God’s gender: a cautionary tale

Is God a man?

Is God a woman?

Does it really matter?

These and similar questions seem to be doing the rounds again, on social media and elsewhere. My answers, in brief, would be “No”, “No”, and “Yes, very much.”

Why does it matter so much? Why does it matter what language we use about God, what pronouns and names and titles we use to address and describe God?

Let me tell you a story.

You know those arguments children have which go “boys are better than girls”, “no, girls are better than boys”, “no, boys are better than girls”, on and on and on? They’re especially annoying on long car journeys or in waiting rooms.

A while back, two of the children I work with, then aged about 5, were having just such an argument. I wan’t paying much attention, just keeping half an eye on things in case anyone seemed to be getting upset, but it was all fairly good natured, so I was inclined to let it run its course. They’d moved on from the “yes they are”, “no they aren’t” stage to some more specific examples (“girls are better at x”, “boys are better at y”) when I heard something which stopped me in my tracks.

“Boys are better than girls, because God’s a boy.”

There it was: the trump card. We all know that God is the very best there could be, so if God’s a boy, boys must be better. Incontrovertible 5-year-old logic.

Except, of course, it’s not incontrovertible. I challenged that statement, and we had a discussion about how God isn’t a boy or a girl or a man or a woman, because God is big enough to contain all those things and more. And for good measure we threw in a bit about everyone, whatever their gender, being made in God’s image.

But it was one of those moments which happen when you work with children, when a single comment shifted my entire perspective. It moved me from “I know God isn’t either a man or a woman, but there’s no need to labour the point” to “I will take every opportunity to point out that God is neither a man or a woman, and to use the widest possible range of pronouns and titles and images when I speak about God”.

“Boys are better than girls because God’s a boy.” I can’t imagine many of the adults engaged in the debate around this issue this week would put it quite like that. But it does point up one of the problems with referring to God exclusively as male, which is that aligning “God” with “man” privileges the masculine. Which, quite frankly, doesn’t need any more privilege than the quite excessive amount already accorded to it by church and society.

That may not be the intention, but it’s what happens. It happens even before children start school. God = male, so male = superior. That is what using exclusively or predominantly male language to refer to God conveys to a 5 year old.

So I choose to use both male and female pronouns and titles to refer to God. I don’t do it because I want to be “politically correct” or “radical” or “controversial”. I do it because I want the children I work with to understand that God is bigger than the words we use for God. I want that understanding to shape their perception of themselves, and the world, and their place in the world. And I never again want to hear any 5 year old for whom I am responsible using God as an argument for male superiority.

Language shapes assumptions, which in turn shape beliefs and behaviour. The language we use about God shapes the assumptions we (and others) make about God. And that is why the language we use matters so much.

246 thoughts on “God’s gender: a cautionary tale

  1. Tell you what. Not interfering sometimes works wonders. And if you do interfere, you can easily calm everyone down by describing God as a unified being, genderless, odorless, colorless, whatever. It’s bad enough as it is that children first of all actually have to struggle to even grasp the notion of a God. Just saying. The best approach mai be the least biased one. I wouldn’t call that thing you said at the end ‘feminist,’ but it’s really unnecessary to portray a certain gender being slightly worse than the other. Just saying 🙂

  2. All major English Bible translations have retained the masculine pronoun for the Spirit, as in John 16:13. To complete the Holy Trinity, it is clearly stated in the Bible that the Lord is man. Oftentimes we read the words “Father” and “Son of Man” as in Luke 10:22 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

    If we’re still having some doubts, just ask God’s wisdom. But we should accept that there are things cannot be understood by the capacity of our minds for His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. God bless y’all!

  3. Oh dear, why would anyone read the Bible to tell them how to create their own god. Of course, if you are interested in finding out about a god from the past then you really should read the holy books of the religion you are interested, but being a believer does not give you an exclusive right to interpret them.

  4. I think God is in every each one of us, it’s our beliefs, our dreams, our hopes, we need someone to support us. We are social being so we need to know there is someone stronger than us somewhere, which will help us and on which we can count on every time we need it. God is our more positive and pure spirit. That’s God for me.

    • Amazingly said! For me, God is Mother- the ever loving, ever giving positive strength of a light that’s always in me. I guess each one needs and has the rights to his/her own vision of God. 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on Tao Lee, English Tutor and commented:
    There is an interesting point here. Even with what we consider simple words, like male and female, need to be examined in context. Since God has no sexual identity putting him in a male category is patently false linguistically speaknig. Furthermore. anything that endorses male superiority, or female either, is also not Biblical. A little verbal learning is a dangerous thing. We all need to learn to thing.

  6. God/Jehovah is not limited in gender in the way people are and He is not limited in race in the way people are.
    God is divine, God is Holy. And still Christ does call God “Father” and so this fact alone should end this endless debate because Christ knows his Father better than any if us. As far as humankind, God is our Heavenly Father.
    Just like God created men to be the head/leaders (although we women were made to be just as important in our own ways), God is the Head/Leader of ALL things and so He is identifiably a Divine male presence.

    People are self-centeredly so busy trying to project their gender and race onto God, that they do not seem to remember or care that God does not depend on anyone. His identity does not depend on what people want to ‘personally’ feel. Faith in God is love of God and trust in God, but faith in God also includes accepting Whom He is and not putting one’s own misleading opinions on Him.

  7. Interesting thought: why does G-d self-identify as masculine more often than feminine in original languages of the Torah or Bible? Is it right to assign gender to a being unlimited by gender?

    • I agree. Something gender-neutral besides “it.” How about we reappropriate the King James term Ye and use it for God from now on?

  8. Thank you for sharing this, I totally agree, God is bigger than any preconceived idea we have because of hurts and pain in our lives, or just culture issues. God is both feminine and masculine because He is all in all. He has both natures in Him so we can all relate. He is God

  9. And by that,I got z idea that we shouldn’t tell what God’s gender is bcz he is our lord and I labeled “he” bcz we usually use”he” for mighty power which is obviously GOD.

  10. Reblogged this on machupa and commented:
    probably GOD is neither a man nor Female because there is no where within the holly books that address God to be a man or female.
    what we know is that God is a supernatural being who has power and everything that live forever and ever.
    People probably address God to be a man due to fact that at firstly in Eden garden the first human being to be made were a man hence a woman came from one side of the man’s body
    Genesis 1 & 2
    let’s not be confused by this hypothetical theory and recall that All we are equal to God Our Lord and we will have the same destiny after this life under the sun.

  11. What sex was Jesus? Why is Adam held culpable for original sin when it was clearly Eve? Why does Jesus refer to God as Father? Why was Jesus born of a woman (or was Mary just self-identifying as a woman?!) and not just created from the dust like the first Adam, or taken from Joseph’s side like the original Eve?

    If you don’t want 5 year olds to use God as an example of male superiority could you maybe point out that He gave up all His glory & power and became a helpless baby, then became a servant, then became a sacrifice – then ask if the boy really wants to be man like that? Isn’t that preferable to changing the way God has chosen to reveal Himself both through the written word and the incarnate word?

    Just wondering.

  12. Pingback: Three days, Three Quotes #3 | Poetry and Idealism

  13. God is not real and you shouldn’t teach children that he is. Maybe we should actually let our children grow up a little bit before we start indoctrinating them with religious dogma. You wouldn’t teach a child what political party to vote for would you. ..

  14. You have written this very well, but I recall some bible story about a young girl, so nearly perfect that god fancied her, I think her name was Mary. Her memory erased – How could that be that she did not remember having a sexual encounter with God or Man? I would be disgusted to be “in god’s image” do you understand ? that’s rape.
    Then- the – two of each animal on a boat, Have you ever seen three generations of inbred cats? Missing Parts
    Use your brain please – everyone!

  15. Surely. god ‘the father’ is male.
    The christian one definitely is.
    The reason the argument ‘god is a boy, so boys are better than girls’ is erroneous is simply because god is a myth; boys and girls are not, they are both equally real.

  16. This is a great post. In many other religions, God is personified as both male and female. In Islam, Allah has 99 names and some are female (Noor is female). It’s a debate that needs to be happening in the church as a whole.

    But if you are looking for an excellent book to help children understand that God is everyone, check out [i]God got a Dog[/i]by Cynthia Rylant. It’s poems of God’s experience as every person, rich, poor, young, old. I love it (read it to myself when I need a reaffirmation).

  17. Before you comment on my comment: I don’t believe in any divine being. And what I write is solely my responsibility, whether anyone else shares my perspective, so don’t assume that I represent atheism as a whole on this blog.

    There are reasons for the (possible) misconceptions of God being male. First of all, consider the social form that Western monotheism comes from: patriarchy. Men are the guardians, the ones with the power and the resources in patriarchy, qualities that are associated with god. Secondly, Jesus referred to god as heavenly father, not heavenly mother. Of course, god didn’t come to earth like the pagan gods and sire or recieve mortal offspring, but sent his spirit to a woman so virtuous that she was considered “without sin”. So, what was Jesus to call god but his father, when he had a mother of flesh and bone? Assuming there is indeed a god.

    Why is this relevant to me, an atheist? While I don’t believe in god, traditional religion is part of humanity, and the way it seems it is to stay such for as long as there are humans. Understanding the human condition is essential to achieving true peace – peace without the constant threat of war and violence. If that is possible.

    I mentioned the pagan gods earlier, who were believed to have human(-oid) bodies of their own. They represent(ed) principles of nature and humanity, and their genders are one of the reasons why indoeuropean languages have genderized phenomena. The introduction of monotheism to indoeuropean peoples might be another reason why god is often considered male, as the leaders of their Pantheons are also male (also patriarchal societies).

  18. Great jumping off point for discussions around gender, uniqueness, and equality. I would be cautious about discussing G-d’s gender with children. First, we are not experts on the subject of divinity nor human growth and development. We tend to insert our beliefs into discussions for the purpose of “helping” but in this case I don’t see it solving the playground arguments over which gender is superior. Finally, as our communities become more diverse, it will be difficult to refer to one platform (Bible, Koran, Torah, etc) to ground these discussions.

    Personally I believe that G-d is more than human genders. G-d’s ability to create a living universe indicates something much greater than human genders, likely beyond our ability to comprehend.

  19. I agree with you that God is above our humanly claims .. But I believe that we shouldn’t call God with pronunciation other than what He call Himself or what his Prophets called Him God says in the Quran:”180. To God belong the Most Beautiful Names, so call Him by them, and disregard those who blaspheme His names. They will be repaid for what they used to do.”
    And for the gender issues here is a verse that I believe we should teach to our children in chapter an-nisa (the women) God (swt) says to both sexes: “32. Do not covet what God has given to some of you in preference to others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask God of his bounty. God has knowledge of everything.” Both are equal in special way , they have the same rights, but something women can do while men can’t and the same the other way around but that doesn’t mean there is someone who is better, because God is just and he loves justice.

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