In theology today, it is common practice for many theologians to use gender neutral language for God as much as possible. This is, of course, part of the broader movement in our culture to be gender inclusive in our speech. Just as we are expected to speak of “humankind,” as opposed to “mankind,” there is a need, perceived by some, to display those same levels of gender inclusiveness in our language about God.
This will be a three part series. In Part One, I want to offer a brief, fair analysis of the background and reasoning behind this shift. In Part Two, I will explain why I think that the masculine language for God, properly understood, is both reasonable and helpful for how we conceive of our human relationship to God and the church. In part three I will offer some of my thoughts on how that masculine language for God can affect the way we engage men with the Christian faith.
The traditional language that Christianity has used for God, that of “Father” and the corresponding male pronouns, came under scrutiny as the feminist movement gained traction in the west during the 1960s and 70s. Feminist theologians saw the traditional language as problematic because it seemed to equate the concept of maleness with divinity, and thus was complicit in the subjugation of women by the patriarchal system. As the feminist theologian Mary Daly famously quipped, “If God is male, then male is God.”
The difficulty that feminist theologians and those who accept the gist of their critique have to reckon with, is that Scripture (especially the New Testament) is largely the source for the masculine imagery for God. Jesus called God “Father”/Abba, an idea that was somewhat revolutionary in first century Judaism. The Trinitarian imagery of the Godhead, drawing deeply from the whole sweep of Scripture, was formulated as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Greek word pneuma (Spirit, as in Holy Spirit) is feminine, but the rest of the traditional language about God is masculine. This presented a problem for feminist theologians because it seemed to grant primacy to masculinity and patriarchy (father-rule).
Some of the more radical feminist theologians went off in a direction that involved basically a reinvention of the faith. They aggressively jettisoned the masculine imagery of God and sought to create something that would be free of what they perceived to be the toxic patriarchy. This included such things as worship of the “Mother Goddess” in place of the “Father,” the “exorcism” of patriarchal texts of Scripture, and adoration of Jesus, not as the Son, but as “Sophia,” the feminine wisdom principal of God.
The examples above are the radical fringe of the movement. Most mainstream theology did not wish to go quite that far. Instead, it looked for a middle way that could express who God is in a way that was faithful to both Scripture and, to a certain extent, tradition.
These theologians do not dispense entirely with the traditional language of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but try to be more intentional in communicating that these are helpful metaphors for describing who God is. They seek to point out that Scripture uses a number of feminine metaphors for God (e.g. Deuteromony 32:18; Isaiah 49:15, 66:13; Matthew 23:37; Luke 15:8-10). They also look to the fact that the image of God in humanity, includes being made both male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). The language of God as “Father” that the Bible uses is primarily analogical, trying to show us in human language, what God’s relationship to us is like.
While it is not a novel or new idea that God is neither male nor female, the traditional language expressed that God is more male than female, in the minds of many. So for those who found this problematic, they sought to find ways around using masculine pronouns for God. For example, rather than refer to God as “he,” many writers simply repeat the noun “God” where a pronoun would be used. In the case of the reflexive pronoun, as in “God was reconciling the world to himself,” one would say, “God was reconciling the world to Godself.” This sometimes makes the sentence sound strange in English, but it seeks to communicate the idea that God is not male (or female, for that matter).
This is a pretty big shift in the way people talk about God, one that reflects the changing values of our culture. In my own opinion, there is great value in utilizing all of the biblical imagery for God. Human language is limited and cannot fully express the entire breadth of who God is. While most Christians understand that God is neither male nor female, the language we use can unintentionally give that impression, so I think we need to be clear what we mean when we speak of God using the masculine imagery.
At the same time, I am not convinced that the masculine language for God is problematic. I think the biblical revelation uses masculine/Father language, not because the authors were located within a patriarchal culture, but because they were actually trying to communicate something about God. We need to be careful about not jettisoning what Scripture and tradition have given us, just because it does not line up with our culture’s latest sensibilities. As an Old Testament professor used to tell us about things like this, our job is to explain it, not explain it away.
In my next post I will attempt to explain why I think Scripture uses masculine language for God, and why it is not a problem.