The Gender of God, Part 1

genderEarlier this week, I touched on the issue of the gender of God. I pointed out that both male and female were created in God’s image, that God encompasses and is beyond all specifcation of gender. As he is beyond our understanding, he is beyond all of our classifications. I also mentioned that I use the English language convention of using masculine pronouns for God, which is more about the failings of gendered English than the actual identity of God. This topic of the gender of God has caused a bit of a fascination in me, especially after I found an article on Christian Post defending the masculine gender of God. It is this article that I want to discuss today.


Stereotyping God

Which stereotypes goes God have?

I pointed out that Genesis has both man and woman created in God’s image. In the Christian Post article, some of the further images associated with God, pointing out that there are many “feminine” adjectives used to describe God. For instance:

“To claim, as many feminist theologians do, that the very presence of masculine metaphors for God excludes women simply does not square with the way Scripture uses them. Masculine images of God do not always convey exclusively “masculine” qualities. For example, Isaiah 54:5–7 refers to God as the Husband who with “deep compassion” (a stereotypically “feminine” quality) called estranged Israel back to himself (see also Isa. 49:13). The term father, then, excludes not feminine qualities, but rather the idea of a distant and impersonal deity, which is precisely the picture of the supreme being still seen in many primal religions.”

This defense may sound true, especially if you are steeped in patriarchal definitions of behavior. As this quote points out, some virtues are “stereotypically feminine.” But the question really should be, why are they? That is a question for an entirely different post, but it is relevant here because of what it says about the defenders of God’s masculine gender. Their defense is based on a stereotype of both genders. The fact that God encompasses both stereotypes points to his transcendence of gender entirely, not his belonging to one or the other.

What is most important is that God is personal. The language of gender may be an attempt to bridge the gap between an impersonal creator and a personal, loving God, but is it really necessary to do in these terms? The fact is, there is much we do not understand about God and we never will. Anthropomorphising him at all is detrimental to us in that it associates God too much with human qualities. The term “parent” coupled with adjectives like “loving, caring, compassionate,” and others also bridges the gap between distance and us. So why do we not use that?

Jesus Said “Our Father”

Now, one problem for gender neutral terminology for God is the fact that Jesus does indeed call God his “Father.” The article on Christian Post says this:

“God is first and foremost the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not an invention of later church leaders, but comes directly from Christ, who refers to God as “Father.” In doing so, Jesus reveals a unique relationship between the Father and Son that constitutes the beginning of the Trinitarian doctrine.”

Does this actually pose a problem? In fact, I think it just strengthens the argument the God is gender neutral. In the case of Jesus, God is in fact his father by nature of his birth. Christ had a mother in the Virgin Mary and his father was God. Simply for the sake of accuracy, Jesus would have to call God his father because he had a female mother.

Here, God acted in a way that humans understand as being gendered. But he did it in such a way that it did not actually require him to be part of one gender or another. God did not come down to earth to have sex with Mary. She remained a virgin because God is not like a human man. He is God, so he avoided all of the necessities of gender by conceiving Christ in a mystical, mysterious fashion. Once again, God transcends gender.

Adopted Children of God

The article goes on:

“Jesus taught his disciples to call God “our heavenly Father.” Therefore, the loving relationship he has with the Father from eternity now extends to those adopted into God’s family (Rom. 8:15). The father-son relationship is the most intimate personal relationship, one marked by reciprocal love and respect, and it is God’s supremely personal and loving nature that the term father is meant to underscore.”

The point is not the gender of God as a parent, but the fact that there is a parent at all.

I completely agree that the parent-child relationship that Jesus has with God now extends to us. We are the Children of God by virtue of our acceptance of Christ, our following of his example, and his redeeming crucifixion. But why is the father-son relationship the most intimate personal relationship? Why is that the model for our relationship with Christ? How does that not exclude the female gender and the daughter-father relationship? Or any other daughter relationship, for that matter?

The fact is that it does exclude women in the relationship with God by prioritizing a masculine relationship with God over any other. That is not God’s fault. Rather, it is the fault of those teachers who have prioritized men over women in the Church for centuries. Unfortunately, the article defeats its own point with this particular argument, which reveals more about the presuppositions of the author than it does God.

The fact is that any parent-child relationship could underscore the personal, loving nature of God equally well. The masculine gender and the designation of father has no monopoly on personal relationships. No matter what gender we are, God is our parent. We have that personal relationship with him. And we can have that relationship no matter what gender we ascribe to him. Remember, gendering God is a shorthand for us, not the true designation of an incomprehensible, transcendent God.

So Why Do It?

God transcends our human conceptions of gender. Time and time again, the Bible shows us just how little the gender of God matters. Not only are both men and women created in his image, allowing him to encompass both in his own person, but he acted in a manner that transcended gender when he participated in the conception of Christ. Jesus calls God father because he already has a mother and God did act in the role of father during conception. But the fact that Mary is Ever-virgin means he did so in a way that transcends our understandings of gender.

So why do we continue to assign gender to God? I have already mentioned that I use the conventions of the English language, but it is possible to avoid most gendered references to God. Father can be substituted with Parent and the relationship is still clear. I have no clear remedy to gendered pronouns because I am a native English speaker and I do not naturally understand gender-neutral pronouns. Other languages have neutral pronouns. Latin, for instance, which I studied has both singular and plural neutral pronouns. But English fails on this point.

There is a lot more that I want to discuss regarding this topic and the article from Christian Post. This is only the first part of the discussion. Tomorrow, I will continue to discuss the gender of God in part 2.

The Christian Post article “Why We Call God ‘Father'”

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