PRONOUNS AND GOD TALK
The pronouns with which we refer to God actually reveal much about how we conceive of God. And though this might not seem to be the case at first, consider some of the most common metaphors we use to understand God. Father, Shepherd, Lord, King—all of these are identified with male individuals and referred to with masculine pronouns. As a result, to think of God in male or masculine terms becomes almost inevitable.
Now the reason this is important is because this practice of conceiving of God in male terms and of referring to God with masculine pronouns has recently proven quite controversial. In fact in our last post, Dan wrote about our gendered-language of God on Reconstruct and about how many of you listeners and readers were frustrated with the pronouns we employed. I want to help clarify this problem and explain how I navigate through this issue.
So here’s our question: why is it a problem if we refer to God with masculine pronouns? For some of you I’m sure this seems hardly to be an issue in the first place, but trust me—it’s actually quite critical. I want to start with the theological problem this presents then move to the sociological problem it presents.
THE THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM: THINKING OF GOD IN HUMAN TERMS
The first aspect of the theological problem concerns the gender of God (whether or not such a concept applies to God at all), while the second aspect concerns theological method (the manner in which our ideas of God and humanity ought to be formed).
First of all, God has no gender properly conceived. Gender and the sexed-body is something humans share with creation, not with the Creator. Thus, our gendered language of theological reference is symbolic and metaphorical, and this is a key theological insight to remember. If anyone uses gendered pronouns to imbue God with human maleness or human femaleness, then they are simply being theologically sloppy. God is not literally male nor female, neither is God literally father nor mother. God is instead metaphorically male, female, father, mother, and so on—just as God is metaphorically a shepherd and not literally a shepherd. But we also must remember that God has decided to reveal Godself to us as Father, and as King, of course in addition to other metaphors, and thus we are entirely permitted to use the language God has given us to speak of God accurately and appropriately. To be clear then, when referencing biblical passages one can retain the original gendered metaphors and accompanying pronouns without any problem (same with Jesus, who can be appropriately referred to with masculine pronouns). Instead, my main concern in this essay is about the way in which we speak of God in general theological reflection.
Furthermore, this is an English problem not a universal problem. In English, neuter pronouns are only used of impersonal, inanimate objects. Therefore using a neuter pronoun to refer to God seems totally wrong or disrespectful—as wrong as it would be to call a baby an “it.” We must use gendered pronouns to communicate personhood, and we only have two to choose from. However, in Greek and Hebrew for instance this is completely different. In Ancient Greek, several inanimate, impersonal objects, such as the sky, assume the masculine form (οὐρανός), while several actual persons, like a child, assume the neuter form (τέκνον). What makes this so interesting is that it presented no problem for the Greeks at all—they simply did not conceptually connect personhood with gendered language in the same way as modern English speakers. The Greeks had no artificial, philosophical barrier between the personal and the impersonal demarcated with gendered and neuter pronouns. Thus, God as the Holy Spirit is actually neuter in the original Greek New Testament (πνεῦμα ἁγία). In the same way, the ancient Hebrews also didn’t connect personhood to gendered language like modern English speakers. For them an impersonal, genderless word such as the earth took the feminine form (אָ֫רֶץ), while a clearly gendered word like breasts hilariously took the masculine form (שַׁד). Even the Spirit in the Old Testament took the feminine form (ר֫וּחַ)—and no one seemed to care. Again, this is not a universal problem but an English problem, and therefore this is an issue situated temporally and ideologically within a particular culture (an insight which will prove important for the sociological problem).
Secondly, giving conceptual priority to any gendered language of God results in a faulty theological method. Why must this be the case? Because if God has no gender, then to understand God through the lens of gender is simply to understand God on human terms instead of on divine terms. But this is the classic theological problem, formulated brilliantly nearly two centuries ago by philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He insisted that humanity would never understand God unless God revealed Godself to them. This is because if humans attempt to understand God “from below to above” using their experience and intuitions as guides to grasp the divine, then the only God they’ll grasp will be an image fashioned out of their own ideals. Instead, God through God’s revelation ought to be that original source in light of which we understand our own humanity, rather than humanity being that in light of which we understand God. Thus to begin with gendered ideas and metaphors of God as the foundation upon which to conceive of God is to proceed in entirely the wrong direction. God is not literally male nor female, nor literally father nor mother, and to assume otherwise is to risk fabricating a human-originated image of the real God.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL PROBLEM: PARTICIPATING IN OPPRESSION
The sociological problem of gendered pronouns and God talk emerges in the risk of participating in the oppression of women through implicit patriarchal constructs. This might seem outlandish, but it’s very important.
First, consider the potential inequality that can ensue as a result of our gendered language about God. If thinking of God as male becomes pregnant within our theological assumptions and conceptions, then we will be susceptible to omitting half of the human race from equally participating in the image of God. As feminist theologian Mary Daly powerfully insists, “if God is male then male is God.” And as philosopher Miroslav Volf has argued, if God as the highest reality can only appropriately be spoken of by means of masculine metaphor and reference, then we risk thinking that men alone are like God and thus superior to women. And conversely, if feminine metaphor and reference is similarly inappropriate for proper speech about God, then we risk thinking of women as unlike God and thus inferior to men.
Second, consider how our gendered language of God might participate in patriarchal conceptions of women. As Volf argues (following countless brilliant feminist philosophers), it is an unfortunate fact that “what we mean by ‘woman’ is not simply a natural given, but a cultural construct whose primary agents are men.” The problem of constructing an idea of woman from male expectations is that is submits women ideologically and socially to the requirements and superiority of men. This is obviously not to say that all men consciously participate in such activity nor that every use of a male pronoun marks out such participation, but rather that patriarchy’s violent effects have ideological, social, and even linguistic aspects that cannot be ignored. As I said before, modern English pronouns and their accompanying philosophy of personhood are situated temporally and ideologically within a particular culture. But this culture is sadly responsible for creating dynamics of legitimation and delegitimation, of humanization and dehumanization that all too often place women in a state of inferiority. And though it might seem innocuous at first, identifying God with man through the use of masculine pronouns could potentially perpetuate these dynamics against women.
TOWARDS A SOLUTION
Now it’s paramount that we take these issues seriously, since the marginalization and mistreatment of half the human race throughout all hitherto known history is a perennial problem to say the least. But in considering our use of gendered pronouns for God, I believe we need a nuanced approach. My conviction is that we can’t settle either for only changing our pronouns without explaining our theology nor for only explaining our theology without changing our pronouns. The difficulty with thinking that changing our pronouns alone (in this case, departing from he/himself to God/Godself) will solve our problems is that the potential misunderstanding of God through gendered concepts will remain. We must help others understand the gendered metaphorical conceptualization of our ultimately genderless God, for only then will the use of non-gendered divine pronouns be in alignment with a proper theological vision. But conversely, the difficulty with thinking that an explanation of a proper theology of metaphor alone will solve our problems is that our gendered divine pronouns will still potentially operate in ways that fortify inequalities between men and women.
The following seems to be the best way forward:
Depart from the gendered pronoun (he/she/him/her) in exchange for God
Depart from the gendered possessive pronoun (his/hers) in exchange for God’s
Depart from the gendered reflexive pronoun (himself/herself) in exchange for Godself
At root, the problem of gendered pronouns and God talk is theological, philosophical, and sociological rather than merely linguistic. Our problems will not disappear merely by adopting a different approach to English pronouns—we must focus on understanding God rightly. But at the same time, if the risk of perpetuating theological misunderstanding and of participating in social oppression can be reduced by adjusting pronoun-use, then we should all pursue such change.