by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar
Below is my outline to a presentation of “God’s Gender” on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at First Congregational Church of East Hartford
METHODOLOGY: How to we know what we know?
- Three-legged stool of Bible, Church Tradition/Theology, Experience
- Different traditions tend to focus on one, but all are always at play to some degree
- Orthodox or Catholic emphasis on tradition/theology (ex. Canon law; order of mass has changed very little, with Vatican 2 being the biggest)
- Protestant Reformation lifted up centrality of the Bible (ex. Sola scriptorium, Bible in vernacular for common people to read)
- Post-WWII a move to more consciously embrace personal and social experience. The UCC motto of “God is Still Speaking” points to the idea that God’s Word/word continues even after the book of revelation. God is still speaking in our modern day and through our modern experiences
GOD’S GENDER IN THE BIBLE
- God is greater than language, so language cannot fully capture God…but language is what we have. Hopefully, language about God “should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language.” – Lynn Japinga (1999 Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide)
- Language inadequate
- Name of God?
- I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14)
- mixture of “to be” verbs without gender
- 4 letters, without vowels
- Yah (f) Weh (m)
- Male pronouns in Bible translations a function of gendered Hebrew language in which male denoted both male and female (like how “men” once meant “all people”)
- Genesis 1:1-2:4 (Joan P. Schaupp)
- God created humanity in God’s image, male and female. (1:27)
- Gen 1:1 “God (Elohim, m pl noun of ancient near east gods) created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (ruach elohim, f noun) swept over (hovering; f verb) the face of the waters.”
- Gendered images include: (brainstorm)
- God as Father (Jesus in Gethsemane, “Abba”)
- God in silence (1 Kings 19; Elijah on mountain)
- God as pillar of fire (Exodus)
- God as Mother giving birth (Deuteronomy 32:18b God birthing Israel in pain; Isaiah 42:14)
- God as comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13)
- God as a mother eagle upholding Israel (Deut. 32:11)
- Spirit of God = Lady Wisdom (prov 1:20-22; 8:1-9:6; Wis 1:6-7, 6:22-25)
God’s Gender in the Bible: includes both male and female and plenty of non-gendered images too
- God as Jesus, a man
- Needed to be a man to be taken seriously in the ancient world
- Jesus uses feminine imagery for self
- “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” – Matt 23 and Luke 13
- Jesus calls God “Father” and tells disciples to pray, “Our Father…”
- Jesus teaches his disciples to baptize, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
- Does that mean we can only call God father? Or is calling God father simply one of many options?
GOD’S GENDER IN CHURCH THEOLOGY/TRADITION
- Early Church Fathers used feminine imagery for God and Jesus (before 400 AD)
- “he is father; in his compassion to us he became mother.” Clement, bishop of Alexandria
- “The Word [Christ] is everything to his little ones, both father and mother.” Clement, bishop of Alexandria
- “He who has promised us heavenly food has nourished us on milk, having recourse to a mother’s tenderness.” – Augustine, bishop of Hippo
- “The divine power, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterances of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.” – Gregory, bishop of Nyssa
- Syria church, in “Acts of Thomas” calls the Holy Spirit, she in communion rite
- St John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople 400 ad “Christ our friend, and member and head and brother and sister and mother”
- St Jerome and and St Gregory of Nazianzus also mention that God is not male nor female…and that using feminine imagery and pronouns is fine
- Julian of Norwich, 14th-century: “Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.” and “our precious mother, Jesus”
- St. Anselm, 11th c archbishop of Canterbury, “Christ, my mother” & “the great mother”
- Catholic catechism: “God is neither man nor woman: he is God.”
- English language uses male pronouns as inclusive of men and women, which was the norm at this time, continued in worship and theological writings until the modern era.
- How the English language is used is changing – “men” no longer is automatically inclusive of men and women as perhaps it once was. Now it is far more common for humanity to be called humanity. Men refers strictly to men. As this change is happening, theology is evolving with modern experiences.
Mary Daly, 1973: “If God is male, then man is God.” (Beyond God the Father, 1978)
- The extensive and exclusive use of male pronouns and imagery for God has rendered God male for most people, despite what the Bible and Christian theology professes.
- If God is male, then men begin to see themselves as God, above and more powerful than woman. Women likewise see men as Divine and more powerful.
- Not dissimilar to the psychological impact of exclusively male presidents, ceos, or leaders
- Women internalize a false sense of being less than – which can be acted out in harmful ways (ex. self-harm, stay in abusive situations, neglecting to speak or share gifts)
- Men internalize a false sense of being better than – which can be acted out in harmful ways (ex. Abuse, speaking over and against women, excessive pride)
- So, Mary Daly and many feminists’ scholars afterwards, argued for a more inclusive approach to language for God as well as for people.
- Exclusive male language limited view of the Divine and put obstacles in the path of one’s relationship with God
Denominations respond to Feminist Movement
- 1973 United Church of Christ General Synod adopts resolution on inclusive language
- 1981 UCC Statement of Faith uses doxology form (thus eliminating pronoun problem)
- 1984 United Reformed Church uses inclusive language in its publications
- 1986 UCC Book of Worship with inclusive language
- 1989 NRSV Bible Translation uses inclusive language for humanity
- Church of England uses inclusive language in worship
- 1995 New Century Hymnal with inclusive hymnody published
- 1999 Methodist Prayer book uses both male and female imagery for God
- 2014 United Reformed Church encourages inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship
- 2017 The Shack depicts God as a woman
GOD’S GENDER IN OUR LIVED EXPERIENCE
your experience of God may or may not have gender attached.
- Most grew up with male imagery for God and may still find such imagery and pronouns comforting. If so, by all means use the language that helps you draw closer to God.
- For some, exclusively male imagery for God has been harmful and distancing. Abuse by fathers make calling God father disturbing.
- Some find claiming God as father to be empowering and comforting – a Father unlike their earthly father
- “limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.” paraphrase of feminist theologian Judith Plaskow
WHAT TO DO? SOME OPTIONS
Exclusively feminine language for God
Example: God created us and forms us to be her people.
Why? Counters centuries of exclusively male language
Problem: loses male imagery and denies Jesus’s teaching on Lord’s Prayer and baptism
Inclusive Language: non-gendered language for God
Example: God created us and forms us to be the people of God.
Why? Limits harms of masculine-specific language, while not jarring those unfamiliar with feminine imagery; also limits harm of mother trauma
Problem: Lacks the personal, relational aspect of God
Expansive Language: balances gendered language for God and use non-gendered language.
The Father created us and forms us to be her people.
(more often: a hymn with male pronouns is balanced with a prayer with female pronouns)
Why? Provides more personal relational language , while not emphasizing one or the other
Problem: can enforce gender binary and can still be triggering for those with trauma
Exclusive Language: exclusively male language for God
Example: The Father created us and forms us to be his people.
Why? While language does vary, God is male because God gives life out of nothing (woman receives life/sperm from man and gives birth to the union) So God, the creator, must be male. -S.A. Dance article in The Federalist
Problem: Genesis 1: God (male and female) created together. Also, male does not give life out of nothing, but male and female together bring life. Man can’t make a baby with sperm alone.
Personal vs. Communal
Personal prayer life: use the pronouns and images that help you draw closer to the Divine.
Your personal experience is key.
Communal worship life: do the least harm.
As the pastor of the entire congregation,
Most of the time I use inclusive language in order to reduce the extreme spiritual harm exclusive male pronouns have done to countless women and men throughout the ages.
Once or twice, when there is a hymn with repeated male pronouns for God, I balance with a feminine prayer.