I live with a feminist and I never stop hearing about sexism…. In the Catholic Church, she says, patriarchalism goes all the way to the top because the church even sees God as a male. To be honest I feel a bit on the defensive at times. To tease her I tell her that God can't help it if he’s male, any more than I can, but that annoys her. I'd like to be able to ease her mind a bit if that's possible. Is there anything I can say that would help her instead of annoying her? Cathal M.
Dear Cathal, There are many passages in the Bible and in Christian tradition that use feminine images of God. Giving God exclusively male attributes is only a habit, and your friend is right to be annoyed by it.
“God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, NRSV translation). This means that male and female persons are equally images of God, and are therefore equally entitled to imagine God in terms of their own gender. (We’ll come to the pronoun ‘he’ later.)
To use only male images of God is to restrict the image of God in humanity – to rob God of the distinctive way in which he is imaged in women. Exclusively female images, of course, would equally restrict God’s image in humanity. If we were to react by excluding all gender words, we would not eliminate the problem but double it: our images of God would become amorphous and impersonal. God is beyond gender, but we are not. God-talk (a fair translation of the word ‘theology’) doesn’t have to decide whether we should use male or female images of God – any more than we have to decide whether the human race is male or female. The challenge is to use both – just as the human challenge is to enable men and women to complement each other.
Make a list of so-called masculine images: strength, ruler, leader, provider, power…. And a list of so-called feminine images: grace, tenderness, care, affection, beauty…. I say ‘so-called’ because these are not the exclusive property of either gender – even if they tend to be unevenly distributed. The challenge for all of us is to integrate the qualities that we expect to find in the opposite sex. Who would want to exclude any of these qualities from our language about God?
Make a search through the Scriptures for feminine traits in God; among them you will find the following from Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (49:15). “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (66:13). But what about the ‘he’ you find in the Old Testament? There are no gender-neutral pronouns in Hebrew; everything is a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. For example, hayyah (the word for an animal) is a feminine noun, but this does not mean that the animal in question is always female. Sefer (a book) is always masculine…. and so on. All this is true of many other languages too. The words for God (Elohim, Adonai) are masculine nouns in Hebrew, so God is called ‘he’. On the other hand the ‘Spirit of God’ (Ruach Elohim) is feminine, and so is Shekhinah – ‘Presence of God’. In Greek, the word for God (theos) is masculine, and the word for Spirit (pneuma) is neuter. In brief, the gender of words has nothing to do with the gender of what the words refer to.
In many languages the masculine becomes the default pronoun. But in Tagalog, I'm told, there is only one word for ‘he’ and ‘she’: siya (pronounced ‘she – a’). No doubt this is why Filipinos who speak perfect English will still occasionally make the mistake of referring to a man as ‘she’. English does not have such a word, so we just have to do our best not to limit our awareness of God to one half of its range.
Your friend might look at the classics of Christian spirituality. Meister Eckhart repeatedly uses phrases like: “God takes the greatest delight in giving birth.” “The Father's name is 'giving birth'.” “God is forever on the birth-couch giving birth.” And of course Julian of Norwich’s book: “God rejoices that he is our Father, and God rejoices that he is our Mother, and God rejoices that he is our true spouse, and that our soul is his beloved wife.” Notice that while including both masculine and feminine she doesn’t bother herself about the pronoun ‘he’. It’s only a word, and for her (unlike many who insist on it now) it doesn’t carry any sexist baggage. I can send your friend some extended passages if she is interested. At any rate, it will be good for her to know that they exist.
Sexism in the Church is a whole other story, but your question was about God. Finally, you might take a look at this month’s Gospel commentary for August 3 on this site. I hope this may help, Cathal.