There is something that puts many people off religion. It is the notion that God is male. Feminism has alerted us to the way culture tends to prioritise the male point of view. Traditional society has been organised around male authority figures resulting in injustice for women.
Translation involves interpretation
In the Old Testament, the Divine is mainly presented as male. However, in the 19th century, various women began to question the commonly accepted patriarchal interpretation of scripture. One of the foremost of these was Sarah Grimké, who voiced scepticism about the ability of men to translate and interpret passages relating to the roles of the sexes without bias.
One possible reason for God’s apparent male gender in the English translation of the Old Testament is that it was originally written in Hebrew. I understand the masculine gender in that language can be used for objects with no inherent gender, as well as objects with masculine natural gender. You can interpret the former things as you wish, male or not.
Perhaps the translators were influenced by their image of God as powerful which fits in with a male stereotype.
God as mother
Actually there are a few passages in the Bible where the Almighty is also likened to having qualities more in keeping with compassionate, longing qualities of motherhood.
“You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Gospel of Matthew)
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Book of Isaiah)
Prayer with one’s Lord
The practice of Christian prayer suggests a focus on God as a person. One can use the word ‘you’ when addressing one’s God. However, when referring to God, the use of gender-neutral language (such as if we were to refer to the Infinite or the Divine as “it”) does not adequately reflect the person-hood of God.
Inventing gender-neutral terms and alternating masculine/feminine terms are seen as clumsy ways of communicating. I cannot bring myself to refer to God as ‘she/he’.
On the other hand for some, if not many Christians, deep down the idea of God has no gender connotation. This is because God as male is not taking literally by them but rather allegorically.
The concept of the Divine Human
According to the perspective of the eighteenth century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, God is the divine humanity of which we are imperfect human copies. By this idea of God he did not mean an individual human being and thus not a male human being. The God who transcends gender creates the true humanity in every human being, male or female. The origin of the humane spirit in both sexes who are both created in God’s image.
Consequently, in his books, which he wrote in Latin, Swedenborg avoided any indication of masculine or feminine gender in God.
However those translating his Latin into English have tended to use the term ‘he’ for God even though this brings in gender implications that are not present in the original. I wonder what you think of the four reasons they offer.
1. The English language has no established gender-neutral singular-third person pronoun.
2. The emphasis on the oneness of God contraindicates the use of plural pronouns.
3. The idea of a divinely human personal God contraindicates the use of ‘it’.
4. Christians often think of Jesus as their Lord God. So, the identification of Jesus with God would make any pronoun but ‘he’ for God rather awkward.
Regarding the last point I would argue that for some people it is easier to relate to our spiritual source personified in a visible natural form. Otherwise it would be a vague abstraction for us.
So if gender does not attach to the Divine Itself, how come it incarnated as Jesus, a male? One down to earth answer is if the Creator were to be born a human being in history then the baby had to be either male or female, one or the other. If God came as a female baby we could be asking the same question.
A more sophisticated idea is that there was a male incarnation because the male aspect of the divine links more directly to the thoughts in our head. This assumes that the head symbolises a masculine approach and the heart a feminine one.
The argument continues as follows. Before we can develop spiritually what is of spiritual truth first needs to illuminate our thinking mind. Children need to learn ideas about what is right and wrong. Later we try to make sense of these rules using our rational minds. If we opt to follow conscience then new feelings will surely arise within our hearts e.g. of hope, trust, and well-being.
According to this interpretation which I find convincing, God as male is only a temporary appearance. If we progress along our spiritual journey then we will more readily perceive God as the spiritual source of all that is good and true.
Regarding the question about whether God is male or female. Do not people, regardless of gender, have the potential to channel God’s divinity more fully in their own ways?
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
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