Femininity, Masculinity, and God
Posted on January 15, 2014
It was once shocking for me to consider the idea that God has feminine characteristics. I was raised in a church that, like many others, uses exclusively masculine pronouns and descriptors for God. Not just masculine, but some sort of revved up super-masculine: capitalized He, Him, His, etc.
God was described as Father, Son, shepherd (described only as male, of course). Even the Holy Spirit was assigned male gender.
Ministers and youth workers in my life spoke with derision about “gender-neutral” interpretations of the Bible and feminists who wanted to neuter God and “rob him of his masculinity.” Anyone who used feminine pronouns for God wasn’t just worthy of ridciule; they had crossed the line into heresy
So it was shocking to me when, at some point, God was described to me as having feminine traits in addition to masculine ones.
Shocking and beautiful.
Recognizing certain traits about myself (or my future self, in the case of maternal analogies) in God was inspirational and exciting. I drank up descriptions of God’s feminine traits as described in scripture: God “giving birth” to humanity, God serving as midwife, God as mother, God as nurse, God as a protector of children, God as comforter.
This was in a time before blogging, but I would have been thrilled to come across articles like these:
God’s Feminine Attributes
Bible verses about Feminine Characteristics in God
Embracing the ‘Feminine Side’ of God
I was so excited about finding maternal and feminine depictions of God in scripture and commentary that I never second-guessed them. Representation! I felt more represented in scripture through these things, and that was all that I needed.
If we are made in God’s image, I recall thinking, then of course there must be masculine and feminine within God.
Recently, a friend sent me a link to a December interview with Camille Paglia from The Wall Street Journal. Paglia is sort of on the periphery of my interests as a feminist, so I haven’t spent much time interacting with her ideas. I found the interview unsettling, though, mostly because of the emphasis Paglia places on masculine and feminine traits and her definition of these things as clear-cut and easily defined.
For example, Paglia criticizes American schools as being “bad for boys” because: “They’re making a toxic environment for boys. Primary education does everything in its power to turn boys into neuters.”
The article’s writer explains: Ms. Paglia observes this phenomenon up close with her 11-year-old son, Lucien, whom she is raising with her ex-partner, Alison Maddex, an artist and public-school teacher who lives 2 miles away. She sees the tacit elevation of “female values”—such as sensitivity, socialization and cooperation—as the main aim of teachers, rather than fostering creative energy and teaching hard geographical and historical facts.
When I wrote back to my friend to share my thoughts on the article, that was the part that stood out to me the most: the idea that “sensitivity, socialization, and cooperation” are inherently “female values,” while “creative energy and teaching hard geographical and historical facts” are listed as something other than female. I am not sure if I am supposed to interpret these things as male/masculine or as unisex, but either way, I am put off by the labeling.
Why, aside from the influence of subjective cultural values, would we call sensitivity a feminine trait and creativity a masculine and/or unisex trait?
Shouldn’t young boys be taught to be sensitive, socialized, cooperative, and creative?
Shouldn’t young girls be taught the same?
When we assign gender to personality traits and characteristics, we do so because we recognize patterns in behavior. Men tend to act this way. Women tend to act in this other way. But that is so incredibly subjective, and it is significantly influenced by cultural and historical context. It’s also just a pattern: patterns are not rules.
Trying to turn these pattern-based observations into rules is harmful. It’s why young boys and men, no matter their sexual orientation, are hurt by homophobia. It’s why young girls and women are hurt by expectations of what girls should and shouldn’t do. It’s why men and women feel excluded by a variety of society’s structures if they don’t fit with what’s expected.
Imagine a woman with great intuition for leadership and phenomenal public speaking skills, but who is unlucky enough to be raised in a patriarchal church environment where such skills are exclusively within the territory of “men’s roles.”
Imagine a man who is sensitive and insightful but who must conform to a strict set of social rules where he is to be tough, firm, and “manly.”
Imagine someone sitting there during Mark Driscoll or John Piper or Beth Moore’s sermons about the roles men and women should play in the church who just doesn’t fit with what’s being said.
Many great thinkers and writers have called into question the idea of gender roles/masculine and feminine traits. There are great criticisms of the way we think of feminine traits as those associated with weakness and/or passivity, and masculine traits as strong and/or active. I have read excellent analyses of why gender norms hurt everyone, not just those who deviate from those norms.
I am not calling into question the existence of patterns or even “norms” of gender representation. It’s not that I think men and women shouldn’t find strength or identification through their gender. To do so would deny my own reality–that I believe I am a woman not just because of my physical body, but because of how I interact with the world. To deny the existence of gender would also deny the experiences of transgender individuals who come to terms with the fact that who they are is different from who they have been told they are, based on their bodies. I am not writing a treatise that rejects the notion of gender altogether.
As a Christian, though, I’d like to connect this back to the idea of God being both feminine and masculine.
Recently, I’ve changed in my interpretation of this concept that was once so freeing to me. I don’t view God as feminine and masculine; I view God as neither feminine nor masculine.
God is beyond gender. God is beyond cultural and historical interpretations of what it means to be male and what it means to be female.
Instead of looking at the personality of God as represented in scripture as representing men and women, I want to view those personality traits and characteristics as representing humanity on the whole. It seems a little absurd, now that I think about it, to work backwards from our understanding of gender and force that onto our understanding of God.
God doesn’t have masculine traits and feminine traits. God has godly traits. When a man or a woman emulates a characteristic of God–when he or she is loving, creative, giving, protective, comforting, wise, merciful, or anything else we associate with God–then that person is not performing gender. He or she is doing something godly.
I find this new perspective quite freeing and exciting. I don’t want to dismiss the kind of writing and thinking that first introduced the idea to me of God being both masculine and feminine, but I can’t help but be thrilled that there is another step in this understanding for me.