God Is Male, and Female, and More Than Both [Questions That Haunt]

God Is Male, and Female, and More Than Both [Questions That Haunt] May 24, 2013

This question comes from Mark, and it provoked some thoughtful dialogue this week:

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?

Thanks, Mark. And thanks for being engaged in the comments, which always makes it more enjoyable, including the one in which you clarified:

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.

It’s really a great question, and one that has many layers. For me, I immediately thought of my kids. At their ages, they know the world in two categories: female and male. Dave had the same experience,

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.

I’ve done the same thing, working hard to disabuse my children (13, 11, 8) of using the male pronoun for God. They hear that plenty, so we use the female pronoun in our house, or the awkwardly constructed “Godself.” I think I’ve made an impression when they catch themselves referring to God with the male pronoun and glance at me sideways, with a smile.

One of the the biggest temptations of any human being is to anthropomorphize God. Honestly, I think it’s unavoidable — so much of our language is referential to our own human lives. We want to talk sensibly about God, and we naturally do so in language that describes God relatively to us. That’s a particularly acute problem when one thinks — as I do, and as Mark pointed out in his follow-up — that God is a personal being.

In fact, at this point in my journey, I think that God is not only personal, but in some way a self-enclosed being. This is what keeps me from embracing process theology, in which God’s personalness seems to bleed out into all creation. If God is everything, how can God also be personal? How can God have a personality?

The same can be asked of my version of the God-creation relationship, called panentheism. But in panentheism — at least Moltmann’s version, which I advocate — God is a distinct being who, in trinitarian love, embraces all of creation. Thus, the oneness that happens between God and creation happens at the volition of God.

Well, this may seem far afield from God’s gender, but it goes to show the relationship between God and our conceptions of ourselves. More to the point that what genitalia God has is what characteristics God exhibits. Honestly, I am loathe to assign particular traits to one gender versus the other. To say that women are “sensitive” or men are “dispassionate” is not only false but insulting. In certain contexts, males and females may be socialized to behave in certain ways, but I don’t think that there are particular, gender-based character traits that are baked into our genes.

So what does it mean when the Bible says that God rules with a “mighty arm,” or that God is like a “mother hen.” It means that humans in days past relied on anthropomorphic (and zoologic) metaphors to express their understandings of God. And I can’t blame them. But I don’t need to copy them.

Or, I can say this: God subsumes all characteristics. All characteristics of humans — including those traditionally considered “male” and “female” — are a part of God. They all live in God, and emanate from God.

In the end, it’s probably best to avoid gender-based pronouns for God as much as possible. Since that’s not always possible, let’s always remember that God embodies all characteristics that we know as humans, plus surely many that we don’t comprehend.

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  • While I have never really thought of God having a gender, I’ve always used male pronouns, probably just because that’s what I learned growing up. I think it’s so ingrained in my that it could be difficult to change, but I also think it would be interesting to see the reactions of people close to me if I did start saying She, at least part of the time. I also wonder, if even though I don’t think of God as male, what referring to God as male all these years has perhaps subconsciously taught me.

  • One of my primary issues with leaving Mormonism, in which I was raised, was the doctrinal gendering of God; God is literally a father of flesh and blood. While there were so many other reasons to leave, as well, it was easiest to look at that as a symbol of the submission and subjugation so common to contemporary Christianity that made me bristle.

    I feel like default usage of masculine pronouns is going to be a long time standing, which is a shame, because something as (I would argue) conceptual as God is inherently un-genderable, but it’s hard to talk about without sounding like a Philosophy-majoring sophomore (“I just think of god as, like, a force, you know? Not, like, a white guy on a throne with long hair and a beard lolololol [gets punched by me]”).

  • Great article — and I have so many questions because my husband and I discuss this all the time 🙂 I typically use God as “Him” or “He” — and my husband will always add a “or She” to the sentence… here are my questions:

    1 – Process Theology: I had always learned in PT that whereas Classical Theology believes God is “finished evolving” — PT believes God is “in transition” — So PT also believes “God is in everything”?

    2 – God vs. Jesus: yes I understand they are the same — however — Jesus was most definitely male, right? And Jesus was brought in “eikon” – the exact visible representation of God. So how do we refer to God as non-gendered when Jesus is gendered?


    • davehuth

      JennyRain, I think these are great questions. Regarding #2, I wonder this often as well. Why wasn’t God incarnated in Jesus’s sister? Is God also Jewish, Middle Eastern, inclined toward stone masonry? Someone told me we can think of God as having any human quality in our experience, because God identifies with all of our experience. But what about human qualities of guilt? Selfishness? Addiction? Reactionary violence?

      I’ve quoted Monica Coleman already on this blog this week, but want to do it again. I heard her once ask, “Which way does the Imago Dei flow?” Do we assume God has certain qualities (anthropomorphize) because those are qualities that we have? Or do we have those qualities because God has them and made us in that image? I guess a process theologian would probably say “both!”

      I’m glad you raised these questions. Thank you!

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Hi Jenny, I’m a real word geek…”in eikon” sounds like New Testament Greek, yet I do not see eikon, in my Greek lexicon. Could you please give me the English word, Scriptural passage, or Strong’s reference number? Many thanks!

      • Ric Shewell

        The word is image. Used 23 time in the NT, Strong’s #1504. Col 1:15 is the biggie.

        • Mark Kirschieper

          Many thanks, Ric!

  • Joy

    There’s a great new book on this subject that I’ve been meaning to read entitled “The Mother Heart of God: Unveiling the Mystery of the Father’s Maternal Love” by Trudy Beyak. I have also personally seen a healing in my conservative and somewhat patriarchal past when I can view God as subsuming all the gender characteristics. What a great way to put it, Tony. Thank you. See book link here:http://www.amazon.com/The-Mother-Heart-God-Unveiling/dp/1455527769/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1369409974&sr=8-1&keywords=the+mother+heart+of+god

  • Thanks for the great answer. I wanted to address using Godself in language. Most of my professors at seminary use this word (they are very intentional regarding God’s gender) and I agree that it is difficult at times to do this. However, I think that having some difficulty when talking about God can make us think about what we are saying more and clarify our thoughts. Forcing ourselves to not use gendered language for God serves as a reminder of God’s otherness and awesomeness and I think that’s a good thing.

  • I have a question. Most of the time, I don’t use the word ‘God’ because it has so much baggage–especially from Old Testament images of an angry, violent god). Instead, I use Jesus’ imagery of the Father when referring to God.

    This is not really satisfactory either, because I know God could just as easily be referred to as the Mother or some other genderless or gender-inclusive term or metaphor. However, I have not found such a term.

    My question: How do you refer to God or the Father in your personal and family life? Or, perhaps more to the point, what would you recommend as a reference word for the Father?

  • Mark Kirschieper

    I really appreciate the concept of subsumption. It seems so much more rational, and truthful, than the old school de-facto concept, of transcendence. Which to me, always seemed like just a means of avoiding the topic.

  • Rob Davis

    Tony, many emergent or progressive Christians want to distance themselves from descriptions of God that other kinds of Christians see as completely legitimate. Richard Dawkins has been quoted often for saying that God is “a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, phillicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Your post – by saying that God “embodies” or “subsumes” ALL characteristics – seems to imply that these descriptions of the God(s) of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are correct. If not, how do you decide which characteristics God DOES embody or subsume, and which he/she/it does not?

    • Ric Shewell

      “megalomaniacal” is my new favorite word. Just rolls off the tongue.