God Beyond Gender

An iconic interpretation of the concept of the triune God

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center advocates gender inclusive and expansive language as part of its mission. For us, then, this month’s decision by the United Churches of Christ to substitute “triune God” for “Heavenly Father” as part of a constitutional change was encouraging, despite the discouraging controversy it engendered. (See Peter Smith’s 7/16 Courier-Journal article.) We agree with Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw’s comment on the matter, that “there has to be real pastoral sensitivity around this issue” of language for God. As she notes, our language for God is the language of prayer, which is the language through which people intelligibly relate themselves to God. These God-words are theo-logy of the most fundamental kind.

That theology, or language, says much more about us than it says about God. What it says about us may not be easy or pleasant to recognize or accept. One of the functions of that needed pastoral sensitivity is to help people come face to face with the pervasive, unarticulated gender bias that is one of the deep wellsprings of resistance to expansive language for God, and to realize that it is permissible and desirable to challenge it.

Despite our determination not to make graven images of God, we tend to fall back on familiar clusters of meaning in our heads and hearts in our public and private rituals. While these meaning clusters are supported by Biblical language, their content comes largely from the world around us. It includes everything we know about various kinds of people — fathers, mothers, children, servants and so on — and their various relationships. It includes everything we know about which kinds of people can say or do what, to whom, when and where, and what all of that means — what conveys strength, e.g., or kindness, and whether the quality conveyed is positive or negative, good, bad, or indifferent.

Those clusters of meaning are awash with gender. It is commonplace for discussions about gendered language for God to appeal to God’s Spiritual genderlessness: God is famously “beyond gender.” But the human beings who make this claim are not. Whenever English-speaking people think of a personal, as opposed to an impersonal, reality, they are always already thinking of a gendered reality: him, or her. Thus, while we can honestly claim to believe in a God who is beyond gender, our ritual practice — particularly to the extent it invokes God as a personalistic reality — cannot support that belief articulately. We are driven over and over again to use gendered language, because it is the language we have available to us.

Because we do use gendered language, and have for millennia, we find that the challenge facing a person of faith in using new terms of reference for God is sharpened by the way gender plays a part in their clusters of meaning. To what extent can the new terms articulate or support the familiar understanding of God, the “same God,” that has been worshipped until now in other words? Or, if these new terms promote a change in the understanding of God, to what extent is that change experienced as a positive expansion of the possibilities attributable to God, or to what extent is it experienced as a denial or diminution in God’s positive attributes? It is at this point that we are liable to come face to face with one or more widespread, pervasive, normally unarticulated strands in our web of beliefs that have to do with gender.

Anyone can try this thought experiment:
First think of a familiar prayer that uses masculine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .) Then, try praying that prayer using feminine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Mother, who art in Heaven . . .) Pay attention to how this address to God feels. If it feels comfortable, try to put words to that comfort; “it feels good, because . . .” If it feels uncomfortable, try to put words to that discomfort; “it doesn’t feel right because . . . ” Finally: what does the feeling have to do with everything you know about the difference in meaning between the masculine term and the feminine term? That is: what does this experiment reveal about your own background assumptions about gender?

Very often, reasons for discomfort with this exercise take one or both of these forms: (1) I don’t feel I am addressing the same God when I use feminine language; or (2) I feel I am addressing God improperly — the word I am using doesn’t fit the God I am addressing, in a way that seems to take something away from God. Those feelings, in turn, give us clues about our understandings of these gendered terms. If I feel I am addressing a different God altogether, I may begin to realize the extent to which the image of God I cherish is, in fact, a distinctly masculine or patriarchal one, which cannot be supported by feminine language. If I find that I feel a feminine term is improper for God, that it takes something away from God, I may have to face the extent to which my own background assumptions about women include some form of inferiority, that makes those terms feel less than fully adequate to figure the divine. Either way, an exercise like this can face us with the extent to which we continue to hold a patriarchal understanding of God, which is held in place by our continued use of patriarchal language. As long as we never question our language practices, we can make statements like “My God is beyond gender,” fully believing them, while in practice worshipping and relating to a God we understand in distinctly masculine ways. Only when we begin to pay attention to our practices around language for God does this subtle form of idolatry come to awareness, and with it the limitation that imposes on our openness to encounter with the living God.

Once again, it is important to recognize that this exercise doesn’t pretend to tell us much about God, but about our own, usually implicit and unthinking, accepted and taken for granted, assumptions about gender. We can get at those assumptions by paying attention to the way we use and respond to language — its denotations and connotations, its emotional resonances — because language is our tool for communicating meaning. That’s also why the words we use for God shape and contain what we mean about God and what God means to us and for us.

For some, the problem with changed language for God is that the new language will not support an understanding of God that supports arrangements of power and privilege from which those people benefit. But for most, the even more profound challenge is that it opens up an avenue for fresh encounter with God, beyond accustomed and comfortable language and understanding. That opening is profoundly uncomfortable, and the intimation of an imminent uncomfort it announces ultimately has little to do with gender. It is rather the unsettling, frightening and yet fascinating awareness that the God we might really encounter is One who exceeds our categories and transcends our settled understandings so radically that no knowledge we already possess or imagine to be satisfactory is going to withstand that revelation.

Bracing the community of faith for that transformative encounter will really call for pastoral sensitivity.

updated 07/26/11

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About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

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