Is God Male?

Recently during our church’s “Enrichment Hour” (codename for adult Sunday school), I had the privilege of offering a perspective on how Christians need not be troubled by some of our more conservative believers’ insistence that the Earth is only a few thousand years old or that science and Scripture are arch enemies. I am passionate about the sciences as part of a dual-thread of revelation from God, and I’ve devoted a few entries on the mingling of science and Christianity that can be seen here and here, but these are beyond the scope of the present entry. Nevertheless, I mention my presentation because as I got going, a woman (with whom I am friends) raised her hand and informed me that she was uncomfortable with my use of masculine personal pronouns (he/his/him) for God.

I knew this issue could derail my objective and that personal pronouns for God were irrelevant to the morning’s presentation, so I apologized and said that I was merely using the terms out of convenience because using the pronoun “it” didn’t quite seem appropriate. I also acknowledged that I did not intend to reinforce the idea that God was technically male, so my female friend agreed to tolerate my choice in words, at least for the moment.

So… IS God Male?

Many people have problems with using masculine words in reference to the God of the Jews and Christians. They think the practice is sexist and reflects humanity’s prejudices and male domination far more than it reflects a divine personality. They might well be right, but if they are, I suggest it is likely because we men have screwed over our calling to be image-bearers of our Creator and failed to be good representatives of what it means to be masculine. However, it must also be pointed out that, as per Genesis 1.27,  women are every bit as much created in God’s image as men, and therefore male-ness has never been the full expression of God’s character or personality, and that is true even if human maleness could live up to its full potential or be perfectly expressed. Given that fact, maybe we should all be a little uncomfortable with using masculine personal pronouns for God.

Even so, throughout Christian Scripture, the core, divine character is consistently depicted with masculine terms (Father, Son, Son of Man, etc., as well as masculine personal pronouns “he, his, him”). Even the term, “god,” is itself masculine (consider its feminine counterpart: goddess). I believe that the Bible’s various authors were responding to the pronouns, names and titles that God used for himself and thus perpetuated the use of those referents because they were useful to human understandings, cultures and limitations. I believe that God used masculine terms to communicate something about himself in a way that his gender-saturated humans could relate to and understand. This also played upon structures of power and strength that were reflected (even if to a pathetic degree) amongst those humans. It is precisely because the various authors of the Bible used these terms that I have no personal problem using them myself. This very paragraph is a testimony to my own use of male pronouns and nouns concerning the core, divine personality within Christianity.

HOWEVER, it must surely be said that, as with any analogical language, there are limits to the usefulness and accuracy of the analogy. As such, it is a mistake to presume that God is defined by human understandings of gender and physicality.  God is NOT a man. He  is NOT the “Man in the Sky,” or “The Man Upstairs.” He does not have the physical, sexual equipment that human males are created with, and our human languages’ inclusion of gender-specific referents to talk about God fail to fully encompass who our Creator is and what “he” is like  in “his” essence. Christians must acknowledge this if we ever hope to move past the failings of ourselves and our language.

Since our own language can only speak or write of characters and things in terms of he/she/it, perhaps “he” is the best personal pronoun we have for God. Well, at least perhaps it was the best we could do for God in some previous contexts. As I said before, it certainly wouldn’t do to use the pronoun “it” to describe our creator, especially since that particular moniker indicates an inanimate object or lower life-form (like a mosquito).

Alternatively, he/him/his/Father is likely not always the best Christians can do in all contexts at all times everywhere when it comes to describing the central divine character in the biblical text. Consider a woman who has been abused by various men, be they a father, brother, uncle, son, teacher, law-enforcement official or yes, a male clergy member, etc. Is the church’s insistence on using male terms for God really going to be the best analogical language for such a woman to be forced into hearing and using? I suggest that the answer is “no,” and that our choice of pronouns for God ought to be aware of (and sensitive to) the needs of individual humans and their individual stories, especially when those stories involve broken, misguided and frankly embarrassing manifestations of perverted, violent and destructive masculinity. I would rather an infinite number of women hear of and refer to YHWH as “she/her” or “Goddess” if it meant removing a roadblock in understanding who YHWH is and/or if this freed them from the burden of associating YHWH with the abusive, bigoted and generally loathsome men that they have come to fear or hate. If that’s what people hear when we say “he” in reference to God, then maybe I/we should think twice before we make a presentation to a diverse constituency merely using masculine terms for God “out of convenience.”

Thanks for reading me.

-C. Lambeth

Advertisements

About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
This entry was posted in Feminism, Questions for Christians, Sexuality, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Is God Male?

  1. Pingback: God, the Father | Exploring Faith

  2. Jim Bayan says:

    Are you suggesting that anyone who talks about God should first take a poll of his audience to find out what pronouns are offensive, and then avoid using them? I don’t know how practical that is.

    And don’t you think that pandering to the whims of an audience’s preferences and or trying to make sure that the Gospel is not in any way offensive is effectively watering it down or making its truth content irrelevant or at least secondary to the desires of individuals rather than God?

    • C_Lambeth says:

      Jim,
      Thank you for your questions. What I am suggesting is that familiar terms we find convenient when talking about God may be exceptionally INconvenient when it comes to helping others understand God. Do we need to take a poll? I don’t think it would necessarily hurt, but again, what I am suggesting is that we take care not to limit how we refer to God to male-only language. We would make the same mistake in the opposite direction if we only referred to God with female or gender neutral verbiage. God is inclusive of all these (and other) descriptors, but ultimately transcends them all. However we refer to God, our language will have major deficiencies. I just think we should acknowledge this, and if someone, like the woman at our church’s Enrichment Hour, finds male pronouns for God unhelpful, then why would I ignore this and press on as if she never expressed herself? At that point it seems to me that I would be working against Jesus, rather than for him.

      This is not “pandering.” This is refusing to be offensive for the wrong reasons. If a person takes offense at the fact that Jesus was fully a human male (just as he was fully God), then that is their problem. However, if they are offended because we Christians refuse to acknowledge that it is merely a concession to the limitations of human language and gender experience when we only refer to God as “the Father” or only with male personal pronouns, then that is OUR problem (and a problem for the church).

      I hope that helps. Thank you for your engagement.
      -CL

  3. Josiah Black says:

    First, I really enjoyed this reflective exercise! Definitely worth thinking about. A couple things come to mind.

    1. I think it is of note to this conversation that the words used to describe the Holy Spirit in the original Hebrew were feminine in nature. The creation of the Septuagint saw the introduction of a gender neutral term to describe the Holy Spirit.

    2. Jesus is male. Defintively, eternally a human male. Although, I have to wonder if the decision to manifest a male was motivated by promise already made for a male King. Had that not been part of the deal, could “the Son” have just as easily been “The Daughter”. I think so.

    3. Honestly, I think the use of gendered language is probably a concession on God’s part to help us better comrephend who he is. Additionally, all of the Old Testament probably existed as oral accounts long before anyone put it down on paper in written language. We don’t experience language in the absence of written language. Who knows how concepts of gender were communicated prior to the written word. What we do know, is that Scripture is God’s effort to communicate with us. Perhaps concepts like gendered language are concessions He has made in order to put Himself into terms we can possibly comprehend. I certainly concur that his maleness, or lack thereof, is nothing like our human conception of male and female. Perhaps refering to himself as male is an intentional parallel to the Adam and Eve story, not in terms of a value statement, but in terms of the reality that Adam was the first born within creation. God is the preminent being over all existence and beyond.

    4. In response to Jim (and I concede that while I type this there may have been more posts), I’m [not] sure Corbin ever advocated for anything as dramatic as a pronoun check. It would seem to me that he was merely suggesting that, when possible, we think about the effects of the way we communicate. Jesus was a deliberate communicartor. He didn’t say the same thing every time, in every situation, but the message was consistent. He was very concious of who he was speaking to, so why in the world would the suggestion that we do the same ever “water down” the Gospel?

  4. acetheist says:

    Kudos to the woman who raised her hand. That takes a lot of guts, and I respect her for it.

  5. Pingback: God, the Trinity | Exploring Faith

  6. Pingback: God, the Holy Spirit | Exploring Faith

Leave a reply. Respondents who do not honor the spirit of legitimate & friendly dialogue may find their posts unapproved, edited or removed at any time. You are free to disagree passionately, but not inappropriately.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s