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.