In Western Christianity, we speak of God using almost exclusively male pronouns, regardless of your denomination (side note: I refer specifically to Western Christianity not to call it out, but because I am quite ignorant on Eastern perspectives). Growing up, I never, ever heard of God referred to as female in any aspect, even from my non-Catholic friends. Really, I had never heard of God referred to as anything other than male until probably two years ago. And now that I’m writing about it, I feel as if I am beating a dead horse, because I have now listened to several people’s opinions about God as a female (please don’t think this was my original idea).
Here’s the thing- to me, it makes the most sense that God is neither female nor male. God is both, God is neither, God is all, I’m not sure. I don’t have the resources currently to formulate my own argument for one or the other. I do have some thoughts on why it makes me so uncomfortable to change the gender from what I have ingrained in my mind.
Apart from the obvious, I’ve been calling God a He for 26 years and old habits die hard, I think that language may have something to do with my discomfort. I recently listened to the Liturgist Podcast “God our Mother” and they address this very phenomenon. Why does it make us so uncomfortable to hear God referred to as “She” or with ungendered pronouns?
In Spanish, everything is gendered. “Escuela (school)” is feminine, “libro (book)” is masculine. However, in English, everything is an “it.” But we only refer to inanimate things as “its.” Animals and people are all gendered. I suppose plants are not gendered, however, and they are living and they are grossly messing up my thought process.
[Everything with eyes? Everything with personality? Everything with the capacity for language?]
Plants aside. We assign animals and items of value with gender. When we get a new car, we often name it and refer to it as “he” or “she.” It is always important to us to ask the gender of a pet, or correct someone when they incorrectly assume. Gender is extremely important to us. For example, I have a cat that was born a male, but was branded as a female when I adopted him as a kitten. I found out two years later that this cat was actually a male, not a female, through a series of unfortunate events, and I now refer to the cat as he, she, and it, because the cat really has no gender anymore (all sex organs have been removed. Ask me for the full story later). As far as I can tell, my cat doesn’t care if I tell people it’s a he or a she. But people care a lot. They seem to be afraid I will get offended if they use the wrong pronoun (I won’t). Or it makes them uncomfortable that they don’t know if it’s male or female, as if you would treat the cat differently one way or another (it’s a fixed, indoor cat, so I wouldn’t). This whole experience has made me realize how immensely important correct gender identification is to us. And this is just regarding a cat- not a person, and not a higher being of worship.
As I was listening to this podcast, the speakers at one point replace masculine pronouns with both feminine pronouns and gender-neutral pronouns. It starts to dawn on me that they make me uncomfortable for different reasons. The use of female pronouns is uncomfortable because I’m not used to them describing God. My ears and mind are still testing them out, although the ice is holding and it makes just as much sense to hear God described as female as it did to hear God described as male for so many years.
The gender-neutral ones are…off putting. Scary. Disconcerting to me. And I think it’s because we, as humans, don’t know an identity that does not revolve around gender. The only time we describe things as without gender are the times we are describing absolutely inhuman entities. Monsters. Rocks. Aliens. Stairs. [Plants?] Things that are either inherently without human values, or that exemplify the dark parts of humanity we wish to dissociate from. So when I hear God described as an “it,” it feels disrespectful to me. I’m no linguist, but as far as I can tell, English only has the capacity for three sets of pronouns: feminine (“she”), masculine (“he”), and subhuman (“it”). Yes, we have “zee,” but that hasn’t quite caught on yet in mainstream circles. I’ll admit my own ignorance and say that I’m not even sure how to use “zee,” or if I’m allowed to yet.
[This, of course, may only be relevant to certain languages. Like I said, linguistics is not my field of expertise, but I am doing my best to learn what I can (so you can probably expect a later post with my revelations or lack thereof).]
We’re taught from such a young age that gender is one of the most important parts of our personal definition. I think this is getting in the way of our ability to perceive a God that is bigger than gender. This is definitely true for me, anyway. It’s easy to think of God as male, because that’s how things have been traditionally described. It’s easy to think of God as female, once you look at the descriptions of God in the Bible and the feminine metaphors used. It’s hard to think of God as both, or neither genders.
But how freeing is the reward of seeing God as above gender?
For many of us, our gender comes with a garbage truck of baggage. Part of the reason we rely so heavily on gender is because it is easier for us to “know” someone quickly or to “figure them out” once we know their gender. Translation: it allows us to make boatloads of assumptions about them without actually getting to know them. Don’t get me wrong, these schema have huge cognitive advantages. Where we go wrong is when we rely on them instead of getting to know someone.
If we believed in a God above gender, the verse “Made in God’s image” changes dramatically. We don’t have to question if females were made in “His” image, because we are all made in gender-superior God’s image. We can probably agree now that God is not human; I’m suggesting that we should be able to agree that God has no gender. We shouldn’t believe in a God because it is male, nor should we evangelize about a God because it is female. We don’t need to argue about the masculine versus feminine aspects of God, because both are equally important to the being and neither are its defining characteristic. And if both are equally important aspects of God, then men and women are fully, truly equal as children made in the image of that gender-superior God. Not separate “but equal” groups of God’s children, but united and equal. Our understanding of gender takes on a completely new meaning when we perceive a God (or higher being, or higher power) as gender-superior.