Yesterday, I broached the subject of the gender of God, a topic that has fascinated me recently. I am primarily responding to an article from the Christian Post, titled “Why We Call God ‘Father.'” If you want to read it, re-read it, or skim it, here’s a link to follow. If it shows up behind a paywall, just search the title and it comes up on Google. You won’t have to pay if you click that link.
To recap slightly, yesterday I discussed how assigning gender to God creates stereotypes of him based on our own human stereotypes of men and women. In that way, we anthropomorphise God in a way that is inconsistent with his transcendent nature. The argument is that calling him “father” personalizes our relationship with him, but the term “parent” does that equally well and avoids gendering God at all. I also discussed the sexism in the assumption that the father-son relationship is the most intimate relationship possible. This argument came out of the fact that Christ called God father, which I point out is appropriate for him to do since that is what God actually is to him. However, despite the fatherly actions that God took to lead to Christ’s conception, he did them in an asexual way, an unusual way that left Mary a virgin and defied any normative associations of gender.
The article tackles the concept that some people have of God as a mother. It ties that concept explicitly to the doctrine of creation.
“[T]he father metaphor points to God as the Creator (e.g., Isa. 64:8; Mal. 2:10) “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:15). Father captures in one word two seemingly contrasting characteristics: God’s love for his creatures and his lordship over all creation. Here again, we see the difference between Israel and ancient Near Eastern cultures. In the Judeo-Christian faith, God the Father created the world as something separate from himself, whereas in Near Eastern societies, the mother metaphor pictures the mother-goddess giving birth to the world (which makes it an extension of the deity’s body). Calling God Motherundermines the Christian doctrine of creation by implying that God and the world are made of the same stuff and virtually indistinguishable. So, we need Father in order to get to the right doctrine of creation.”
There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly, it assumes that only the term “father” carries with it the weight of authority. It talks about love and lordship, but it does not explain why the masculine noun is the only one associated with those two concepts. I will not argue about love, as that would be an insult to fathers everywhere. But either there is a concrete reason that proves that only fathers have “lordship” like authority, or there is not. No reason is offered and no argument can be offered. This is a sexist reading of power and familial relationships that completely discounts the authority of a mother.
There is also a problem with the comparison between the Judeo-Christian faith and other Near Eastern societies. In reality, the argument over the gender of God is one happening within the boundaries of Judeo-Christian faith, not between different religious traditions. While other religious cultures may have their own views, they are not a part of this particular argument. Including them here is a red herring.
For me, the most egregious part of this argument, however, is the charactierization of motherhood. This argument would hold that children are no more than an extension of a mother’s body (note the parantheses in the paragraph) and are “made of the same stuff and virtually indistinguishable.” This argument is directly contradicted by Christian beliefs about the nature of unborn children, who are held to be distinct persons from their mother. This is part of the rationale for the pro-life movement. Either a child is distinct stuff and is defiinitely distinguishable from the mother, or they are not. The logic must be consistent. So here we have two competing views of mothers and children within the same belief system. Which one is correct?
There is also a subtle insult to fathers in this argument. To hold that fathers are not of the same stuff and are distinguishable creates a gap between fathers and children that does not exist. Fathers contribute not only to the creation of children, but to their “stuff.” I think most fathers would be insulted by the inference that they are not as connected to their children as the mother is. Furthermore, this argument creates a gap in the personal relationship we are supposed to have with God as a father. If God is a father, and fathers are so dinstinct from their children, then how personal exactly is the relationship? Overall, there are too many contradictions between this argument and other Christian beliefs for it to stand.
There may be an impersonal quality to the term creator, nevertheless that is whay God is. He is our creator. If you want to personalize that relationship and avoid sexist, contradictory arguments, the best term available is parent. Not only does it include the authority of both parents equally, but it retains the personal relationship that exists between parents and children. Not only is it gender neutral, but it is effective. Arguably more effective than any gendered noun could be.
At this point, I want to emphasize just what is at stake in this conversation about the gender of God. This is not a simple argument. In fact, I personally feel that I have dealt so superficially with it so far that it’s almost laughable. But it is one of the most important types of discourse in theology and one of the most ignored. What is really going on is not just a fight between feminism and patriarchy or inclusion and exclusion. The argument is really about our understanding of God.
While there is great value in the personal nature of God, it should not be emphasized at the expense of his transcendence. Talking about God is like a thimble trying to empty the ocean. We are so incapable of understanding God’s nature that we are laughable. That has allowed many people to use God for their own means. He has been used to further the authority of a patriarchal society and exclude and dominate minority groups. That is not what God is. We are not just arguing about gender. To a certain extent, we are arguing about the objectivity of God when it comes to how he relates to humanity.
What About the Trinity?
The article brings up a good point about what a gender neutral concept of God could do to the Trinity.
“Christians make a similar claim when they say that the name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is unique and proper to the God they worship. By using this divine name in its liturgy, the church is saying that this story, and no other, creates and shapes her unique identity as the people of Jesus Christ. A generic name, even with many descriptive adjectives, does not adequately distinguish the Christian identity from the Muslim one. Jews or Muslims could just as well say that they worship a God who is gracious, compassionate, holy, and so on. Adjectives could be endlessly multiplied, but they don’t add up to the name of the Trinity. Muslims may even acknowledge a special relationship in identifying Jesus as a prophet of God. But only the Christian church can confess to worshiping the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When divine fatherhood is muted, the church loses her distinct identity.”
I agree that the Trinity is a defining characteristic of Christian identity. I also believe that to a certain extent, the concept of God the Father should be kept in this context. Simply put, God is Jesus’ father. In the Trinity, these names refer as much to the relationships between the three persons as they do to the persons themselves.
What I would argue here is not to change the verbage, but to change how it is taught. If God can transcend the concept of individuality by being three, and at the same time transcend polytheism by being one, then he is perfectly capable of transcending conceptions of gender. God is a father, a mother, and neither. He is beyond comprehension. It should be emphasized that the language we use to refer to God is not his actual category, but a shorthand for our limited human understanding. In that way, the core concept of the Trinity can be kept as is, but be expanded to include the gender neutrality of God.
This small treatment of the gender of God is only a primer to the discussion that exists. Many people probably have never thought about the topic seriously, but it is worth a close examination. It has implications far beyond cultural change. It goes straight to the heart of doctrine about the nature and person of God.
Importantly, it also reveals the biases that we already hold. Patriarchal conceptions of authority are entrenched in the Christian faith. But should they be? And is there any actual rational argument for it to be that way? Theological and textual examinations of the Bible are “discovering” the role of women in the early church and revealing that they have been minimized by subsequent generations. Some of the old arguments about the roles of men in the church will necessarily have to change in accordance with the evidence. So, too, will our discussion of God and gender overall.
Right now, no conclusion may be actually possible. The arguments are still dominated by patriarchal voices who hold the power of interpretation. Perhaps in the future that will change and equality between all people regardless of gender will be achieved. As the Apostle Paul noted in his epistle, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galations 3:28). As part of achieving heaven on earth, this oneness will have to be realized someday. Discussions like these will no doubt be a part of that accomplishment.