The hot-potato issue of gender has provoked flare-ups from all sides of the political aisle. The debate surrounding male, female, self-identified gender, cisgender, transgender, non-binary gender, and exactly what a gender is will likely continue for some time. Have you ever thought about the gender of God? Is God a he, a she, an it, or something else? Since the religious tradition I grew up in referred to God in masculine terms, it was easy for me to follow in its footsteps. In fact, most denominations refer to God in this manner. After all, the Bible addresses God as a father and prominently uses the masculine pronoun. Even Jesus purportedly prayed, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Does this mean that God is male? In my earlier written works I referred to God in masculine terms, for that is how I learned to address the God I love. It wasn’t that I believed God was male; rather, it was simply the way my religious tradition addressed deity. In my mind, I was merely reflecting biblical terminology. In reality, I never thought much about my use of masculine terms for God until recently. In general, my writings now refrain from referencing God in either masculine or feminine terms. I will explain why in a moment.
Have you ever tried writing about religious topics without using a gender-specific personal pronoun for God? It is an awkward thing to do until your mind is clear on why you are doing it. One option I considered was alternating between the use of he and she, but this, it seemed to me, was not only confusing to the reader, but also a pain to keep track of. Besides, sooner or later I would find myself in hot water simply because a gender-specific pronoun was randomly attached to some story or example that someone didn’t like. Another option was to change sentence structures in hopes of avoiding personal pronouns altogether, but this severely limits the nature of personal expression and becomes and extremely burdensome way of communicating. I am not against personal pronouns for God, but I have limited their use. A third option was to simply choose either the masculine or feminine pronoun and stick with it, thereby allowing the chips to fall where they may. But why alienate a good portion of the audience when you don’t have to? The final option, and the one I chose, is to simply say “God” and “Godself.” This seems to be a reasonable solution and may be the most accurate way of referring to deity. I am becoming more comfortable with this approach each day. In my humble opinion, the issue of whether to call God a he, she, it, or something else comes down to transcendence and metaphors. In other words, because God is beyond our ability to understand or describe (transcendence), God can only be referred to through images (metaphors). Let me explain my thinking.
If God is indeed the creator of life, the source of love, and the very ground of our being, then God is far beyond our ability to accurately and adequately understand and describe, much like asking a catfish to describe what it means to be human. Referring to God as male actually places a limit on the nature and essence of God. Is the Bible’s use of masculine terms for God an accurate definition of God’s essence or a reflection of the hierarchical (male dominated) culture in which the Bible was written? Males were the powerful ones with authority, oversight, and control while women were treated as second-class citizens and viewed as chattel—things to be owned and possessed rather than equal in their own right. It is in this hierarchical cultural environment that God is predominantly referred to as male. But if God is truly transcendent, that is, far beyond our ability to understand and describe, then it does no good to make God a male, a female, a transgender, or any other kind of gender identity, for God transcends gender. References to God as male, female, or anything else aren’t accurate descriptions of a transcendent God, but rather, a human attempt to describe God within the boundaries of our culture and abilities. Like catfish trying to describe what it means to be human, we are humans trying to describe what it means to be God. Ascribing human characteristics to a transcendent deity is merely our attempt to describe the indescribable—adjectives about our perception of God and not literal, accurate statements about God’s essence.
Though we may not be able to fully comprehend a transcendent God, we do, in fact, experience God in this life. It is this experience of the Holy that prompts our attempts to describe that experience. The only way to describe that which is wholly indescribable is to say that God is like something we are familiar with. In this way we bring God down into our world of personal experience. These experiences are real and personal, but our descriptions are merely self-expressions of our experience and not the reality behind them. Getting a little deep? We say that God is a loving and welcoming father, not because God actually is a dad, but because we experience God as providing, protecting, being in charge, loving us, and welcoming father who loves his own children. The Bible uses numerous metaphors for God by portraying God as a rock, a refuge, a mighty tower, living water, bread, a mother who comforts us, and a mother bird and mother bear, and so forth. These images are not describing God’s essence, for God is not a literal rock, but rather, they express how we experience God, as solid as a rock. Metaphors become the cultural tools of language we use to describe our experience of God. So we say, “God is like . . .” rather than “God is.” The former describes our experience of God while the latter reaches into the indescribable. You now know why I speak of God and Godself instead of using masculine or feminine pronouns. I realize this approach isn’t satisfying to biblical literalists who demand certainty in all things religious. But when it comes to God, there is no certainty, for we walk in mystery, unable to fully comprehend or describe that which connects to our spirit and moves our soul. To walk into the mystery of God is the essence of faith. Our inability to fully comprehend doesn’t negate God’s existence or undermine our God-experiences; rather, it simply means that metaphors become the means of expressing those God- experiences. God has no gender because God transcends gender. -TSW Copyright © T. S. Wise 2019