The language which Christianity uses to refer to the divine being is language that is masculine. To be fair the language of monotheism, including both Judaism and Islam, is also very masculine language. Whatever the names of God might be God’s pronouns all tend to be He, Him, and His. There is some leeway of course, after all the Holy Spirit is not supposed to be gendered, being a pure spirit and all.
But this of course got me thinking, is God a woman? Or rather, can we call the divine being Goddess?
Here I am treading on dangerous theological territory, since I am quite certain that talking about the divine being by using feminine pronouns or feminine language is most likely some medieval heresy.
I am reminded of a quote from That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis “You are offended by the masculine itself: the loud irruptive, possessive thing– the gold lion, the bearded bull–which breaks through hedges and scatters the little kingdom of your primness as the dwarfs scattered the carefully made bed. The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. You had better agree with your adversary quickly. (316)” Certainly the implication here is that God is masculine.
I am also reminded that C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock that since the scripture teaches us to use the language of the masculine when we refer to God that it would be impious of Christians to do anything else. “Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable (1970, p. 237, emp. in orig.)”
But let it also be clearly said that the Bible does use feminine imagery to refer to God in Deut, 32:18 (where God gives birth), Isa. 42:14 (where God is like a woman in childbirth), and Isa. 66:13 (God is compared to a mother).
The solution? Well let me consider the options.
The traditional approach
It seems that we ought all to reaffirm thousands of years of tradition which began with the writers of the Old Testament and continues today. Based on this I would continue to say that God is masculine, or at least that I ought to continue to refer to the divine by using masculine terms, language, imagery, and symbols. This in turn casts all of creation and ourselves as feminine, but it also has the effect of casting the feminine as inferior, subordinate, doomed, and inherently mortal and flawed. This has been the history of the church from Augustine to Aquinas and on up to the present with leaders like Billy Graham.
This also upholds the masculine as the center of all that is wise and powerful, and determines the hierarchy of the church through that understanding.
The radical approach
I might try to refer to Goddess using feminine pronouns, language, imagery, and symbols. I do not discount the imagery of the Bible, I simply take it as a metaphor. Given the nature of patriarchal control in the church I then take this countering move of the divine feminine as a way of evening the field between men and women. This restores women to positions of power and wisdom within the religion and also equates the feminine with the divine and in so doing asserts the significance of it.
Would this necessarily have the effect of destroying the masculine and erasing men in the church? It depends. If we fear that to replace the masculine in our churches with the feminine would result in the spiritual castration of men and an all-out assault on the divine masculine, then what does this tell us about how our churches currently see the feminine?
The neutral approach
It must be clear, of course, that God has no sex. It must also be clear that God, strictly speaking, has no gender either in the sense of a set of arbitrary social norms which identify God to other beings like God. The simplest possible way to resolve this situation would be to let the logic of theology take its course and cease to refer to God as gendered or sexed when clearly God must be transcendent to all genders and all sexes.
This does seem to run into problems with both the traditional and radical approaches though. From the traditional side this involves abandoning orthodoxy and forgetting the meaning and power of the divine masculine. From the radical side this is effectively a de-facto reinforcement of the traditional since it leaves in place all masculine hierarchies and simply swaps out a few words.
The final account
Our view of God in many ways determines our understanding of ourselves. We are created in God’s image and so we of course must resemble the divine attributes and abilities. Yet does this mean that some of us resemble the divine more clearly than others by merit of our sex? And if we do, then surely this has profound implications for those of us who resemble the divine in a lesser and more imperfect fashion. Now it may be possible, through hard work and spiritual dedication, for the less perfect to make up for their natural imperfections, but they can never approximate the true glory of God.
This is precisely what is at stake when we try to determine God’s femininity or masculinity. This determination also determines ourselves, our church power structures, our family power structures, our social dynamics, and even the images we use to depict the sovereign Being.
Lewis is right, this is no arbitrary issue, and upon this determination hangs the future of women and men in the church.
James Taylor earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University, and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the link between race and technology. He currently teaches philosophy and specializes in critical philosophy of race, technology, and religion. In his free time he enjoys researching family genealogies and going graving, the hobby of documenting cemeteries.