Monday, April 21, 2008

The Gender of God

While the Pope was in America last week, some folks thought it would be a good time for him to denounce the traditional masculine imagery used for God. Ignoring the false claims about the formation and content of the New Testament canon made in that article (that's a post for another day), it argues that such imagery is the result of patriarchalism, and since we live in a more egalitarian society these references are not as appropriate. This attitude has led to an issue within the Church known as the "inclusive language" debate, the extremes of which suggest that the classically male designations should be substituted with neutral ones: "Father" should be replaced with "Parent," for example.

Now obviously the history of the world (not just the Church) has been largely patriarchal, and the role(s) of women in society have been downplayed or ignored. And just as obviously, the members of the Trinity, including the pre-incarnate Christ, could not be understood as masculine or feminine in a physical sense. Moreover, it needs to be pointed out that the Bible does sometimes describe God with feminine imagery. The Father compares himself to a nursing mother, the Son compares himself to a mother hen, and we are "born again" by the Holy Spirit; "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit". Indeed, we are told that God created both men and women in his image; therefore, either his image includes both genders, or gender has nothing to do with it.

Nevertheless, feminine imagery is strongly outnumbered by masculine imagery in the Bible -- the process of spiritual rebirth is also described as being indwelled by the Holy Spirit. If we must assign sexual imagery to this, "indwelling" would more strongly suggest masculinity, since this is the role the man plays in the sex act, i.e., impregnation from without. Moreover, it is not only the Holy Spirit who is involved in this process, but the Father and Son as well: all three members of the Trinity indwell the believer. In fact, it may be this kind of imagery that leads to the descriptions of the Church as the "bride of Christ".

C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere (and I agree with him) that God has told us in his Word how he wants us to think and speak of him. Perhaps, one could say that our relationship with God more closely parallels the relationship children have had with their fathers than those they have had with their mothers throughout human history. Presumably, one could argue that this is "merely patriarchalism", and the traditional familial roles are purely arbitrary. But even if I were to grant this point (which I don’t), it would still be much more appropriate to use the title "Father" because it would be the more faithful image of our relationship to and with God, regardless of how or why this image is the way it is.

Finally -- and this is my main point -- I don’t agree with the claim that God is thought of in male terminology solely because history has been largely patriarchal. It seems to me that when we contrast theism with pantheism or panentheism a deeper significance of this imagery is revealed. We only think of "Mother Nature"; we never think "Father" would be an appropriate designation for nature. Why? Because nature brings forth out of itself -- that is, it "gives birth" to its constituent elements. This involves a close identification of the parts with the whole: we are within nature in a similar sense that the unborn child is within the mother.

But this is not the situation for those of us who view God as Creator. We don’t believe that God creates ex Deo -- out of himself, but ex nihilo -- out of nothing. God’s creation is distinct from him. If God created out of himself, then it would be more consistent to describe God as "Mother"; but this is not the Judeo-Christian concept of creation. God is Creator, thus Father, thus "male". And insofar as the other members of the Trinity play a role in creation, they are "male" as well.

In other words, there’s a reason why God and the Trinity are traditionally pictured as male rather than female, and this reason has nothing to do with the fact that men have usually been in charge. So I think this knee-jerk reaction to bring the Bible more in line with our culture by changing male terms like Father to gender-neutral ones like Parent is not consonant with the biblical concept of God. There's no need to go off half-cocked.

1 comment:

Tyson said...

For these type of issues, I'd suggest another Christian blogger, Peter Kirk of England, at:

He's a Bible translator, an Anglican, and a Charismatic Christian like myself. I've seen him write several times about God and gender, and always thought his posts very insightful, coming as they do from a Bible scholar.