Thursday, June 19, 2008

On using gendered pronouns for God

An excellent posting on gender usage with respect to God. Found at the blog The Fire and the Rose. Here is the text:

I thought we had progressed further than this. In the comments to my final post on the Envision conference, some people criticized me for advocating the removal of gendered pronouns in relation to God. They argued that this was implicitly a rejection of the revealed triune name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whenever I hear this kind of argument, I reminded of how much re-education still needs to happen in the church.

The fact of the matter is that the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” has nothing whatsoever to do with gender. God is neither male nor female, because God is not a creature. God is qualitatively different from anything created, and that means the distinctions between male and female, old and young, black and white, have no bearing on God’s being. Even when God takes on the humanity of Jesus, this does not mean God only takes up the male sex. That would be heretical, tantamount to saying that God only died for men, not for women. The humanity of Jesus is concrete, yes, but a concrete universal—the humanity of all people. This is why the Roman Catholic insistence upon male clergy on the basis of Jesus’ maleness (and the sex of the disciples) is fundamentally mistaken: it elevates the particular attributes of Jesus as a male human over the attributes of his salvific significance. The only attribute significant in terms of his identity as the Savior of the world is the attribute of “human nature,” not “male humanity.”

At the end of the day, interpreting the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in gendered terms is equivalent to interpreting anthropomorphic imagery about, for example, the “hand of God” as if God actually has a hand. The Bible is full of anthropomorphic talk about God, but that does not mean God is just a Big Human in the sky. Similarly, the revealed name of the Trinity as “Father, Son, and Spirit” should not lead us to the mistaken impression that God is simply a human father raised to the level of infinite perfection and then projected upon the face of the divine. Nor is the Son of God simply a human son raised to the level of infinite perfection. (As always, we face the perennial problem: what is the gender of the Spirit?)

I am not arguing that we should jettison anthropomorphic imagery of God. The fact of the matter is that all human speech about God is necessarily anthropomorphic. As humans, we cannot speak about God in non-anthropomorphic language. We only know creaturely reality, so such talk is inescapable. But we cannot interpret such language literally or univocally. To do so would only be a denial of God’s divinity. It would mean reducing God to the level of a being within the world. It would be to adopt the metaphysical idea of God that Feuerbach already unmasked as a human projection, an idealized human being. According to Feuerbach, “The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective—i.e., contemplated and revered as another, distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature.” In the end, Feuerbach realizes that such knowledge of God is only “man’s knowledge of himself, of his own nature.” When we ascribe gendered pronouns to God as if they are actually descriptive of who God is in Godself, then we fall prey to Feuerbach’s critique. We succumb to metaphysical thinking about God.

Am I saying that gendered pronouns are absolutely unacceptable? No. God had to become a specific gender in the incarnation, and it happened to be that God became a man. Does this mean that one gender is superior to the other, or that one gender is more a part of God’s being than another? Absolutely not! But it does mean that gendered pronouns are, in a certain, inescapable. When we talk about Jesus, we are talking about God. My argument was really about being courteous to those who seek to excise gendered pronouns when speaking about God, about the divine. While I personally strive to never use gendered pronouns because of the possible misinterpretation that God is somehow male or related more to men than women, I do not disparage those who choose to use such language, as long as they use it critically and responsibly.

Where I get frustrated is when people think that somehow male pronouns are privileged over female pronouns. That is nonsense. We can and should be able to speak about God as a “she” just as much as a “he.” Either gender is anthropomorphic in nature, and thus does not apply to God’s actual being, because God is not a creature. We speak as humans to humans, and we need to be aware of the limitations of our speech when we talk about God. Failure to do so is to fall into idolatry: to make God like us, or, even worse, like me.


Doorman-Priest said...

This is simple. If God exists s/he is so far beyond and above our understanding that we can only know what that transcendent being reveals and what is revealed has to take account of our capacity to understand.

The moment we begin to use descriptors we limit and diminish God by making him/her in our own image.

God has no Gender.

Robert said...

I agree doorman-priest. My problem is breaking old habits of speech.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I agree with both of you, but him/her, s/he is awkward. I wish we had a better way to reference God in the pronoun form without implying gender.

Robert said...

Your are right Mimi. And the s/he and her/him is even more cumbersome in sermons.

the Reverend boy said...

What DP and GM said.

When referencing the Trinity, some people like to use "Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer" but I don't care to confine the persons of the Godhead with roles. Also seems to take away from the personal nature of our relationship with God.

Some have used "Parent, Child and Spirit" but that just sounds silly to my ears after a few tries and a bit too PC.

Others have refused to use pronouns altogether and just say "God" or God becomes a pronoun in and of itself (Godself?).

It is a bit of a quandry ...