God-Talk and Gender

My friend Karin has embraced her freedom from writing papers by raising some thought provoking points about God-talk on my last post. Specifically, she raised the point that I had used male pronouns in describing God, which can be very problematic in today’s culture. Fair game, and a great point to be raised.

God-talk (that is, speaking about God) is notoriously difficult. God is somehow Other; he is so far beyond our ways of thinking and understanding that it is actually difficult to say anything intelligible at all about… Him? Her? It? You see, already my human language conventions provoke me to provide a pronoun in my God-talk. And every time that I tie God to one of my human conceptions, I shrink my ability to understand God. I make God somehow more like me; somehow more tame and easy to handle.

God is in fact so difficult to talk about intelligibly that many advocate something called apophatic theology in which we speak of God only in negation. For example, instead of saying “God is good,” we say that “God is not evil.” This solves many problems with nailing God down (no pun intended) to certain concepts that are insufficient, while embracing the mysterious and mystical nature of loving an invisible God.

At the same time, Jesus somehow made the invisible, ineffable, indescribable God real and near to us. The second person of the Trinity became a male human being and, amongst other things, revealed something of the invisible God to us in flesh and blood. So, in talking about Jesus it would seem to be perfectly normal to use masculine pronouns. Jesus also called God “Father,” something that must be recognized in dealing with issues of God and gender. (I won’t develop this any further here, but if someone wants to talk more about it, the comments are open and there’s always more posts to write.)

Then there’s the Holy Spirit. Or is that simply Holy Spirit? Here comes a little bit of exegesis and semantics. Most occurrences of pneumatos hagiou are lacking the definite article, so an excellent case can be made for a simple address to Holy Spirit. That being said, in context, the the is kind of implied. The biblical writers were familiar with many spirits, so when people saw spirit, they asked, “which one?” The Bible is saying “the holy one,” so the the here can also be understood as saying that the Holy Spirit is the (as in, the only) spirit that is holy. However, I think that this latter stuff is not as relevant for today, so I would definitely advocate dropping the the in referring to Holy Spirit. Now, as to Holy Spirit being feminine, I think that I’ll just refer interested people to the comment I made on the last post. And one last pet peeve: everyone stop using the pronoun it to refer to Holy Spirit!

In all this talk about gender in our discourse, there’s an underlying current of presentism; the notion that today is better than yesterday. In some ways this is true, but in all? Particularly when placing ourselves within the 2000 year history of Christianity, we see great men and women of faith consistently refer to God with the pronouns “he” and “him.” One thing that I’m worried about in eliminating this pronoun from our Christians discourse is that it will alienate us from great heroes of the faith who have so much to offer us. I find this myself as I read many Christian classics which are far from gender-inclusive. If we move towards gender-inclusive language ourselves, can we teach people at the same time to not be prejudiced against those in the past who did not? If we can’t, we’re losing out big time.

Finally, I am intrigued by Karin’s suggestion that we simply eliminate any pronouns in our God-talk and stick to the nouns. While this will seem stylistically awkward at first, I can’t help but think that it might have a humbling effect on our God-talk. To see my ruminations next to a meager pronoun gives me a dangerous casualness and flippancy, but seeing what I have to say about the God who is so wholly Other right next to God’s proper name (see, I wanted to put a pronoun there!) gives me a little dose of healthy fear and trembling. So, beyond the gender wars, I think there are excellent theological reasons to drop pronouns from our God-talk. We should come face to face with the name of God every time we speak about God. God is not someone to be approached lightly, and our talk about God should always be as humble as possible.

These thoughts are, like me, a work in progress. What do you think? I think that in this, as in all things, we are in desperate need of God’s help. So, God, help us.

11 responses to “God-Talk and Gender”

  1. Thanks for this post Matt, I am thoroughly enjoying this dialogue, (its almost like you are back at house group…. sniffle, tear).

    I am intrigued by apophatic theology, it seems very open to the indescribable nature of the One we name ‘God’.

    In reference to Jesus’ naming of God as ‘Father’: I suppose I have come to weigh my thoughts of this naming around Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom. The father is the one through whom inheritance came, signifying that we inherit the Kingdom from ‘The Father’ as children of the Most High.

    Also, the naming of ‘the Father’ could be seen as a reference to the intrinsic relationship of a father and son, that the seed of life flows down from the father through the son; a living on through descendants. An example of this can be the covenant through Abraham and Sarah, where through descendants, the covenant lives on with the same seed, nature and commitment from which it originated.

    ‘Holy Spirit’ does seem to be neglected in most commentary on ‘God-speak’, hey? I think that the consideration of the feminine Hebrew word for Holy Spirit is important mostly to realize that not only male words have been traditionally used to name The Divine. I don’t think it would be necessary to suggest female pronouns be used for Holy Spirit, but maybe a pronoun drop is in order here as well.

    Your comments on the tradition of Christian discourse raise issues that I haven’t really considered thoroughly. But here are my initial thoughts: I can’t say I believe that in changing our language we will be cutting off our relationship with historic Christian expression, nor do I believe that we should go through the writings of the past to pc-ify them. I think that we must embrace and understand the perspective, vision, relational expression and revelation of our Christian heritage, but do so in realization of the incompleteness of human expression and the relational nature of how The Divine reveals The Divine’s self.

    Well, that is enough from me for now, I think it may be time to enjoy the miraculously beautiful weather.

  2. hmmm, yes, good discussion, good memories.

    Good reflections on the significance of Jesus referring to God as Father. Whatever the significance may be for whether or not we call God a “him,” you’ve certainly gotten to the heart of the matter: it’s about intimate relationship, which is mind-boggling when we hold that together with the incomprehensible Other-ness of God.

    Still, we haven’t gotten anywhere on talking about how and if Jesus’ mode of addressing God is pertinent to us today…

  3. Quick thoughts from Ariah…

    Great discussion first of all. This is an area I’m not particularly well versed in, so I won’t be chiming in with much Biblical knowledge. I think Karin mentioned this, earlier (or someone did) about the idea of needing to make sense in our culture.

    I think honestly, more importantly then staying true to the pronoun of the original Greek, we need to keep in mind the context and shape of our current society. I don’t think this diminishes the truth of the text at all.
    We all agree God does not have a gender, yet a traditional view of using “He” constantly conveys to our society at large that God clearly does have a gender, and in conveys a patriarchal, sexist religion as well (not all the time, but often). If calling God “she”, only calling “God” (no pronoun) or choosing something else is what works best to convey the truths of scripture to our culture, then I say that’s what we go with.

    (full disclosure: all that being said, I still use male pronouns constantly for God, and I haven’t ever made much of an effort to change. Maybe that’s a bad thing).

  4. Hey Ariah

    Thanks for chiming in. I agree that we don’t want to be portraying God as merely male, nor to endorse the patriarchalism that has so often gone hand-in-hand with Christianity. I’m thinking that this is even more about our lived lives as a community of Jesus-followers, even if our language still matters a lot.

    I think that seeing a community of Jesus-followers where men and women treat each other with respect will do more to dispel the myth that Christianity = patriarchalism than just our language use.

  5. indie, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I agree that having a fuzzy theology which implies God as “male” is unfortunate and should be avoided. And you’re absolutely right that context matters.

  6. Ariah said: “We all agree God does not have a gender, yet a traditional view of using “He” constantly conveys to our society at large that God clearly does have a gender, and in conveys a patriarchal, sexist religion as well (not all the time, but often).”

    I agree with what Ariah said here. I don’t think that we should waste our time going back and rewriting everything that was written. I think that adding a preface to older works may become necessary as our culture moves further away from an understanding of the male as generic. In times past, I think that readers could more easily jump between generic uses of the male verses specific, but our language no longer works that way.

    The easiest thing is to repeat the name “God” in place of the pronoun. I may sometimes use “she” or “mother”, but I do pick and choose my audience. The point is to make things clearer for the audience not to upset people. So I don’t pray to Mother God in the presence of my grandmother, for example. A good solution in our society for the “Father” thing is to substitute “parent”. I’m not really opposed to using father but we need to not have a fuzzy theology that implies that God is male. Unfortunately, many people *do* think that God is male.

  7. I just happened upon your Blog site after a discussion with our interim pastor. She has brought the idea of inclusive, non-gender language into our congregation and we have quite a stir going on at this moment. I am not, in any way, a good Bible student. I thank the interim pastor for raising the questions in my mind and heart and to be more sensitive in my “God-talk” during corporate worship time. However, my biggest issue in this whole thing is taking a God that is all powerful, and is the Head of a Trinity, and bringing “God” down to our level by worrying about the masculine pronoun of God offending us enough to not worship with others, and maybe even not coming to salvation through Christ the “Son”. Now, I understand that I can’t hope to truly identify with some one who has had a bad relationship with a male figure in his or her life. I also know that this is a generalization. I do see us as showing our own fragile humanness by being selfish to bring God down to our playing field, rather than rising up to find an intimate, spiritual relationship with Him. Sorry about the male pronoun. Thanks for the time.

  8. Thanks for your comment Tom. Any increase of awareness that this can be a sensitive issue is a positive step, even if we don’t all agree on solutions.

    My current thoughts are that what we need to continue to emphasize that God transcends male and female gender categories, no matter if we Christianity has traditionally ascribed masculine pronouns to … Him? (see, that definitely calls for a pronoun)

    I do still tend towards using the masculine pronoun myself, if for no other reason than that it is Christian tradition to do so.

  9. What pronoun to use when talking about, or of, GOD certainly could be construed as a weak attempt to change the focus away from GOD and onto something that is not GOD.

    Is it too strong a concept to make the statement that Satan might revel in this change of focus? One has to but remember that Satan’s whole purpose is to have us take our eye off GOD. In creating what might appear as a worthy discourse about how to address the person of GOD, we quite clearly move from looking at GOD as the Creator, to ‘god’ the thing. What do we call ‘It’?

    Bringing this point to light in and of itself makes the discussion more cumbersome. Now the focus is on the discussion, and we find ourselves one more step away from GOD. Could it be that to have the discussion is to prove the point?

    For whatever reason, we find that we have a convention for addressing the concept of the Creator of the Universe. It might behoove us to bow to the convention and spend our time in discourse WITH GOD, not about GOD. Just a thought…..

  10. One quick question that I have come up with as I have been researching this topic of YHWH’s gender/genderlessness. Looking at Numbers 11:12 and Galatians 4:19, could it be said that all of the feminine references to YHWH do not necessarily denote YHWH’s femininity? After all, Moses was definitely male but he speaks of YHWH asking him to carry Israel in his arms, as a nurse carries an infant. And Paul, also definitely male, says that he is in the pains of childbirth for the “children” of the church in Galatia. Could I get some responses to this question? THanks and YHWH bless!

  11. @Megan I’m not quite sure what you’re driving at here, but let’s see if this helps: passages using feminine analogies to speak of God are just that: analogies. These analogies are human attempts to understand God, who definitely has no gender, in terms that we can understand. Passages that speak of God’s feminine characteristics do not make God female any more than passages that speak of male characteristics make God male. God is beyond gender, but as gendered creatures, we always have to speak of the unspeakable God in familiar terms.

    The feminine passages help us to ask this kind of question: “Most passages speak about God in male-oriented ways, but some in feminine ways. Is God male, female, or neither?” The answer, of course, is neither. I hope that helps.

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