. If their goal is achieved, it is women who will suffer most from lawless males.
We have too many absent fathers on Earth to begin to even entertain the thought of having no father in heaven.