June 21, 2005

Is God Male?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 11:17 am

Sunday’s LA Times had an editorial by Dennis Prager on the issue of gender-neutral language when speaking of God. Prager asks the question:

Why do Judeo-Christian religions insist on God being a father and not a mother? Is it still important to use masculine images and vocabulary to describe God?

It’s nice to hear a conservative like Prager concede the obvious:

To begin with, let us make it clear that nowhere in biblical thought is God a man in the sense of being a larger-than-life male with testes. The Bible that introduced this God to humanity depicts God as sexually neuter. In fact, the God of the Bible is the first god in history entirely devoid of sexual characteristics or sexual behavior.

Regrettably, some disagree with this statement of the genderless nature of God.

Prager argues, however, that God should be described as a “He” because:

…God is the source of moral rules. As the feminist thinker Carole Gilligan argued years ago, men think more in terms of rules, and women think more in terms of feelings/compassion/ intuition. There is a great human need for both. But, first and foremost, the Judeo-Christian God is a moral ruler (giver of moral rules and moral judge of humanity), and neither men nor women want to be given rules or ruled by a woman. For both men and women, the masculine image carries an authority that the feminine one does not.

This is a classic statement of the Strict Father frame of conservative politics as described by George Lakoff. If you buy in to the Strict Father instead of the Nurturing Parent frame, then Prager’s argument will seem self-evident. But if you instead think in terms of a Nurturing Parent as I do, this argument is non-sensical.

First, God as primarily a moral ruler removed from the God of grace is not my God. Second, the statement that humans don’t want to be ruled by a woman is sexism masquerading as a statement of fact. Prager’s argument is circular: God is a rule-giver, and rule-givers are thought of as male, therefore God should be thought of as male. If you don’t already accept his conclusion, you aren’t going to accept either of his premises.

Prager gives more arguments for male-God language, all relying on a sexist perspective and Strict Father frame to justify God-as-male languange. What’s interesting is that all of his arguments acknowledge that speaking of God as male is merely convention, not theology. He accepts that God is above and beyond gender, but is arguing that male language regarding God is the most effective way for humans to speak about God.

But what if it isn’t, at least for some people? Maybe God-as-male does work for many Christians, and I wouldn’t want to dictate to them how they should speak of God. But if God-as-male becomes a stumbling block for someone in understanding and following God, then it needs to go, at least for them. God-as-male feels hurtful to many women (and some men too), echoing the oppressiveness of our historically male-dominated society. If this language is just a convention, then it is an adiaphoron, something that is open to change based on the needs of a particular congregation or congregant.

My only rationale for using male language regarding God is that Jesus called God his father. For this reason, and only this reason, I am comfortable with the trinitarian formula of “God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. But thinking of God the Creator as neither male, nor female, but incorporating and transcending both, helps my understanding of God and my relationship with God. God is both grace and law, compassion and justice, truth and light, and yes, male and female. And importantly, much, much more than male and female. Speaking of God as merely male is forcing God into our little mental box instead of expanding our understanding of God to understand God as God truly is.

21 Comments

  1. Dear Bob: One of the problems with Dennis Prager’s arguments is that it constrains how everyone is to think
    about and relate to God. Anyone who studies languages understands that how people talk about something
    impacts how they view it. For exaomple, in politics, groups or individuals are either demonized or promoted
    by words used to describe them. So, as you point out, the words we use to describe God can be a
    stumbling block to better understanding God and our relationship with God.
    Finally: Adiaphoron – Cool word! Maybe you should have Word for the Day section.

    Ci Vediamo at HAGL.

    Comment by Adam — June 21, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

  2. I am a Christian Too ? Is God Male?

    It seems appropriate to link to I am a Christian Too ? Is God Male? after writing 42: The ESV Bible.

    Trackback by 42 — June 21, 2005 @ 5:11 pm

  3. Of course God is Male.

    Comment by Matt — June 21, 2005 @ 6:42 pm

  4. Pentecostal pioneer Finis Jennings Dake insisted that God was a male. In his Annotated Reference Bible he states, “He (God) has a personal spirit body, shape, form, image and likeness of a man, bodily parts such as, back parts, heart, hands and fingers, mouth, lips and tongue, feet, eyes, hair, head, face, arms, loins, and other bodily parts. He has bodily presence and goes place to place in a body like all other persons. He has a voice and countenance. He wears clothes, eats, dwells in a mansion and in a city located on a material planet called heaven.”

    Peace,

    Mike

    Comment by Dr. Mike Kear — June 21, 2005 @ 7:09 pm

  5. PS: Considering Dake’s comment above, I wonder how this exclusively male God with a literal body pulled this off? “Of the Rock Who bore you, you were unmindful; you forgot the God Who travailed in your birth.” (Deut. 332:18 AMP).

    Peace,

    Mike

    Comment by Dr. Mike Kear — June 21, 2005 @ 7:16 pm

  6. Dave – thanks for the Bible references. Just like Mike, I particularly like the Deuteronomy verse.

    Comment by Bob — June 21, 2005 @ 8:12 pm

  7. Is God Male?

    I am a Christian Too asks Is God Male?, and provides some intersting thoughts on the issue. Nothing too surprising, but cogently argued.

    Trackback by / musing / struggling / dreaming / — June 22, 2005 @ 1:41 am

  8. I think of God as a male because Jesus is God, one and the same. It does not offend me to think of God as a male. Your article presses the issues of “not hurting women’s feelings or men can’t think of God as a female”. Does it really matter who we call God? Let each person make their own decision. But I will never think it is sexist to call God a male.

    Comment by Marsha — June 22, 2005 @ 2:40 pm

  9. Jesus referred to God as “Father”, so that’s good enough for me.

    Comment by Todd — June 22, 2005 @ 2:48 pm

  10. “Jesus referred to God as ‘Father’, so that’s good enough for me”

    Amen! And, Jesus would know.

    Comment by Angel — June 22, 2005 @ 3:05 pm

  11. I once read an Orthodox Jewish rabbi’s explanation that the Bible’s use of male pronouns for God is simply “male default” language — that of course God isn’t male in a physical sense, or isn’t exclusively “male” in attributes…that any way we attempt to image or describe God will be woefully inadequate and anthropomorphic. I have to say, the rabbi makes a much more thoughtful and compelling argument than the “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” mentalitiy of some of the respondents here.

    Comment by LutheranChik — June 22, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

  12. If I were in Italy, I would speak Italian… if I were in Germany I would communicate in a way
    that would be understood by Germans. Wouldn’t God also use language humans could understand.
    Is there procreation in heaven? Is there marriage in heaven? If you were LDS you would answer
    “yes”, but the Christian view is that there is no procreation in heaven so why would there be
    sexual identity in heaven? When humans were created in the image of God, I do not think this
    means anthropromorphism, rather the qualities of God: love, creativity, humor, forgiveness, etc.
    Indeed, the Hebrew word translated as image in many Bibles is more correctly translated
    “likeness”. I am sorry to have to say it, but someone has to: God does not look like
    Charlton Heston!

    Comment by Tony — June 23, 2005 @ 8:43 am

  13. I’ve heard that Roller Coasters can cause a miscarriage or abortion. Why do we let this happen? Why don’t we do something about it? Women of child-bearing age should NOT be allowed to ride roller coasters!

    Comment by Sally — June 30, 2005 @ 4:08 pm

  14. In 1989 I wrote an opinion piece defending the masculine pronoun
    for God, and I still stand by it. Basically I argued, this is what
    we have been given by revelation and we have no higher knowledge of
    God to prove the Bible and tradition wrong; we’re not Gnostics. Cf.
    James Edwards, “Does God Really Want to Be Called ‘Father’?”
    Christianity Today in 1986 (I forget the exact date).

    Comment by mim — July 2, 2005 @ 10:31 am

  15. Bob, your framing of the question is unfair. You are setting up
    a straw man. No one is arguing that God is male, except wrt the Incarnation. What some of us are arguing is, to paraphrase James Edwards, that God is
    probably beyond gender but that he has chosen to relate to
    creation in a masculine way.

    And to maintain that Jesus’ calling God Father is the only
    reason for calling God “he” is a Marcionite argument IMO. It
    implies that the totality of Scripture, a body of writings that
    Jesus himself considered authoritative, counts for nothing.

    Comment by mim — July 4, 2005 @ 5:16 am

  16. mim –

    A question for you, since I am an amateur when it comes to theology. I have heard of the Wisdom tradition in early Judaism, where Sophia is an aspect of YHWH that is female, and represents wisdom. Are you familiar with this aspect of Judaism, and do I have it right?

    Comment by Bob — July 6, 2005 @ 2:26 pm

  17. I take it you’re referring to Wisdom, the personification in the
    early chapters of the Book of Proverbs. In Jewish tradition
    that’s usually identified with Torah, tho there may be a Jewish
    mystical tradition that I don’t know about. But the Wisdom of
    Proverbs speaks of herself as distinct from God, and why use the
    Greek word for wisdom, instead of Hokmah or Wisdom? Unless some
    Hellenistic Jewish writer identified Wisdom with the Logos, I
    dunno. You’d have to ask someone knowledgeable about Hellenistic
    Judaism; otherwise it seems a desperate stretch to use Sophia as
    a name for God.

    Sally, what’s roller coasters got to do with it? And Tony, God
    became incarnate as a Middle Eastern Jew, so of course he doesn’t
    look like Charlton Heston!

    But getting back to Sophia, Bob: you’ve already said that
    masculine references to God might make some people uncomfortable;
    by the same token, wouldn’t a feminine reference to God make other
    people uncomfortable, such as those who had abusive mothers?

    Comment by mim — July 6, 2005 @ 5:30 pm

  18. God, flip it. DOG!

    Comment by Asha — August 27, 2005 @ 6:40 pm

  19. I am not a christian. But let me put some logic in here. as most of us have never seen God.
    We can only fathom God with what we can percieve around us.
    Let us now compare, at the root level, the physical body of a Womean and a Man, which is
    mostly Manifestation of characteristics held by the Soul (Internal Indistructible energy)
    which inhabits the body.

    Fact on Man: Has X (female) and Y (Male) Gene
    Logical Decuction: He posseses both female and male characteristics (albeit some of them,
    on both sides have to be suppressed to allow balance).

    Fact on Woman: has two X (only female characteristics).
    Logical Decuction: She posseses only female characteristics.

    Fact on God: We really do not know him well
    Logical Decuction: If we say that God exists then He is all powerful all represnting and
    endowed with all characteristics that manifests the known Universe.

    Conclusion: Based on the above, with our limited knowledge, it is clear that,
    as Man posesses Both Female and Male characteristics, the best way of referring to God
    would be to think/call of him as a personage who is best among in Men.

    Comment by Lakshmi Narasimhan Madhavan — February 17, 2006 @ 8:00 pm

  20. I disagree that neither man nor woman enjoy rules given by a woman.
    That is a remark from someone who may have problems taking orders from a woman but
    not all men or women do. I suspect that men who have created the patriarchial religions
    as well as a sexless god have done so for purely human reasons. Men and women have been raised
    primarily by their mothers, and more so earlier in human history than now. Fathers, on the
    other hand, were distant, punished and or set rules, but didn’t have close contact with
    their children. I suspect young boys grew to idealize the parent that they couldn’t reach
    while Mother was always there. Her strengths as well as her weaknesses were as much a
    part of a child’s life as food and water. But the father was seen only from distance in
    many homes, when he came home for food and sleep from a long day at work.

    Also, a sexless god could not be tempted by a women’s sexuality whether or not she tempted him.
    He would be immune to the power of sexual love, and therefore, to some, more powerful.
    He dan not be reached by woman except through the mind and according to Christian
    myth, he is all knowing, all powerful. That sort of settles that. But sexlessness is lifeless.
    There is no life without sex. That, perhaps, is why in this so called Christian world, the
    “things” we have grown to depend upon created by men’s minds and more recently the minds of
    women, are also killing the world upon which we live.

    Comment by Judith A. Smith — September 6, 2006 @ 7:49 am

  21. Oh, and before you ask, no I am not a Christian. I prefer not to identify with any organized
    or unorganized religion, and take philosophies from each to live by. If there is a “God”
    in my way of thinking it is an unidentifyable energy that pervades through all nature,
    everywhere. As human beings are part of nature, though we seem to be divorsing ourselves
    from that fact more and more, this energy is within us as well. That still, small voice of
    Wisdom, Love, Compassion, Truth that if we listen, and if we follow, is within us all. This
    “Divine Energy” cannot be confined in one Religion, or sect, or dogma, or nationality,
    or geographical sector. Therefore it cannot be caught in the “My God Is Better Than Your
    God” arguments that go on and on and on between organized religious groups. This voice can
    be found in all religions, everywhere, when their differences are peeled away, and essence remains.

    Comment by Judith A. Smith — September 6, 2006 @ 8:05 am

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