God, Part 2: The problem with pronouns

(This is the second piece of my response to Tony Jones’ “Challenge to Progressive Theo-bloggers.” The first piece is here.)

Whenever possible, I try to avoid gendered pronouns for God. Admittedly, this can sometimes make for clumsy syntax, but that clumsiness is a feature, not a bug.

Because the main point of this exercise is to force myself to be conscious of that word, “God,” and not to use it casually and thereby to risk forgetting or confusing or failing to account for the fact that this God I’m referring to is not your run-of-the-mill antecedent.

There are good feminist reasons to avoid gendered pronouns for God, and that’s also a big part of why I try to do so. But my main concern is not patriarchy, but anthropomorphism.

Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is a beautiful painting, but a problematic one in that it reinforces our already extreme tendency to think of Yahweh as Zeus, or as Moses, or as Charlton Heston portraying Moses.

That tendency is far older than Michelangelo. I’d bet that when the book of Job was originally staged and the machine lowered God onto the scene in the third act (chapter 38 in our copy of the script), the actor playing God wore a bearded mask.

“God is not man writ large,” Karl Barth said, but we are always tempted to think of God in exactly those terms — as a man writ extremely large, bipedal, bearded, robed, sandaled and tossing a thunderbolt down from Olympus.

That leads us astray in our thinking about God and in our attempts to understand God. It leads us astray in ways that we will not be able to see until we begin to cure ourselves of the habit.

We can see this problem at work in many of the theologians who speak loudest and most often about the “sovereignty” of God. The assertion of God’s sovereignty is almost always immediately followed by an explanation of the rules governing said sovereignty — the rules that bound it, circumscribe it, hem it in and limit it. Thus “God is sovereign,” but also unable. God can do all things, except for

And then off we go, defining the infinite and reducing God to He and Him as though discussing just another churlish Olympian. From there we end up with a God subject to wrath, or subject to a fierce allergy to all that is unholy or impure. A subject is not a sovereign.

Our tendency to anthropomorphize is both unconscious and inevitable. It distorts our thinking about God just as it distorts our thinking about all sorts of other things — about all creatures great and small, about the weather, even about inanimate objects sometimes.

Think of all those awesome YouTube clips of animals at play. The crow snowboards down the snowy roof, then flies back up to the top to do it again. We perceive, and project, human motive and emotions onto what we see. We leap to conclusions.

In a way, this is an admirable quality — a kind of empathy — but it’s also misleading. It makes for bad science. And it’s no less a danger in theology than it is in ornithology.

A crow is not a small, feathered human. And God is not man writ large.

When we yield to the temptation to anthropomorphize God — consciously or unconsciously — we inevitably reduce God, projecting onto God limits, constraints and boundaries that we, as humans, cannot help but introduce.

This, I think, is a greater epistemological concern for theology than any consideration of certainty. Pascal saw both problems as related:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.

Let us, therefore, not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.

We are “incapable of certain knowledge” not just because certainty is elusive, but because we cannot grasp or comprehend the whole of what we wish to know. It overflows our capacity.

All of our God-talk and God-thinking — our creeds and constructs, our teachings and tomes, even our scriptures — are up against this limited, finite, human capacity. God is more than we can know. God is more than we are capable of knowing.

We name and label attributes of God, sometimes convincing ourselves that this is the same as comprehending them. We thus pretend that our little Flatlander brains have thereby grasped what we have actually only pointed at, boggling and reeling away to the best anthropomorphic approximation we can manage.

This isn’t to say that our partial approximations are wrong, necessarily, just that they are always partial and inadequate. Koko watched the video of the earthquake and signed, “Darn floor, big bite.” She wasn’t wrong. Given her limited vocabulary and her limited primate brain, I think she was eloquent, poetic even. But those four words only begin to point toward all that could be said or known about earthquakes.

Here is a remarkable thing that I love about that ancient play about Job, when the God in the first act finally goes off in the third. Part of what the character of God says there is typical of what the Gods always say to us mortals in ancient plays: “Who are you, a mere mortal, to judge me, a God?” But the God in Job also makes another point, affectionately explaining to Job that he is incapable of grasping the explanation he seeks — the explanation he properly demands.

God does not say this as a defense, nor as a condemnation. God is a bit testy about all the nonsense Job’s friends have been spouting, but God delights in these humans even more than God delights in ostriches and Orion.

Poor Job is, like all of us humans — including the humans who wrote Job — a finite, fallible, fragile creature. We humans have limits. Our primate brains are large and wondrously capable, but they are not infinitely capable. We cannot know everything we want to know and we cannot express everything we want to express. We cannot know everything there is to know or even grasp the scale of the difference between all that we can know and all that we cannot.

This limitation is part of our identity, our creatureliness. It’s not a flaw, just a limit. And God — or, at least, the heavily anthropomorphized God of Act 3 of Job — loves us humans as humans, as limited, fallible, fragile little creatures with our vast-but-not-boundless potential and capacity.

And but so, this is something we must always keep in mind — that God is more than can be kept in something as finite as our minds.

Our best ideas and approximations, our creeds and constructs, formulas and formulations, scriptures and systematic theologies are, at their best, still inadequate. “Darn floor, big bite.” “Trinity.” “Homoousios.” Our limited vocabulary and limited primate brains can be eloquent, but we can never comprehend comprehensively.

The danger of forgetting that is the danger of making our constructs into idols.

And so, partly as a discipline to force myself to remember that, I try to avoid pronouns for God. If that sometimes trips me up over clumsy syntax, then the pain of that stubbed toe is a helpful reminder.

We cannot know all there is to know about God. But I believe that we can know all that we need to know about God. That’s what I intend to discuss in part 3, wherein I will utterly fail Tony’s God-blogging challenge by violating the “not about Jesus” rule.

"That's a pretty good description - a good bad movie has an interesting idea that ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."
"Contrary to the resident troll's claim the SCOTUS did find that racist gerrymandering was present ..."

It’s not 2011, and no one’s ..."
"It had the barest bones of an idea... and obviously didn't think beyond that because ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."
"I wonder how people with such limited reasoning skills are able to cross the street ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tricksterson

    If a Creator is telling me to do something and It’s orders and the reasons behind them are incomprehensible to me I see no reason to obey It.  Probably won’t surprise you that I’m a cat person.

  • caryjamesbond

    Why should we follow a morality we cannot comprehend? 

    Because among the strange things God wants us to do, It tells us if we do the strange things, we will be rewarded for ever, and if we don’t, we’re punished forever.   Because Fizzkins and threeblewarps, that’s why. 

    Ultimately- Because the Giant Incomprehensible Thing said so.  Why are gays bad? Why should we follow you if you don’t answer us?  Because the GIT said so.  Fred is trying to argue his way out of one of the fundamental theological problems: assuming the Bible is the actual word of an actual God that actually loves us-  why does It alternately tell us to do (apparently) good things like “help the poor” and (apparently) bad things like “stone your child to death for backtalk.”?

    Fred has repeatedly argued that the “bad” parts of the bible are NOT godly, they’re human prejudices that were sneaked in there.  Which implies a fundamentally human-but-better sort of God-  god likes the same good things we do, like helping the poor, but doesn’t have the same silly hatreds.  

    But now Fred says God is far beyond human comprehension.  Ok then- in that case, all his previous arguments go out the window. This isn’t Super-Gandhi loving everyone but not falling prey to meaningless hate.  This is an  alien being on a different plane who sees the world not more clearly than us but in a completely different way from us, to a degree that Its view is incomprehensible to us.

    Fred is not arguing that god is moral or immoral.   Fred is arguing that, from our limited perspective, god is TRANSmoral.  God is beyond our morals.  Gods morals are as far beyond us as ours are beyond a dogs.   

    Which is basically what Fred is saying.  In a cosmic sense- we’re more like Gods pets.  We do things, we’re told things, things happen to us- they don’t make sense to us, but if we could see it from the Owners perspective, it makes perfect sense. Dogs probably think its strange that we get mad when they eat their own poop. From our perspective,  knowing what we know about the world, its clearly a wrong act, but wrong in ways they have no hope of ever understanding.  T0 explain “Why you shouldn’t eat your poop” to a dog, you first need to explain germ theory to them. To explain why eating bacon or being gay is wrong, God would have to explain fiddlewuzz to us. What’s fiddlewuzz? Something we can’t even comprehend. 

    Or you could go with my preferred explanation- we’re a bunch of limited monkeys doing a pretty damn good job with what we’ve got in a universe that is governed by physical, not spiritual laws.

  • caryjamesbond

    If a Creator is telling me to do something and It’s orders and the reasons behind them are incomprehensible to me I see no reason to obey It.

    Which is  the main reason I’m an atheist.   Religion doesn’t seem improbable, or not fitting with the scientific worldview.  Religion seems silly.

  • aunursa

    Ultimately- Because the Giant Incomprehensible Thing said so.

    Why should we assume that God is not a malevolent deity?  Or alternately, should we do whatever a malevolent deity demands in order to get on the deity’s good side and hopefully avoid a very, very, very bad punishment?

    [^^^^ = another example of playing devil’s advocate]

  • Randall M

     I don’t think there’s a Lord Lord, but the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is Lord Judge.

    Well, I can’t top that, but I did once work in the Nursing Office of a major metropolitan hospital, and one of the nurses that worked there was Nurse Nurse.

  • Pat B

    OK, yeah that makes more sense. I was coming at this from a “Wow this is a pretty stupid argument someone is seriously making” rather than “Wow this is a particularly clever satire of a very stupid argument.” 

    So; 9002 points for eloquence and for highlighting the weird implications. One point deducted for trying to be satirical about religion on the internet. I can’t tell you the exact total right now because I have bits of scouter embedded in my palm and need to go to the hospital.

  • Mark Z.

    I’m not an expert here, but doesn’t the “built man in his own image” thing imply a humanoid male deity?

    FWIW, that passage in Genesis explicitly includes both men and women.

  •  … And that is why your dog should ignore you and just go on eating poop.

  • Ben English

    This is just getting back to Fred’s main point. If there is a God and He/She/They made the Universe, then it is by definition unknowable and incomprehsnible to us. The power and skill it would take to build something like everything is beyond our capacity.  And if that’s the case then, as you say, how do we know God’s moral reasoning? This is why you can’t, from a Christian perspective, say anything substantive about God without talking about Jesus: Jesus is the Logos. His teachings–love, justice, mercy, and self-sacrifice–are the moral framework of God. The Resurrection is not just Christ victorious over death but the stamp of approval from heaven, the thing that lets us put our faith that Christ was right instead the myriad other religious and secular moral pontificators.

    Of course, this is meaningless if you don’t believe in the Resurrection. I’m not going to speak to Jewish reasoning, but if you’re an atheist you obviously don’t believe in Leviticus, so the point is somewhat moot.

  • friendly reader

    So many thoughts to so many interesting posts!

    On why, as a Christian, you have to include Jesus… how does the litrugy put it? “[T]hat beholding the God made visible, we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see”? First, I can’t type that without hearing my pastor chanting it. Second, that is how Christianity has typically viewed the second Person* of the Trinity: it bridges the gap between the utterly transcendent impossible-to-know Father/Lord/Other and humanity.Jesus is the second Person in human form, but it’s also Wisdom, or the Word, through whom the world was created. In a way, the whole world participates in the incarnation. That’s why it’s not contradictory to say that bread and wine are the body of Christ – everything is, we just get to experience it ritually in the Eucharist (yes, I’m from a sacramental tradition, why do you ask? ;) ). Jesus’ life is, in part, the corrective to how we’d used nature to understand the unknowable God. We saw God only as all-powerful, a distant demiurge, a smashing thunderstorm titan. Jesus says “God is all-loving, God is with you, God dies.” That’s also why, if you’re going to interpret the Bible from a Christian perspective, you use Jesus as a filter.On pronouns and number modifiers… another reason I like the Trinity as an analogy is that saying God is three-in-one helps screw up our attempts to thingify God. God’s plural but also singular? Maybe even numbers, the most rarefied of all language, can’t hold God down.Also, using no pronouns is frequently used as a copout to not use feminine pronouns with God. While the Bible mostly uses male imagery, God is called a mother, Wisdom is female, why don’t we get to call God “she”? I say, switch your pronouns up randomly when you talk about God. Throw in “they” once in a while for good measure.”It” is okay as a gender-neutral pronoun, I suppose, but it tends to be used as noting something lesser. Ask an intersexed person whether they want to be called “it.”On metaphor in general… Paul Tillich, that guy who said God was the Ground of Being, or Being Itself, and that anything else is a metaphor, even personhood, also said that you should never say “just a symbol.” Metaphors and symbols are how we understand the world. Even with science, once you get into higher levels, has to turn to analogies to let us comprehend what the heck it’s talking about; our brains are too constrained by our four-dimensionally developed brains. Language itself is not, save with a few onomatopoeia, directly related to the objects it describes. The measure of a metaphor is the effect that it has on human life, from my perspective. If God as a King gives you a sense of protection and structure, good. If God as a King makes you feel oppressed and over-burdened, ditch the metaphor. But I do agree with Tillich that God as a person can be necessary because people are what we are best able to relate to… well, in general, at least.*”Person” is the Latin, and might be better understood with the modern English “persona.” It referred to the roles that actors played in theater. One actor, three distinct roles. The older Greek is hypostatis, or “sub-stance.” One Being (ousia), three substances. This is all really out-dated Hellenistic philosophy vocab and seriously in need of an update, though obviously I like the general idea.

  • friendly reader

    Oh bloody hell, Disqus, you turned that all into one monstrous unreadable text wall? I had neat paragraphs! (weeps)

  • As a non-Trinitarian panentheistic Quaker, I find this post and the ensuing discussion very interesting.

    I was going to post something about Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” and “God-Beyond-God,” but friendly reader beat me to it.

  • AnonymousSam

    This is why I not only have a Disqus account (so I can edit my posts), but I’ve taken to copying my post into Notepad with word wrap disabled, then copy/pasting it from there back into the post field. That usually makes it turn out properly.

  • Mark Z.

    1. All powerful beings who get their CDs chewed are not worthy of the title. If an omnipotent being creates anything, it will be created exactly according to their preferences with no possibility of breaking down, by definition.

    There’s approximately* no theistic religion that describes the Divine as “omnipotent” by your definition. Something about this world of ours does not effortlessly conform to God’s desires. The Christian God, for example, is demonstrably capable of being murdered by an angry mob. The Muslim God made unbelievers and then went to a lot of trouble to try to make them into Muslims, with only moderate success. The Jewish God created a huge number of people who hate Jews.

    How this happens when God is notionally in charge of the whole thing has several explanations which we could talk about at some length if you want, but I’m not sure you’re interested in that.

    * Maybe some extreme predestinationists, but even they tend to introduce loopholes, where God entirely planned on getting his CDs chewed but he’s still justifiably angry at the dog when it happens.

  • PJ Evans

    I’ve read one series of novels where God is referred to with both genders in the same sentence (‘Mother’ and ‘him’, for example). It’s difficult to follow at first, but it makes a weird kind of sense. there are archangels, and they’re mindbending also.

  • I wonder if God is like the gamer who uses cheat codes to make bizarre shit happen in order to make the player-characters win the game.

  • From the Joan of Arcadia pilot:

    “Okay, so, let’s say you’re God.”
    “Thank you.”
    “I want to ask you some questions.”
    “No, as a general rule, I ask the questions.”
    “Are you — are you being snippy with me? God is snippy.”
    “Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this, I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize, you see… I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I’m snippy, it’s because you understand snippy.”

  • Anton_Mates


    I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to
    you. And if I’m snippy, it’s because you understand snippy.”

    Course, that only makes sense if Joan doesn’t also understand “helpfully informative.”

  • Dan Audy

    Course, that only makes sense if Joan doesn’t also understand “helpfully informative.”

    I always interpreted God being evasive about providing Joan with ‘helpful information’ was the fact that she didn’t internalize the knowledge just by being told.  The experience of discovering whatever it was God wanted her to do (and often the failures at that) was what caused her to grow as a person and towards (the implied) way God wanted her to be.  I always felt the show had a very strong ‘The destination is valuable but the voyage vital’ vibe to it.

  • arcseconds

    I rather like ‘they’ as a pronoun for God, because:

    – it’s a perfectly serviceable and acceptable English gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun
    – it’s also a plural pronoun, thus can emphasize:
    — the Christian trinity
    — the neoplatonic trinity, which Christianity cribbed
    — all those crazy henads that the neoplatonic godhead also has
    — the inifinite aspects of Spinoza’s God, of which we can perceive only two
    — et. al.

  • Sqrat

     “Father” is the name Jesus used and invited his followers to use.

    What a coincidence — that’s my name too!

  • Sqrat

     This is just getting back to Fred’s main point. If there is a God and
    He/She/They made the Universe, then it is by definition unknowable and
    incomprehsnible to us. The power and skill it would take to build
    something like everything is beyond our capacity.

    I don’t see how that would make God unknowable and incomprehensible “by definition.”  See my previous comment about physicist Alan Guth’s claim that scientists might some day be able to create universes in a laboratory.  Were that to happen, it would immediately invalidate Fred’s main point (if that was indeed his main point).

    The physics involved in creating a universe might indeed be unknowable and incomprehensible to the vast majority of us poor schmucks, but it would mean that it was no longer a power that passeth all human understanding.

  •  And this is about a crow. Corvids are damn clever birds, so I’m happy to interpret them as doing something for “fun”

  • Tricksterson

    Problem is is that, at best we only have  Yaweh’s word that anything in the Bible is true.  At worst we have the word of an elite group who have a vested interst in our believing what they tell s.  Which is why I’m a Naytheist.

  • Tricksterson

    IIRC God in answer to her nagging about the afterlife gave her a tiny peek at it rendering her unconcious.

  • Beleester

    I think it’s a question of where you fit on the theodicy triangle – omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, pick two.

    If you go with omniscient and omnipotent, then the anthropomorphic “old man in the sky” is as good an image as any. You can talk, as the Bible does, about God being wrathful or jealous and it makes sense, because those are human emotions.

    If you go with omnibenevolent but not omniscient or omnipotent, then you have to believe in a God which is emotionally and physically unlike anything we know. You can’t describe this God as angry or hateful or any other emotion we routinely experience. This God has no hands to smite evildoers or even a voice to persuade them to change their ways. The best description you can manage is some sort of nebulous but nice “presence”.