Monday, 22 June 2009

It’s female, Jim but not as we know it! (A third reflection on God and gender)

In setting out these thoughts on God and gender, I feel it is a good moment to consider where this has got to and the questions it poses.

This started with the declaration by the Bishop-elect of Sherborne that “the Holy Spirit may appropriately be called ‘He’ or ‘She’”, matched (as I was reminded) by the Bishop of Durham’s similar willingness to refer to the Spirit as ‘She’. Even Rowan Williams, at one point in The Body’s Grace, puts the word ‘his’ used in relation to God within inverted commas.

I have long felt that changing our gendered use of language with regard to God would be no trivial matter. Indeed, I rather agree with CS Lewis when he wrote that,

... a child who had been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child. (‘Priestesses in the Church’ in God in the Dock)

For myself, as for Lewis, I am persuaded that this would not be a variation on Christian tradition but a departure from it.

The reasons for this in what has been written so far derive from the fact that we are limited in the options of what we might be doing when we use gendered language.

The first option is that we are following an essentially grammatical convention, such as is found in many languages today as well as the biblical languages of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. We may say that a thing is ‘feminine’, ‘masculine’ or even ‘neuter’, but we mean by this that the words used for them are declined according to the grammatical rules for feminine, masculine or neuter words.

Between the objects themselves, however, there is neither difference nor interdependency in gender terms. If the word for shoe is ‘feminine’, it does not require or follow that the word for foot will be ‘masculine’. Nor does any quality in the thing itself determine the grammatical ‘gender’. A battleship may be a ‘she’, and bunch of flowers could, in principle, be a ‘he’. It matters not at all.

Thus, in the case of the Holy Spirit, we know that the Hebrew for spirit is feminine and the Greek neuter (whilst the term Jesus used on one occasion, paraklētos, is masculine). In none of these instances does the declension of the word establish the gender of the object to which it refers. Indeed, it clearly could not, under ordinary conventions, be all three.

The first question we must put to our theologians and bishops (actual and potential) who advocate using ‘She’ for the Divinity is whether this is purely meant as a linguistic convention. Do they, to put it another way, intend that this means nothing different from what we have hitherto conveyed by using ‘He’?

My suspicion, however, is that this is not what they mean. Indeed, my suspicion is that when they advocate this usage they have half an eye on that section of their audience which is specifically female in the second sense we have established. For the second option is that we identify things as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ because they actually are male and female, objectively demanding the terms ‘he’ or ‘she’ which, if they are exchanged, simply denote the same qualities and differences by another term.

However, when asking in what sense things are objectively ‘male’ or ‘female’, the answer is not in terms of shared qualities or physical characteristics. Rather, a thing is, in this sense, male or female in relation to a complementary object. ‘Males’ may be big or small, strong or weak, passive or aggressive. ‘Females’ may be colourful or dull, dominant or submissive, loud or quiet. But what they all have in common is that for each male there is a complementary female, and vice versa.

That being the case, however, we must again ask our theologians and bishops whether this is what they have in mind when they suggest using ‘She’ for God or the Spirit. Do they mean that there is a complementary ‘He’? If not, then it would seem we are back to Option 1, that ‘She’ is not being used as distinct from ‘He’, except in a strictly grammatical-conventional sense. Yet, as I have suggested, I doubt that this is what they intend. We must then ask what exactly do they mean by ‘She’? And until we get an answer, we may say, with all due respect, that they are talking non-sense. That is to say, there is no sense that the rest of us can attach to their words, whatever they themselves may mean by them.

There are, I think, three difficulties that face those who are proposing this change and yet who want to argue that it makes no difference.

One is that it goes against the convention of millennia. As is clear from the move to do the opposite, the use of gendered language for God is well-established and hitherto almost unchallenged.

Secondly, it requires us to use language in ways that we simply have not done until now. Specifically, we have not used terms like ‘he’ or ‘she’ for persons as if they conveyed nothing about gender. This is not just a ‘theological’ problem —it is an issue of conceptualizing something for which we have no real concepts.

Thirdly, Scripture itself presents us with a dilemma. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that when God made man in his image he created ‘male and female’. And these are clearly ‘male and female’ in the objective sense of our Option 2, not the grammatical sense of Option 1.

In reality, the suggestion that we use ‘She’ for the Divinity seems to fall between the two. It is neither simply a grammatical proposal, yet nor is it clear what we are actually meant to understand by the term. It is meant, apparently, to refer to something ‘female’, but, it would seem, ‘not as we know it’.

John Richardson
22 June 2009

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. Hi John,

    This is a very interesting topic you're discussing - very enlightening and helpful to read your comments John. Not sure what I think about the topic entirely but your comments are proving very helpful food for thought.

    I guess I feel I should respond to this :
    "we must again ask our theologians and bishops whether this is what they have in mind when they suggest using ‘She’ for God or the Spirit. Do they mean that there is a complementary ‘He’?"

    Surely if the answer is the Spirit, one could easily give a "Yes" answer, re either the Son or the Father. We are not modalists - there is no God who is not the Trinity.

    Then, to be a bit more speculative... I'd love to see what you think about this, which is just thoughts that I'm kicking around - not yet ready to write a blog-post on it because I'm not sure I want to be held accountable before God for saying it in such a public forum...

    It seems to me that male and female are relational terms which don't make sense out of context of both existing in relation to one another. Both genders image God.

    If the three persons have one nature, then both genders haveour nature as imago dei must be a reflection of that one nature.

    We're defined as male and female by our relations with the other gender. The persons of the Trinity have a range of relationships - Father relates to Son, Spirit, and to human beings. Son relates to Father, Spirit, and human beings... we know that Father and Son relate to human beings in masculine terms - indeed, God the Son is, in every sense possible, a man.

    However, how do we know that between one another, they relate in that way? Because it seems to me there's not insignificant evidence the other way (i.e. the Father is "manly", the son "womanly) - e.g. 1 Cor 11:3, Wisdom being female, etc. That doesn't permit calling God the Son "daughter" or "child" whatsoever - we're still existing within a relationship as towards male (Jesus *is* a man!) - but it does seem to me to give a coherent biblical account of the feminine within God, explaining how women can be fully of the imago dei and at the same time we pray to God as "He."

  2. Dermot O'Callaghan23 June 2009 at 12:27

    As an untutored layman I struggle to understand the profundity of the Trinity; but talk of the Spirit as "she" raises alarm bells for me. If we believe that Jesus was "conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary", this implies a male category for the Spirit, at least at that point in our theology. Of course it would be wrong to constrain the Spirit crudely into a narrow sex-labelled "he" box, but use of the term "she" would be very problematic for ordinary believers. Simply put - and we are simple folk - it would suggest that Jesus had two mothers and no father. Clever theologians should find better things to do than to put such stumbling blocks in the way of ordinary Christians.

  3. Nah, don't think so, Dermot. The 'power of the most high' can accomplish anything by dint of being the power of the most high - it isn't necessary for it to be male for Mary to be impregnated. Fern Winter, London

  4. Sorry John, but I'm afraid I just don't get this:-

    "Rather, a thing is, in this sense, male or female in relation to a complementary object. ‘Males’ may be big or small, strong or weak, passive or aggressive. ‘Females’ may be colourful or dull, dominant or submissive, loud or quiet. But what they all have in common is that for each male there is a complementary female, and vice versa."

    Could you elucidate further, please? Fern Winter, London

  5. Fern, the heart of it is this:

    A thing which is male or female is recognizably such in relation to a corresponding female or male.

  6. Foreign languages present a problem to gender usage. For instance in Spanish we have "El Espiritu Sancto".

    Bill Channon, Francestown, USA

  7. You might find this book helpful (if you've not already read it): Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, Ed. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Leominster, UK: Eerdmans, 1992.

    J.B. Torrance also has an interesting discussion as an appendix in his Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace.