On The Gender of God

This morning, I learned that the United Church of Christ (UCC) has recently voted to stop referring to God as a “Heavenly Father.” The UCC is arguably Christianity’s most theologically and politically progressive denomination– so for many of us, this change has not come as a shock. Of course, their decision has already been met with harsh criticism from literalists:

David Runnion-Bareford of  Biblical Witness Fellowship (BWF), a splinter cell going against the vote… called the move “a theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture… God acted toward us in amazing grace when He offered to be our Father through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, who offers us life in his name. This is not something we as humans made up in some other time…” He charged that rejecting God as Father “is an act of arrogant rebellion in the name of cultural conformity that only further alienates members, churches — but, more importantly, God himself.”

I’ve heard this argument before… People often insist that God should be understood as a male figure because scripture refers to God with masculine pronouns and imagery. Those who understand the Divine as anything other than male are said to be “confused” or “alienated” from the true God.

We’ve made some very powerful theological and societal assertions about what God should and/or must be without exploring the root of the paternal imagery we cling to so tightly. However, a little research reveals that when it comes to God’s gender, Christianity has lost touch with its theological roots. Despite the overwhelming use of male pronouns in the Hebrew Bible, many Jewish people deny that God has any gender at all. Take, for instance, this Jewish philosophical understanding of God’s gender:

While the actualities of gender are of course irrelevant to God, who has no body, there is a reason for the use of these allegories. Let us penetrate the surface toward a sophisticated understanding underlying these images…

…God’s unity takes two forms, as do humans who express His image. The two physical forms that characterize the world — male and female — act as a living metaphor for the two ways in which God makes His presence known.

The Talmud and the mystics use the “Holy One Blessed Be He” as the masculine phrase, and “Shechina” (presence) as the feminine phrase. Let us examine the deeper meaning of these phrases…Why use male imagery? The Kuzari explains that the male genital organs are external, which makes masculine reference appropriate for times when God’s presence is in a revealed, “external” state… Indeed, all of God’s highly visible interventions are male imagery. This is the “Holy One Blessed Be He.”

God’s presence is not only outside and above His creations, but is within them as well. The feminine genitals are internal and unexposed to the external eye, which is why the feminine word “Shechina” describes God’s presence within each of us.

The inherent nature of the Shechina is hidden, internal, and at times silent. At other times, it is articulate through spiritual inspiration and awareness. Her presence is hard to evoke in words. In fact, the external nature of speech to a certain extent defies the internal nature of the Shechina.

God is no more a literal “Father” than he is a literal “strong tower” or a literal “eagle.” God is no more the literal possessor of a penis than he is the literal possessor of a hand or army. These anthropomorphic and physical images are designed to do for us what we would not otherwise be able to do with our finite minds: Imagine the nature of the ineffable. The words we use to describe God are important, but inadequate– and necessary but not binding…

The concern for us should not be with whether God is literally male or a literal father… We should instead concern ourselves with what it means for all of humankind to be expressions of God’s inward mystery and outwardly-creative nature. We should not concern ourselves with whether it’s proper to call God “Father” or “Mother” or “he” or “she.” We should instead be concerned with whether our sons understand that God exists in every human being.

We should be concerned with the message we send to young girls when we tell them that God is both outside them and unlike them. We should want our daughters to understand that they are created in God’s image, too.

Rejecting God as “father” is not an act of “alienation.” It is an act of reconciliation– not only for our own culture, but for cultures around the world that seek to affirm the inherent goodness and power of women. Affirming this power is just a small part of the Gospel message that every Christian is called to share. I’m proud of the UCC and hope that other churches/denominations will follow suit.

You May Also Enjoy Reading:
1. A Feminist Scholar’s Mind-blowing Revelations About Adam & Eve

2. Overt Sexism in Bible Commentary on David & Bathsheba

3. “Fornication”: A More Accurate Interpretation of Scripture

7 Comments

  1. Robin Edgar says:

    :Despite the overwhelming use of male pronouns in the Hebrew Bible, many Jewish people deny that God has any gender at all.

    And then there is the fact that *some* of the descriptions of God in the Hebrew Bible actually do portray God as having female attributes.

    :We should want our daughters to understand that they are created in God's image, too.

    Actually that *is* in the Hebrew scriptures, right there in the Genesis creation myth. . .

    What part of –

    Genesis 1:27 – So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male *and* female created he them.

    Do people fail to understand?

  2. Sammy says:

    When I went to church as a child, I always felt a little hurt when the minister would say something like “We are all sons of God”. As a girl, how could I be a son?

    Thinking back on it now, it makes me a little angry. Why is it so blasphemous to use the word “children” or to portray God as genderless?

    When I think of God, many of the pronouns I use are masculine. This is probably due to being raised in conservative Christianity. Those pronouns help create a concept my human mind can understand. While I know that God has no gender, I cannot wrap my mind around such a concept. I cannot fully understand it. I guess I could use gender neutral terms, like “it”, but that seems rude.

  3. dangerchrist says:

    I'm more like the mystics-God has no gender. Male and female both are components of the One. Who's to say God's not an androgyne with male and female qualities.

    Makes for an interesting topic?

  4. Catharine says:

    Hi Crystal – I found you (again) on UUpdates! So glad to see you! Storms and Reflections (www.catharineclarenbach.com) is now there too. Can't wait to see you back at school in August! — Catharine

  5. Catharine! What a nice surprise. I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer. See you soon! 🙂

  6. korakaos says:

    Of course God isn't a literal male… anyone who would think him to be such is totally out of touch with reality. Totally. If God = Omnipresent then God = The Entire Universe, and does the Universe have a penis?

    I won't stop referring to God as my Father, though. But I just like thinking of him as a male more often than as female as personal preference(He contains all males and all females, of course, and the name YHVH contains all male and all female. Crowley relates the letters Yod He Vav He to Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, among other things. And the Bible occasionally considers God as a female, for instance, in Wisdom, among other places.)…. and would it be totally inappropriate to say I might call him Daddy? Well. That might make some people uncomfortable, but I'm just being honest with how I experience the divine.

    And yeah, Robin's right. “God created Adam/Earth/Humankind in “his” own image, in the image of God “she” created him/her, male and female he created them(Adam).” And then there's Paul- “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    1. Alan Hooker says:

      Mormons consider God to be literally a male… would you say this entire religious group is “out of touch with reality?”

      The fact of the matter is, the Bible portrays YHWH as a man, and I think the biblical authors did think of him as such. I would not claim these people were out of touch with reality.

      Though I don’t believe the Bible to be inerrant, nor do I think God is specifically male or female, it’s interesting to note that many Christians who would shy away from such gendered and sexed presentations of God fail to note that God the Son currently resides in heaven in bodily form, with genitals ‘n’ all.

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