Friday, July 15, 2011

On the Gender of God

By Crystal Lewis
Originally posted on 7/12/11

This morning, I learned that the United Church of Christ (UCC) has recently voted to stop referring to God as a "Heavenly Father." The UCC is arguably Christianity's most theologically and politically progressive denomination-- so for many of us, this change has not come as a shock. Of course, their decision has already been met with harsh criticism from literalists:
David Runnion-Bareford of  Biblical Witness Fellowship (BWF), a splinter cell going against the vote... called the move “a theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture... God acted toward us in amazing grace when He offered to be our Father through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, who offers us life in his name. This is not something we as humans made up in some other time...” He charged that rejecting God as Father “is an act of arrogant rebellion in the name of cultural conformity that only further alienates members, churches — but, more importantly, God himself.”
I've heard this argument before... People often insist that God should be understood as a male figure because scripture refers to God with masculine pronouns and imagery. Those who understand the Divine as anything other than male are said to be "confused" or "alienated" from the true God.

We've made some very powerful theological and societal assertions about what God should and/or must be without exploring the root of the paternal imagery we cling to so tightly. However, a little research reveals that when it comes to God's gender, Christianity has lost touch with its theological roots. Despite the overwhelming use of male pronouns in the Hebrew Bible, many Jewish people deny that God has any gender at all. Take, for instance, this Jewish philosophical understanding of God's gender:
While the actualities of gender are of course irrelevant to God, who has no body, there is a reason for the use of these allegories. Let us penetrate the surface toward a sophisticated understanding underlying these images...

...God's unity takes two forms, as do humans who express His image. The two physical forms that characterize the world -- male and female -- act as a living metaphor for the two ways in which God makes His presence known.

The Talmud and the mystics use the "Holy One Blessed Be He" as the masculine phrase, and "Shechina" (presence) as the feminine phrase. Let us examine the deeper meaning of these phrases...

Why use male imagery? The Kuzari explains that the male genital organs are external, which makes masculine reference appropriate for times when God's presence is in a revealed, "external" state... Indeed, all of God's highly visible interventions are male imagery. This is the "Holy One Blessed Be He."

God's presence is not only outside and above His creations, but is within them as well. The feminine genitals are internal and unexposed to the external eye, which is why the feminine word "Shechina" describes God's presence within each of us.

The inherent nature of the Shechina is hidden, internal, and at times silent. At other times, it is articulate through spiritual inspiration and awareness. Her presence is hard to evoke in words. In fact, the external nature of speech to a certain extent defies the internal nature of the Shechina.
God is no more a literal "Father" than he is a literal "strong tower" or a literal "eagle." God is no more the literal possessor of a penis than he is the literal possessor of a hand or army. These anthropomorphic and physical images are designed to do for us what we would not otherwise be able to do with our finite minds: Imagine the nature of the ineffable. The words we use to describe God are important, but inadequate-- and necessary but not binding...

The concern for us should not be with whether God is literally male or a literal father... We should instead concern ourselves with what it means for all of humankind to be expressions of God's inward mystery and outwardly-creative nature. We should not concern ourselves with whether it's proper to call God "Father" or "Mother" or "he" or "she." We should instead be concerned with whether our sons understand that God exists in every human being.

We should be concerned with the message we send to young girls when we tell them that God is both outside them and unlike them. We should want our daughters to understand that they are created in God's image, too.

Rejecting God as "father" is not an act of "alienation." It is an act of reconciliation-- not only for our own culture, but for cultures around the world that seek to affirm the inherent goodness and power of women. Affirming this power is just a small part of the Gospel message that every Christian is called to share. I'm proud of the UCC and hope that other churches/denominations will follow suit.

You May Also Enjoy Reading:
1. A Feminist Reading of The Eden Story
2. On Rome, Theology and Missing the Big Picture

When Crystal S. Lewis isn't writing for, she's engaging Christianity's tough questions on her blog: Diary of a Christian Universagnosticostal. Known for her candid (and often edgy) perspectives on theology, postmodernism, faith infused with reason, the future of Christianity, and “radical religious pluralism,” she describes herself as “incurably curious” and says skepticism is a calling, not a curse. Crystal lives in Washington, DC where she is pursuing a Master of Divinity.

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