God beyond gender

February 2nd, 2016

While we know that our human capacity for language necessarily falls flat when describing and defining the divine, for most of Christian history that language has been almost exclusively male-gendered. Our Bibles and prayer books refer to God with male pronouns and male roles like king and father and lord to the exclusion of other, more feminine images such as Wisdom or a mother hen gathering her flock. For many women, equally created in the image of God, this has been troublesome. As theologian Mary Daly wrote in 1973, “If God is male, then male is God.”

Some argue that of course God isn’t male or any gender at all; that language is there as a placeholder. Yet we cannot deny that the majority of our language about God is male. If God is beyond gender, then surely we can accurately describe God as male or female, at least until our language is able to catch up with the Divine Mystery who is the source of all being.

Perhaps our God-language can benefit from those people who do not fit cleanly into our cultural binaries of gender, or more succinctly, those who identify as genderqueer. After all, per the American Dialect Society, the 2015 word of the year is “they,” used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. This is an adaptation made necessary by the gender exclusivity of only using “he” and the cumbersome nature of repeatedly saying “he or she.” Our transsexual, nongendered, pangender, genderfluid, and other non-gender binary conforming friends are taking these matters into their own hands, defining their own pronouns and creatively developing new language that more accurately represents their experience of themselves.

Despite those who resist changes, language is not static; it is constantly developing and shifting. New words are added. Old words develop new meaning. Plurals can become singular. As people and culture change, so does language. We can resist change, or we can welcome it and mine both the past and the present for language that helps us connect with the divine. For some of us, Elizabethan-era English might bring us more closely into the presence of God. For others, Eugene Peterson’s "The Message" translation speaks more clearly and directly. There is no right or wrong, but neither should we hold up one way of communication as the only way.

In these days, I believe that God is speaking to us through the experiences of our Christian friends who are genderqueer, helping us to see beyond our binary gender categories that we often use to limit and assign particular roles. Instead of shunning genderqueer individuals, their experiences might teach us about God and ourselves, about ambiguity in areas we think of as black and white.

Furthermore, what if their struggles to develop non-gendered language for themselves helped all of us to more accurately describe the Divine beyond “He or She,” “Mother” or “Father?” What might it look like to refer to the Trinity as with the singular, non-gendered pronoun “They?” What might it look like to think of God transcending gender? As with any change, it might take some adjustment. It might be uncomfortable. The English majors and strict grammarians in our midst might cringe and resist. But then ask, “What might it be like for all people, regardless of male or female, cisnormative or genderqueer, to see themselves reflected in the image of the Trinity, of Divine Love and Life?”

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