Gender. Is it a category which applies to divinity? Is God gender-less? Is God gender-ful? Controversy is hot over the 2011 edition of the New International Version of the Bible and its use of gender-neutral terms to refer to God. From the midst of the conservative camp, I am sensing an emerging theological undertone that dares to argue that God is predominantly of one gender. Blogging on the topic has kept the debate fresh in my mind, and while this post is winding and slightly disjointed, it serves well to help me think through the issue.

We must talk about God, but God is beyond language. The best we can do is image God through our language, and the ancient way to speak about God is metaphorically. The parables of Christ are crucial because they demonstrate that metaphor is an indigenous Christian language. One advantage to metaphorical theology is that no one metaphor has to illustrate everything. Deficiencies can be covered by other models.

There are many examples of metaphoric language describing God. In Deuteronomy 32:18, God is both the father and the mother who gives birth: “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” In Job, the writer talks about God both mothering and fathering: “Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens (Job 38:28-­29)? God is also described as a woman in labor and giving birth. He is seen as being in pain and crying out, gasping for breath. “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Isa. 42:14). Again the feminine imagery is found in Isaiah 49:15, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you.” God is a comforting mother, “For thus says the Lord: ‘As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you'” (Isa. 66:12‐13). Isaiah describes God as both mother and father in this hymn of praise: “Look down fromheaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The trembling of your womb and your womb-­‐tenderness? They are withheld from me. For you are our father” (Isa. 3:15‐16, literal translation).

With such strongly feminine imagery used in Scripture as God-descriptive, why does the tendency lean so strongly toward the use of masculine terms for the Divine in liturgy, prayer, and worship? The forms of scripture, creed, and historical theology in which Christian tradition is carried are encased in and formed by male-dominance. Theology is a matter of language, and of finding the best language available to speak of the concerns of faith. Theologians are very aware of the nuances and sway of language. It is not just the naming that is at stake, but that the naming establishes the relationships, the gridwork through which faith is mediated to women and men.

Roger E. Olson writes in his blog “Some Thoughts About ‘Christian Feminism’” that “insofar as we use the Bible’s predominantly male imagery of God we teach people that maleness is closer to God than femaleness. Without doubt that has been the case throughout much of Christian history.”

Sexism, like racism, is an insidious disease that affects everyone in a world saturated in it. Christians should be at the forefront of the battle against sexism, resisting the blight that it spreads throughout God’s created relational ecosystem. Supplementing predominantly male biblical imagery of God with female imagery, especially drawn from the Bible itself, seems to me to be a critical step in the movement toward biblical equality and restored personhood.

In the introduction to Dorothy Sayer’s article titled “Are Women Human?” Mary McDermott Shideler raises an equally viable concern, “Male and female are biological categories. Masculine and feminine are cultural categories. Both are impersonal classifications with real but limited usefulness. We cannot live or think effectively without classifying our experiences, but always we must ask whether the categories we are using are adequate for the problem we are considering.”

Are the categories male and female, masculine and feminine, “adequate” terms to describe the referent we are considering [God]? Is the God revealed in Scripture through both male and female, masculine and feminine terms classifying himself as one or the other? (Notice my use of the masculine reflective pronoun “himself”. It is unnatural, coming from my tradition, to use any other English pronoun. Perhaps other languages serve this purpose better.)

Olson’s critical follow-up questions to the case for equality are my food for thought these days: “But does throwing out male imagery of God in favor of predominantly female imagery solve anything? Or does it simply reverse patriarchy?” That is the danger that I find in modern feminist theology. The point is not to undo the harm that has been done by centuries of patriarchy via reversing the crime committed, the point is to redeem biblical images of God and the biblical purpose of personhood.

How is that to be accomplished? How do I move forward? I find that my tradition inhibits me from speaking of God in any terms but masculine ones. That is the great, almost imperceptible power of breakthroughs such as the new NIV translation. Slowly but surely, I will learn to speak of God as he speaks of himself. I will learn to see him as more than one gender or another.

In conclusion, I can echo the words of Olson once more: “God has no gender, in spite of the predominantly male imagery of God in scripture. I promote teaching that both male and female characteristics are valuable but prone to distortion and that both genders need redemption without in any way destroying or even undermining their uniqueness as created by God. I promote Christian leadership without hierarchy. I promote liturgical renewal that is not ideologically driven. I promote teaching boys and men to be suspicious of our socially-driven tendencies toward patriarchy without demeaning maleness itself.

 

~Annie Bolger Quick, editor

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