Sunday, 21 June 2009

So what do we mean by ‘He’? (A second reflection on God and gender)

It was the philosopher CEM Joad on the radio programme The Brains Trust who became famous for responding to almost every topic with “It all depends what you mean by ...”

People made gentle fun of it, but Joad was entirely right. If we do not know what we mean by the words we are using, then further discussion is futile.

In considering the language we should use for God, which began from the question of using ‘He’ or ‘She’ for the Holy Spirit, it is thus time to ask not just whether we should call God ‘He’ but what exactly we mean by ‘He’ in the first place.

The answer might appear to be simple. Indeed, much of the discussion suggests we assume that it is. By ‘he’ we generally think we mean something, or someone, male or of masculine gender. But this apparently straightforward response simply invites another question: what do we mean by ‘male’ or ‘masculine gender’?

What we do not mean is something or someone strong, or brave, or macho, and so on. We have not, in these discussions, been concerned with what qualities a male might have, or be expected to have. And in any case, there are plenty of males who do not possess these features.

Rather, we need a definition which applies to all that is ‘male’ —a definition which unarguably fits every masculine person or thing and which justifies us using the term.

But here we hit an immediate problem, for as far as many languages are concerned the assignment of gender seems to be entirely arbitrary. There is no apparent quality which determines that a table should be feminine in French or that a bowl should be masculine in Hebrew. Linguistic gender is simply a matter of grammatical rules. To say a thing is ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’ or ‘neuter’ means only that the words used for it follow a particular declension.

If that were the end of the matter, we would say that by ‘he’ we mean we are simply referring to something for which the noun follows the rules of masculine declensions for a particular language. It would thus technically be entirely up to us, and it would make only a formal difference, if we invented for it a new noun of feminine declension and called the same thing ‘she’.

However, a little thought shows that this is only true for inanimate objects. When we refer to animate things, ‘he’ or ‘she’ take on fixed meanings (and the neuter ‘it’ is used only as a matter of expedience, not definition). We may note also that it is in this context that we think of things as ‘male’ or ‘female’, rather than simply ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

Yet here again, what defines a thing as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is not immediately straightforward. When we consider plant life, the notion of masculine and feminine ‘characteristics’ is largely a matter for specialists to decide and discern. Even amongst animals, what we might easily think of as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ traits turn out to be found in both males and females of different species. The male is not necessarily always the bigger or the stronger, the female is not always the most nurturing or the least aggressive.

Nevertheless, by comparison with inanimate objects, the notion of male and female in the animate world is not merely a matter of vocabulary and grammar. Living things actually are male and female in a way that nonliving things are not.

Yet still we may ask, what makes one thing ‘male’ and another ‘female’. What is it that distinguishes them from one another and defines them in themselves?

There is, I would suggest, one thing (and one thing only) that effectively distinguishes and defines male and female in this context, and that is that they have a complementary opposite to which they may relate, primarily for the purpose of producing offspring.

At the linguistic level, gender is an arbitrary but absolute quality. That is to say, there is no particular reason in the thing itself why it should be assigned a particular gender. But whatever gender it is given, it possesses that gender irregardless of anything else. The French cup is neither more nor less ‘feminine’ because the saucer is also ‘la soucoupe’. It does not need a correspondingly ‘male’ item of crockery for us to be able to tell that it is ‘female’. Its gender, such as it is, stands ‘alone’.

In the world of animate things, however, it is a different matter. A thing may be large or small, passive or aggressive, rough or smooth, but if it has a corresponding female opposite, then it is male, and vice versa. Gender, in this context, is both fixed and relational. A thing is either male or female. We cannot simply decide, arbitrarily, that it is one or the other. Nor can we change its gender by calling it by another name or using a different language. Yet the gender it has, it possesses because of its relationship to something else.

Now it might be objected that there is both a more fixed aspect to gender and a more arbitrary quality than we have admitted. On the one hand, the biological male is usually defined as the sex which can fertilize the female gamete with sperm-cells, whilst the female is usually defined as the egg-producer. This would appear to provide a more fixed definition of male and female, and certainly in animals makes it easier to decide which is which. However, on the other hand, there is obviously no reason why we should call the egg-producer the ‘female’ and not the ‘male’. In this sense, the linguistic terms are just as arbitrary as for objects in the inanimate world.

Both these points are broadly true. However, it remains the case that gender in the animate world is both relational and is fixed relationally. If we decided, arbitrarily, that all ‘males’ were henceforth to be called ‘females’, then all females would, if language distinctions were to be maintained, most naturally switch to being ‘male’. (Or, if we chose some other term, it would effectively mean the same as ‘male’.)

We thus have two possible meanings of the term ‘he’. One is as a purely arbitrary label —a linguistic convention imposing grammatical rules, but bound by nothing else. And if this is how we use the term when applied to the Holy Spirit or to God then we may, indeed, just as readily call either or both ‘She’. This would sound odd to English-speakers, because we are less accustomed to the wider application of gender-rules in our language, but it need not be of any theological significance.

Two things, however, must be said if this is the route we adopt. First, there ought to be some consistency. In those languages which do assign gender to certain objects, they do not habitually and regularly switch genders. ‘Le livre’ does not become ‘la livre’ simply because the speaker feels like it or wants to make a point about the prevalence of women authors or the paucity of boys’ reading habits. Secondly, and following from this, it should be made clear that such a change has no relevance whatsoever to debates about human gender or social roles. To call God ‘She’ on these grounds would no more acknowledge the significance of ‘half the human race’ than it would the significance of the whole world of French tables.

Within our present use of language, however, the alternative is to accept that when and if we call the Holy Spirit or God ‘He’ —or even ‘She’— it must be in relation to something.

If this is the right course, to adopt (and I suggest that it is) then our next big question must be, “In relation to what?”

John P Richardson
21 June 2009

As a PS, though I have worked hard on this point, I am not claiming to have taken all the ‘bones’ out of the argument. I would welcome comments to challenge or clarify what has been said.

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  1. Hi John
    In the spirit of your request for challenges re clarification etc ... when you say,

    "Secondly, and following from this, it should be made clear that such a change has no relevance whatsoever to debates about human gender or social roles. To call God ‘She’ on these grounds would no more acknowledge the significance of ‘half the human race’ than it would the significance of the whole world of French tables."

    ... are you not overlooking the categorical difference between "God" and "tables"?

    As the unique, transcendant Being beyond all existent things, it is at least possible that half the human race might think it matters to be able to call God 'She', in contrast to a likely indifference whether 'table' may be referred to by the feminine or masculine pronoun.

  2. “Livre” is a very apposite noun to use as an example. “Le Livre”- a book- can change its gender. However as “la livre it does not become a book written by an authoress or a book for girls but something completely different. As “la livre” it means “pound” either the weight or the British ( and pre-Napoleonic French) currency.

  3. Peter (Carrell), I think when you ask "are you not overlooking the categorical difference between "God" and "tables"?" this illustrates the difficulty of conveying clearly what I meant in my first 'option'.

    What this would mean is a recognition that the use of the term 'He' or 'She' with reference to the godhead has become defined as a purely linguistic convention, such that, at this level there is no difference at all between God and tables, books, bath-chairs or any other object of reference.

    The use of 'She' for God would not identify a difference between God and another, alternative, 'He'. It would only be a convention, not a description.

    Any satisfaction some women might feel about this usage would thus only be coincidental, like feeling satisfied (or annoyed) that ships have conventionally been called 'she'.

    At the same time, however, we would clearly be saying that there is a difference, precisely at this point, between God and other, known, animate objects, including ourselves. We would actually have to say God is not like us, in that the term 'He' does not imply a corresponding 'She' and vice versa.

    Meanwhile, the 'alternative' that we can call God both 'He' and 'She' in ways that are not merely linguistic conventions, but rather have some, deeper meaning, raises the question, again, what we mean by 'He' - and thus we are back to square one, looking for a definition.

  4. Paul, I just wonder if, in your example, this is not so much a 'change' in 'livre' as an example of a 'word' meaning quite different things - like 'mark' can mean a blemish or attention (as in 'mark my words'). However, my French isn't up to judging this, or many other, points.

  5. OK, so here are a few questions:

    Suppose that God decided not to create Eve so that there was just Adam. Let's say that Adam did not require a helpmeet and that reproduction was effected by some other means.This scenario BTW could also be viewed as God only creating woman. Actually, it occurred to me that if Eve was created with an ability to reproduce by parthogenesis then things may have been simpler but less enjoyable, but I digress..


    1. Would we still find a gender assignation in the Trinity?

    2.Would "Fatherhood" still exist or conversely if only woman was created, 'Motherhood'? Would there be instead,some kind of unisex equivalent when relating to God?

    3. Is the fact that we read 'male and female He created them" telling us something about how God expects us to relate to the Godhead and to each other?

    4. And folowing on from (4) does this necessarily imply the equality of es?

    Chris Bishop
    (living in a parallel universe Devon)

  6. My understanding is that we call God he by analogy with human maleness. ie it is not that God is more male than female in his nature but that God has delegated authority to the husband in the family. Christian language about God only really works against a patriarchal back drop which is part of the reason that it has lost traction in the West.

  7. Thanks, John.
    I think I follow all that ... there are some twists and turns on the analogical way!

  8. Thanks for this interesting attempt to sort out this important issue. But I still have a few difficulties with it:

    However, a little thought shows that this is only true for inanimate objects. When we refer to animate things, ‘he’ or ‘she’ take on fixed meanings (and the neuter ‘it’ is used only as a matter of expedience, not definition).

    Actually, John, a little study of linguistics shows that your last sentence applies only in English, at least out of the several languages I know, and so cannot be a general truth of theological significance. In other languages e.g. French, German and Greek, neuter pronouns can be used of women, feminine ones of men etc simply because of grammatical gender; animateness is not a deciding factor here.

    Also not all living things are either male or female; there are hermaphrodites and gender neutral sterile creatures amongst non-microscopic animals, not to mention plants and lower organisms.

    Meanwhile I am looking forward to finding out what trinity of "She"s you will come up with to complement and be equal partners to your all-He Holy Trinity.

    (PS There is a good reason for me posting dummy comments and then deleting them: only after I have posted a comment does Blogger recognise my identity and allow me to copy text into the comment box.)

  9. Peter (Kirk), my point is not to come up with an exhaustive analysis of the grammar and linguistics of all languages. That is a task to which no-one is equal. Rather, it is to identify what, specifically, we mean by 'he' or 'she' when they identify the classes of things we might regard as 'masculine' or 'feminine' and 'male' or 'female'.

    It seems to me that there are only two common usages. One, as I have observed, is a purely linguistic convention (which, in languages which follow this convention, also seems to include the 'neuter' alongside masculine and feminine).

    The other is to identify classes of things which are relationally 'he' or 'she' - a he identified by a corresponding she, a female identified by a corresponding male. That there are hermaphrodite organisms, or those that can change gender, does not alter this. What I am identifying is the cases where 'he' or 'she' do apply, not where they don't.

    These, as I say, seem to be the two uses, and it seems to me that our use of 'he' or 'she' with respect to God is therefore limited to one of two options: either the terms are 'mere conventions', in which case they do not imply a corresponding 'she' or 'he', or they do imply a corresponding relational object - a 'he' to the 'she' and a 'she' to the 'he' - in which case we must identify what it is.

  10. PS to Peter Kirk, in the case of genuinely hermaphroditic organisms, of course, the 'male' parts or functions simply operate in relation to the corresponding 'female'. The relational correspondence is, as it were, internalized within the organism (though sometimes available to other organisms of the same kind), but male and female as concepts retain their essential, differentiating yet relational, functions.

  11. Is the elephant in this (chat)room that some people actually think that God is Male in the same way that I or John or Gordin Brown are male?

  12. Thanks, John. But we must remember that any conclusions we English speakers reach concerning "what, specifically, we mean by 'he' or 'she'" are relevant only to us English speakers (or there may be a few other languages which make the same distinctions, but no major ones I think), and are therefore culturally conditioned and not timeless theology.

    If that is true, I don't see why you and others consider this to be such a big issue, why you object so strongly to us who suggest that the terms are mere conventions as if that threatens some basic and timeless theological truth.

  13. Tim, I think the key question, as Joad would put it, is "What do you mean by 'in the same way'?" Since man is only God's image, not an 'exact replica' if I can put it that way (see the first reflection, the answer cannot be in having genitals, or Y chromosomes, or indeed anything that relates to the substance in which the image is composed. (This notwithstanding the statement in Article IV that Jesus ascended into heaven "with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature".)

  14. Peter Kirk, I don't that's quite true, that we are only talking about what 'we English speakers mean'. We must begin with the terms we English speakers use, not least because that is what Bp Wright and Bp-elect Kings have chosen to do, but the meaning is universal.

    Working the other way, we may struggle to put into English terms like homoousios, but we must struggle, and it is possible to get close enough. Moreover, we are undoubtedly referring to something which is not merely a grammatical construct.

  15. At the risk of sounding somewhat Platonic, instead of assigning pronouns to gender, is it not more helpful to speak in terms of "forms" ?

    That there exist male and female forms regardless of what language we use and how you wish to describe them seems to me to be self-evident. There is the outward type of form that is male and female which are distinguishable by sensation and appearance, and the inward type of form which is an abstract concept such as referring to a ship as 'she' . Yet both types relate to a common form.

    I do not think we are in dispute that Jesus appeared in the male form amd his many references to God as the Father, has definite male form connotations. In the case of the HS then, is the 'form' alluded to male/ female or neither?

    That the HS is a person is not in dispute, but addressing the HS as 'it' or 'they' when the HS is descibed as a personal entity and the other two members of the Godhead have form and individual identity seems to me to be inconsistent.

    Chris Bishop

  16. we are undoubtedly referring to something which is not merely a grammatical construct.

    I think that is where we disagree. Of course among humans and animals the difference between "he" and "she" has a real physical meaning, relating to genitalia and procreation. "Male" and "female" are also used of electrical etc connectors, referring to coupling together in complementary pairs and resemblances to genitalia. But since the Persons of the Trinity do not have genitalia, or parts resembling them, and do not procreate or couple in any way, I still don't see how the distinction between "He" and "She" is more than a grammatical construct, or a mere convention.

  17. So long as we're not talking about a man with a long beard and fluffy clouds is all I was concerned about.

    When I did my translation diploma, the first thing they told us was a story about the vote in the embryonic US senate on what the official language of the nation would be. It was pretty close, but Spanish lost out to English, partly due to the positive reception given to the senator who said "If English was good enough for the Lord Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me"!
    The second thing they told us was that translation is impossible, precisely because meaning is not universal; semantics and perceptions change from culture to culture and through time. What to you and me is blue sky and green sea would be the same colour to a Breton speaker; there are languages which have a much smaller spectrum of colour even than that. I tell these stories to emphasize the danger of assuming that English is a normative language in theology.
    I believe that the task of the church (and the Bible translator in particular - let's not forget that the science of translation was effectively invented by missionaries) is to find ways of conveying timeless Truths about God and about the gospel into ever changing linguistic contexts; in doing this sometimes decisions are made that we in the English speaking world would struggle with.
    These struggles are often of the same magnitude as the pronoun(s) we use for God.

    For example, how do you express the parable of the lost sheep to a culture (like the Inuit) that doesn't have sheep? The Lost Seal perhaps? How do you explain the Lord's Supper to a culture (like West Africa was) with no grapes and no wheat). RC bishops were excommunicated for allowing millet loaves and millet beer to be used instead. How do you express the future return of Christ in a culture that only just copes with the concept of tomorrow?(Vincent Donovan has the answer to that one)

    The point is, as I think Peter K and Peter C would agree, that the alternative to these - the imposition of alien cultural elements into the host society, rather than exploring that society to find cultural or topical equivalents, would not be acceptable in overseas mission in the 21st century.
    Yet (and I'm not saying I disagree with the practice) this appears to be what we do "at home" in insisting on the exclusive use of He for every person of the Trinity, even, as Peter C said before, in the face of 51% of the population who might respond better to God's good news if they could find a common identity with God, even if only in a pronoun in a poem.
    I still think it was a lot of fuss over some doggerel.

  18. Tim, your previous post asked, "Is the elephant in this (chat)room that some people actually think that God is Male in the same way that I or John or Gordin Brown are male?"

    Then in my response to your reply, you said, "So long as we're not talking about a man with a long beard and fluffy clouds is all I was concerned about."

    Er ... you, me, Gordon Brown?


  19. Chris, you referred to "the inward type of form which is an abstract concept such as referring to a ship as 'she'". But the English language convention of calling a ship "she" is surely just a convention, and not a cross-linguistic one, so there is nothing intrinsically female about a ship. So what meaning is there to your putative "inward type of form"?

  20. Tim Goodbody,

    In view of the way the Labour Party has run things how can we be sure that the Elephant is not in fact Gordon Brown?

    The image of JR at the top of this blog indicates that his facial hair is not completely white so we can be sure he is not God.

    Chris Bishop

  21. Peter,

    I agree with you that of course, assigning a ship as a 'she' is purely a linguistic convention. Yet when people do this they are alluding to the properties of a ship that have similarities to 'she-ness' of form.

    I teach officers of the Royal Navy and I find that warships are always alluded to as 'she ' even though they have 'macho' properties like weapons and so on. I think this is because naval people like to think of their ships in the feminine because of the way they look and move, which are associated with female qualities rather than male ones.

    Interestingly, I have found that even female naval officers (and we have many of them), see it in that sense, and would find it odd to call a ship 'He' even though they are aware of the use of convention. The meaning lies in the abstract form rather than the convention you assign to it (this BTW, is what I think Plato was getting at).

    But I think I agree with JR that gender is essentially relational. If something is male or female then in relation to what? If God is described as male then what is 'He' in relation to? Is it in relation to humans which are male and female, or is it the HS which some wish to regard as 'she' but I can't see how it could ever be 'they'.

    In an earlier post, I posed the question as to what would be the case if God had created a unisexual human instead of differentiated genders. My guess is that we would not see language in the Bible with references to 'Father' or 'Son' or any other lingustic concept assigned to the Trinity that is male (or female), as it would be irrelevant. It would probably be some other lingustic term that described the "unisexual form".

    Chris Bishop

  22. Peter Kirk,

    to comment from the perspective of one language where humans can be referred to with the neuter pronoun etc, it strikes me that this is true of "inferior" or "functional" terms for human beings. Thus "das Maedchen" and "das Kind" (girl and child) are so to speak "unfinished" humans; "das Weib" is originally "the wife", and thus describes a function which in less politically correct past times was considered an inferior one than that of a husband, and which has now come to take on a derogatory sense such that to speak of some woman as a "Weib" is very much like referring to her as a hag.

    Even German speakers distinguish between grammatical and natural "Geschlecht" (the word means both "sex" and "gender", and the "Geschlecht" associated with any person, human or otherwise, is always more than merely a grammatical convention but refers to characteristics associated with such a person.

    Paul Noble,

    "le livre" (the book) derives from Latin "liber" which is the bark of a tree;
    "la livre" (the pound) derives from latin "libra pondo" (pound of weight) where "libra" is actually the scale (as in the Zodiac sign) and "pondo" is from "pondus" (weight).
    So it is not a question of "livre" changing its gender, but a question of two different but homonymous words which start out with two different genders.