Finding the feminine image of God in the Bible and in women.

Archive Tag:masculine language for God

Why Gender-Neutral Language Is Not Enough

God is spirit, Jesus told Photina, the woman at the well, in John 4:24. I’ve been reading snippets of Near Death Experiences, and consistently, people agree that God is spirit, electric with light and love. Not human, not male, not female. So why do we need to call God Mother? Why not just do away with Father and all the other masculine language for God, including masculine pronouns, and call God, “God”?

“I Hear The Word ‘God’…as Male”

Lauren Winner, author of the excellent Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, addresses the masculine-God-language problem by mostly avoiding gendered pronouns and nouns. She writes: “About four years ago, I made a conscious decision to try to set aside third-person singular pronouns for God, except when they appeared in prayers and hymns written by someone else or scripture translated by someone else.” That “except” would mean she would not be setting masculine pronouns aside very often.

However, she says this small act of curbing her own speech heightened her awareness of how her “community’s prayers, hymns, and sermons are saturated with masculine language.” She also noticed that “I tend to hear the word ‘God’ not as somehow beyond gender or as betokening the diversity of divine life; rather, I hear it as male.”

Winner almost thinks out loud in her book, as she suggests that the “antidote to this formation is…to sometimes use feminine pronouns and sometimes masculine pronouns.” It’s uncomfortable for her, she admits, but she tries it out now and again in her book, because she believes “the uncomforting is holy and blessed.” Good for her! Enduring the discomfort is the first step in changing the male God image to become female, too.

Like Winner’s gradual and subtle conclusion to her “Short Note on Gender and Language for God,” I, too, think there are good reasons for why we humans can’t keep God unbound by gender, despite the fact that She is a spirit.

The Personhood of the Trinity

First, God is a person. For example, my Sunday School theology tells me not to call the Spirit an It, but rather a He, though it’s tempting because the Spirit seems neuter. And the basic reason we use a personal pronoun is that God is a person not a thing. And persons have a sexual distinction.

It’s true that language around gender is changing, thanks to the insights given by the LGBTQ community. However, we don’t really have a way to relate to a person who is a Spirit without also referring to that person with a gendered pronoun. (We could call Her “They” but that would evoke all kinds of theological broohaha). And even if we manage to say God and Godself several times in a row instead of saying He or Him, the echo of the masculine pronouns we have always used speaks of an ancient man behind the scenes, like the Wizard of Oz behind the big voice and curtain.

We Reflect God

Secondly, sexed people reflect God. (And I am differentiating here between having a sex, which is the mechanics of being a woman or man that lead to differences, and having gender, which is all the societal stuff we take on making all girls like pink and fluffy stuff and all boys prefer blue and mud.) The author of Genesis (1:27) tells us that men and women alike are made in God’s image. God didn’t have to create a man and a woman. She could have found another way. The two sexes inform us of Her very being.

Bringing Down a False God

Third, we’ve already made God thoroughly male (and white, but that’s another post). It’s simply too late to neutralize the word, God. Thousands of years, and most religions, give God a basic masculine identity. It’s time to chip away at that false image, that false God. We have simply got it wrong about God. Jesus’ appearance on the scene was, in part, supposed to enlighten us to the feminine within God, but we didn’t get it.

It’s only taking the uncomfortable, unpopular yet Biblically-rooted stand that God can be She, God can be Mother, or any number of feminine metaphors, that will begin to pull down our false male God and put up the True One before us, the one who is represented well by both female and male.

Masculine-only Language for God and Rape Culture

I will be voting for Hillary Clinton, with excitement at the possibility of witnessing the first woman in history to become an American president. But I do like what Trump has inadvertently done for women lately. He has made public what is often a private and shame-filled event: the invasion of a woman’s body and person, used as an object of gratification and domination. Conversation is happening that is potentially healing for women and enlightening for men.

My husband courageously wrote today on Facebook about his own journey of realizing that sexual aggression toward women is not about his own moral purity, but about the worth and value of women. He was responding to his colleague’s story of verbal sexual aggression–in church–from a man toward her, just two weeks ago.

My husband writes:  “It took me years to realize that such aggression is embedded in the male culture in which I participated daily at school, work and church. I cannot begin here to unravel that culture but I know that we very much need to do it. And I think we can use Trump’s aggression as a point to begin the discussion. We need men to own their culture and the actions it helps to create. We need to call sexism what it is–abhorrent.”

Sexism is multi-faceted, but we can start with the simple integrity of a human being’s body. Human being? Women are human, and the truth and meaning of that fact needs exploration. Having this discussion with men is healthy. Though they may not want to talk about it, men understand masculinity/machismo culture better than women. When they name it and expose it, its power to control men and women, and boys and girls, decreases. And having discussions about sexual assault with Christian men is healthy, too, because sexism is rampant in the church. (See one man’s articulate rant here).

Masculine-only language for God embeds sexism into the pews, and brings into question the worth, and full humanity, of girls and women. On any given Sunday morning around the world, women will walk into a church service where Jesus is Bridegroom, God is Father, and “This is my Father’s World.” Virginia Ramey Mollenkott writes about this language rut: “…because God is husband-like, husbands are godlike. Because God is fatherlike, fathers are godlike. The stage is set for exploitation of girls and women.”

But she continues, “The chances for exploitation are severely curtailed if we go further and recognize the biblical images that say God is womanlike and motherlike, so that women and mothers are in turn godlike.”

Then maybe we will all see the imago dei, the image of God, more clearly in women, and yes, in their very bodies. Women reflect God as much as men do (Gen. 1:27). The first name that God revealed to humans was El Shaddai (Gen. 17:1) which means The God with Breasts. Yes, God identifies with women and with their bodies, seeing them as powerful.

Like Jesus told Saul when he was jailing and murdering early Christians, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Jesus is also asking sexist men, “Why do you continue to assault, abuse, and treat me like an item on a shelf?” “But Jesus wasn’t a woman!” you may be thinking. Saul persecuted women as well as men (Acts 8:3). The risen Spirit of Jesus didn’t differentiate between genders when he stopped Saul on the road to Damascus.

I wonder why not? Doesn’t gender and gender hierarchy matter to Jesus? Not in my reading of the gospels.

Christian men would do well to emulate Jesus, perhaps the only perfectly secure male in history. He didn’t hesitate to talk about God as a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10), or to compare himself with a hen longing to gather her chicks under wing (Luke 10:34). He gave the Holy Spirit the role of a birthing woman (John 3:5), and indicated that he saw he and his disciples as experiencing the pains of a woman in labor, as Jesus died on the cross (V. Ramey-Mollenkott; John 16:21, 17:1).

Jesus’ many uplifting interactions with women in a patriarchal culture showed the world throughout history how men should relate to women and think about them: as human beings who look like God as much as men do. So, if Jesus went to church in North America in the 21st century, I think He would freely call God “Mother” as well as “Father,”  to show us that God made women in Her image, too–body and soul.