Tuesday, August 14, 2007,6:13 PM
Speaking of God
In the recent discussion on Women in the Emerging Church, the issue of gender pronouns for God arose and I was asked to clarify my thoughts on that topic. I've discussed this issue often over at the Emerging Women blog and my contribution to the Faith in a Dress edition of the Porpoise Diving Life ezine provided a brief overview as well. But I've never really addressed it here on my personal blog. Why? Because this is an issue that freaks a lot of people out. They think that to even discuss this topic implies that one has left behind any traditional construction of Christianity. I thought that way for a long time. But this is a topic that is a given for many in mainline churches and has started to become a serious issue for women from evangelical backgrounds. I've been forced to wrestle through it. So to add another long and controversial post to this week's offerings (and in no way do I claim to even attempt a comprehensive treatment of this issue), here we go.

The issue at hand is the names we use to refer to God. The majority of the names we use as English speakers are gendered masculine. Although we are generally okay with some of the neutral names and metaphors for describing God, people often get very offended when God is referred to using the feminine names and images (even though such are present in scripture and church history). How we speak about God is a topic that has received a lot of attention recently. With Peter Rollins' well known book How (not) to Speak of God and Bruce Benson's lesser-known (but more in-depth) Graven Ideologies, the concepts of what we know about God and how we express that have become popular topics of conversation. The ideas those authors present (based on the implications of postmodern philosophers such as Derrida, Levinas, and Marion) revolve around the idea that any attempt to speak of God is idolatry - conceptual idolatry, but idolatry nonetheless. We are not God. To claim to know or understand (or even fully name) God is an act of idolatry. Since we cannot have absolute knowledge of God (that would in fact make us God), we attempt to describe God using the things we know (language, images, metaphors). All of those attempts at comprehending that which cannot be comprehended must be held lightly. Any attempt to assume that our names or metaphors for God actually define God become idolatry. We start to worship our idea (name, image, metaphor) for God instead of actually worshiping God. Of course we cannot not speak of God, so we must make use of metaphors and names. The Bible is full of descriptions for God - some we have turned into names but they are all simply descriptions of God - small attempts to understand aspects of the incomprehensible. Creator. Light. Shalom. Midwife. Provider. Father. Potter. Refuge. Sustainer. Mother. Healer... None of those names from scripture define God. To choose one as the God we worship is to choose to worship an idol of our own creation. But we use the multitude of names to describe God - to describe that which we cannot grasp but are compelled to worship.

To assume that God is gendered - that God is either male or female - turns God into an idol. God is neither and yet God can be described as both. Of all the ways that we speak of God this is the one that carries the most emotional weight. Rollins brushed aside this issue in his book, saying that it has already been addressed well by others. I found that infinitely frustrating because while this idea has been addressed extensively in mainline circles there is hardly anyone talking about it in evangelical and emerging circles. But to only see God as Father and to deny that God is also Mother not only ignores scripture and creates an idol in the form of a male, but it reinforces negative stereotypes about women. Why can't we discuss God's feminine characteristics? Is there something wrong with women? Are we inferior to men? Are we somehow more sinful or more sexual or less intelligent than men? If the metaphor of Father can be used for God what does it reveal about our underlying assumptions about women if we cannot also use the metaphor of Mother?

It is generally at this point that many people respond - "Of course God has no gender, and I see how feminine terms could be used to describe God, but I'm really just more comfortable continuing to use the male names and I don't want anyone to think I'm into that whole Divine Feminine/Goddess worship stuff that's so popular these days and it's not hurting anyone right?" But, would it change things to know that there are many many women out there who have rejected Christianity because all they see represented is a male God? They do not see themselves relating to a male God and they do not see themselves as being created in God's image if God is male. Then there are those women in the church who see themselves as inferior to men because they are female and are not made if God's image. The logic goes - if God is male then male must be better. I just finished reading a book, When God Was A Woman (full of serious issues, but interesting nonetheless) that is a diatribe against the domination of the Hebrews and their male God over the goddess cultures in the Ancient Near-East. This book is over 30 years old and is still considered a classic among feminsts. The gender of God is a big issue for a lot of people. My question is whether our comfort is more important than truth or more important than all those people who have rejected Christianity for unnecessary reasons?

This is a topic that I have personally struggled through over the last couple of years. I went from thinking that using feminine names for God was just a silly (and offensive) game for extreme feminists, to seeing the need to question my default names for God. This isn't just about equality, this is much bigger than that. It is about avoiding conceptual idolatry and naming God rightly (while being aware of the tension that we can never actually do so). To default to male names for God limits my understanding of who God is and unintentionally excludes some from the communion of believers. It isn't a game or a side issue or a red herring, it reflects the center of my faith - the God I believe in. It does take effort to not just use my default name for God (father). It isn't comfortable to say mother or healer. But I've realized that I have to - for my faith and for the faith of others. It's scary. It makes some people angry. But it also opens doors to those who have been left on the outside for far too long.

Labels: ,

posted by Julie at 6:13 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 8/14/2007 06:56:00 PM, Blogger scott m

    Well, Jesus was and is a guy. We can discuss why, in that time and place, the incarnation had to be male for it to have the significance and weight it did, but we have to agree that Jesus is male or we lose the whole historical anchor of Christianity.

    Beyond that, I think Genesis 1 shows most clearly that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God -- male and female. I do not believe that God is neuter, but rather that God both encompasses and transcends gender.

    The Father is known as the Father within Christianity because that is how Jesus named him. It's not to imply gender, I think, but I would hesitate to abandon the name. We do know that the Father and the Spirit are both spirit and do not have the physicality that the Son assumed. And making the Father 'male' and the Spirit 'female' breaks the unity of the Trinity.

    It is difficult because clearly all of the Trinity must somehow transcend gender. But at the same time, we don't think that way. It's a difficult conundrum to unravel.

  • At 8/14/2007 07:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

    I don't think Julie was implying that we abandon the name "Father". Just suggesting that we should recognize it's limitations and feel free to use many other names and metaphors as well.

  • At 8/14/2007 08:54:00 PM, Blogger Erin

    Great post, Julie. I still struggle with this, most recently I have been sometimes using S/He (learned it from Sonja). I think I use masculine pronouns less and less often, choosing to just use "God" or some descriptor (i.e. Divinity), but I sometimes revert to habit, too.

  • At 8/14/2007 09:20:00 PM, Blogger Elizabeth Chapin

    Julie, I started on this journey of re-examining my beliefs about God and gender after I read a book by then Wheaton professor Lisa Graham-McMinn - I wonder if you had classes with her? Her book, "Growing Strong Daughters" shook some of my beliefs about God and the roles of men and women to the foundation. I have since read "The Dance of the Dissident Daughter" which has some unique perspectives and am still exploring this topic. I appreciate your blog on this topic - I have so many books on my list to read about this and so little time!

    I visit the Emerging Women blog on occasion and hope to join in the dialog more often. I think this issue is a very critical issue. I asked my husband his opinion on a question that was burning in my mind as I first started on this journey: If Christ has set us free from the curse, why has it taken over 2000 years for some of the effects to be realized - like that in Christ there is neither male nor female - we are all one.

  • At 8/15/2007 08:54:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Elizabeth - I didn't have any classes with her, but I vaguely recall hearing about that book before. I'll have to look for it. I think a lot of women are encountering these ideas in Dance of the Dissident Daughter, even if they don't at all agree where Sue Monk Kidd ends up. I really need to read more and find some "good" books on this topic. I get asked often what book I would recommend on this topic that isn't too "out there", but so far I haven't found a good one. All the ones I find either talk around the issue ignoring the gender stuff, go pretty far into goddess worship, or spend the entire book making fun of feminists and goddess worshipers (or alternately conservative patriarchs) instead of expressing any positive thoughts. And none of them are really intellectual. Its frustrating.

  • At 8/15/2007 11:59:00 AM, Blogger sue

    Nice explanation..Thanks!

  • At 8/15/2007 01:54:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

    "I get asked often what book I would recommend on this topic that isn't too "out there", but so far I haven't found a good one."

    Which is why you need to write it! :)

  • At 8/16/2007 05:42:00 AM, Anonymous cheryl

    have you read Sallie McFague's book "Models of God"? she explores the images of God as mother, lover and friend. It's not extreme, and it changed my world.

  • At 8/16/2007 06:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

    I can remember about 3 years ago doing an IKON service in Belfast called 'CHRISTA' which explored the 'feminine' in our God-talk via liturgy, ritual and photography which was very powerful as it seemed to touch the repressed part of the Christian tradition in a very real way. I had read a bit about feminine theology but this had much more of an impact om me.
    Perhaps the EC could creatively explore more ideas for services to bring out this theme?

    A random musing

    Rodney (from church and pomo board)

  • At 8/16/2007 08:18:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Cheryl - Sally McFague is on my "to read soon' list. I have her book Metaphorical Theology, but I'll look into Models of God.

    Rodney - Thanks for dropping by. I think it will take experiential services to really help people open up to feminine God-talk. But people have to be intellectually okay with even talking about the issue first (or at least the leaders do) in order to start doing stuff like that.

  • At 8/21/2007 03:29:00 AM, Blogger paul

    it's a good point Julie, many men have equal problems praying to a 'Father/daddy' after having a crap time with their own dad. Like me. Of course I and other people opt out of it by picking another member of the trinity or talking about God in general.

    But why not explore more the attributes/images/signposts of God, male, female or gender neutral - if it helps us in our expression of our relationship with the divine rather than as a barrier, what is in a name?

  • At 8/23/2007 07:00:00 AM, Blogger Erin Marshalek

    Julie, I appreciate your post. I've been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, and it means a lot to know others are wondering these same things. If/when you find (or produce) more good resources, please direct me toward them!


Links to this post:

Create a Link