Is God a "He"? Gendered language on Reconstruct.
For me, the most surprising reaction to our new podcast has been multiple listeners, both male and female, reacting to our use of gendered language for God, using words like “He” and “His.” It has come up in personal conversation with friends, as well as over social media. And those commenters are right; I just really hadn’t thought of it.
I have increasingly noticed theologians using terms like “Godself” over the past few years, which I recognized as accurate, but I honestly hadn’t “put two and two together” in terms of gendered language. I have never been to seminary, where I imagine this kind of topic is often broached; I guess this is an instance where that lack of education becomes apparent.
Of course, I have to ask myself the question, “Is God a He?” In other words, do we lose something by saying “Godself” instead of “Himself”? My co-host John has some concerns about this, which I think are worth considering. I won’t pretend to make an argument for him, and I’m not even sure that he feels very strongly about it, but one consideration regards the Trinity. In the Trinity, God the Father represents an essential aspect of God’s nature. Is there something about fatherhood specifically--as opposed to motherhood--that reflects something of God’s nature? This is an excellent and difficult question. My own take is: probably not. I think that God is a loving parent, and whatever aspects of fatherhood and motherhood that may be inherently separate from each other (I think there almost definitely are such differences, if even only biological and/or statistical), all such aspects of a loving parent apply to God. Whatever the perfect father might be, plus whatever the perfect mother might be, those two things combined accurately describe God’s perfect love for God’s children.
Even if this is granted, there is still another difficulty, which is more aesthetic. In English, it is simply difficult to write clear, non-confusing sentences without pronouns. Consider the two following sentences:
God loves His children so much, that He became human, so that He could reveal Himself to His children in a way that His children could understand Him and relate to Him.
God loves God’s children so much, that God became human, so that God could reveal Godself to God’s children in a way that God’s children could understand God and relate to God.
Obviously, I wrote this sentence in a way as to exaggerate the problem. But as any seminarian or theologian who attempts to avoid gendered language for God has surely learned, it requires creativity in writing. In this case, were I to want to avoid gendered language, I might re-write the sentence as such:
God loves human brings so much, that God became a human, so that we could understand and relate to our God.
If I’m honest, I’m not as happy with this last sentence. I could probably spend some more time and effort and come up with something better. My point is not to complain about the rigors of theological writing, or the extra work required of writing and speaking this way. My point is only this: non-gendered language, for a native English speaker, requires an extra mental step before writing or speaking. This is simply because we have learned, as English speakers, to use pronouns freely, as second nature.
I am committed to taking this extra step. I think the term “Godself” is just as helpful, and more accurate, than “Himself.” In all my prepared notes for Reconstruct episodes, I am going through and editing, double checking that I am fulfilling this goal. However, in my extemporaneous speech, “off the cuff” so to speak, I recognize that it will likely take me some time to change these habits, perhaps years. I ask for patience from our listeners.
I am grateful for this gentle and loving correction from our listeners and many of my friends. Please bear with me! And also, please keep in mind that many of these episodes, especially the interviews, were recorded months ago, before this was brought to our attention. But moving forward, it is something I am committed to.