The God Squad: Jesus’ essence is primarily divine not human
Q: Rabbi Gelman, Love, love, love your column, thank you for sharing your wisdom. I was prepping a short homily for my women’s bible study group (Episcopalian). I was going to write the word “fellowship” but it struck me as sexist. My Google search replaced it with the non-sexist term “gathering with friends.” That moment brought me face to face with what is really keeping me away from church. I can no longer tolerate hearing only the “He, Him, His” in reference to Almighty GOD. I do believe in the Trinity – as the three equal aspects of GOD. I now seek a faith group where GOD’s name is spoken in more than masculine terms. Is this an unrealistic expectation in our world today? -- L
A: Dear L, If the pronouns people use to talk about God in church are preventing you from talking to God in church, we need to talk. These are words, just words and God is beyond words. Nobody with any theological sophistication actually believes that God is a man (or a woman).
Christianity does have the issue that Jesus was a man, but even that fact is made much more complicated by the Christian belief that Jesus is not really a human male but the child of God who appeared on earth in a gendered form of a man. Jesus is part of the Trinity which means that Jesus’ essence is primarily divine not human. God the Father in the Trinity also does not mean that God is our cosmic dad, but that God is a creator of all including Jesus. The Holy Spirit is not gendered at all.
The problem of God as He/Him originated with a structural problem of biblical Hebrew. In Hebrew all nouns, whether gendered or not, whether referring to men or women or things are in the masculine or feminine form. There is no way to say “It” in Hebrew. So God/He emerged as the obvious ancient choice in a male dominated society. However, this grammatical impasse did not limit the biblical text from including obvious feminine references to God. God is described as a nursing mother in the 49th chapter of Isaiah. In Psalm 91 and Matthew 23, God is like a hen gathering her brood. The Greek word for God’s wisdom is Sophia which is feminine. God, even in our earliest conceptions of God (see! You do not need pronouns to write!) was beyond gender.
I am deeply sympathetic to the cultural and theological critique that using gender specific language in referring to God is wrong. I agree. I do not want to struggle or have my daughter struggle with the old image of God as an old guy with a beard on a cloud. God is not Zeus and any language that leads us down that path ought to be changed. Girls and women should not have to grow up with an image of God that excludes them. There is no way around that.
Since 1972, I have written 10 books (mostly for children) and many stories and essays. I have been writing this God Squad column for decades with Tommy (and now without Tommy) and I/we have never referred to God as He/Him. The writer Mary Daly put words to our instincts, “If God is male, then the male is God.” I think we must all realize that there is no way around this uncomfortable truth.
I do respect those who disagree with me on this. It is hard to overturn our natural love for unnatural language. “The Source of All Being is my shepherd-person, I shall not want.” just does not trip easily on my tongue. The High Holiday prayer book for Reform Judaism is now gender neutral and one of the main prayers is called avinu malkeinu, “Our Father, our King.” The right way to gender neutralize this prayer is to change it or at least to translate it as, “Our Parent, our Sovereign,” however the editors of the prayer book who are all deeply committed to gender neutrality could not do it! They just left the Hebrew alone and put the Hebrew words in the English translation. The point is that knowing the right thing to do does not mean that you can do the right thing. Tradition has its claim.
Dear L, what I suggest you do with your friends in your Bible study group is ask them how they feel about gender neutral theological language and also ask them what pronouns if any they would feel comfortable using in talking about God. This is what loving and pious people do. We try to take old wine and pour it into new bottles.
May the Source off All Being, The Life breath of the Universe, bless you in a way that is beyond words.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2020 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.