Naming God is difficult at best, divisive even in its mildest form, and can be thought of as sacrilegious at its worst. I was confronted squarely with this reality as I entered divinity school. I can only begin to tell you how excited I was to be accepted into divinity school at Wake Forest. I had only applied to Princeton, Duke, and Wake Forest, and quite frankly had low hopes of being accepted into any of them.
I still remember the day my acceptance letter arrived at the house. As I opened it standing midway up the driveway, I was overwhelmed with joy and relieved to finally be able to pursue the thing which I believed I was supposed to be doing.
Well, my first day of orientation at Wake made me forget about all of that as this divine calling I had answered, as this desire deep in the core of my soul to talk about the God that I love and what that God wants for this world, was given parameters. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time discussing the topic of “gender neutral language.” “Discussing” is a bit of a misnomer here. What we had was not so much a discussion as it was being told what we were going to do – which was: don’t use words like ‘father,’ ‘he,’ or ‘him’ in referring to God. Then we were allowed to vent our frustrations and articulate cogent theological perspectives of the problems with being told how we can talk about God, and then we were told, once again, what we were going to do, which was, don’t use words like ‘father,’ ‘he,’ or ‘him’ in referring to God.
Jump forward a year. My daughter Kayli was about 7 years old and had received a praying doll as a gift. Each night as I tucked her in bed, she would say her prayers – she would say them with her doll. “Our Father who art in heaven.” Night after night I heard that. At the same time, day after day, I was in school listening to my theology professor, Dr. Frank Tupper, remind those who chose to refer to God as ‘he’ that, “God does not have a penis.” At night, in the innocence of a young girl’s voice I would hear God called “Father” as her own father tucked her in and during the day a man who dedicated his life to thinking about God would remind me that God does not have male genitalia.
That’s where I want to enter this conversation about the gendering of God. That slice of my life. That moment in time when a young girl embraced the image of God as male and an older man refuted the image of God as male.
The Bible frequently presents God with a feminine image. In Genesis men and women are created in God’s image. In Hosea (11:3-4,13:8) God is described as a mother and a mother bear. In Proverbs as Lady Wisdom. In Deuteronomy (32:18) God gives birth. In Isaiah God is a pregnant woman crying out in pain (49:15). In Jeremiah (44:25), Queen of Heaven. In Matthew (23:37) a Mother Hen. In Luke (15:8-10) a woman looking for her lost coin. And possibly one of the most endearing images of God captured in the song “On Eagles Wings.” Deuteronomy (32:11-12) says, God will care for us just as a mother eagle “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions.” And all of those are just to name a few of the Bible’s instances of feminine imaging of God.
One night, after tucking the kids in to bed and hearing my daughter pray to “Our Father in heaven,” I sat up thinking about what she was saying. About how the language of the church, of her prayers, and language in sermons, worship, music, seem to be teaching her that God is male or at least more like a man than a woman; that God is more fittingly addressed as male than female – effectively subordinating women and devaluing the understanding of women as being created equally in the image of God, a God who clearly can be understood just as well (and in some cases better) through feminine imagery.
I checked back in on Kayli before going to bed. As I looked at my daughter resting, I was struck with a deep need for the church to begin reprogramming itself to have a fuller understanding of God, one that subordinates no one because everyone is created equally in God’s image.
Also, I checked on my son, Hunter, before I went to bed. He was about three and a half at the time. I thought about him growing up in a church that allowed him to believe that on some level he is made more in the image of God than his sister, than any woman for that matter. I decided to teach him and Kayli both, to paraphrase Dr. Tupper, God has no male parts.
The next morning Kayli and I had a talk about who God is. We talked about God in the Bible, what God did, who God was, and who God is. We talked about what moms and dads do for us and mean to us. We talked about how she felt about calling God “Father.” That night when Kayli prayed, she prayed new words, words of her own choosing, “Our Creator who art in heaven…” Amen.
It is time for a paradigm shift in the Christian church in how we present God in terms of gender and in the beliefs that come along with masculine dominated language. But, the change I think it is time for, may not be the change you are thinking of. I believe that if we continue to insist on anthropomorphizing God, it is time for a genderqueer God. Here’s the first line from Wikipedia’s entry on genderqueer: “Genderqueer is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, identities which are outside the gender binary and cisnormativity. Genderqueer people may express a combination of masculinity and femininity, or neither, in their gender expression.”
I believe that as humanity has expanded its understanding of gender identity, we’ve hit upon an understand that more fully encompasses the gender-fluid presentation of God that we find in the Bible. Genderqueer certainly is representative of not only how the Bible depicts God, but of what theologians have been saying for quite some time.
Frankly, many of us who are aware of developing understandings of gender identity are still getting use to how to use the correct language. For instance, when it comes to using non-gendered language for God, it actually takes a great deal of practice and creativity to not fall back on the traditional pronouns of he/she. But, it can be done. When you are talking about a person, it’s much more difficult. One of the emerging solution is to use the pronouns, they/them/their.
Admittedly, those of us who grew up hearing those as plural pronouns, might find that using them to identify a particular person may sit somewhat awkwardly on the ear, but in time it does become quite normal.
Also, it is a wonderful solution to the problem of the gendering of God that I was introduced to on that first day in divinity school. I wonder how comfortable we will be with that? Can we see God as genderqueer?
Frankly, I think doing so moves us just a little closer to the fuller understanding of God which most of us seek.