What Gender Is God? [Questions That Haunt]

What Gender Is God? [Questions That Haunt] May 21, 2013

This question comes from Mark — you can submit your questions here — and it’s one that’s trickier than it might seem at first blush:

Hi Tony, I just recently discovered you, and thankful to do so. I appreciate the way you think! As an aside, in one of your threads, you brushed upon the gender of God. (Holy Spirit was feminine.) I think it would be of great value, to discuss the entire issue of “the intrinsic gender(s) of the Divine.” Any thoughts, or comments?

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here.

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  • None. “Gender” is a human social construct reflecting our cultural meanings for the biophysical markers we use to distinguish “sex” categories. Never mind that each year people are born with varying combinations of fe-/male sex characteristics (are they “made in the image of God”?). Sex is what we’re born with, gender is how we live it. But it’s still good to ask if God wears pants or not though.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Aaron, if you use my noted definition of “gender”, is your answer still: “God is of no gender.”? Or, do you mean: “God doesn’t have a sexual form.”?

      • If we start with this (your definition from above)…[“gender”: some concept of an eternal, metaphysical/spiritual plurallism, such as: feminine or masculine]…I might say for clarity then, my *current* thinking is that God is a-gender, gender-less, or maybe omni-gender(?). Because I can’t conceive of what an eternal “essence” of gender might be. I like your question, and I think it’s very important with respect to gender/church questions, but I don’t know how to think theologically about it without seeing it through my cultural/societal lens (making scientific understandings about this relevant). And what theologian can remove her-/himself from their pre-existing cultural understandings to consider this independent from its influence? Maybe this is why I end up saying “God is no gender” because I can’t see any theological definition of it whose meaning is *not* contingent on the society in which we’re asking the question. But let’s still wrestle with it!

    • jeffstraka

      The idea of god/gods/God is a historical human construct.

  • Efrain

    Instead of none, I would probably be more inclined to say both. The Bible utilizes both masculine and feminine language in talking about God. We always speak of God symbolically, of course, and when we say words like “Father” and “Son” we are only telling a part of the story. I just don’t think there is only femininity in the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of John connects the figure of Jesus with the Logos, the Sophia of God, which is clearly a feminine figure in the Wisdom literature. And what about the Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who referred to Jesus (not the Holy Spirit) as “Mother.” Being that language is limited and God is not, it is interesting to ask these questions. Perhaps one that would complicate things a bit more would be to leave the human male/female discourse and ask something like: what specie is God? Certainly, the bible utilizes non-human language to talk about God:dove, lion, lamb, hen, etc. are words used to talk about the Divine (Again, these are symbols, like “man” or “woman,” “Father” or “Mother.”) What would that do to our theology?

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Thanks for using my question, Tony. For purpose of clarity,,,the question is asked in the context of Christian theology. Also, my premise definition for “gender”, would be some concept of an eternal, metaphysical/spiritual plurallism, such as: feminine or masculine. Can we all agree to use the word “sex”, for that form of physical/material dualism, we most often experience as mortal female, or male biological forms?
    The condition of biological intersexualism, is a valid consideration, and can certainly inform the question.

    • Ric Shewell

      This made it less clear for me. Do you mean to ask, “Is God more male-like or more female-like?” I think we all agree that God doesn’t have physical man or woman sexual organs.

      • Mark Kirschieper

        Hi Ric, Sorry, it’s easy for me to confuse folks! Yes, I think that most Christians would agree, that God does not have some current biological form. (Although, the incarnate Christ did.) God is not currently a female, or a male. However, this does not rule out the possibility, that as a “person”, God has a “personality” (as do humans, hopefully). Can’t a “personality”, be both feminine and masculine, just as a character, or aspect, of their “personhood”? This view makes form of being, or form of substance, almost irrelevant, or not terribly important.

        • Whew. This is getting wicked complex, quickly! You pose some very interesting thoughts. I imagine different religious/Christian traditions view “whether God has a personality” in a variety of ways. Whether we can assume God as a person means God has personality because of humans are a person and they have personalities, I don’t know. That’s still a separate question for me though than “is God’s personality gendered” (feminine, masculine, or…a 3rd gender category)? Although you pose it as a theological Q, I can’t for myself set aside my non-theo. understandings of “personality” and “gender”. I wonder how one can while *doing theology*. Much social, natural science views personality as something far smaller, less constant than our common-sense notion of it. Most social science views personality gendered in how differently sexed persons can express it, e.g. do females really have more emotional personalities than males, or are females (in some cultures) encouraged *to be* emotional in one way (“I’ll cry if I want to”) and males another (“I’m mad as hell and dammit I’m not going to take it any more”). Two other observations complicating things for me: (1) some societies (Samoan) have 3 gender categories/roles, and (2) do non-human animals have personalities? Ethology (animal behavior) research offers startling insights when examining say orangutan, wolf, and elephant societies (they appear to mourn their dead?!).

        • Adriene Buffington

          Isn’t the resurrected Christ also the Incarnate Christ?

          I know most people don’t think of it this way, because they conceive of heaven as a purely spiritual, non-material existence, and so assume that Jesus Christ isn’t human anymore. At least not physically.

          But as I understand it, Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected, and ascended physically, but in a somehow different/better resurrection body.

          Which we will somehow/someday also have. I guess I expect that in my resurrection body I will be female, (gender) although not necessarily making love and making babies (sexuality).

          • Mark Kirschieper

            Hi Adriene, I love this comment. Many/most folks assume the incarnate Christ, was with us in a body of the male sex. (We do not have it’s DNA, to be certain, of this.) Even if so, it does not seem that our mortal biological form, defines the entire gender issue of personhood. As mentioned somewhere before, a sexually male body can contain a very feminine personality; and like wise, a sexually female body, can contain a very masculine personality. A continuation of the nature of your question could be: Does the resurrected form of Christ, have a gender, and if so, what is that gender? Also, since most Christians believe in a triune Godhead, there’s “room” for at least 3 forms of gender, right in the canon, of Scripture, that being feminine, masculine, and neuter. The puzzle is that, Scripure uses all 3 noun forms, to describe persons of the trinity. Here are some examples, from the New Testament: God (2316 theos, masculine), Godhead (2305 theiotes & 2320 theotes, feminine), Spirit (4151 pneuma, neuter). To add complexity, in the Old Testament Spirit, is feminine. We can not necessarily presuppose that feminine “trumps” neuter, either. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that God, is polygendered. (Or, something like that.)

    • I figure it’s in the context of theology, and I’m curious to see how Tony addresses it. I also mean “sex” & “gender” as separate concepts too, not synonyms, although paradoxically inseparable. I personally think sex can’t be a dualistic category since empirical reality offers us more than 2. We presume it is as it *usually* appears so. It’s clearer to me now where you’re coming from.

  • davehuth

    I don’t think God is gendered like humans, or sexed either, but I think nearly everyone thinks of God as gendered masculine, even those who don’t intellectually hold the opinion that God is gendered, or even don’t like to think that way.

    Without getting into the details, I’m nearly 10 years into a personal discipline of trying to change how I think about this, and have had literally hundreds of conversations with people about it. I’m stunned by how difficult it has been to alter my intuitive level thinking on this, which makes me think it is culturally ingrained from a very young age.

    I’m raising a daughter with the explicit intention of enculturating her differently. In explicit, intellectual conversation she’ll describe God in ways that transcend gender or incorporate both genders, and she’ll freely express disagreement with people who speak of God in ways that are reserved for men or males. And yet when she herself is speaking about God, she says “he” or “him” nearly every single time, despite being corrected every time she’s ever done this over the course of her whole life.

    My daughter’s 6, and though her experience is anecdotal, it makes me think a very deep and subtle force is at work.

    For the record, I think this force, whatever it is, is for the most part harmful. I think it’s on balance a negative thing that God is gendered in the minds of most people.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      I resonate, with much of this. I too, have been trying to re-train myself, to just refer to God as “God”, without use of gendered pronouns. Now, I do understand, that God is not a “he”, or a “she”. I think our patriarcal heritage, may have just brainwashed our cultural/sociological psyche.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    If we’re attempting to do Christian theology, then why not use the grammar, of our primary “theology book”, the Biblical canon…This is a powerful tool, because in the original Hebrew and Greek, nouns have intrinsic gender. (English nouns, do not.) In both the Hebrew and Greek, nouns are either, feminine, masculine, or neuter. Basic grammar tells us, nouns are the names of “persons, places, things, etc.” Many/most of the canon’s names for God, are nouns; therfore, it’s reasonable to presuppose that God is a person, with intrinsic gender. In the Biblical canon, both feminine and masculine nouns, are used to describe God; therefore, I’m glad to affirm the idea that God is at least bi-gendered, or perhaps polygendered, pangendered, multigendered, omnigendered, etc…

    • Adriene Buffington

      I wonder if the languages with gendered nouns have less baggage attached to feminine or masculine pronouns. In English, only things that have ‘sex’ have ‘gender’. Humans and animals can be “he or she.” Plants and inanimate things are all “it”.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Post Script: What I can not affirm, is the notion that God transcends gender. The mere idea of that, seems logically absurd. Unfortunately, that is the “official” position, of the Roman church, which then turns around and calls the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, and Co-remptrix with Christ. Generaly speaking, it appears transcendence sometimes also seems to be the “unofficial” position of Protestantism.

  • Jonnie

    I’m thoroughly confused about what it means for something to “seem” logically absurd… If we take that to mean logical impossibility, it seems patently false that it’s absurd. It is quite possible to conceive of a God to which gender does not apply– a God who is not bound by masculine/ feminine dichotomies (or any blending of the two). Do you mean something less that ‘logical’? theological..?

    Secondly, the notion that gender is an eternal/ metaphysical anything, is what is creating the rub here. Why on earth should we accept that? That definitely needs to be problematized, and I hope some good feminist thinker readers of this blog will weigh in [if there still are any 😉 ] as to whether this is a concept of gender they would appreciate. Barring the acceptance of that VERY robust definition, the contingent, constructed, historical use of gendered pronouns and the like, should not force us into bestowing a metaphysical imposition on God. My gosh, we reject all kinds of elements inherent to the language and social context of the biblical witness (patriarchy, etc.).

    Gender as distinguished from sex, which is being deepened and extended on your account, needs to be fleshed out first. Starting points are everything. Why should we move forward with that definition is the important question? I take gender and sex to be more synonymous. They are biological blurred, blended, and confused at nearly every level of the biosphere. Don’t seem any logical absurdity or metaphyscial necessity of thinking it eternally or as something God must have.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Absolutely, outside the context of Christian theology, it’s very possible, for some higher-power, to transcend gender…However, even in an agnostic or atheistic worldview, most folks would agree, that a biological male can be quite feminine; and likewise, a biological female can be quite masculine. To equate sex and gender, as synonymous, could be too logically restrictive, even in the real world of our genuine experience.

      • Jonnie

        That precisely my point: What is your argument that Christian theology commits us (necessarily according to your ‘logical’ language) to bestowing God with gender in some sense (pan poly or what have you)? Why does the engendered nature of our language commit us to metaphysical gender for God?
        My sense is that the problem is being caused by some restriction here… Could not a healthy does of apophaticism solve your need to gender God?

        • Mark Kirschieper

          Hi Jonnie, I don’t sense, that there is a problem…Since I like to be a positive and optimistic person, I tend to adopt a cataphatic approach. By definition, apophaticism is negative, which doesn’t work, for me. Who ever said attempting to apply gender to God, is negative? That would be your presupposition, not mine. If you enjoy apophaticism, have at it, knock yourself out. Regards the other point, most/many Christian theologians, place some degree of high value, in the Biblical canon, as a theological “primer”, regards hermeneutics, and exegesis. So yes, I do presuppose we’re “stuck”, with the language/grammar, of it. If you don’t much value the language/grammar, of the canon, that’s OK, we live in a free country, enjoy! By the way, I do not suggest that sex and gender, are totally without correlation, I just do not presuppose, that they are necessarily synonymous.

          • Jonnie

            A healthy dose simply means acknowledging the limited nature of God talk. I too ‘use’ and subscribe to the language of the canon. An apophatic humility simply recongizes the limited nature of our language. Thats thoroughly canonical and orthodox.

            Gender terms in context are binary. They make sense as oppostional terms (probably only building on the bioological sexual substrate too). If God is not either, then the term gets a bit vacuous. ‘Pan’ or ‘poly’ gendered is more like saying: not like us, not binaried, beyond our understanding of those terms…a very apophatic kind of ascription actually.
            The question still remains. Why the need to apply a metaphyscal property to God’s identity based on pronouns selected for talking about God in a patricarchal culture? What’s more faithful to the canon about thinking gender as a metaphyscal property (something still not yet explained as to why we’re starting with that definition you added) that is assumed to apply to all personhood. Ric’s comment about personal-ness are helpful here.
            Not trying to be the contrarian, just think the assumed metaphysic and hermeneutic stuff is what’s “creating” the haunting more than laying it bare.

            • Mark Kirschieper

              Hi Jonnie, As stated, if you prefer a dose of apophaticism, in your faith journey with God, go for it. Great to understand we both value the canon of Scripture! In doing so, I see no need whatsoever, to restrict any form of Scriptural language, from dialogue. I greatly value the nouns, and their intrinsic gender. I do however, freely acknowledge, and do presuppose, that the good Lord gave us the canon, in Hebrew and Greek (which do engender God), for a Divine Purpose. I do not consider, the apophatic method sub-orthodox, so please do not feel slighted, in any way. Different is not bad, it is merely different. Peace

  • Ric Shewell

    Our natural tendency to link gender to personhood makes this question more complicated that it seems. When we walk into a room, probably the first thing we identify in others is their gender, and when somebody’s gender is ambiguous, it stands out. Gender is one of the first things we know about any person that we meet. Knowing someone’s gender helps us to know them more personally.

    So when Christ wants to reveal God as more relatable or more personal, Christ address the Holy One of Israel with a gender, Father. The revelation wasn’t that God was male, but that God was personal, and it’s easier for us to understand things as persons when they have gender.

    For me, call God Mother, Father, She or He, but do not lose that God is personal. Gendered pronouns help us view God as a person, which I think is good.

  • Hannah Brown

    I have found that using female language for God, in addition to male language, disturbs and complements our underlying assumption of God’s maleness. While it is important to go beyond gendered and anthropomorphic language, there is an intimacy implied by gendered references to God that I wouldn’t want to miss, and that I think is a particular gift of Christian traditions. @hcbhesed

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Hi Hannah, I love this response! Since I presume you are a sexual female, I can totally understand why you would embrace “an intimacy implied by gendered reference to God”, as long as that gender reference is of the male sex. That is wonderful, I understand, and get it. It also seems to be somehow socially acceptable, to do that…However, to speak with inverse terms, I do not understand why so many sexual Christian males, can not embrace “an intimacy implied by gendered reference to God”, if that gender reference is expressed in female/feminine suggestive language…Ironically, it’s almost as if many Christian sexual males, have a homo-gendered love of God. Most unusual…(Is it really just all about femiphobia, with them?)

  • Adriene Buffington

    I use male language and pronouns for Jesus Christ, because he was/is a man- a male human. (Incarnation means to me that God became fully human, including having gender and a sexual nature.) It’s more about emphasizing God humanizing God’s self than about men making God masculine.

    I use He and Him (with a capital letter to imply Otherness) for God the Father, because I resonate with the loving Abba imagery of God. But I’d be okay with mother or parent imagery in conversation with someone who was uncomfortable with the masculine. ( like ‘Papa’ in “The Shack”)

    I recently, gradually shifted to feminine pronouns for the Holy Spirit. Which feels SO right to me. Rather more mysterious, complicated and able to be both gentle and powerful (like wind, breath). The Spirit as She works for me. Not an embodied, sexual female, but feminine somehow. So maybe the Spirit is She or Her with a capital letter.

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