Does God Have a Gender?

391px-Standing_Ardhanari_c.1800With 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

Comments

  1. I love this. I love to think of God as my heavenly father, but also my mother. That’s the awesome thing about God: He can be the father or the mother I never had. His qualities are not limited to a gender, and it wouldn’t make sense for the God of the universe to have a physical gender anyways. Jesus always referred to Him as his “Father,” because men were the carriers of genealogies, etc. back then. It was patriarchal. But so many Christians refuse to see God as having anything other than physical male characteristics, and that’s sad to me.

  2. Eliza Karatjas says:

    My classmate and I are reading this article, waiting for our bus to come when we come across this article. “Does God have a gender?” My classmate exclaimed, “No, He doesn’t!” Immediately correcting herself.
    This is interesting, and yes, I agree that the gender roles wouldn’t be as strict in specifically monotheistic religions– but it is another story in polytheistic religions; namely, Hinduism. In Hinduism, there are millions upon millions of deities that are in one way or another avatars of the three main gods, the Generator, the Organizer, the Destroyer (GOD). And there are arguably as many female deities as male ones, but there is still oppression toward its female followers. Orthodox Hindus forcing widows to forever wear the mourning color and be shunned from society, much less, remarry. And when it comes to homosexuality, even though there are some questionably homo-errotic stories and sculptures, women (and men) are forbade to practice “homosexual activities”.
    So I wouldn’t go as far to say that by making God gender-nuetral it would chnage society as whole and in particular, homophobia. But it would make things better. I even go as far to refer to God as She, Her.
    But I’m not a feminist; I’m female supremacist.

  3. “God” as known by it’s most common name, is sexless as it is not human. I suppose it was called he by men like manholes etc, it was always in the male form to stroke the egos of the men who named these things.

    I call “it” God. I also say “the universe” as that seems to be more of a term to call what is “out there”. It IS the universe, not an entity that man called God!

    • I too debunk the masculine God-language. I prefer to use the term Almighty- which can be refered to by all people( here I say people vs both genders, this is apppropriate because I’m not thinking dichotomosly). I’m a spiritual person so I do believe in ritual such as prayer. So when I pray, I would say “Almighty instead of saying Father.

  4. See my article The Meanings of Goddess for why a movement has arisen to overturn the hidden presumption of god-is-male (father, king, lord, etc.): http://www.goddess-pages.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=60&Itemid=50 Scroll to page bottom for links to part II and III.

  5. I perceive the Divine as female, from which all life springs. We all begin life as female in these bodies. In Her image? Woman encompasses man and all men are born of women. It is incredibly empowering for women to perceive themselves as Divine, as Feminine, as Creator. It is also incredibly healing for men to connect with their Divine Feminine. The Mother loves all her children, male and female.

  6. David Dresser says:

    Sorry. The question is meaningless. That which does not exist cannot claim gender.
    Do the clever creations of humans, male and female and uncertain, receive bonus characteristics such as gender, numerous heads, horns, halos, fearsome visages, terrifying manners, threatening attitudes? Of course, depending on the imaginations of the human creators. Some of these imagined entities are even said to be kind and helpful.
    A better question is, can people be good without god?

  7. Since the Bible was written by man, different times and age, in their minds to what they thought was words from above, natually to them, God was a male. I believe it is an image, neither male or female.

  8. Dan Gates says:

    man was created in the image of god, what is so hard to understand about this?

    • Just because humans were created in the image of God (according to Judeo-Christian beliefs, anyway, which is null if you happen to practice any other religion) doesn’t necessarily mean that your God has a sex. Not everyone here practices your religion, remember.

    • You’re right! Genesis 1:27 (NRSV) “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

      God created both man and woman in the image of God.

  9. Barbara Mor says:

    Both Christian & reform Jewish feminists have promoted & in some cases successfully inaugurated liturgies in which the Biblical ‘God’ is referred to in ‘gender neutral’ or ‘gender equivalent’ language. I think this totally misses the point. Referring to God as ‘He/She’ does not change the biblical texts themselves, which inscribe an entire worldview based not only on misogyny but a severe biophobia revealed in institutionalized indoctrination of ideas of human Sin, Guilt & Divine Punishment which have tormented the world for centuries. Do we really want a Female Principle upholding ‘God’s Commands’ to: stone disobedient children to death? Stone adulterers, homosexuals, people who wear the wrong clothing, the wrong beard & sideburn length, & all the other really disturbed social mandates of the Old Testament? Do we want women priests, preachers, rabbis promoting from their respective pulpits divine proscriptions & demonizations of ‘Mother Eve’ & the ‘Whore of Babylon’ — both the
    origins & the evil culminations of Human Guilt & necessary Punishment, even beyond death & without rational
    recourse?? Is it a Female Principle that mandates the slaughter of the ‘unclean’ who follow different gods, God’s voice telling His People to massacre whole villages, women children, infants in utero, & everything else that moves including ducks, sheep & chickens? Can any ‘feminism’ we know of support the Book of Revelations with its sexually sadistic obsessions & psychotic delight in EndTimes’ bloodbaths of everything but an elite few??? Do we want women believing in & enforcing new Inquisitions to ‘save souls from sin’ via torture & burning alive? Isn’t this the self-righteous worldview that underwrote & justified centuries of cruel political & religious genocides & colonizations of half the planet, a hideous history that still threatens to culminate in an insane Holy War as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy? Is this anything close to the original feminist vision & intent? NO! This is not the Feminist Worldview any of us meant to support when we entered the Movement in the 60s, on the contrary. Nor is it the Feminism that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, or any of the great 19th Century Feminists struggled to promote & achieve in the 19th c. Nor is it the worldview of Frederick Douglas, an eloquent feminist of his time, or of Thomas Jefferson, who like Stanton rewrote or ‘secularized’ the Biblical texts in an attempt to salvage Enlightenment values & the ‘good parts’ of both Testaments. It really can’t be done without utterly, & fundamentally, changing the entire worldview of the Biblical texts. Just changing the ‘sex of God’ is a well-intentioned but profoundly simplistic attempt to encounter an ontology/cosmology that is utterly antagonistic to every fundamental principle of Feminism. A wrathful biophobic ‘God’ & John of Revelations IN DRAG just do not cut it. Feminism attempted, & should still be attempting, the reimagination of the Universe & the meaning of Life in it, including the miracle of this LivingEarth which has been creating Life for billions of years….long before the concepts of ‘material evil’ & ‘fleshly abomination’ ever got written down in tragic scripts that have inflicted pain on our species, & the rest of earth’s creatures, for too damn long. No Female God, & no woman in history, would ‘write the world’ in the way the Bible is written. Let’s just look at the actual texts & ask ourselves, as women & as feminists: can my mind, my heart & my vision consent to this worldview? Otherwise, we are just tinkering with the written instructions pasted on the weaponry & the torture instruments & divinely justified cruelty,
    dehumanization & domination so indigenous to patriarchal history.

  10. JS Brown says:

    Only a nut-job would insist on peeking under God’s robes when in the presence of the Divine.

  11. I actually wrote about this recently. Since childhood, I’ve seen God as bigger than gender. If God is our Creator and the Master of the Universe and all that is Good and everything, how could God be limited by something as human and base as gender? http://www.findingmyvirginity.com/2013/03/confessions-of-christian-feminist.html

  12. Stephen Sharper says:

    So everyone who is saying that God is not a father or a father or a mother is basically saying Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about when he said that we should call him father?

  13. Das Mookken says:

    Does God Have a Gender?

    God is NOT Physical, but Spiritual.
    Therefore, according to the Spiritual Philosophy, the concept of “God” is without a Gender.

  14. This dabate its not new but keeps on being interesting.
    From my point of view, many have the idea of God as a male because he ‘went down to Earth’ as a male… It might sound nonsense but it isn’t. I also think that God has been thought, at least in catholic religion, as a male because he’s a ?father” and Virgin Mary is the “mother”. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but this are few ideas…

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