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.