Where Logic Meets Love

Defining "Sex": How Should We Talk about God's Gender?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

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To wrap up this series on sex and gender (see "Defining 'Sex'" Part 1 and Part 2), some thoughts on how we talk about God's gender:

Gendered Pronouns

I find it interesting when people use "She" to refer to God so that when people protest, they can say, "But God doesn't have a gender! Why limit God to only male pronouns? That only reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy." (To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who calls God "She" does it for this reason; I am interested in the people who do it for this reason.) I don't personally see a benefit in exchanging one set of limiting words for another. If God has no gender, why use gendered pronouns at all?

Ah, but there's the rub: In English, we have no good gender-neutral pronouns for individuals. Really, the only singular gender-neutral pronoun we have is "it," and it's difficult to imagine having a close relationship with an "it." You might use "it" for an animal if you don't know whether it's male or female, but if it's, say, a friend's pet, you're more likely to venture a guess by calling it "he" or "she" rather than referring to their beloved animal as "it." It's just an impersonal word. So if we're talking about a loving God with whom you want a close relationship, "it" is not going to cut it.

There's also the option "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun. Using "they" to refer to a single person is guaranteed to make most grammarians twitch, despite the fact that it's been used this way for centuries. The average English speaker, however, already uses "they" when talking about a person of an unknown gender.

On the other hand, it's perfectly acceptable to refer to a group of people as "they." And isn't God three persons? Despite most Christians professing a belief in the Trinity -- that God is both one person and three persons -- God is almost unilaterally referred to in the singular. It seems that the dual role of "they" as both a plural pronoun and a gender-neutral singular pronoun is suited quite perfectly for reference to God.

The Nature of Sex and Gender

Those who want to argue against referring to God with only male pronouns often point to markers of biological sex and ask, "Does God have a penis? Does God have testicles? Does God have a Y chromosome? Isn't God spirit?"

And then I've seen the argument come back that God is masculine in nature based on descriptions in the Bible, and that Jesus was incarnated as a male human and referred to God as "Father," so even if God does not have a physical body, God's spirit is clearly male.

Leaving aside the many feminine and maternal references to God in the Bible, I find this argument fascinating because it attaches male-ness to something other than one's physical body. In other words, it clearly identifies gender as separate from biological sex, that one can be male without having a traditionally male body. And yet, I find this argument about God's male-ness, this discomfort with calling God anything other than "He," coming from many of the same people who are so dismissive, if not hateful, toward the transgender community. How is it that God can be fundamentally male without having a male body (i.e., male genitalia), and yet a human can't?

Or Does God Have a Body?

Another point that comes up in the Is-God-Male debate is Genesis 1:26-27:
Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
In this case, "man" is 'adam, which might make more sense here translated as "humans."

If we were made in God's image, does that mean God has a body like our bodies? To what extent, or in what way, is it like our bodies? I am not a Biblical literalist myself, but for those who are, you have to acknowledge that God creates both male and female humans here, rather than saying, "Let's create male humans in Our image, and then change their parts around a bit to create knock-off versions we'll call female humans." So somehow both male and female humans reflect God's image.

If you believe that our bodies are literally copies of God's body, then in order for both men and women to have bodies representative of God's body, God would either have to have no genitals or both male and female genitals. Kind of sounds like an intersex person, huh?

What's the Point?

As with the other posts in this series, I want to challenge black-and-white viewpoints on the notions of sex and gender. These concepts, whether about biological sex, sexual behavior, or talking about God's gender, are not the kinds of things to which you can say, "Obviously it's this way," and then walk away and be done with it. I want to challenge people not to think they have all the answers, but to be open to learning more and questioning what they think they know.

Do you refer to God as He, She, They, It...? Why? Does it matter?


  1. I think most people would just say He because it's most commonly used. I've never heard God referred to as She, I assume a lot of people would take you for a very feminist person if you did. The thing is, we call things he even if we're not sure if it's male or female. How many expecting parents call their unborn child 'he' even if it might as well be a girl. It's like you said, 'it' is just too lifeless, you can't feel close to an 'it'. I do not think God is a 'male'. When they mention in the bible that man was made after God's image, I believe it refers to man, as in manhood, not the gender. And image doesn't have to mean God has a body. I don't believe in a giant man in the sky. In my believe, God would be a spirit, present around us, in nature and in people. He doesn't have a gender. Isn't the world centered around males enough, women need something to look to as well, that's why in ancient religions there were both female and male gods. Even the very earliest religions believed in a male and female aspect. Even plants have male and female counterparts. Why would the Holy Spirit be male if He created nearly everything in male and female form. That's just what I think anyway. There are so many ways to interpret the bible, who's to say who is completely right. You should be able to believe what you're comfortable with without people hitting you over the head because they have a different view.

    1. "He" is definitely the default, not just for God but often when discussing imaginary people in hypothetical scenarios. And I don't think that's a great thing, as it reinforces the notion that male is the norm and female exists only in relation to male, whereas I don't think any gender should be the "default" gender.

  2. I love this post so much. It's brilliant. Thank you for talking about it.

    I very much believe that God embodies female and male--it's the old philosophical argument from St. Thomas Aquinas, that everything on earth is on a spectrum of perfection, but the only way to categorize how perfect or imperfect something on earth is, we must have an ultimate standard of perfection to which we can measure, and that standard is God. Additionally, in order to understand male and female anything, there must be a perfect standard of both which we can measure against, again meaning God. It's basically saying that anything you find on earth is within the realm of what God can create, because God represents the ultimate of those things created. God cannot create both male and female if God does not embody both of those.

    From growing up in a relatively Baptist household, I've always been used to referring to God as a "he" or "him," but I very much believe that God is the perfect combination of all sensibilities attributed to men and women. Otherwise, why am I here? Am I really outside of what God/Jesus would understand just because I am a woman? Am I really outside of God? I don't think so at all.

    Very interesting conversation. I especially love the transgender identity topic. Awesome stuff, lady.

    1. I love the concept of God encompassing, and being the perfection of, all things. Thinking of God as embodying both male and female (and everything in between) changes the way I think about my relationship to God; it shifts my mind from something like "a loving male-female relationship" (which comes with many, many ingrained connotations) or even "a father-daughter relationship" to "a relationship between me and the embodiment of perfect Love," which is just mind-blowing and something it really does seem it would take a lifetime to understand and grow into.

    2. "God cannot create both male and female if God does not embody both of those."

      Does that mean that God cannot create anything that God does not embody? Because I think you can see where that one's headed: there are a lot of things around that shouldn't be embodied in a righteous God.

      That said, and as I mentioned in a comment below, 1 Cor 11:4 suggests that the woman was a creation once-removed from the emanation of God's image. I'm not really sure where that leaves the notion of the feminine. It seems to suggest that it is not a category in itself, with an attendant perfect archetype embodied in God like masculinity might possess, but rather a sullying of the original likeness, a consequence of the distance from God to man to rib. But sin and death are also not thought of as direct emanations from God, but symptoms of the distance from Him, so I'm not too keen on the implications of that one.

  3. Very interesting, your suggestion to use "They" for God - a new concept to me, but it makes sense! Language shapes our perceptions of things and how we speak of the Divine can also reflect our perceptions of God. Unless I'm in more theologically feminist company, I'll try to speak in a way that doesn't necessitate gendered pronouns at all, as I have in this comment. I believe God is beyond all the baggage and connotations we have with gender, and would prefer to use language that doesn't bring those to mind. That said, I *do* use female pronouns or concepts to myself or among others who wouldn't blink at it, just to provide counterbalance to the existing patriarchal language about God.

    For a very thorough exploration about gendered speech about God and the argument for using more feminine conceptions, I'd recommend "She Who Is" by Elizabeth Johnson.

    1. She Who Is is still on my to-read list from last time you recommended it; I wanted to get to it before you came to Chicago, but it just never happened.

      I definitely agree about language changing our perceptions, and I tend to do the same thing you do -- so in church, I say, "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of God's name, for our good and the good of all God's holy Church." And I do understand the idea of using female pronouns as a counterbalance, the same way that one might alternate between using "he" and "she" for describing hypothetical situations in a book. I'm not against saying "She" for God, I just prefer gender-neutral language wherever possible, for the reasons you mentioned (baggage and connotations).

  4. In another 50 years or so, "they" will probably be perfectly correct English for a singular third-person personal pronoun. But it will probably take longer for people to get comfortable referring to God as such. (Look how much longer "Thou" stayed the proper address for God after no one used it anywhere else.) Too bad, because it IS a perfect solution.

    1. Interesting point about "Thou"! And yes, I think it will be quite a bit long before everyone is comfortable with "they" as a singular pronoun. I don't necessarily think that "They" will ever actually become the preferred pronoun for God, but I like planting the idea in people's heads nonetheless :)

  5. If you start calling God "they" you'll get mistaken for a polytheist. I'd go with a capital-i "It". It is impersonal but it acknowledges the distance from what one knows to what is true (which you spoke about with me previously). Besides, the worst that could happen is you'll get mistaken for a pantheist, which probably isn't too bad considering that no one really knows what pantheist is.

    "Another point that comes up in the Is-God-Male debate is Genesis 1:26-27 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness... In this case, "man" is 'adam, which might make more sense here translated as "humans.""

    Hrm, except - if we're relying on Scripture now here - 1 Corinthians 11:7 expands upon this by saying that while a man is made in the image of God, a woman is merely the once-removed image, derived from and made for the purposes of a man. So it seem that Scripture's no help if you don't want a God who is more male than female.

    Perhaps it would make more sense if we think of it the other way around, that it was God who was "made" in the image of man. It'd neatly explain why Scripture turned out so conveniently for men, anyway (and theists can just interpret the word "made" there metaphorically).

    Though nice point about the implicit contradiction between calling God a male even though He has no biological sex and then dismissing the transgendered experience! I really like that, that's a fun twisty argument, I'll have to try it out some time.

    1. I'm not too worried about being mistaken for a polytheist, if I'm referring to God and not Gods. I'm not too worried about being "mistaken" for anything, really, since I can always explain my beliefs if people ask, and if they don't ask and just make assumptions, that's their own fault.

    2. Maybe I should have left the original emoticon in at the end of that first paragraph. I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to be rude.

      This seems to be a time of real exploration and experimentation in reinterpreting this religion, don't you think? Just recently I read an article about the shift from minority to majority approval for marriage equality amongst US Independents. Just a few days ago I saw a very creative reinterpretation of the Parable of the Lost Coin with special emphasis on the 10%. I wonder how many of these ideas will become orthodoxy in the new syncretism?

      You are right about the explanations needed. I think in the future the remaining Christians will be doing a lot of explaining, just like you're doing here, entire blogs dedicated to finding ways to mesh the wider moral secular Zeitgeist with e.g. homophobia in Scripture. Though re. whose fault it is when incorrect assumptions are made; while I take your point, I think the Source must share at least some of the blame. Scripture may be interpreted in various ways it's true, but some interpretations are far less tenuous than others. I don't think one can solely blame a person for making an unfair assumption when they assume that Scripture says what it means and means what it says.

      Which brings me to the point I was trying to make that got a bit lost above. So long as Christianity refers back to Scripture as any kind of authoritative source I can't see how it will make the changes it needs, bend to the interpretation Christians like yourself would prefer. For example, whatever weight you've given to Gen 1:26 above, equal weight should be given to the verses that contradict it, particularly if your understanding of Gen 1:26 relies upon a fair dollop of interpretation.

      ... I'm not sure how Christianity will work around this.

    3. I'm not entirely sure how to respond to this except that this gives some of my thoughts on the impossibility of Biblical literalism, and I think Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet explains well how you can be guided by the Bible by interpreting any given verse through its main messages. It's worth mentioning also that you refer to "Christianity" as a singular entity, whereas when it comes to Scriptural understanding and interpretation, there is and will never be one single "Christian" set of beliefs. I have always understood that the Bible is not one book by one author but a collection of books, letters, poems, history, laws, and so on written by an array of authors living at different times, and to see it as anything else (whether upholding or dismissing it) is to ignore this reality.

    4. Thank you for pointing me at that link. No seriously, thanks. I have been thinking a lot about theists of your type - what makes you tick, what it means to have faith without being a fundamentalist. I've been curious about this for a while, actually.

      You are doing wonderful work with your blog :-)

    5. Thank you for your kind words. I'm not sure if you're referring to the link to my previous post or the link to Rachel Held Evans' blog, but I highly recommend her blog regardless.

      I can't tell from your previous comments if you have read the Bible through or just know key verses (I am not one of those who assume atheists have never read the Bible, but I know many Christians haven't!), but if you are interested in reading it more for the larger story/message than studying individual verses, I recommend The Message translation by Eugene Peterson. When I got out of the trees of fiercely debated individual verses and started seeing the forest, it gave me a completely different view.

    6. " For example, whatever weight you've given to Gen 1:26 above, equal weight should be given to the verses that contradict it, particularly if your understanding of Gen 1:26 relies upon a fair dollop of interpretation.

      ... I'm not sure how Christianity will work around this."


      For its first 1500 years, Christians did not treat all parts of the bible as equal. That's a recent thing in history.

  6. Hello. I think the question to address first is, "What do you mean by 'God"?

    If you mean "God" as referred to in, say, the Gospel of John, you mean the Father, who is named "God" properly.

    If you mean "The Divine nature of the Trinity", you are not talking about persons at all, but a common shared characteristic that cannot be related to personally.

    If you mean the whole Trinity; the Father, together with His Word and Spirit, I believe you have to say "He" for many reasons, and here is one:

    The only image we have of the Father is the incarnate Word, Christ, who is "the icon of the invisible God" (See chapter one of St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians). Therefore, because one sees God (the Father) only in Christ, and because the Holy Spirit reveals Christ, a male human being, the only way that we can *relationally* address God is "He".

    When the Word became incarnate, he condescended to accept created limitations in his humanity. These include being a particular human being, from a particular human family, born in a particular place on Earth. And it also includes being one gender and not another.


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