Gendered Imagery of God (Part 1) by Elise M. Edwards


Elise Edwards

I have been doing a lot of thinking about gendered imagery and language for God over the past few months. Honestly, a lot of this reflection was provoked by hostile comments I got from my college students at the end of the fall semester because I require gender-neutral language for God and gender-inclusive language when referring to people. The policy in my syllabus is this:

For academic discourse, spoken and written, students are expected to use gender-inclusive language for human beings, and gender-neutral language for God. (e.g. “God” instead of “He;” “God’s” instead of “His;” etc.) This is to prepare students to communicate to the world beyond the Christian university setting. I want to equip you to succeed in graduate school, in the corporate world, and in public communication, all settings in which gender inclusive language for is increasingly expected.

I provide links to websites that discuss the issue, and we talk about it more when we discuss 20th century feminist issues in my course on the Christian Heritage and when we discuss prejudice and sexism in my ethics class.  Some students have thanked me for the policy. But many students are perplexed by it, and I’m perplexed by their confusion. It shocks my system when I hear people refer to “man” for all people; I first became aware of the issue when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and the Girl Scouts changed their pledge because it referred to “mankind.” That was over 30 years ago!

While I’m confused as to why replacing “man” with “people” is such a difficult task, I am more empathetic to the reorientation required to replace “He” with “God.”  (And I also acknowledge that the term “God” is not completely genderless either.) I recognize that for many of my students, I might be the first one to challenge their gendered conceptions of God.  So I am empathetic, but insistent.

The way discussions about the “gender” of God and Savior are often dismissed as irrelevant, unimportant, silly, or the remote concern of “those feminists” bothers me. Traditional Christian theology asserts that God is a different kind of being than humans are.  Therefore, God (the first person of the Trinity) and the Holy Spirit do not have a sex or gender, as sex is a characteristic associated with physical creature-ness and gender is (to simplify) a social construction related to sex. The second person of the Trinity, Jesus, is thought to be male.  In the Incarnation, the eternal God became human while also divine, and therefore has a sex and gender in the person of Jesus.  But the Trinity as a whole is without sex and has characteristics that we would associate with femininity, masculinity, and genders in between.  According to this logic, references to the maleness of God should only be understood metaphoricall,y not literally, and therefore replacing that language with genderless/sexless language should not be inherently problematic.

I’m not saying that the use of any language in reference to God is appropriate or acceptable within the bounds of traditional theology.  We (traditionals and non-traditionals alike) should be concerned with how we refer to God, because as Sallie McFague and others remind us, these metaphors/models of God have consequences in the world beyond language.  Maleness becomes deified or closer to godliness than femaleness, maleness becomes the model for the priesthood, maleness is the true form of authority, etc.  I believe that many of the concerns about feminine imagery for God are based in this same concern: that by associating God with one sex or gender, we claim God’s preference for that sex or gender.  In a patriarchal system, this correlation between God and the feminine simply will not do.  Feminists who assert feminine qualities of God are merely making projections of themselves, critics claim.

How we conceptualize the being we worship matters. It matters to me, at least. While I acknowledge that there is a danger of simply projecting an image of myself as a deity that I worship, I also think there is great harm in loving and worshiping the divine imaged as those who are at times hostile to me, and historically have been so to my ancestors and kin. So although I know and have good relationships with older, white males, I see no reason why I should image and worship God “the Father” who looks like an old white man. How would that benefit my spiritual practice?

Thank you Carol Christ, for asking me to state my views about this in the comments to my last post. I look forward to more discussions with you and the members of this community.  When I read your work years ago, I was convinced about the validity and rightness of affirming feminine forms of divinity. Although the Christian (patriarchal) tradition does not have much room for Goddess language, I am comfortable with it, at least for the first and third persons of the Trinity. In my next post, I’ll talk more about the ways I am considering the gender of the Christ.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Belief, Christianity, Church Doctrine, college, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender, Gender and Power, General, God, God-talk

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26 replies

  1. Elise, I really appreciated this post. You articulate this issue (which has likewise for me been the bane of my Christian interactions) respectfully, but clearly and firmly. I’ve often gotten weird or averse reactions from students and others for my insistence on using gender-neutral language for the Divine in prayer and classroom discussions. Next time someone asks me about this, I think I’m going to send them to this blog post.

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  2. Hi Elise, To tell the truth when I asked the question I was anticipating an answer I have heard before–“for black women the gender of God does not matter because for us God is Jesus and Jesus is God and for many black women Jesus is the most reliable man they know.” I am so glad I asked and so delighted to see this not-expected answer. Of course Alice Walker raised the question of the color and gender of God as did Ntozake Shange before her, but for whatever reasons, Christian womanist theology has often not addressed this question as directly as you do here. Bravo to you! And bravo to FAR for providing a forum where we can speak and respond to each other. Warmly, Carol

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  3. Do you teach your students about the Great Chain of Being? This was invented a few centuries ago to put people in their place. It’s like a mountain. God and the angels are above the summit. On the summit stand men (kings hover above common men), eagles, and lions. The “noble” animals. Down at the bottom are mud and women. It’s a nice image. Has it changed very much in two or three hundred years?

    English is sticky where gender-neutral pronouns are concerned. Do you make your students refer to a gender-neutral deity as “It”? To one person as “it” or only as “they”?

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    • I’m not very familiar with the Great Chain of Being, so I haven’t thought about using it. But while I want to preserve the Creator-created distinction, I don’t want to reinforce an idea too dominant in their thought about the superiority of some beings over others.

      Because of the difficulties in English with gendered pronouns, I encourage them to avoid pronouns when speaking about God, to use ” one” or alternate pronouns for an individual generic person and to pluralize people when possible, e.g. “A student should bring her book to class ” is “Students should bring their books to class.”

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  4. Thank you for thoughts, Elise! I, too, have come to a place of using gender-neutral language when referring to god. This is not always well receive because many, many Christian friends do see god as male. I believe this stems from traditional language of calling god “father” or “king” and other male descriptors. I believe we need new language for god that not only goes beyond gender but beyond political/patriarchal structures. “King” has no concrete meaning for me beyond fiction, fairy tales, and the remaining symbolic monarchies. I have no experience relating to a king who has some sort of power or control over me. As a result, referring to god as “king” is meaningless.

    Amy

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    • Thank you for commenting! I’ve left the metaphor of “King” behind, too. I know that some people get meaning from it and I don’t actively discourage their use of it, but I don’t use it in public prayers. I also avoid “Father God” when praying in group settings (and in my own prayer, too). I have no personal problems with seeing God as a father; it’s not a troubling image for me. But I think it’s so incomplete and obviously reinforces gendered imagery of God.

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  5. Maybe English needs a separate pronoun specifically reserved for God, like in Chinese.

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  6. Elise, thank you for writing about this topic and thank you for insisting on gender-neutral language for the divine in your classes. My seminary had a similar policy, but much to my disappointment it was never mentioned outside of the student handbook or enforced. Some professors were fantastic about using gender-neutral or inclusive terms, but others were not. I was sad to see that in the 21st century even liberal theologians didn’t always “get it.”

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    • I am grateful that the seminary I went to first introduced this type of policy to me. Again, that’s a while ago, about the time when my college students were learning how to write! Change comes slowly and unevenly, but I glad some of us had professors who modeled gender-neutral or inclusive language.

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  7. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m always flabbergasted when people in my denomination don’t get it. We de-genderized our hymnbook years later than I would have liked (I think it was 1991), but until then, my minister (and other ministers as well) offered gender-neutral lyrics in our order of service each Sunday. But often I heard people around me singing what was in the old hymnal, so I just sang the gender-neutral words LOUDER. And I have a loud voice!

    I believe that many people don’t understand the power of language. As a Ph.D. in a literature department, I try to make them understand how our language programs us to certain assumptions, actions, reactions, etc. But many people just think it’s too much work to change such things. Such laziness to my and your detriment and to the detriment of our daughters is not something that I can’t let pass. Thanks for your insistence in your classroom!

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  8. Would Christianity not be better served by allowing the sacred female, the Goddess, into its canons as spouse and beloved of God, rather than parsing an almost impossible and counter intuitive gender neutral language? Would it not make more sense to address God as Father because he is accompanied by Goddess the Mother?

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  9. An excellent article! Thank you. . I’ve been immersed in the Divine Feminine for over 2 decades now, and I am still a bit startled when I hear the old hymns recast in gender neutral form — or in the feminine. And, yes, words do matter: they entrain our thoughts and become a shorthand for which the original become lost to time.

    I do have one small quibble, though. I’ve held the Girl Scout Promise engraved on my heart since the mid 1950s, and at no time has it included the work “mankind”, to my knowledge. We promised “to serve God and my country”. These days, we may substitute for the word “God” as we see fit. I like it better the new way.

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  10. When it comes to God and “gender language”, I have no problems doing what my professors ask in not using a masculine pronoun when mentioning God; however, I do have a problem with being sanctioned for using the same gender for God that the Bible uses. Dr. Edwards, I am sure you would agree that there are many instances where scripture refers to God as He or His or Him (all of which denotes the masculine gender). A person’s relationship with God is strictly personal, therefore if that person envisions God as a “He”, this should be acceptable by professors instead of that person be sanctioned for such by professors.

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  11. I’m a bit late to commenting on this post. I read it at the time of it being published and nodded my head in agreement. This post was referred to by Kelly Brown Douglas in her writing The Black Christ; so I referrred back to this. I recently became aware of a criticism on the Bible published way back in 1898, edited by various women, lead by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, where indeed the maleness of God was questioned. This is over a 100 years ago. Change is rather slow in coming. I wonder why? I explored other ways of developing my spirituality, outside of christianity, and it is in feminist thinking that my own wandering, wondering thoughts and questions found a home.

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  12. Thank you for expressing this so well. Every Sunday, every bible reading, every hymn, it jars me.

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  13. Good work, Elisa. @Carol Christ, as a Womanist biblical scholar/professor, I’ve published about this topic and insisted on it in my classrooms for years. I know several Womanists and male-scholars-in-solidarity who do. I appreciate this essay/article by Elise, but it’s not new thought or practice for Womanists. In addition, there are MANY Womanist pastors (and male-pastors-in-solidarity) who also practice this language in black church spaces.

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  14. dear Elise, just wanted to say I enjoyed and appreciated your article. Indeed, words and what we think they mean are very important.

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  15. Dear Elise, From my point of view, I’ve never thought about gender when thinking of God. Sometimes we kind major in minors. The most important thing to me is not what gender is God, but can he saved me from my issues, that I’m facing at the time. I guess what saying, if I was drowning, I really don’t care what gender you are, just reach out and saved me!

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