Gendering God

I’ve appreciated reading everyone’s thoughts on this subject. At risk of moving our conversation a little off its original course, the following are a few reflections on Hannah Malcolm’s remarks on ‘(re)gendering’ the Trinity, specifically addressing the issue of how gendered language is used in relation to God.

  1. There is a widespread assumption that sex and gender are accidental features of biblical names and imagery: ‘Father’ could be replaced by ‘Parent’ or switched for ‘Mother’ without loss or change of meaning. However, fathers and mothers have different forms of relationship to their children, irrespective of their personalities or traits. These different forms of relation arise from their sexual differences, but aren’t reducible to them. A mother bears her child in and feeds the child from her own body; there is a material bodily continuity between her and her offspring that characterizes their personal relation. A father, by contrast, does not have the same direct material connection to his offspring. He fathers children by an act of love by which they are conceived and gestated outside of his being. He is materially ‘other’ from his offspring and stands over against them in a way that a mother does not. Switching masculine pronouns and male imagery for feminine pronouns and female imagery can have unhelpful implications for our understanding of the Creator-creature distinction and relation. It is not accidental that biblical and cultural images for sovereignty and transcendence are overwhelmingly masculine. This most definitely doesn’t mean that feminine images shouldn’t be explored or developed (quite the opposite, in fact: carefully deployed feminine images and themes highlight that, despite the priority of transcendence, God’s relationship to his creation is also characterized by immanence of presence). Rather, it means that they must be governed by the logic of revelation and deployed with care and precision. We can’t merely project a God in our chosen image or use feminine and masculine imagery interchangeably.
  1. God’s particular personal identity—revealed in the Tetragrammaton (his personal proper name, YHWH)—is consistently referred to in grammatically masculine ways in Scripture (God isn’t a man or a male). This consistency of usage reflects the fact that God’s self-designation is not just another human metaphor or title for God, but functions as a self-revealed personal proper name. It doesn’t compare God to any human entity, but simply refers to him. The consistent use of masculine pronouns corresponds to the fixity in reference of a personal proper name in contrast to a cloud of metaphors. The consistent use of masculine pronouns relates, I believe, to the biblical precedent for such consistent usage and to the fact that such masculine personal pronouns are the most apt to express the transcendence of the One to whom we refer. It also has to do a resistance to relativizing God’s self-revelation as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit’ in Jesus Christ. We share in the Sonship of Christ in relation to his Father.
  1. Introducing feminine personal pronouns for the Spirit creates a discontinuity within the Trinity, risking pushing us in the direction of conceiving of God in terms of three distinct centres of self-consciousness. The likely use of masculine pronouns for the Spirit in places such as John 16:13 maintains the use of the same pronoun to refer to the one Triune God.
  1. With such caveats in place, however, it is important that we recognize that, within, the linguistic discipline established by the Tetragrammaton and the revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit in the gospel, there is considerable room for the exploration of feminine imagery and themes within the pneumatological form of naming identified by R. Kendall Soulen. While God is identified using masculine pronouns, any identification of God as male is constantly unsettled by biblical revelation, which frequently yet subtly brings feminine imagery into play. This makes clear that, although God can analogically and truly reveal himself in the language and reality of gender, God is beyond gender.
  1. Here it is appropriate to recognize the intense association of the Spirit with the feminine, as this is part of divine revelation. The Spirit and the Bride are associated in several ways (e.g. Revelation 22:17). Both descend from heaven to Christ. The Spirit’s association with love and the dove is also significant here. The Spirit forms communion, fills, gives life, the future, (re)generation, glory, groans within us with the birth pangs of new creation, is associated with conception in the womb of Mary, etc. all things that are associated with women in Scripture. The Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom (personified as feminine in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in Scripture), God’s Glory, and God’s immanent presence within his creation. Women represent dimensions of God’s divine activity (especially that of days 4-6) in ways that men cannot.

As such language functions in Scripture and most of the tradition, men and women are not interchangeable, but are different ‘genres’ of human persons, who symbolize and relate in manners peculiar to their gender. Many modern attempts to advance feminine language and imagery for God want to recover biblical and traditional examples of such language while rejecting the more established structural understanding of gender that informed them. Gendered language in such contexts is informed, I believe, not by a notion of gender as ‘hierarchy’, but by a notion of gender as mutually constitutive difference in relation and of such difference as symbolically meaningful.

The benefit of such an understanding is found, I believe, in: 1) its refusal to map human gender onto God, while appreciating the revelatory potential of gendered language in a theological context in an analogical manner; 2) its close attention to the biblical witness and to its ‘grammar’ of gendered language; 3) its refusal to reduce gender difference to indifference and interchangeability or to frame it in terms of hierarchy, privileging man over woman or vice versa. Rather, significance is given to the difference in relation itself, both men and women being valued for their peculiar symbolic and relational potential, a potential created by God and apt for expressing and reflecting his creative rule in the world.

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