Yep. We are going there. This is a big one for me that I need to talk about. Today is my birthday, so I am giving myself a gift. There is a glorious freedom that comes with each passing year. While I come across as someone that always speaks their mind, I also want to belong. My primary and consistent place of safe belonging has always been in Christian community. There are many things that I have carefully weighed the cost of confessing in spoken and written word throughout my years. This post is the first of a few where I’m going to use my 4 1/2 decades of life to hold me while I trust my knowing, honest voice to speak.
I know that people don’t agree, and that is ok. Just come sit in my living room any night of the week and you will hear four different perspectives on any given topic. I want to be very clear that I’m not looking for acceptance and agreement on all the things. I am walking into some areas that I have studied and lived and grieved and embraced for decades. In the process, I have met and been in deep friendship with people that are afraid to ask these questions because they know the cost of answering them the “wrong” way. Before I go any further, I am going to be firm on this. My blog will not be a place of shaming or mean spirited hate spewage. This is a place to ask ANY question, and in order to do that we need safety. I will gladly block and delete commentary that is not helpful and loving. You do not have to read anything I post. As a matter of fact, if it is not helpful, please do not. I desire to build a home for those that are looking and can’t seem to find a place to land. That requires us to not have all the answers. Together.
Now, back to the question. There is a dangerous thing that happens when God is labeled by our human words. First of all they are wholly inadequate. Words are representative of one language, culturally derived and hold weight. Unfortunately, when we cross borders and generations and context, words are loaded. They are loaded with assumptions and baggage. They are loaded with delight and disappointment. For instance, say the word dream and some immediately think of Peter Pan while others quickly associate their night terrors. That is the reality of communication insufficiencies.
When we are studying ancient texts that were written in other languages and to other cultures, we give great trust that our 2020 English translations are accurate. Unfortunately, most of us do not do the heavy lifting to understand the detailed nuisance of centuries of translations. Before we go much further, I want to define a few terms. Sex is a biological term. Gender, in contrast, is defined by the World Health Organization as, “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.”
Hebrew (the language that introduces us to God in the Old Testament) is exclusively gendered. For instance a table (shulchan) in Hebrew is masculine while the sun (shemesh) is feminine. This binary reality has lead many faith leaders to use the masculine as the default. At the same time, we see examples throughout scripture where God represents a more female gendered reflection. For instance throughout the Psalms, the images of God as a mothering protector are many.
Because of the connection and association of words and genders, defining God seems impossible. What we know from the text is that from the very beginning of creation, humanity represents the image of the Divine. There is not one gender that is a more “true” reflection. Again, language and gender and cultural norms are completely insufficient for the deep well of hope and love that is God. So why is it that so many people of faith struggle with a gender neutral image of God? If we were to walk into most religious gathering spaces, there would be a gender assignment for the Divine. He, Father and Him are the most common, but this is not exclusive. Even churches that are sensitive to the need for gender neutrality sing songs with masculine language and bristle on the rare occasion there is a feminine pronoun or descriptor for God. While I could go on and on about this subject, those that have had this conversation with me before know that my personal call has long been to depict God in words like Creator, Healer, Divine, Spirit and Comforter. None of these words are exclusive and most importantly for my heart, none of these are easily associated in our culture with a gender.
Let me share one final thought to help you understand the weight of this discussion on people. If there is one thing that stands in our way of trusting and desiring God, it is our mistrust of people. I don’t care how many times that a wise spiritual person has told me that God is not human, they just as quickly assure me that God is represented in every creation – including humanity. So when we use ‘he’ or ‘him’ and even ‘she’ or ‘her’ to give representation to the Divine, we immediately assign humanly associated labels, whether we like it or not. If you have been a victim of incest and your Sunday School teacher prays to Father God, how can you pray? If you were assaulted by your mom when she was drunk on Saturday night, the last thing you want to hear at church is how “she” is holy and just. If you were date raped by your boyfriend, how can you ever trust that “he” is compassionate and able to heal? We cannot divorce our human context from our faith journey. Perhaps this small shift in language could be the open door that allows someone to see that God is not human. God cannot be boxed in. God, in all of God’s greatness is God alone.