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.