Recently in a casual theological conversation concerning the topic of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology, it was rightly pointed out that, often, because the Holy Spirit is referred to as an ‘it’, we subconsciously forget that the Holy Spirit is a personal being, not an impersonal force, and so we should  call the Holy Spirit ‘He/Him’. Those with the ‘ear to hear’ will know where this argumentation will lead Christian theology to inevitably, and indeed already has. If we wish to avoid impersonal pronouns when describing God, can we not use the pronoun ‘she’? The amount of opposition to this proposal from Christian women no less would surprise anyone not raised in or around Christian contexts.

            What will be argued here is that a very simple case can be made for using feminine pronouns/images when talking about God in Christian theological contexts on the basis of two very fundamental and basic ‘orthodox’ premises. It will be further be speculated upon as to why there is opposition to this, despite the obvious conclusion from basic ‘orthodox’ premises, and then finally some radical proposals for not only talking about ‘God’ but even specifically Jesus, with language that defies gender categorization will be proposed.

            Initial opposition to the proposal, which is usually disguised as a question, of using feminine language when talking about God, comes almost universally in two forms: (1) ‘Well that issue is not really important because the ultimate point is that God is beyond gender and beyond humanity! And should we not bask in God’s transcendence?’, or (2) ‘The Bible never talks about God as mother or in any feminine language and to stick to the tradition and Biblical principles we should use the pronouns and images it uses to talk about God, when we talk about God’.

            To deal with these in reverse order. One should not dismiss the second form of initial opposition as ‘too conservative’ or ‘too strict’, for one should not conceive the desire to stay with tradition or to stick to one’s roots as a perverted desire of people scared of change. Often going back to old tradition is a new change. Even more often, tradition contains some of the most radical proposals for social change and “progress” that can be implemented. Nor is changing tradition, though perceived as “progressive”, always moral which is the most important feature of good traditions. In fact what is more worrying than those who wish to stridently stick to tradition, are those who claim to do so but secretly mean stridently stick with the status quo. It is true as may reasonably be estimated, that in most Christian contexts,  primarily masculine language and images are used of God, but sadly those who claim to stick to the authority of the Christian Bible, are often those who know it the least. For while the feminine images of God are sparse in the Christian Bible, they are not wholly absent. The theme of God as a humanly motherly figure of comfort is well noted in Isaiah 49:15; 66:13, the later of which reads

As a mother comforts her child,
So I will comfort you;
You shall be comforted in Jerusalem

The reason ‘humanly’ is mentioned is because sometimes God herself is even compared to a female animal with the same theme of comfort and protection such as the eagle (Deut. 32:11-12;  Matt. 23:37). Bizarrely there is even an instance of God as a mother bear who violently devours those who stole her cubs (Hosea 13:8), in case one think that the female images are used only with respect to passivity or the like. Passages like these and more* should show that even if one wishes to appeal to the Bible or tradition for theological sanction for the use of not only female images and language but even animal images and language when talking about God, it can be found there.

            Speaking of God using animal images and language then nicely brings us to the second initial form of opposition to speaking of God using female pronouns and images, ‘Is it not somewhat idolatrous to speak of God using such human terms? Should we not focus then on God transcending gender?’ It is here where the subconscious prejudice, of which we shall delve into more, is most clearly seen. For here, the doctrine of God’s transcendence is used precisely as a shield to deny it.  If the doctrine of God’s transcendence is going be used to say that we should not speak of God as female, it should also be used to say that we should not speak of God as male either, and an ineffable God is not only useless but heretical to the entire Christian tradition. In other terms, it is precisely because of God’s transcendence of the binary of gender** that it should not matter what images and pronouns we use when talking about God, for we confess doctrinally that ultimately our language is an attempt to understand God in our terms whether male or female. Instead however, the doctrine of God’s transcendence of human gender is used to deny or push aside the suggestion that we can (or maybe even should, God forbid!) use feminine pronouns and images when talking about God, but leaves intact our ability to use masculine pronouns and images, as if it were not anthropomorphic, or human language by which to talk about God.

            We have seen then that even these two initial seemingly reasonable forms of opposition to using feminine pronouns and images when talking about God are not formidable enough, even by the ‘orthodox’ standards of Biblical usage and the doctrine of transcendence, to withstand. If you held to either of these, the following will appear harsh. Whether conscious or subconscious, the reflexive reaction of disapproval to feminine language and images being used of God can really only come from a notion of maleness as divine, and femaleness as not. As if God did not make females in her image too (Gen. 1:26-27). The struggle of much of the Christian tradition to deal with including the female in the character of the divine has well been exploited for controversy both legitimate and illegitimate. Briefly, a good legitimate good argument in this regard is that Catholicism on the whole arguably has been much better to women spiritually than Protestantism both for having the quasi-goddess cult of the Virgin Mary but also for the openness of some within its mystical and monastic traditions of depicting God as mother such as in Julian of Norwich. While protestantism, in a strong well-intentioned desire to eliminate idolatry in Christian practice, got rid of veneration of the Virgin Mary, and in its reformulation of the goodness of family and procreation radically reduced female authority in monastic and mystical contexts. If you are a man or woman who has felt the absence of a female descriptions of  the divine nature, this would be a good example of why your grievance is justified.

            In addition however to this legitimate concern for female expression, it must be fairly said, there is equally (and perhaps may be more so) illegitimate controversy raised by the lack of female pronouns and images when discussing God in the Christian tradition. In no way should re-emphasizing the female aspect of the divine be used to depict God ‘the father’ as a brutal patriarchal tyrant that needs to be eliminated, but from outside of the Christian tradition, the absence of a female descriptions of  the divine nature has been used to call for an embrace not just a ‘female’ God, which is just as blasphemous as the ‘male’ God discussed earlier, but even for another God such as mother earth or the like. Against such proposals not too thinly masked in James Cameron’s Avatar for instance, the Vatican rightly condemned such nature worship recognizing that Mother Nature can be as cruel and as enslaving as Father God. In addition as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out with respect to the film Zero Dark Thirty, it is quite possible to have violent oppressive societies that were in some sense ‘post-patriarchal’ and lead by feminine heroines.*** So then the appeal to describe God with female pronouns and images should not be construed to suggest that ‘Father’ God is oppressive and mean whereas ‘Mother’ earth is liberating and nice, when the standards for violence and oppressive, for comfort and care are not in anyway tied to gender constructions.

            Having then argued a very simple case for using feminine pronouns/images when talking about God in Christian theological contexts and suggesting reasonable speculations upon as to why there is opposition to this, we will end with talking about Jesus specifically. At the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College, there is on display Almuth Lutkenhaus’s sculpture of the “Crucified Woman”,

Lutkenhaus_cwoman13

Initially, one may wonder whether such a depiction can be taken serious, for after all, ‘while its all well and good to talk about God as transcending gender binaries, surely Jesus was a man!’ Indeed so, but controversially it will be suggested that only in a Christian theological framework can Jesus, the Son of God be portrayed as a role model and ideal figure for revolutionary women, and that secular ideology in particular is completely unable to do so. Consider for a moment the proposition that Jesus was not god and was merely like any other man, most likely probably having sexual urges and desires, and the associated argument that Mary Magdalene was his wife of some sort. In secular contexts, the implications of this sort of argumentation for women were almost entirely missed. Would not, under this revised history of early Christianity which is total hog-wash historically speaking, women be merely  subordinated to the role of wife or secret mistress? In the desire to de-throne Christ, the result was even of devaluing women, not just in later centuries as the Church most certainly did, but within Jesus’ own ministry!

            Now, consider the opposite. If Jesus, as Christian ‘orthodoxy’ has always stated, was not only incarnationally 100% man, but also 100% God, and therefore of the same substance as God the ‘father’, therefore also transcending gender binary, would this not open up the possibility of understanding Jesus as divinely beyond gender? Could not women also, as women (unlike the Gospel of Thomas in 114), aspire to be conformed to the image of Christ? As Lutkenhaus has portrayed in her sculpture, Christ suffered as a human, not merely just as a man. It is not as if the role model for Christian men to aspire to is Christ, whereas for Christian women its the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. On the contrary, the image of Christ is the aspiration for all persons to aspire to. It is this issue, that is exact and precisely why, seemingly theoretical questions about referring to a non-gendered deity using female pronouns and images is so damn important. In leaving women out of the picture and description of the divine, we have not only misunderstood God(dess) but we have let the Christ of the new humanity be segregated to the male gender thereby leaving men and women who have felt the absence of the entirety of humanity in the image of God(dess) to be left to paganism and secularism for enslavement to ‘nature’ and oppressive patriarchs without recourse to refuge in the divine.

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*Note for further research: Here is an excellent introductory article to the Biblical material: “Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?”- Dr. Margo G. Houts http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm 

**What it says in Christian theology to talk about God as a person and yet of no particular gender or sex should be an initial hint as to a theological engagement and response to transgender persons.

*** For more on this one should see Rosa Brooks piece, “Women Are from Mars too” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/08/women_are_from_mars_too

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