If you hang around progressive, church-going folk (yes, there are some out there!) or like to keep up with the activist crowd, you might be familiar with the idea of using non-masculine gender pronouns for God. I grew up in a traditional United Methodist Church which used traditionally masculine pronouns to refer to God. For a long time, I didn’t even notice–it was simply what we did, how we talked about God. It was the water in which I lived, moved, and had my being. It wasn’t until I went to college that the question of God’s “gender” arose. It was there I encountered friends of mine praying to “God our Mother” and saying “she gave her only son.” I began contemplating why what we say about God matters. And not only what we say about God, but how it affects who we believe God is.
Thus began my journey of contemplating the many ways we humans talk about God, and how this affects the way we understand God. Language matters. In Models of God, Sallie McFague considers the effect words have on how we create knowledge. When we use certain words to characterize God, God embodies those characteristics and soon we are thinking about God as primarily constituted by those characteristics; the words change from mere descriptors to secure identities, limiting our imaginations.
When I started realizing there might be a problem with how humans talk about God, I began considering gender. “No, God is not male, duh!” I thought, “Of course!” responding to the idea that God has an actual body with actual body parts which doctors assign as male at birth. And so it made sense that God was also not female. Easy enough, right? So then why was it a problem for some people to talk about God as Father? I thought about my relationship with my own father, which has been mostly positive over the course of my life, and determined, for me, it’s not a big deal to talk about God as Father. I have good associations with that relationship, so it’s fine!
However, I soon realized that’s rather individualistic. My faith is not just about me. When I am in a Bible study praying to God the Father, I must take into account the sexual abuse a fellow pray-er has experienced at the hands of a father-figure. I must take into account the fathers who are absent from their families, either physically or emotionally. I must take into account the people whose fathers struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illnesses that have prevented them from participating fully in their children’s lives. I must take into account the children raised in households with two mommies, who don’t have a father figure. Just because it does not cause me pain to call God “Father,” it does not mean I am free to do so, to as a minister enforce or normalize this conception of God without considering the experiences of others.
I want to affirm everyone’s right to think about and pray to God in ways which make sense for them, but I also believe we need to challenge the names for, and characteristics of, God which are upheld by traditional social orders–including traditional liturgies. If God is “Father,” then God is male. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that males have been honored as illustrating the norm of what it means to be human in most cultures across the world for most of time. Some ancient philosophers believed humans were originally male, and some genetic defect created the female as a particular morph of a foundationally male creature. This, of course, has to do with genitalia, of which God has none. So why do some people push back so hard when encountering names and pronouns for God which are not “he/him/his” and “father?”
A reason for this is power. Men had power in society and subsequently made God in their image. When Christianity became a state religion, during and subsequent to the reign of Constantine, the language people use to talk about God took on an imperial tone, despite gospel texts recording Jesus as a servant.
Trinitarian theology has something to do with this as well. Some think if God is one triune deity then the gender of all parts of the trinity must be the same. While there’s lots of contention regarding what in the Gospel stories is reliable, we are pretty sure Jesus was a guy, so the Son in the trinity is male, meaning the first person of the Trinity, the Father, can also be identified as a male. Finally, there’s always been some ambiguity regarding the gender of the Holy Spirit, so it’s really not a big deal to call it a he as well.
I think that, ultimately, this all comes down to a question Jesus asked his disciples a lot throughout the gospel stories: “Who do you say I am?” Let’s consider this question concerning God. If we say God is Father, then we think about God as Father, and we build up earthly fathers because of the shared language which exalts the heavenly Father. Soon, we are thinking God’s main identity is Father, and we are forgetting God is multitude. That God appeared within a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-17) as well as a gust of wind (Acts 2). That God was written of as a shepherd (Isaiah 40:11 and Psalm 78:52, among others), a mother hen brooding over her chicks (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34) and as a rock (Psalm 78:35, Isaiah 30:29, and Psalm 42:9). Why do we seek to limit God when our sacred texts are pushing us to reimagine where and how and in whom we encounter God?