Over at Liberal Jesus, Matthew posted about Calling God ‘He.’ I’ve heard at least a few discussions of this in my short lifetime, growing up around a community of theology addicts. Matthew more or less skips right to the practical concerns of what to call God, because the problems with an exclusively male God are seem clear to him.
“I consoled myself with the thought that this isn’t often an explicit theology: most conservative Christian churches probably hold that God is neither exclusively male nor exclusively female. The problem this presents is that the language most of these churches use to refer to God is exclusively male. And language matters. Because our language is currently at odds with our theology, we need to change one or the other.”
Some of the more patriarchal aspects of the changing representations of the Biblical God make people very uncomfortable in our more egalitarian-leaning society. Back in the day when I was likely to listen to sermons, I heard many on what all those pesky passages about women being silent, or God being a father, or men and women relating like masters and slaves.
If God is a human construct it makes sense for God to be alternately male or female based on the culture of those who are perceiving God. (Note that consciously avoiding gendered pronouns for God means that one will use the word God a lot when talking about God.) As with many conversations, there is an innate tension between the struggle for precision and the desire to communicate with people of diverse theological backgrounds. I would think of a good word to characterize this tension, but I doubt that it would be both accurate and communicative.
Maybe the problem really is with our language, as Matthew contends. In A History of God Karen Armstrong makes this comment in the first chapter, hopefully in anticipation of a more thorough address on the gender of God to come:
In Hebrew, Arabic and French, however, grammatical gender gives theological discourse a sort of sexual counterpoint and dialectic, which provides a balance that is often lacking in English. Thus in Arabic al-Lah (supreme name for God) is grammatically masculine, but the word for the divine and inscrutable essence of God—al-Dhat—is feminine.
So maybe it’s just English. Maybe it’s all just epistemological violence, forced on the shaftees by the shafters, designed by patriarchal, imperial, male, non-poor, white, Western, straight people like me to keep the subaltern down. Blame it on the Man… Wait, now why isn’t that gender neutral?