Monday, July 30, 2007

Reflecting on the Gender of God, Part 2

For Part 2 of a two-part series of reflections on the gender of God, we return to the question with which we ended Part 1: 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? Because of the complexity of the question, this post will be quite a bit longer than Part 1. I hope you can find the patience wade through the details and contribute your thoughts.

Proponents of “inclusive language for God” (who shall be called inclusivists from this point forward) argue that if God is beyond gender, then it is just as appropriate to speak of God with feminine language (i.e., names, titles, metaphors, and pronouns), as it is to speak of God with masculine language.(1) Those who hold this view desire to downplay masculine language for God and employ an equal amount of feminine and gender-neutral language for God, with the aim of promoting gender equality in religious language and the Christian view of God.(2)

Opinions vary among inclusivists on how gender inclusive language for God should be employed, but some examples are needed to illustrate what this program of change would mean. Instead of referring to God exclusively as Father, worshippers may employ Father-Mother, Parent, or intersperse the references to God the Father with references to God the Mother. To avoid the exclusively masculine implications of the traditional Trinitarian titles, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, worshippers may substitute Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, or God, Christ, and Spirit, or Parent, Child, and Spirit. Finally, instead of referring to Jesus exclusively as Christ or Son of God, worshippers may employ Sophia’s Child or Holy Wisdom. Inclusivist theologians and writers have recommended numerous other creative alternatives to traditional God-language, but these suffice to show the significance of the changes they propose.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the promotion of gender equality is a legitimate concern for those forwarding the inclusivist program. All Christians can share in the desire that the church be liberated from sexism and women affirmed as equals before God and in the church. Given the record of women being caricatured and marginalized in church history, many times with the perceived blessing of God, it is understandable that inclusivists look to alter Christian God-language to help institute change. In their thinking, whether God is genderless or not, speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms projects maleness onto God. If God is perceived as male, they argue, human males will be seen as closer to God’s image than females. Such a mindset is not only wrong, but can be a source of serious detriment to women.

Even as I affirm and sympathize with the concerns of inclusivists, I believe there remains a fundamental problem with the inclusivist program that militates against its acceptance (especially by evangelicals). No matter one’s social convictions (one might even say "ideology"), Scripture is normative for providing and defining the appropriate Christian language for God. By and large, however, inclusivists regard the biblical revelation as historically and culturally limited, fallible, and in need of some correction to overcome its perceived sexism. On this basis, in practice they take the doctrine of God’s genderlessness and give it priority over the details of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. (This is not to say, of course, that inclusivists knowingly or purposefully do so, but I believe that this is the undeniable result of their theological methodology.)

For some, such a practice is not a cause for concern. Yet, for most who claim the label "evangelical" (including myself), the affirmation of Scripture's veracity and authority means that the legitimacy of language for God depends on whether such language accurately sustains the biblical picture of God. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts and motivations of inclusivists, with which I am sincerely sympathetic, it seems apparent that the inclusive language for God almost always obscures and undermines the biblical revelation.(3) As I understand revelation, God’s identity in the biblical narrative is unique and inseparable from the various masculine names, titles, and metaphors ascribed to him. To neutralize or remove this language for God from the Bible is to damage God’s unique identity and, in addition, overturn almost two thousand years of church practice.

While it is impossible for evangelicals to accept the complete agenda for inclusive language for God, I affirm that there is room to acknowledge the Bible’s feminine references to God.(4) Many of such references are similes.(5) Psalm 131:2 says, “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.” Here, an indirect simile can be inferred between God, with whom the psalmist finds rest, and the mother of a weaned child. In Isaiah 42:14, God says through the prophet, “Now like a woman in labor I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.” Here God compares his efforts to redeem his people to that of a woman in the throes birth pains. Perhaps the most explicit maternal image for God is found in Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." Here, God’s comfort for his people is compared to the tender comfort of mother to child. These are only a few of a number of other clear feminine similes for God in the Bible (see Ps. 123:2; Hosea 13:8; Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; 1 Pet. 2:2-3).

Other feminine references to God in the Bible are metaphors.(6) Moses questions God in his frustration in Numbers 11:12: “Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’?” Though Moses asks these questions about himself, the implication is that God is the one who figuratively conceived and gave birth to his people. Another birth metaphor is in Deuteronomy 32:18: “You neglected the Rock who begot you, and forgot the God who gave you birth.” Here again, God is viewed as one who gave birth to his people, Israel. In Psalm 90:2, the psalmist declares: “Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” This is another clear maternal metaphor, this time referring to God’s activity of creation. Again, these are only a few of a number of feminine metaphors for God in the Bible (see Job 38:8, 28-29; Prov. 8:1, 22-25; Isa. 45:10-11; John 3:3-8).

I should point out that none of the above feminine references to God contain feminine titles or names for God, as many inclusivists claim. For example, although there are a number of maternal references to God, he is never named “Mother God” or given the title, “Mother.” Moreover, all of the verbs in the above references have masculine grammatical gender, corresponding to the masculine titles “Lord” (Yahweh) and “God” (Elohim). This is in keeping with the fact that, although the languages of the Bible never speak of God as a sexual or gendered being, they almost uniformly utilize masculine figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.), names, and titles for God.

It has been established that God is genderless, but it is the pattern of Scripture to speak of God as though he is masculine. With these qualifications in mind, however, I believe evangelicals can and should support the careful and appropriate usage of the occasional feminine similes and metaphors provided by God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in the arenas of public and private worship and theology.

Any attempt to explain why God chose to reveal himself in Scripture through overwhelmingly masculine language will be complete speculation. Based upon the genderlessness of God, however, it may be affirmed that the Bible does not use gendered language for God because God is male or female. Instead, the Bible uses gendered language because God is personal (i.e., God certainly is not an “it”). The difficulty is that there is no way in any known human language to speak of persons without implying gender. Since human beings are the only truly personal creatures, to speak of the personal God one must use human language that implies gender. Ultimately, no matter the reasons, the only sovereign, wise, and good God of Jesus Christ reveals himself in the predominantly masculine language of Scripture.

Yet, what about the concerns of feminists and inclusivists that speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms projects maleness onto God, casting human males as more “god-like,” and resulting in serious harm to women? In response, it should be noted that the God of Scripture does not promote male dominance, injustice, or abuse of women. Although the Old Testament certainly does not provide full social equality, the progress of revelation is such that the New Testament does establish the ultimate standard of love, justice, and mutual respect for women and men.(7) Moreover, while it is obvious that men have used (and will continue to use) the perceived masculinity of God as reason for oppressing women, Christians should not reject the details of biblical revelation because of such abuses. It is far better to acknowledge and condemn such abuses as wrong, while endorsing the appropriate usage of the Bible’s revealed God-language.

In conclusion, Scripture must be normative for providing and defining the appropriate Christian language for God. While it is true that Scripture has a historical and cultural context, it remains the faithful, true, and authoritative guide for all matters of Christian faith and practice. God’s transcendent and holy nature indicates that he is without sex or gender, but this truth may not take a place of priority over the details of God’s revelation. For evangelicals, the legitimacy of any language for God depends on whether that language accurately sustains the biblical picture of God. This means it is as inappropriate to speak of God as “the man upstairs” as it is to speak of God as “Mother Sophia.” God’s identity in the biblical narrative is unique and inseparable from the various names, titles, and metaphors ascribed to him. While there is justification for the careful and occasional usage of the Bible’s feminine references to God in worship and theology, to neutralize or remove the overwhelmingly masculine language for God is not an option for those who ascribe to the sufficiency of God’s special revelation.

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(1) Consider, for example, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (New York: Crossroad, 1985); Brian Wren, What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1989); Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in a Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
(2) This view is to be distinguished from both the two exclusivist approaches: traditionalists employ exclusively masculine language for God, while radical feminists often employ exclusively feminine language for God.
(3) See the excellent work contained in the following volumes: Alvin F. Kimel, ed., Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); Donald G. Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1985); Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 191-220.
(4) For the following information on the Bible’s feminine similes and metaphors for God, I have benefited much from Cooper’s careful and fair discussion in his Our Father in Heaven, 65-90.
(5) A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by “like” or “as.” Some English similes include, “He eats like a bird,” or “She is slow as molasses.”
(6) A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two. Some English metaphors include, “You are my sunshine,” or “He is a teddy bear.”
(7) Cooper provides a skillful discussion of this truth (244-249). His conclusion is worth quoting at length: "However the disagreements about marriage and ordination turn out, there is strong consensus that the Bible generates a high view of women, considers them naturally and spiritually equal to men, insists on their well-being, and provides the foundation for healthy and just relations between the genders. Thus we come to a curious conclusion: The Bible progressively elevates the status of women as it progressively reveals God as Father. God the Father loves women and provides for them as much as men. Therefore the inclusivist charge that the Bible, especially its predominantly masculine presentation of God, promotes the devaluation and oppression of women is false" (248-249).

16 comments:

Paul Burleson said...

Emily,

What a profound and thoughtful presentation of a difficult subject. I, like you, am wanting to be true to the text on the recognition that in Christ there is no gender disqualification for Kingdom living and ministry.

I am appreciative that you have the same desire to be true to the text of scripture on the relationship of God to gender. In these two atricles you have been masterful, IMHO, in presenting the need for discussion, an openness and understanding toward some who would be militant on either extreme sides, and a clear unfearful look at the meaning of scripture and staying true to it.

In September I am doing a pastors/wives conference in Denver where I, while not speaking to this subject normally, am going to connect them to not only these articles but your blog as well. Your insights are extremely valuable to men and women in ministry in our particular time in history.

Thanks for your research and taking the time to add to the discussion on many issues around the blogworld. Well done.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Paul,

I am humbled by your commendation. Thank you.

I hesitated for a long time to join the blog world, but I have found it an immensely satisfying outlet for me as a writer, thinker, and Christian. I am grateful that others are edified as well. The Lord is very good to me and, truly, his mercies are all I have.

Grace and peace,

Emily

Debbie Kaufman said...

I agree with what Paul has said Emily. I am amazed and humbled by your diligent research and the things you write as a result. I read your comments and knew you should begin a blog and I am glad that you did.

Debbie Kaufman said...

BTW, you should know that I read your blog more than once a day so that I can drink it and take notes on some of your posts for my own personal study.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Debbie,

From the beginning, you have been a constant encouragement. I've needed it more than you know. Thank you. As a thoughtful, intelligent writer in your own right, I count your regular visits as an honor.

Grace and peace,

Emily

Laura Hicks said...

In agreement with what you have here, take note that in Genesis 1, God says "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Man has characteristics of God because we were made in his image. Using the algebra reference from part 1 which is appropriate here, God has some characteristics of man because God made man in his image. That is not to say that God is like man (in keeping with the scripture references in part 1), but that is the only way our feeble minds can relate. "His ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thougths."

It is also interesting to note that Christ referred to himself as the "Son of man" which I would love to hear your thoughts on some day. Of course, he chose to use the masculine language here and so we would naturally follow suit. He also taught us to pray using "Our Father who art in heaven." I do not consider it demeaning to femininity to refer to God the way Jesus did. However, it is tempting to attribute masculinity to God by using this language which is why it is so good to consider this topic. It allows us to KNOW God better by examining his attributes. Thanks, Emily

Tim said...

Emily,

I join the chorus of praise for your latest post!

However, there is just one thing that makes me give the: O.o

Question: Is God "genderless" or "genderfull?"

When I look to the Genesis passage, mentioned by a previous comment, I see both "male and female" created in God's image. Interesting, most people see them "individually" created in God's image. I wonder if that is a good thing to do. Granted, it makes sense given that we are in such a radically individualistic society...but, what if "they," together, were made in God's image? Could it be that both the man and woman, being together best capture what it means to be made in God's image?

Just a thought.

Tim

Paul Burleson said...

Emily,

Since we seem to be spiritually high-fiving it here, and for good reason, I would add that Laura and Tim have BOTH given some further food for thought that I will want to look into personally.

Then there is that "amen" from Debbie who is my all time favorite blogger. [Right behind a guy named Burleson, Wade that is, and a gal named Mary to whom I've been slightly attached for some years now. But third is up there to me.]

Seriously, this is all good stuff and food for research.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Laura, Tim, and Paul,

I agree that Laura's comment brings up a good point. It is one that I have considered before, but something to which the Bible speaks very little.

But, I believe that there must be some important implications from the fact that Genesis says: "So God created [humanity] in his own image, in the image of God he created [humanity]; male and female he created them." It seems clear that male and female together bear the image of God. (Side note: This teaching would have been seriously counter-cultural in the patriarchal society of the ancient near east. In the surrounding cultures, men were god-like and women were little more than animals. So, this is a tremendously liberating verse for women in any culture, let alone ancient Israel.)

That said, I'm still not sure its a good idea to use the concept of gender, whether male or female or both, when speaking of God, because God is not bound by physical bodies or human culture (both of which make up gender). So, Tim, personally I would avoid saying God is "genderfull," because, for me, it implies too much that God's nature corresponds with human constraints. I would prefer to say that God has characteristics that we recognize as being both and equally masculine and feminine (depending upon our definitions of these terms, of course). But, I will think on it some more. Perhaps I'm wrong.

What I can support, however, is the assertion that since male and female together bear God's image, then there is nothing about being either male or female that makes one more "God-like." Characteristics that humans possess, which correspond in some limited way to God's characteristics--like kindness, patience, love, etc--are shared both by males and females.

BTW: I would highly recommend Miroslav Volf's discussion of gender identity and the person of God in his Exclusion and Embrace. I think its chapter five or six.

Grace and peace to all,

Emily

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Laura,

You mentioned Jesus referring to himself as the "Son of Man." While I can't get too much into it here, I wanted to say that I think this has more to do with the scriptural and prophetic tradition behind this phrase than the humanity or manhood of Jesus. "Son of man" is used in the OT to describe Ezekiel the prophet, as well as the figure of the Ancient of Days in Daniel. Moreover, Adam was well-known as the "son of man" in literature from the intertestamental period (the 300 year time period between Malachi and Matthew). So, I think Jesus picked up on all these things in using that title for himself.

You also referenced Jesus using masculine languge for God, especially "Father." I affirm this observation and affirm that we should follow suit.
I agree that femininity is not demeaned in this usage and, really, I have no problem attributing masculine characteristics to God. The problem, I think, is when we attribute male-ness to God, or conceive of God as male. (The reverse would be a problem as well, of course. Seeing femininity in God is not an issue, but conceiving of God as female is.)

(BTW: You might think about whether it was possible for Jesus to use anything other than masculine language for God. It was his historical, religious, and cultural context, of course. And, it was the tradition of the OT. So, it seems that masculine God-language was the norm and he followed it. There are only a few exceptions: Jesus wanting to gather Jerusalem under his wings as a hen gathers her chicks.)

I appreciate your thoughtful comments very much, Laura.

Grace and peace,

Emily

Tim said...

Wow, this is a really good conversation within a comments section! I applaud all involved.

From what little bit I remember about the "Son of Man" title... Didn't it just mean "mortal?" It was generic, used of Ezekiel to just say that he was a mortal human being? Around the time Jesus was birthed by madam Mary, the title had become fairly meaningless. So, for Jesus to use it made it pregnant with potential meaning! He could define what it meant for him to be called the "Son of Man." While for him to be identified as the "Messiah" had all sorts of political overtones which he seemed to stay away from.

But then again, it's been a long time since I've thought about it.

This is probably just a personal thing with me, but I would prefer to think of God as not "lacking" anything. :-)

Now, I think there are all sorts of problems with this line of thought, but it hasn't stopped me yet. Believing that our God is "Trinitarian" in nature; I kind of understand that as perfect community. I also see that as a relationship where one can not tell where one person ends and the next begins. Understanding that this is entirely too simplified for the likes of our Mysterious Divinity, it's is still important to think about.

Now, connecting this to "Male and Female" created in God's "relational" image. Maybe it is in the relationship of the couple that God's image is most seen? Of course, understanding that this is the relationship at it's best, not at it's worse.

Part of the problem that comes up with this idea is: what do we do with those that can't be in a relationship like that? What about those people that are called to singleness? Can they never participate in the "Image" as mentioned above? Well, if we are talking in absolutes, then yes. But, since I don't like to do that, I won't. I will remember that our God is ultimate Mystery. Even though we are created in his "image," it is but an image and not the perfect representation. In the end, God can do whatever needs to be done for the Divine Will to be made perfect in someone's life.

What do you think?

Tim

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Tim,

You raise some very deep points. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

I am inclined to agree with you regarding the relationality of the Trinity. I think an essential aspect of the Trinity is perfect, loving community, which is the model for human community (once again, Miroslav Volf is outstanding on this issue).

So, as you said, when it comes to men and women together bearing the image of God, it would seem that their togetherness is part of that. But, because of your caveat about those called to remain unmarried, I would prefer to see it this way. Men and women in loving, harmonious fellowship together, not necessarily as married couples, but as people of God in the community of God, best reflect the communal, relational aspect of the image of God.

Of course, all this is essentially educated speculation, but I'll go for it anyway. :)

What do you think about this?

Grace and peace,

Emily

Tim said...

Emily,

I love it! From there we could go as far to say that the Image of God found in the relationship between the two could be extended to any type of human relationship. But, since it did say that it was "male and female" created in the image, I may be stretching it.

Ok, so another question that people don't want to ask is: What about sex? How does sexual union work in the midst of being "made in the image of God?" Does it have any thing to do with it, or nothing at all? Since I dwell in the midst of both an over-sexed culture (the secular society win which I live), and a sexually uber-restrained society (SBC life); I find it a singularly difficult question to contemplate. But, it is out there for anyone wanting to attempt it.

Tim
P.s. To stay in Dr. Ngan's good graces...don't mention my name! O.O

Nah, actually, I love the dragon. She is the best. After all, who else would I take the same class from? *cough3timescough*

Paul said...

Emily,

I admit to only skimming the comments so some of the following may have already been addressed (I'm still catching up from two weeks out and a very busy week last week).

Someone in comments said (I believe it was you) that genderless references to God do not adequately express God's personal nature. I couldn't agree more. I have friends who refer to God as "the Godself." I understand where they are coming from, but those references seem to me to diminish the personal nature of God. The solution is a different story.

The second thing I thought of was how many theologians throughout history have reminded us that all human language about God is metaphorical. We can only really talk about what God is like, and we tend to do that in anthropomorphisms. Nevertheless, it is good that we remind ourselves that even male gendered references to God in the end fall short of who God really is in himself. I think if we will keep that in mind it might help us avoid associating God with a particular gender or a particular gender with God.

Chris G. said...

Emily,

I greatly enjoyed this 2-part series - my house church group is currently struggling through this issue, and I found your words refreshingly clear-sighted and reasonable. As a group of Christians from several different backgrounds, working things out is occasionally a challenge, and it's great to read things as neatly laid out as this.

Thanks,
Chris Guin, Quincy, Mass.

Joel said...

Emily, you said: “Ultimately, no matter the reasons, the only sovereign, wise, and good God of Jesus Christ reveals himself in the predominantly masculine language of Scripture.”

I guess the notion of 'reveals himself' seems a little tricky here. Let me explain. It seems that we have two notions: (1) the way God (i.e. scripture) refers to himself as a person and (2) the way God (i.e. scripture) refers to the kind of relationship we have with him.

As far as (1) goes, it seems that the Bible uses, not predominately masculine language, but solely masculine language. However, it seems that the similes/metaphors that you mention above all fall under (2).

I believe that God has so woven creation that he uses it to help us understand him, he has accommodated us in a sense, so David calls him our shepherd, or, perhaps, our judge, or shield, or banner, or deliverer, or rock, or cave, etc. Now, do we think that God is a natural chunk of concrete? Or literally carries a rod and staff, or... you get the point. No, we don't think he is literally those things, but there is a very real sense in which he is solid/unmoving, and he comes looking for us when we stray, etc.

In the same way, it seems to me that these feminine metaphors are simply saying, 'the same way that I relied on my mother as a baby for all things, I rely on you Lord' or [Moses saying] 'Come on God! Do I look like these people's mother? You brought them about, etc.' where people are evoking language to refer to a kind of relationship as opposed to referring to God's personhood. In those instances ((1) instances that is) the Bible seems to void of feminine language even if in other instances ((2) instances that is) the language of the Bible uses something we are familiar with to help us understand the way God acts toward us or the kind of relationship he has established with us.

So, I guess what I am arguing is that the God of Jesus Christ reveals himself (in the (1) kind of way) with solely masculine language.