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God is not genderless, but gender-full
I wrote this theological essay for school and a few people asked to share it. I offer you an edited version. The question it seeks to answer: Is God beyond gender, genderless, or gender-full?
Gender is about meaning
The question at hand is not only philosophically intriguing, but relevant and crucial to answer in our era of identity politics. Understanding questions of gender today is a matter of justice, which is ultimately to say that it is a matter of love for the Christian. For a Christian to follow in the way of Jesus, it is elemental that we learn to love. Understanding gender is part of that work.
When we consider how God relates to gender, whether God is gender, genderless, or gender-full, we develop a baseline for how we are to understand gender in our world. Rather than selecting one of those options, though, I will argue that God transcends, or is beyond gender while also full of the characteristics that make up gender as a social construct.
Let me begin there, the social construction of gender. Gender itself is not a biological given. Rather, it is a sort of sexual assignment one offers him or her or themselves, one that intersects with a variety of factors. Gender, while not arbitrary, is largely based contextually on our society and the meaning it offers, rather than having an ultimate cosmic meaning. This postmodern view of gender is not intended to belittle its importance, but rather to emphasize that modernistic definitions of what it is are not sufficient.
Put another way, sex is simply a matter of biology. We already know that sex is not exactly binary, but we have an idea of what “male” and “female” mean, even if humans and other organisms are “intersex” or “between sexes.” Gender then meaning we assign.
Does God's "gender" matter?
Were we still in a time where gender and sex were closely related or nearly synonymous, it would be much easier to say God has no gender. Now that the concept of gender has deeper meaning, I think we have to consider how God relates to gender more deeply. Did God’s nature change? No. But our definitions and understanding of the world did. Therefore, it is important that we do new theology. Theology is language that we use to describe God, and naturally, we should use language that we readily understand. Theology is already a condescension of God’s character, which is beyond our ability to describe. We need to keep reforming and recontextualizing the language. Similarly, gender itself is language that we use to describe the indescribable. It is helpful to be descriptive, but if we leap and make our descriptions into prescriptions, we overvalue the language itself, and do not respect its practical limits.
Another reason to do this theology is that there is so much masculine imagery used to describe God in the Bible. Some commentators even call Christianity a “masculine” religion. The Bible writers often describe God in masculine terms, and describe the persons of the Trinity in similarly masculine terms. Sexist interpretations of the text further galvanize and cement this reputation. So even though most commentators, even so-called orthodox and conservative ones, would not claim that God has a gender, their actions and their stereotypes tell a different narrative. Furthermore, we still live in an androcentric world, where patriarchy is a pillar of the power structure. Therefore we must deconstruct what ends up being a “man’s” theology, by default.
The Church Fathers, following their Greek influencers, went to great pains to distinguish God, the Godhead as a whole, from human characteristics. God is beyond human, which is what makes the incarnation so special. God is beyond human categorization. So in a sense, God is genderless, because if we assigned God a gender, God would be “reduced” to the level of human, fit within its limitations. The Greeks overstate God’s separation from humanity, but they offer us a useful tool to keep our social constructions (assigned to us for myriad reasons) from infecting our image of God.
We see this same theme in the beginning of creation. While you still have a sort of androcentric order of creation, this might speak to typical Ancient Near East creation narrative and to the nature of bias in spiritual texts (or any texts for that matter). God distinguishes God’s self from the gendered nature of his creation. Scripture then specifically notes that gender and sex are distinguished for the sake of the natural order of the world, and most importantly, the ability to be fruitful and multiply. Because God is already eternal, God does not need to multiply.
God transcends gender
God created the forms that we assign gender to. As such God transcends them. God transcends God’s creation, though it is still within God’s realm of capacity to condescend to its level and relate to it personally. The incarnation is possible because of that. And when presented with the option of becoming male or female, it would appear that God chose to be a male. Why? The reasons are numerous and any comment on them would be conjecture, at best. With that said, in the socio-political era of first-century Ancient Palestine, Jesus incarnating as a Jewish rabbi left him with little choice but to be a man, and a Palestinian man to be clear.
Jesus himself gives us language to describe God that is also masculine. He prays to his Father for example. Why Father? Father is often mistaken as the primary member of the Trinity, or sometimes even as “Yahweh.” The entire Godhead is the God of Israel; Jesus calls himself the “I Am” in the Christian Testament. So the Father here is not representative of the entire Godhead, and Jesus finds intimacy with the Father. This is noteworthy. Gendered language to describe God and even persons of the Godhead is largely metaphorical and should be used when it’s useful, but not as a matter of principle. I would contend that Jesus himself does not believe that the Father is gendered, but similarly uses it as a matter of metaphor. Perhaps he uses it to even comfort his human side. A reminder that he is chosen by God to redeem the world, and not abandoned.
For Jesus, he has a worldly Mother, and for some in the Christian tradition, the theotokos is not to be meddled with. It would be heretical to refer to God the Father as Mother to satisfy contemporary demands. But one could still refer to the Godhead as Mother (as opposed to a single person of the Godhead as mother) and remain within the spectrum of orthodoxy (should such a distinction be important).
The Spirit is possibly the least intrinsically gendered person in the Trinity. Father and Son, metaphors in their own right, are masculine metaphors. Spirit is not gendered, but the term in Hebrew is feminine. While this is not an indication of the Spirit’s gender, it should give us the liberty to continue to use a metaphor that we find useful.
Gendered language in the Bible is metaphorical
The Bible writers are using language they know to describe God. They anthropomorphize God so that they can relate to God. Perhaps none of our language is fitting to describe God and God always condescends to our level in order to relate to us. God literally did so in the incarnation, and through Jesus’ resurrection, even our bodies are “raised” to God’s level (that is a matter of a different essay, however).
Despite God’s transcendence of gender, the writers of the Bible consistently use gendered language to describe God. They do not stick to masculine or feminine language, but use the metaphor they find useful at the time, it appears. They certainly fall into stereotypes, but it seems anachronistic to criticize them for it. Similarly, though, to copy their metaphors in our present context seems equally problematic.
Today, we do not always find it useful to use such metaphors, especially consistently and with impunity (always referring to God as a man, for example), but that expectation on ancient writers seems unfair. Our notion of gender and understanding is evolving and developing as it stands.
So far, I have argued that God transcends gender and gendered language in the Bible and even when gendered language occurs in the Trinity it is largely metaphorical. The metaphors are useful, and descriptive, and not prescriptive. Prescriptive use of them does the text a disservice, and may also be a window into our own biases when it comes to relating to God.
God is gender-full
But, God is not genderless, despite God’s transcendence. God is gender-full. What does that mean exactly? God can relate to and understands all that we experience. We see this in the way God is described throughout history. God is the author of what we experience and the parts of us that we identify as gender. God is not gendered, but God can relate to our genders, and in transcending them also encompasses them. God is revealed through our gendered expressions to the world. God is in them. God does not prefer any gender, but makes Godself known through our expressions.
Despite God’s transcendence and separation, God is intimately aware of our circumstance. God meets us right where we are and can empathize with our condition. God is therefore gender-full. And despite the usefulness of gender identities to describe ourselves, when we fundamentalize those identities, we reinforce the system that makes such intersections necessary. We needed to come up with creative language to describe our genders because sexism is so dominant. But when sexism is defeated, we will no longer need such language. God is empathetic and sympathetic to our need for gendered language, but true liberation comes when we can also transcend value assigned to the meanings of gender, much like God can. That day will come as we work to become all one in Christ.