Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reflecting on the Gender of God, Part 1

What follows is Part 1 of a two-part series of my reflections on the gender of God. This issue is one that I researched at length at the beginning of the summer as part of a writing project for Harvest House. Also, it has been a subject of discussion with not a few of the Christian women with whom I serve every week in Fairfield. I do not claim to have reached the conclusion on the matter, for it is an exceedingly complex issue theologically, hermeneutically, and missionally, but I hope that the presentation of my thoughts may produce some interesting discussion.

While never a major issue in the past, the proliferation of feminist theologies in the latter half of the twentieth century has caused the question of God’s gender to become a matter of some debate. Radical feminist Mary Daly shocked the world with her blunt pronouncement: “If God is male, then male is God.”(1) She used this assertion to support her endeavor not only to de-throne “God the Father,” but also to discredit Christianity in its entirety as an evil, oppressive religion.

Despite her militant feminist ideology, which evangelicals cannot support, Daly’s challenge is of great consequence. Few matters are as important as how one conceives and speaks of the God of Jesus Christ. Many contemporary feminists affirm Daly’s supposition that the male God of Christianity can never liberate women, so it is prudent for evangelicals to seek to provide a thoughtful and biblical response to her challenge.

Is the God of Christianity male? Two matters contribute to an answer of this question: the nature of gender and the nature of God. Although debates continue over the full definition and origin of gender, there is universal agreement that, at the very least, gender is based upon one’s physical body and one’s cultural environment. From a biological standpoint, the human body carries the permanent marks of belonging either to the male or female sex. Genesis testifies that God designed human beings as a distinctly male and female in their physical bodies (Gen. 2:21-25). There are rare times when these marks are mixed or obscured, but such exceptions are few and they reinforce the norm. As a result, men and women’s gender identities are grounded in and limited by the permanent details of their sexed bodies.

From a sociological standpoint, human beings with sexed bodies develop their gender identities from within a specific culture. This accounts for the way in which notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” vary in cultures over time and space. In one sense, such notions of are fixed, as cultural expectations for gender become embedded in economic, political, and cultural practices. In another sense, though, notions of gender can be fluid, able to be influenced and altered through changes in culture and subcultures. As a result, gender identity has some flexibility depending upon cultural contexts, but ultimately the distinctions of the male and female bodies provide a foundation of stability.

With this basic understanding of the nature of gender, it seems apparent that God, having neither a sexed body nor a human culture, cannot have a gender. Yet, does the testimony of Scripture support this conclusion? Although the Bible often speaks of God in masculine terms and even figuratively describes him as having body parts, God is never said to have reproductive organs (as Baal and other gods have). God has no female god as a counterpart, and he does not produce the world through procreation, but through his spoken word. Moreover, John 4:24 testifies, “God is spirit.” An implication of this verse is that God, being holy and transcendent, has no body, and exists as a being wholly outside the realm of creaturely existence. Because sexuality and gender are characteristics of bodily creatures, then God cannot have gender.

Moreover, some biblical texts specifically warn against identifying God with human males and females.(2) Numbers 23:19 warns that “God is not a man [ish: male human], that He should lie, nor a son of man [adam: human], that He should repent.” Hosea 11:9b is similar: “For I am God, and not man [ish], the Holy One in your midst.” In speaking of the righteous nature of God’s character, both texts prohibit thinking of God as a man. The clearest teaching on this subject is Deuteronomy 4:15-16: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.”

In this way, imaging God as male or female is considered idolatry, suggesting strongly that the biblical tradition is against attributing gender to God. Despite the fact that Scripture often uses language for God that is suitable for a masculine person, God is not like a human male in his form or character.

Establishing the genderlessness of God does not counter Mary Daly’s initial challenge, however. If it is almost universally agreed that the Christian God is beyond gender, then does it follow that both masculine and feminine language should be used to speak of God? We will consider this question in Part 2.

(1) Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 19.
(2) For these observations, I am indebted to John W. Cooper’s discussion of the biblical evidence for God’s genderlessness in Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 182-187.


Tim said...

I believe this is a good conversation to have over and again. I also look forward to your thoughts on God and Language.

It is always nice to see one's starting point. The assumptions are always good to be aware of, for our arguments rise and fall in how they are grounded.

I particularly like the straw "man" (sorry, I couldn't help it) phrase of "If God is male, then male is God," put forth by Mary Daly. It seems to make sense, like: if A = B, and B = C, then A must = C. Looks like good Algebra to me. However, when we notice that God exists as Other, even outside of our ideas of rational thought, then we see that even our best logic and rationalization don't do he/she/it justice.

Hm.... "he/she/it." That just doesn't sound good does it. I mean, I could have just inserted "God" there, in the midst of that nasty, ungangly, run-on sentence. But, I wanted some sort of personal pronoun. After all, I'm supposed to be in a personal relationship with her/him/it...right?

Wow, language is so important! I tried to not use any personal pronouns for God one semester in Seminary. It left me feeling as if God was so far away from me. God was always God, way up there, always so abstract and never personal.

The one time I used "he/she/it" in Dr. Ngan's class, I thought she was going to kill me. Granted, I'm pretty sure she may have had thoughts of murder on more than just one occasion.

I tried to call God "she" for a while, but I guess that I'm too enmeshed with my mother. I mean, I started to associate God with all things that brought horrible guilt into my life. Scripture began to take on this nagging quality about it. I was just never good enough... Ah! It was almost traumatizing to some extent. The "mother" figure is so huge, so symbolic, linguistic. All of it is...Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, He, She. All of those words come with so much baggage.. And yet, how are we going to refer to this very personal, interactive deity?

I know God didn't birth me. I'm created. I have no seed (sperm anyone?) of divinity within me. I'm a creature, created of the same stuff as the random amoeba. Yet, I want to be able to call this Divinity by something, even that of "abba."

As I said before, I look forward to your post on how we use our language to refer to her/him/it.

Tim Dahl

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate you stopping by again.

I share your consternation about how to speak of our God who is beyond language. Even after writing Part 2, I'm not sure I'm satisfied. I would guess that you will not be satisfied either. Strangely, though, I think I'm ok with that for now.

I tried a similar experiment of avoiding pronouns for God (I wasn't brave enough to try feminine pronouns. Good for you!) and had the same reaction you did. Our God is personal, right? But just repeating "God" and "God's self" over and over seemed to make our personal God into an abstract concept. I'd almost prefer to continuously rotate the titles and proper names of God rather than do that, but even that would get old.

By the way, I've received my fair share of correction from Dr. Ngan for using "him" and "his" in her class. She was clear that she preferred non-gendered language and I complied when I could remember.

Its funny, isn't it, that we are exhorted to pray, to preach, to speak of and to God. Yet, doing so thoughtfully produces so many complicated questions. For me, it is a good reminder of how small I am compared to the enormity of God.

Thanks again, Tim.

Grace and peace,


Laura said...

This conversation is very beneficial. I just had a conversation about the gender (or lack of gender) of God a few months ago. This is eye-opening. Thanks.