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May 11 2012

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On God, us, and personal pronouns

People have been struggling since time immemorial with how addressing the Divine appears to circumscribe Its identity. We define things through language, and our language is human, functional, and limited—most importantly in this case—by the use of personal pronouns. We are a gendered species, which dictates our perception and directs our imagination, and so the natural flow of most of our languages—in this case, English—demands that a noun be assigned an appropriate pronoun. But here lies the problem. No noun, no subject is more impossible to define yet more demanding of precision than God. What do we call God?

This dilemma (a trilemma, really) became more and more pronounced and troublesome with the advent of modernity and its critical methods, its feminism, its literary analysis, its social commentary, its historical exegesis. Abrahamic religions traditionally—and for many centuries—referred to God in the masculine. God the “he.” God the father. God the king. But the maturing humanity began to question this maleness together with the long-standing patriarchal social order in which it was rooted. Social science and social movement rose up against tradition that was trumping dignity and common sense. Education through the technology of printing press made the theological abstraction of an Imageless Source accessible to the masses, and the conversation took off. Rapid changes fractured Judaism into scattered sects, Christianity into a myriad denominations, Islam’s schools into bickering enemies. And the long-bearded man in the clouds began to dissolve into the fogs of the past. And we began to choose pronouns for God.

I have run into this issue quite a bit with people I know and with people I don’t, passing interlocutors. It seems to be one of the litmus tests some of us employ for others’ social stands. Indeed, it works as anything awkward yet important: if I call God a “he,” I am a conservative at best, a misogynist at worst; if I call God a “she,” I am a lefty feminist; if I call God “it,” I am either some Buddhist abstractionist or the enemy of all time—an atheist with a clinical approach. Plus it’s just creepy, isn’t it? And so many people of goodwill, cringing from the throes of English underfoot, ban personal pronouns altogether, repeating “God” and “God’s” multiple times in a sentence, watching their language bleed to death on the altar of political correctness.

I never had this much trouble with pronouns, but even I, a self-proclaimed atheist for four decades, had a pet peeve: people who paraded around a she-God as a sign of their feminism. A good friend of mine had a sticker proudly if facetiously displayed in his office, “WHEN GOD CREATED THE WORLD, SHE WAS ONLY JOKING.” In the absence of any serious statement, it was cute, let’s face it, but I was unable to appreciate the joke because I was unhappy and angry with God, and I thought, if there were God indeed, it certainly wouldn’t be a woman, for a woman wouldn’t create a world like THIS. My friend was trying to pay women a compliment. This woman didn’t feel the love.

Over the years I’ve seen people look askance at each other for using any pronoun at all. I’ve had people ask me what pronoun we should use or what I preferred, as if their way of addressing God could somehow legitimately offend me. And now that, in my own love, I call Him what He is to me, I’ve had people assume that I consider myself subservient to men.

I don’t.

I don’t consider myself subservient to men, lesser than men as a sex or gender, or any silly thing like that. Am I a feminist? Whatever. I consider people immeasurable and their equality independent of sex or gender, and therefore, I suppose, I am a feminist where women are oppressed, and I am not where there is no need. My comprehension of God has nothing to do with the gender dynamics of my society; rather, I think, it has to do with the kind of relationship we have. I do believe that this is why people end up choosing different pronouns—that is, if they really mean it. Not those who choose them to make a point. Those who choose them to convey an image.

So this is how it goes. We have come far enough in our theology to realize that, as the Source and Goal of Creation, as the Eternal Artist, as the Infinite, the Divine, the Fabric of Existence, That Which Is, God is neither male nor female, nor certainly anything in between, nor anything lacking gender that can be an “it.” God is beyond any sort of pronoun. We know this, we understand. We do not take our pronouns literally. But we live in the temporal universe of spatial forms and separation of selves, and the limitation of human consciousness necessitates the mentality of language that reflects history, that reflects nature. We can only speak of what we know. More than that: even when we experience God, we are limited to perceptions and descriptions that rest on what we know. Analogies. Metaphors. The most mind-boggling, mystical experiences of union and splendor must be fit into words to be made known to others in any specific way.

And so, when we experience God, when we come back into ourselves slowly and incredulously, happily spent, light-headed and empty of tears and words, even though our hearts are filled with the light so blinding that no image can be discerned in it, we search for a memory to hold, and it comes to us in the form of a human thing a million times amplified, but the thing we find differs for each. I dare not speak as to what makes the difference, but I’m sure that who we are, our histories, our own predilections and such play a role. And part of that choice is His—I must believe this is true, because, in my own light-headed flight, in the face of God I recognized the Son of Man, and with Him I fell in love.

You see, this pronoun problem is especially acute for Christians in how specific it can get and in how liberating it can be. I call God “He” because I am in love with the second Person of the Trinity—that aspect of the Infinite that has a human face, a tender touch, and a personal pronoun. It’s simple for me. My relationship with Him is a marriage.

Others experience God in other ways. For some, God is Mother. She is the One who brought us forth, cares for and tends to us, calms our nightmares, holds us to Her breast. Someone regained consciousness one day and found himself in his Mother’s arms, finally safe, finally and unconditionally loved. It’s simple for him, too. God is a “She.”

I say, use what word you find, my friends. It’s hard enough to find a word for what we see, for what we feel. Let’s just listen to our hearts.

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3 comments

  1. Ingrid Shafer

    Some 30 years ago I wrote to Andrew Greeley concerning his God-image survey something like “for me God is neither mother or father, the Divine is more like Tillich’s ground of being.” He wrote back that people didn’t have passionate love affairs with grounds of being. I came to understand what he meant by “God as Lover” – especially, since depending on one’s own gender identification, both “He” and “She” are equally appropriate.

    1. River Adams

      Indeed, I understand this is why the Bhakti way in Hinduism finds the personal in the Absolute and hopes for just enough individualization left in the state of Nirvana to keep the awareness of love. The impersonal absolute, which in addition is not quite distinct from oursevles, is difficult to feel as the subject and object of love. It’s all about love in the end, isn’t it?

      1. Ingrid Shafer

        YES!!!!!!! I told the country priest in a spring 1946 first grade religion class in Oftering, Austria, that if I had been Abraham, there would have been no way I would have obeyed God if he ordered me to slaughter my son (or anyone!) because EVERYTHING God asks of us is loving. I also told him the Flood couldn’t have happened the way is was recorded because animals and children below seven weren’t capable of sinning . . .

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