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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