With all the headlines about new abortion laws in various states and Supreme Court’s deliberations on same-sex marriage, there’s no escaping the politics of sex and sexuality these days—or the role of religion in shaping the culture’s conversation about such subjects.
While we aren’t likely to come to consensus on these issues anytime soon, we can work to sharpen our understanding of disagreements, which usually means getting back to basics. One of those core questions about gender, sex and power concerns God—not just what people believe about God’s commands on such matters, but about the nature of God.
Does God have a gender? Whether or not one is a believer, the answer matters.
It’s common practice in many religious traditions, including the Protestant Christianity community of which I am a part, to refer to God using the male pronoun. Feminist and other critically minded people have challenged this practice, and some congregations (including mine) have shifted to non-gendered language, but the most common practice is to speak of God as male.
There are debates among scholars about how to translate specific words from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, but I prefer to begin with a more basic question. When these issues come up in conversation, I ask, “Is God, as you understand the concept of the divine, a name for a being or entity that is in any way like a human person?” Everyone agrees God is not a person or like a person. “Is God some other kind of animal or creature that we would recognize as having exclusively male or female characteristics?” Everyone agrees God is not such a creature.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether one believes God is a definable entity of any kind, or a name for the force behind all living things, or simply a term we use to describe the mystery of the world. Whatever one’s answer, it’s clear that God doesn’t fit into the male/female category as we understand it for creatures like us and that we can’t define exactly what other category God fits into.
So, given that most believe God to be beyond our human capacity to understand, asking whether God is male or female is a bit like asking whether God has curly or straight hair, is tall or short. It’s not that the questions are hard to answer, but rather that the questions don’t really make any sense. Whatever God is, that isn’t it.
So, why for so many is it important that God be male? It might have something to do with the fact that the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament are patriarchal. Whether one considers patriarchy to be positive (because God and/or biology dictate such a system) or negative (because it is an oppressive system maintained by force and coercion), both those texts emerged from patriarchal cultures—systems in which men take the dominant roles in public and private life, claiming that their dominance is not arbitrary but natural and necessary.
So, it’s hardly surprising that in a patriarchal society structured on male dominance, images of an ultimate power reflect and reinforce the distribution of power in the society. As philosopher Mary Daly pointed out four decades ago, “If God is male, then male is God.” Such a society is likely to project onto any understanding of God a masculine identity, even while acknowledging that God is the kind of entity/force/mystery that, by definition, doesn’t have a gender.
If God isn’t a guy, then some debates—such as the status of women in the church—would change dramatically and immediately. Over time, resistance to birth control, abortion and LGBT rights would likely fade as well. That might be why some people are so insistent about a male God—they recognize that one little change in a pronoun would signal other changes.
If the goal of the faithful is to deepen our understanding of a God we cannot ever really understand, a good first step might be to leave behind the need to assign a gender and free up our minds and hearts from constraints imposed in the past so that we can deal more honestly with the present.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin.
Image of Ardhanarishivara–the half-male, half-female composite form of the gods Shiva and Parvati–c. 1800, from Wikimedia Commons