Tuesday, August 10, 2010

God Has A Grammatical Gender...


God is neither male nor female. In spite of the picture many of us carry in our heads, God is not an old man in the sky. God is not a woman in the sky, either.

Human beings are the image of God. Human beings are female and male. The image of God is male and female.

God encompasses the categories of male and female. God transcends the categories of female and male.

The Bible is a product of a patriarchal culture. It uses mostly masculine images for God. Still, there are a few, scattered, feminine images for God to be found in Scripture. Recognizing the limitations of human language in describing the divine, it is legitimate to use both feminine and masculine images for God.

We can have a personal relationship with God. That is, we can relate to God as we relate to another person. God is not an object. God is not an "it."

We have no experience of persons who transcend the categories of male and female. The English language has no third person singular personal pronoun that encompasses and transcends the categories of female and male.

It is awkward, and nearly impossible to avoid the use of third person singular personal pronouns when speaking about a person, even when that person is God.

I was born and brought up in a time when humankind was collectively refered to as "man" as a matter of routine. The assumption underlying such a use is that maleness is the normal condition of humanity. The corollary to that assumption is that femaleness is a lesser or defective human state. Think about that. It's nuts.

In those distant days, God was refered to exclusively in masculine terms. Old habits die hard. I still sometimes call God "he." When I get called on it, my almost reflexive response is the title of this post: "God has a grammatical gender, not a phyiscal sex." That's pure banana oil, of course, but it usually buys me enough time to finish my thought without getting sidetracked by a discussion of gender language.

Forgive me.

I am writing this post on the second day of a three day symposium in Chicago called "Language Matters." Hosted by the National Council of Churches, the symposium deals with inclusive (or "expansive") language concerns. When it is all over, I am sure that there will be head-shaking, finger-wagging and tongue-clucking from some quarters. But as for me, I applaud the intent of the symposium, pray for its success, and look forward to hearing about its proceedings.

Thirty-five or forty years ago, this clever, though amateurish bit of animation introduced me to inclusive language concerns. Take two minutes to enjoy a blast from the past.


  1. Both this post and Obie's really have been very thought provoking. And my blood just boils when the anti-ELCA factions parade the one church in California that has chosen to explore God as the the Divine Feminine to prove that the ELCA isn't even a Christian body any more and is embracing paganism.

    Granted it takes me out of my confort zone, but that's because of my exposure and upbringing. I don't think that my discomfort--or anyone else's for that matter--should nullify this sort of worship or exploration.

    I have always loved the song by the band Dishwalla that has the line, Tell me all your thougnts on God, 'cause I'd really like to meet Her.

    And it's not as though exploring the Divine Feminine is anything new. The people who are screaming the loudest in our community about the church in California are the same people at my former congregation that LOVED the book The Shack.

    The catholics have embraced the divine feminine but have compartmentalized it into adoration and prayers to the Virgin Mary.

    Like you point out that we are made in God's image. That doesn't mean just the men but also the women. The female plays an integral role in God's creation. If we (females since I'm lumped in the we)were inferior or not necessary, then humans would reproduce asexual and would bud off each other like a hydra. It takes both a male and a female to create a life, each giving part of their traits to the next generation. Isn't that what God did by making us in his image?

    And for those who are offended that we don't have permission to think of God as female, you know, those claiming bibical authority and the infallibilty of the Bible forget about the Fourth Commandment. It isn't just Honor thy Father. There's the be good to your mom too clause. And this edict was given to humanity when women where considered property of their husbands.

    And to quote Luther in his explanation, We should fear and love God that we may not despise nor anger our parents and masters, but give them honor, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem.

    Equal worth with each parent on equal ground.

    The idea of the Divine Feminine really doesn't seem that new to me. We just do a great job of pushing to the background. But it looks like it has been there all the time.

  2. As always, Kelly, thanks for your comments.

    I really don't know what to make of Ebenezer Lutheran Faith Community (herchurch.org). I know that the anti-ELCA forces love to point to it as an example of how awful we are. I also know that I would worship there if I were in the neighborhood.

    It's interesting that feminine images for God are labeled "pagan" while masculine images are somehow "orthodox," isn't it? Arguably all gendered images of God are blasphemous, idolatrous and "pagan."

    I remember reading an article years ago that suggested that we should not talk *about* God at all. Talking about God leads us always into blasphemy and error. Rather, we should talk *to* God. That is a pretty radical proposition, and probably not practical, but worthy of consideration.

    I have a colleague who has caught flack from some of her congregation for referring to the Holy Spirit as "she." Of course, "ruach," the Hebrew word for "spirit" is a feminine noun. "Pneuma," the Greek word for "spirit" is neuter. In neither the language of the Old Testament, nor the language of the New Testament is the Holy Spirit referred to as "he." Only in translation was the Spirit masculinized.

    I appreciate your observation about "The Shack," a book that portrays two of the three persons of the Trinity as female.

    I also appreciate your taste in music. I have always liked Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars." Here's a link for all the rockers:


    If I had the time and inclination, I'd find the reference in the Talmud for a reading of the creation account that says Adam (the word means "human" or "humanity") hermaphroditic until God separated the male and female parts into two distinct beings.

    I assume that the post you mentioned on Obie's blog was this one about "Fear of the Feminine."


    It was a good piece and put me in mind, somehow, of Umberto Eco's essay "Eternal Fascism." It is a must-read for thinking persons. Eco raises the point that fascism, based in a communal sense of personal worthlessness, plays out in the sexual arena by "disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality."

    Link: http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_blackshirt.html

    I won't make the simple equation of fascism and fundamentalism, but among the marks of fundamentalism are a devaluation of women, and of course, condemnation of "nonstandard" sexuality. Fascism and fundamentalism also, I think, arise from similar causes: fear of modernism, a need for certainty and a longing for worth.

    I'm not sure where all this noodling is leading, but I thank you, Kelly, for sparking it.

    I don't think I'm quite done blogging about inclusive language.

    God bless,