God’s Nonbinary Pronouns: How Theology Can Learn from Queer Studies

God’s Nonbinary Pronouns: How Theology Can Learn from Queer Studies July 7, 2022

Trans and nonbinary people are changing their pronouns–what if God is, too?

Image by Денис Марчук from Pixabay

As part of their transition, the trans people in my life have changed their pronouns. They’ve come to a new understanding of themselves, and want others to know the new person, too. That’s why they introduce themselves by their chosen name rather than their name assigned at birth (what many call a “dead-name”). It’s also why they often tell you their pronouns–so you’ll make the transition along with them and stop calling them by a pronoun that no longer applies.


Honoring People with Their New Pronouns

This is why one family member who used to be “he/him” is now welcomed as “she/her.”  Another family member says that gender male pronouns no longer apply, but neither do female pronouns. We now celebrate that person as “they/them.”  Transgender studies are still new in our society, and many Christians feel they are behind the eight ball. Perhaps a future article will deal with why the Bible is clear that we should accept and love transgender folks. Here, I’ll simply say that the most loving thing you can do is to adapt along with them and call them by the name and gender of their choice.

As times are changing, we have to learn new things about changing identities. One person told me, “I can’t just learn to call them something different.”  The thing is–you can, and you already are doing so with others in your life. When a cis-gender woman does the traditional thing and marries a man, she often changes both her title (Ms. or Miss to Mrs.) as well as her name. You adapt to that quite easily–so it should be no trouble for you to learn to use a new name or pronoun for your trans friend.


Does God Have Gender?

But this article is mostly about getting with the times and changing what we call God. The more we learn about human gender, the more we understand about the Creator. God didn’t create us to be genderless–God made us to be like the Divine Self. That means God has gender. But is God male or female?

Many will quote the Scriptures that refer to God as heavenly father, king, or lord–notably male images. Others will point out that God chose to appear as the distinctly male person known as Jesus. The scripture is clear, they will say, that God is male. But God is not a man (Hebrew ish–a masculine noun), that he should lie. God did not impregnate Mary with a celestial penis–it was the Holy Spirit who generated new life in her. And Holy Spirit is decidedly feminine.


The Feminine Holy Spirit

Yes–the Hebrew word ruach, or spirit, is feminine. So is the Greek word pneuma, or spirit. And the Greek word sophia, which means wisdom and is closely identified with Holy Spirit, is also feminine. Then, there are the feminine images that God uses to describe divine love. Jesus said he is like a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings. Hosea says God is like a mother who nurtures her children, and like a mother bear who protects her cubs. In Isaiah, God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  The psalmist writes, “as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!”  So just as we call God “he,” we could also call God “she,” and be completely accurate.


Preference to Patriarchy

Of course, many believers reject this language because it conjures images of pagan goddess worship. But the reason we reject feminine images of God is mostly because we grew up in a patriarchal world. If God is powerful, we use male types and pronouns to describe that power. Out of deference to patriarchy, we shy away from nurturing, soft, feminine attributes of God, even though the Bible uses them quite frequently.


God is Genderful

The reason many Christians reject gender fluidity is that they think God’s gender is static. The fact is, that God demonstrates gender fluidity throughout the Scriptures. I’m fairly sure that God would enjoy being called Heavenly Queen just as much as Lord of All. It’s been said that God is not genderless–God is genderful. God isn’t NEITHER male NOR female–God is BOTH. Genesis 1:27 (NRSV) says, So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. If both male and female are created in God’s image, then this means that God is both male and female–at the same time. Not genderless, but genderful. And fluid enough to not to imbue some people with masculine characteristics and some with feminine qualities, but to grant each person a wonderful combination of both!


God as “They/Them”

It’s just as correct to call God “she/her” as it is to call God “he/him.”  But perhaps, since God is changing pronouns, God could try “they/them” on for size. Think about it–it works for nonbinary people who are neither/nor, or both/and. Why not use these pronouns for God?

Some say that using “they/them” for a singular person is cumbersome and confusing since those pronouns are generally reserved for plural people. But the English language has done this for centuries when referring to a single person of undetermined gender. You mention a doctor’s visit to your friend, who replies, “Oh? What did they say?” The reason your friend uses “they” is because they (see–the friend’s gender is unspecified) don’t know the gender of the doctor. Yes, English speakers have been doing this for a long time–we can get used to using it for nonbinary people. We can even use it for God.

Think about it–Orthodox Christians believe in the unity in the Trinity. God is three, but God is also one. Singular and plural, all at once. What better pronoun could we use than “they/them,” which is both a singular and plural pronoun in our delightful language!?  The Trinity is one of those divine mysteries, embracing contradictory propositions and holding them both together. Referring to God as “they/them” honors that mystery tradition, recognizing both the unity and the plurality of God.


God is Changing Pronouns

So, it sounds to me that Christian theologians have a lot to learn from queer studies. We can learn how God creates people with wondrous diversity that reflects God’s nonbinary nature. We can adapt to a new language about God that we have learned from our new language referring to our gender-nonconforming friends. And we can accept that language changes as surely as the world adapts to greater insights. If you’re someone who always uses male pronouns for God, why not try a few female ones on for size? Or gender-neutral ones. God is changing Their pronouns–I’m sure that He’ll be proud, She’ll be pleased, and They’ll be honored when you change your language to reflect the diversity of the Trinity.

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