- The three major monotheistic religions of the world — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — refer to God as being male. But does God really have a sex or gender?
- Many believe that using gendered language is both harmful to women and encourages a superficial understanding of divinity.
- Yet, traditionalists have their reasons for continuing to do so. "Because we've always done it" can, sometimes, be reason enough.
Two-thirds of the Christian Trinity are masculine, and the other third is undefined. In traditional Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology, God is referred to as male. He’s “God the Father” in the Book of Psalms, “Christ the Son” in the Gospels, and “Allah” in the Koran. (Interestingly, the feminine form of Allah — al-Lat — was a pre-Islamic goddess in her own right.) The three major monotheistic religions of the world refer to God — the metaphysical, omnipotent creator of the universe and all its contents — as being male. But does God really have a sex or gender?
For the Church of England, it was a big enough problem to be raised at their General Synod earlier this year. Several bishops are calling for gender-neutral terms to be used, and there will be a debate on the topic. As you can imagine, a lot of people are furious about even the idea. Piers Morgan said the Church of England was doing “everything possible to become completely irrelevant from society with this woke BS — it’s embarrassing.” And even Vladimir Putin took time off from invading Ukraine to weigh in on the issue, implying it was indicative of a wider “spiritual catastrophe” in the West.
So, how can we make sense of the debate?
There are, essentially, two ways by which we might challenge the traditional use of masculine pronouns to refer to God: sociologically and theologically.
Sociologically, there is a concern that having masculine language in official liturgy marginalizes women and establishes “man” as the norm. As Michael Rea at the University of Notre Dame puts it, “Characterizing God in predominantly masculine terms has been harmful to women… to the extent that it encourages a false view of [male] superiority, and enables various kinds of oppressive behavior.” Additionally, one study from Baylor University concluded:
“Individuals who believe God is a male are more likely to believe most men are better suited for politics, a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works, it is God’s will that women care for children, or that a husband should earn a larger salary than his wife.”
In short, traditional, conservative religious language correlates to traditional, conservative views. There’s nothing wrong with having one political view over another, but it goes to highlight how important the words we use are. How we speak defines what we believe. What we believe defines how we behave.
The theology of the matter
Of course, the sociological or feminist critique of gendered language would be moot if there were good theological reasons for keeping gendered language. If calling God a He is more fitting to His nature — or the nature He’s purported to have — then it’s appropriate to call Him a Him.
Yet, there are two reasons to be skeptical about such an approach. First, there’s the idea of “divine transcendence.” This states that few, if any, material characterizations of God are metaphysically accurate. God isn’t a “father” like we understand it, he’s not a “king” like we know it, and he is not a “he” like we imagine it. God is beyond our world, and worldly words fail to characterize him at all.
The second is the theological concept of Imago Dei — that humans are “made in God’s image.” The idea is that men and women are both created in God’s image, so using gendered language will only ever represent one aspect of God. (Likewise, female pronouns would be equally insufficient.) If we want to say that God is male in the same way as our current, worldly stereotypes of masculinity define “male,” that that also fails to encapsulate the huge variety of God’s creation. As Professor Rea puts it, “In the literature… we find claims to the effect that characterizations of God as powerful are masculine, whereas characterizations of God as nurturing or as brooding over God’s children are feminine.”
For all the human race to be equally a reflection of God’s nature, no one label — nor its accompanying stereotype — will ever suffice.
The case for traditionalism
This is, for most believers, obvious. Christians have long recognized that God is neither male nor female. In the 14th century, for instance, Julian of Norwich wrote, “God is our Mother as truly as he is our Father.” God is no more a man than he is tall, hairy, or muscled. Besides, many languages in the world have gendered nouns. In French, the word for “door” is feminine but in Russian it’s masculine. No one in France thinks a door is a woman. Ancient Greek (of the New Testament), Hebrew (of the Old Testament), and Arabic (of the Koran) are gendered languages. It could be argued that we need not read too much into pronouns.
The traditional case for keeping He/His/Father language, though, is that this is what everyone in the history of that religion has done. We might change “God the Father” to “God the Parent” to jolt our understanding and remind us of the corporeality of human language. But on the flip side, language should not get in the way of worship. As the Reverend Giles Frazer puts it (of the Church of England):
“Words should not continually interject themselves into our worship demanding attention; mostly they should drop away as attention is directed to the beyond. ‘Our parent’ keeps us stuck to the ground, mired in the messiness of all-too-human politics and division. Leaden culture-war politics dressed up in a cassock is a sure fire turn off for people seeking something transcendent.”
Inclusion vs. Tradition
There is a point to all this that goes beyond pure academics or theology. As the feminist Mary Daly once wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God” — in other words, if God is male, then men are more divine. That sounds like a recipe for discrimination and oppression.
However, the point traditionalists and the Reverend Frazer are making is that when we use the language of the Bible, Tanakh, or Koran (and the language of all the believers that have come before), we are joining in a tradition. We are taking our place in the Body of Christ (Protestants), Communion of Saints (Catholicism), Ummah (Islam), or Klal Yisrael (Judaism). We take a pew next to 9th century saints. We kneel alongside Old Testament prophets. We worship as the Prophet Mohammed, himself, did.
The question of gendered religious language ultimately comes down to what you view as more important: inclusion and equality or tradition and history. And in that debate, there’s likely no resolution soon.
Jonny Thomson is our resident philosopher and the author of The Well, a weekly newsletter that explores the biggest questions occupying the world’s brightest minds. Click here to subscribe.