God As She (2022)
IS THERE A MAN IN HEAVEN?
Are some theologians, and especially female theologians, right to complain that men always refer to God as ‘he’? What are the theological problems associated with using the pronoun ‘she’ for God? Is this simply a matter of referring to God as ‘she’ and thereby keeping people happy?
In discussing those problems, I will consider the foundations on which the arguments and counter-arguments are based, and then draw a conclusion from the debate. The issue is however much bigger, and much deeper, than the mere use of feminine pronouns in speaking about God.
Feminist theology is not simply about calling God ‘Mother’, and to see it only in those terms is to lose the radical nature of the language that some, such as Isherwood and McEwan are trying to bring to speech.
Some, like Storkey, claim that the persistent use of masculine pronouns for God means that we are actually worshipping a male deity. Others like Carr, say that it makes the male superior to women on earth and that it merely affirms the ‘maleness’ attributed to God.
Hampson has reservations about the use of feminine pronouns for God, since “it is not clear what the justification can be for introducing female language for God.” The Forsters say that if it is true that God is male then this inevitably raises questions?
This is a delicate issue that needs to be handled with care, because there is a sense of hurt and threat on both sides. We need to be careful that questions are not interpreted as attack and nor an attempt to discredit one or another; rather that we seek a fuller vision of the work of some, like Ruether, are doing.
GENDER OR SEX?
Sex is a biological designation and corresponds to male and female as biological sexual definitions, where gender is a social designation referring to sociocultural consequences or implications of sex. That is, the particular cultural shape of sex (biological nature) into different roles, status and normative patterns of behaviour attributed to men and women in a given culture. This is helpfully discussed by Hauge, and is an important topic to think about in depth.
Is Christianity intrinsically patriarchal, sexist and harmful to the well-being of women, as Carr thinks? Perhaps it is so, but merely ‘renaming’ God by feminine pronouns and designations is not without its difficulties, because different languages or metaphors carry different connotations, as Hampson points out.
Conn says that, unlike the deities of the Ancient Near East, God is spirit and not to be depicted as either male or female. Longman highlights that danger looms when anthropomorphisms about God are taken literally rather than metaphorically, and people attribute a body – and therefore a sexuality – to the invisible creator.
God is our rock, yet God is not a stone. God is our father, and yet God is not our biological father. God is our mother, but God is not a female. O’Brien helpfully points this out. We could also speak about Jesus in a similar way. Is Jesus really a door? Is Jesus really a gate?
As Graham tells us, ‘Feminine’ terms used to replace patriarchal images are no more ‘value-free’ than patriarchal language. They do nothing to dispel the fundamental limitations of using human experience to apprehend the Divine, but rather remind us of the provisional and metaphorical nature of all ‘God-talk’. Stevens points out that, when the Hebrew people spoke of God as Father, they understood that fatherhood conferred relationship, not sexuality.
As Storkey highlights, this no more implies a male God than talking of God as having wings implies that God is a bird. What can we say, then, about the case against a male God? Storkey thinks that we can say that it is a case but that it is against the people of God.
From my personal and Scriptural perspective, there is no backing for calling the Holy Spirit ‘he.’ The Hebrew word translated as ‘Spirit’ is ruach and it is a feminine word. The Greek work translated as ‘Spirit’ is pneuma, and it is a gender neutral word. I would personally never refer to the Holy Spirit as ‘it’ so I default to ‘she’. This case for a feminine Holy Spirit is strengthened by simple logic. In this mortal realm in which we live, it is females who give birth. In the spiritual realm, it is the Holy Spirit who gives new birth. The Holy Spirit is ‘she’ to me.
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
In grammatical reference to human beings, words referring to males usually receive masculine gender and words referring to females usually receive feminine gender. This is helpfully discussed by Hook and Kimel, and is worthy of a deeper exploration. Throughout the Old and New Testaments masculine pronouns are consistently assigned to the deity because their antecedents are grammatically masculine.
Hook and Kimel show that the claim that the notional gender of modern English ‘masculinizes’ the deity beyond that of the original biblical languages is unsupported by the linguistic realities. Anaphoric pronouns do not mean in and of themselves; they point beyond themselves to their antecedents. He, his, himself, therefore, connote maleness only to the extent that their antecedents are apprehended or conceptualized as male.
Faltz, quoted by Hook and Kimel, says that the default-masculinity of English usage makes it easier to apply a masculine word like Father to God without transferring male characteristics than it does to apply a feminine word like Mother without transferring feminine characteristics.
This neutrality-by-sameness, produced by the exclusive user of the masculine gender, is interrupted by the insertion of the feminine into the immanent life of the Trinity; since the masculine-feminine duality compels the hearer to compare and contrast. Hook and Kimel therefore argue that the attribution of sexual and fertility roles to the hypostases of the Godhead thus becomes inescapable.
MAN AND MEN?
Genesis 1 records the fact of two sexes and that God’s image is enjoyed equally by both. Man, generically speaking, is both male and female – the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not used in Genesis 1:27. Woman came out of man, she was not a separate creation. As Kirk said, God decided to create the female sex by taking her out of man, not to stress subordination, even less inferiority, but rather sameness. Kirk discusses and develops this theme very well, and his very helpful discussion deserves a deeper exploration.
Stevens says that it takes both male and female to be in the image of God, and therefore neither gender on its own reflects the likeness of God. Their equal humanity is based on their relationship to the one who made them, not on their individual gender. I am deliberately saying ‘their’ relationship, rather that stressing each individual’s relationship. Since Adam was incomplete without Eve, they relate to God together – not separately.
Man’s domination of woman was the result of the fall, not the design of creation. To simply refer to God by feminine pronouns and designations merely shifts the emphasis of the domination, it does not deal with the problem of the domination itself.
Coakley says that Christian feminists may again well ask whether spontaneous projections of female figures into the Godhead, retrieved and welcomed with enthusiasm by some, are really a viable way forward, recapitulating as they do the Western stereotype of bodily, subordinate dependence for women.
Nevertheless, the Bible is rich in feminine imagery of God. Furthermore, it is closer to biblical truth to speak of God in the neuter, though some will certainly react against referring to God as ‘it’.
To speak carefully of God as both Father and Mother is true to Scripture in a way that addressing God as Mother alone is not; thus God may actually be appropriately referred to as ‘they’. While neither ‘it’ nor ‘they’ may be easily accepted and used by Christians, they are nonetheless much closer to the Bible than referring to God as either ‘he’ or ‘she’ if sex is inferred by these pronouns.
Although it is undoubtedly true that Christ came to earth as a man, the important point about him is that he was the Word made Flesh, not the Word made Male. As Storkey notes, he came as anthropos (human being), not primarily as aner (male human being).
AXES AND PRAXIS
Carr has observe that studies of medieval mystics have brought new attention to theological symbols of ‘Jesus as mother’ and the ‘motherhood of God’ as well as to the importance of gender in the analysis of religious symbols. She also notes that there have been proposals for referring to God as ‘parent’ or as ‘father and mother’, or for the balancing use of feminine language for the Spirit, since the Hebrew word for Spirit is grammatically feminine.
Kirk maintains that humanity alone, of all Creation, is in the image of God. Neither sex reflects the imago Dei on its own. He believes that their equal humanity is based on their equal relationship to the one who made them.
The Genesis account speaks of the union between man and woman without speaking of procreation. This helps to dispel a deeply distorted view of sexual intercourse, according to Kirk. Pedilla says that sexual desire is not oriented around the fruit of the conjugal union, but around the union itself.
Ruether says that Feminist critique of Yahwist religion has focused on the patriarchal ordering of society and the imaging of deity in terms of patriarchal leadership roles, such as king, warrior, shepherd (a kingly title) and judge. Ruether believes that the more one studies different religious traditions and their early roots, the more one is tempted to suggest that religion itself is essentially a male creation.
While this suggestion is understandable, I would conclude that God is not a male creation, he is not a male in any biological sense and that the very real issues are to do with this issue are really about God’s people themselves – not with God himself. The axe should really be taken to that which has been built on false foundations, so that the church’s praxis may better reflect the God it serves.
I believe that there are some very real theological difficulties in referring to God only as ‘she’ (or any feminine designation), but that should not stop the church at large from dealing fairly and impartially with the issues that Feminist Theologians are raising. We must also be very careful not to project our ideas of sex and gender back onto YaHWeH. Gender is in YaHWeH and that is reflected in human beings.
Let us debate these things in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, and not merely throw theological stones at one another. There is a lot of rubble already under the carpet – let us begin to clean it out rather than adding yet more.
Editors: Sinclair B Ferguson and David F Wright, The New Dictionary Of Theology, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
Editor: Robin Gill, Readings In Modern Theology, (London, SPCK, 1995)
Dr Elaine L Graham, ‘Gender, Personality And Theology’, Scottish Journal Of Theology, Volume 48 Number 3, 1995, pp341-358
Daphne Hampson, Theology And Feminism, (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1990)
A Hauge, ‘Feminist Theology As Critique And Renewal Of Theology’, Themelios, Vol 17 No. 3, 1992, pp 8-11
Dr Donald D Hook and Rev Alvin F Kimel, ‘The Pronouns Of Deity: A Theolinguistic Critique Of Feminist Proposals’, Scottish Journal Of Theology, Volume 46 Number 3, 1993, pp 297-323
Editor: Alister E McGrath, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1993)
Lisa Isherwood and Dorothea McEwan, Introducing Feminist Theology, (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
Editor: Kathy Keay, Men Women & God, (Basingstoke, Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1987)
Joan O’Brien, A Talk On Feminist Theology And The Family, (published on the Internet at: http://tac.joyassociates.com/femtalk.html)
R P Stevens, ‘The Mystery Of Male And Female: Biblical And Trinitarian Models’, Themelios, Vol 17 Number 3, 1992, pp20-24