Women’s Acceptance of a Gender-Transcendent God
Posted on May 23, 2014
For the past week or so, a lively debate has been taking place on the internet between Christians who believe it’s okay to refer to God with feminine pronouns, and Christians who believe that it’s not.
I say “lively debate,” but that’s a poor description. What I have seen has been some debate, but mostly a situation in which Rachel Held Evans, who dared two years ago to use the phrase “God herself” in a blog post (and whose career is built on questioning gender expectations within the church), was turned into a punching bag, swung at mercilessly by the twin fists of I AM RIGHT and YOU ARE WRONG.
The problem with treating someone as a punching bag has nothing to do with whether or not your position is correct and everything to do with the fact that we’re not supposed to beat the crap out of each other. Not physically, and not metaphorically.
Because I’m still trying to cut down on rebuttal blogging, I haven’t wanted to chime in until I’ve had something to contribute to the conversation apart from helpless anger and defensive frustration. I wrote about God as beyond gender back in January, and others have already rebutted the rigid “God is male and you’re committing heresy to say otherwise” point of view, and they’ve so done really well. I’d like to address something else.
Why does it seem like women are more comfortable with a God that transcends gender than men are?
There hasn’t been a line drawn like in Hook, and all men go to one side saying “God is male” and all women go to the other saying “God is female” or “God is gender neutral.” However, there have been some strong patterns of men defending the “God is male” point of view, with women being more comfortable with God as gender-neutral or gender-transcending.
I could be really succinct like some of my awesome friends are and distill it all down to the following statement: Men are uncomfortable with a non-male God because of patriarchy.
There’s more to explore to it than that, though. I think there are three main reasons why women are comfortable with a gender-transcending God and men are not. Please keep in mind that I am speaking from my own experience with men and women both in real life and on the internet, and of course there are plenty of men and women who do not match the descriptions I’m giving here.
1) Women are accustomed to viewing male pronouns as inclusive of women.
Our whole lives, we’ve been taught to see ourselves as included in words like “mankind” and “man” and “humanity.” This is especially true when it comes to reading the Bible. I remember being a kid and wondering why there were all of these phrases about God coming to save man, and God creating man, and man being sinful, etc. My Sunday School teacher at a very conservative church explained, “We use ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ when we mean everyone–those words include both men and women. It means everyone.”
Men don’t grow up with this same understanding. There is no moment when a boy asks his Sunday School teacher if the phrase “womankind” includes him, because everyone knows that phrasing is exclusive to women.
The same is true, grammatically, in other languages. You’ve got Latinos, which could mean men or could mean both men and women, or Latinas, which is only women. Because of this failure of language, some social activists are now using the world Latin@ to denote gender-inclusive groups of both Latinos and Latinas.
Perhaps the fact that we have practiced seeing the feminine as being part of the grammatically masculine for so long, we’re more comfortable recognizing that the Bible’s male pronouns for God don’t necessarily denote a male spirit. Instead, they denote a failure of grammar and a cultural understanding of gender.
2) Women are less offended by deviation from gender norms.
Patriarchal values, which feminists criticize, harm both men and women. One of the ways that patriarchy hurts us is through rigid gender roles, and ostracizing people who deviate from those norms through bullying, mistreatment, and exclusion. However, this is one of those areas where I think men are actually more damaged by patriarchy than women.
When a girl or woman breaks the rules of gender, she may be seen as odd, and in some religious circles as dangerous (hi, Rachel Held Evans, this is why people are attacking you!), but has a far more likely chance of being accepted by society on the whole than a man who breaks gender rules.
Girls who are tomboys, or women who dress in a masculine way, are more acceptable to society than men who behave “effeminately” or like to wear women’s clothes. Patriarchy says that men are better than women, so while it’s okay for a woman to behave like a man, it’s never okay for man to behave like a woman. (Hint: this is how the patriarchy leads to homophobia.)
Men are highly critical of men who deviate from specific masculine norms. Some women are, too, but my experience tells me that women’s criticism is less intense and more easily overcome by relationships or learned behavioral shifts.
Perhaps this is why a woman is comfortable with a God who exhibits feminine traits: she doesn’t see adherence to strict gender roles as particularly important, especially for a non-bodied spirit. A man might be uncomfortable with his God “behaving like a woman,” just like he would be uncomfortable with a man in his peer group doing so. A woman might be more comfortable with this because, well, what’s the big deal about gender, anyway?
3) Women are not afraid of a female God.
Remember the bit of stand-up where Louis CK says that as a white man, he doesn’t want to take a time machine into the future because white men are going to get what’s coming to them? The joke is funny, but the premise is real: there is a fear among people with power that their power is going to be taken away from them by those they have mistreated. It’s a tenet of history that those in power mistreat those without, and that they are desperate to keep their power–not just because of how awesome power is, but because they hate to think what would happen if the people they mistreated, abused, and manipulated suddenly had the upper hand.
Men should be afraid of a female God. If God is female–or even just not male–then God contains the characteristics of the sex that men have dominated and mistreated throughout an awful lot of written history. If God is female, then they have a lot of explaining to do. Christians who view God as male can use that gendered identification to subjugate women. They can say that God is leader, and woman is follower. They can very easily support their idea that males, who are made in the image of God’s spirit and sex, are superior to women, who are made only in the image of God’s spirit.
And if they are wrong on this–and how desperately they don’t want to be wrong–then many of their arguments fall apart. And worse, God might be kind of mad at them for the way they’ve mistreated women all this time.
The debate here has actually been about God-as-gender-transcendent and not God-as-female, but the premise still stands: if God contains more than just feminine traits and is actually female in addition to being male, then straight white male theologians who propagate sexist beliefs are, what’s the phrase? Oh, yeah. Up shit creek without a paddle.
Men, we feminists have a paddle, and we’re offering it to you.