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’.
22 June 2009