I recently realized that, when we make it a point to note God’s unfathomability and universality, we tend to speak of God as “genderless.” I’ve touched on this in an earlier post on personal pronouns. We do this – speak of God as genderless – in conversations that emphasize the equality of men and women; we do this to combat the age-old patriarchy that created the familiar image of the God with a long white beard; we do this to underscore transcendence. All these are good reasons, yet something keeps bothering me about the word “genderless,” and until recently I could not put my finger on it. I think I have now. I believe this word, applied to God, is a fallacy—one fallacy that stems from two.
The beginning of the confusion, I believe, lies in conflating “sex” and “gender.” Decades ago social sciences began to insist that we differentiate between innate anatomical/physiological characteristics of the sexes and the largely social construct of identity we call “gender,” which has developed in a tight relationship with sex and often takes direction from it, but which circumscribes our identities in overlapping yet not identical ways. Rather than defining what we are (our physical forms, bodily abilities, genetic predisposition for disease, and the like), gender makes us to a great degree who we are: our femininity and masculinity and how we understand those concepts, our roles in the family and in society, how we go about treating ourselves and others or getting what we want, what we value most, what we see as our purpose in life, what we see as beauty… How many genders there are is a question still, apparently, open for debate.
The God who is divine mystery, ultimate reality, the source and goal of all existence is, of course, sexless for the simple reason that this God is not anthropomorphic enough or at all (or anything-morphic, for that matter) to have physical characteristics. To talk about the sex of God is to place ourselves into a fallacious framework. But gender is different. Gender involves an inner world, an attitude, a kind of person. It’s about our nature, our relationships to one another, and when we talk about God, we talk about those things, and explicitly and implicitly we state that God has them: nature, attitudes, relationships. Not all attitudes and relationships are based in gender, but some are, and they’ve been felt by humans reaching for God.
We say “genderless” about God because we are afraid to limit God to a gender, but it’s a wrong word because it limits God even more: it limits God to no gender at all. It deprives God of genderedness, of those aspects of nature that have to do with gender.
Simply, this means that the nature of God embraces within it all aspects and qualities of genderedness that we all possess partially in such a way that we become different genders. God is femininity and masculinity and all the other genders there may be, constructed already and yet to be. As creations of and participants in God, outflows of God’s intent, so to speak, we are specks of God’s Nature, parts of what God is.
This is why I am so at peace with personal pronouns of either gender being used with reference to God. To me, God is He, for my personal relationship with Him is such. Though fully aware of the truth that He transcends masculinity to a degree unimaginable to me, I’ve come to know and love in a special and intimate way the self-revelation of God that is a man, and this relationship has colored my perception of the whole grand mystery. I call God a He, calling on the man He was here among us, two millennia ago, and touching the unfathomable whole when I touch the Son of Man. And someone nearby calls on God and feels a mother’s touch, and to this human God is a She, femininity itself. The two of us are not in disagreement.
It almost seems to me that to refer to God as “genderless” is to deny the gift that gender is. Maybe even to declare gender ungodly. A curse. But it’s not. It’s a gift of diversity—our opportunity to express in different and complementary ways who we are, to show in different and complementary ways how we can love. Love, the active flow of Good, cannot flow unless there are two or more than two, and two must always be different from each other simply because they are not one. Our genders, along with other aspects of our nature, are windows into the Spirit of God. Paths into the arms of God. Gifts.
In an ancient myth, the first humans gained the first true knowledge. As Adam and Eve stood at the threshold of what humanity is, their eyes opened to the first real understanding, and what they saw was each other, fully and uniquely formed. That wisdom, the myth says, brought us one step closer to God, and it’s wrapped around seeing each other fully – the knowledge of good and evil, the realization of differences, the awareness of life. They looked at each other and saw each other gendered, and they became like God. And they went out into the world to become Creation.