Friday, October 2, 2009

Gender Bias

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

                        Genesis 1.27

A Slight Departure

We’re taking a slight departure today to discuss a particularly nagging problem for modern believers: God's gender. As a result, the post is less an exploration of Scripture than a look at a factor that often hinders our comprehension of God and His Word—a series of observations about Him and us, and language's influence on our perceptions of both. This will take a while, but I pray you’ll stick with me, as I firmly believe the discussion merits consideration and hope you’ll find it worthwhile. 

Inequities forged by centuries of gender bias are, gratefully, becoming less common and far less commonly embraced. With each generation, children are growing more adept at the art of seeing others as different but equal. While we’ve got a long way to go in stamping out sex discrimination (and with it, bigotry against non-heterosexuals), we can’t ignore how far we’ve come. In a matter of a half-century we’ve gone from accepting “a woman’s place is in the home” to “stay-at-home dads.” Equal pay for equal work is the law of the land in most Western nations. And sex-based occupational boundaries are fading fast. When I was a kid in the Sixties, the idea of male nurses or female construction workers, for example, was downright laughable. No longer. This is a huge leap we shouldn’t resist taking credit for and finding much satisfaction in.

A Delicate Matter

The final frontier in excising gender bias from our vocabulary and mindset rests in the faith arena. It’s a delicate matter. It challenges us to think of God in a consciously fresh—what some consider “unorthodox”—way. But it ultimately has no impact on God’s identity or our relationship to, with, and in the Divine. It basically amounts to lifting a centuries-old language lens that obscures the totality of God by limiting how we describe and discuss Him. (This sentence proves its own point.) We who speak Germanic and Latinate tongues have no all-encompassing, gender-free pronoun for the Divine. Consequently, when referring to God, the pronoun defaults to the masculine. In service to this, Biblical translators and writers inadvertently saddle God with male identity.


It’s possible many recognize this usage restricts their terminology to half-truth. (As an informally trained amateur, I most certainly do.) In being neither male nor female, God is male and female—He/Him and She/Her. Opting for the feminine pronoun for God over the male (as happened in English with nations and ships) merely exchanges one half-truth for another. But this inescapable inadequacy also presents the inescapable fact that arbitrary gender-assignation to God creates tremendous social, political, personal, and spiritual fall-out, setting off new struggles to correct a highly charged deficiency without adequate means.

At its most benign, the dilemma poses an intellectual problem, a conundrum to solve or a superstition to debunk. At its most harmful, it undermines equality and justice Christianity and “Christian” societies stand upon. In Galatians 3.28, Paul insists, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Yet entrenchment in the preferred-masculine can be seen in Paul’s lead-in to this glorious, gender-free doctrine. He starts with “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (v26) Even with the neutral “children” at his disposal, Paul finds no contradiction in using a masculine noun for both genders. Verse 28 tells the true story. Verse 26 tells the sad one.

Liberating God

Our relatively recent concern with social equality makes the idea of liberating God from gender bias a welcome dilemma. It offers us the chance to undo centuries of linguistic paralysis with creative options. No doubt over time one of them will be universally adopted. But, for every believer participating in the Body of Christ, it’s essential to accept we’re dealing with options, not solutions. Each of us currently chooses how he/she thinks and talks about God’s gender. More often than not, our choices are driven less by trying to correct His/Her half-truthful depiction than which gender most closely reflects His/Her expression in us. (Hence no one goes for the most obvious alternative: It.)

This is altogether understandable and justifiable, even advisable and admirable. Yet in the interest of Christian unity, it’s equally incumbent on us to respect and validate every believer’s right to choose how he/she refers to God. Many (myself included) retain the preferred-masculine to avoid disrupting the thought at hand with grammatical ambition. Use of “He/Him” doesn’t nor should connote inability to perceive a sexless God, however. On the other hand, others adopt alternative gender specifications to intensify personal identification with the Divine and/or free It from unjust assumptions men are “naturally” superior to women because God is a “He.” This option is no less viable or indicative of a gender-neutral concept of the Creator. The irony of a more inclusive vocabulary for God potentially polarizing His/Her worshipers cannot escape us.

In the end, that’s what all this comes down to: worshipping God. Whether I worship “Him,” you worship “Her,” someone else adores a “Father/Mother,” another fellowships with “God,” or yet another communes with the feminized “Godde” alters nothing in the Divine or Its worthiness of praise. The sole purpose for liberating God from gender bias is to liberate us to worship our Creator and reaffirm our reflection of God’s image and likeness.

In Truth

A careful reading of Genesis 1.27 could have rendered this masculine-centric image of God useless long ago. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” God creates “man”—i.e., gender-neutral humanity—in His image. Instantly, the writer realizes he/she is tangled up in grammar. The phrase’s antecedent for “his” is “man,” implying God shapes humanity in its image, the opposite of what it means. Rather than strike that and start over (as one sorely wishes he/she had), the writer adds a clarifier: “in the image of God he created him.” This settles the image issue, but the preferred-masculine (“him,” referring to “man”) screws everything up to suggest God creates “a man.” So the writer tries to fix that with one more—and by far the most salient—point: “male and female created he them.”

God crafts male and female humans because neither wholly reflects His/Her unified nature. For reasons unrevealed, He/She follows the template for most other organisms and fashions two human genders that must unite to create life. But the decision doesn’t preempt understanding divine reality encompasses the entire spectrum of gender and, for that matter, humanity itself. God has no gender, ethnic, or sexual identity. As none of these things, God is all of them. Our diversity expresses the fullness of God to confirm His/Her complete absence of human traits.

“God is spirit,” Jesus tells us in John 4.24, “and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The truth of God transcends every form of human bias. With each person who walks the planet as His handcrafted facsimile, the sum of the Divine exists in each and all of us simultaneously. This compels us to worship, conceive, and discuss God in the truth of who we are. “In him we live and move and have our being,” Acts 17.28 tells us. Perhaps the divine gender bias will never be resolved. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps language does us a great favor by forcing us to overcome gender-based hurdles and reach the God in each of us. In the final analysis, our unique images of God matter only so far as helping us find ourselves in the infinite spectrum of the Divine.

God is spirit without gender, ethnicity, or orientation. Liberating the Divine from bias enables us to find our place in Its infinite spectrum.

(Tomorrow: Prospering in Parallel) 


claire bangasser said...

Ah, great post, Tim. I'll have to read it again and write down points where I agree or slightly differ.

The first point that made me twitch is your comment about 'equal pay for equal work' which is, as you rightly say, in the law of many countries.

However, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (US and UN statistics would corroborate this), the 'gender wage gap' still shows that women earn 77.1% of what men do. This gets even more pernicious when we talk of retirement and pensions...

As to the sex of God[de], I agree, it is beyond gender, ethnicity, or orientation. Nevertheless, as you pointed out so well, the fact that God has been described so often as Father, Lord, Master, the fact that hence 'man' for centuries has been the norm, has too often cornered women in role of subservience.

Much progress has been made. Yes, 'We've come a long way, baby!' I would say nevertheless that women's struggle is not over.

BUT, with allies such as you and other male friends, women are in good company and not alone.

Thanks, Tim!

Tim said...

Claire, we're in full agreement on the struggle. Getting laws on the books isn't the same as getting problems solved--but it gets us closer. The fight for equality continues and no doubt will for some time.

It, like any fight for equal rights, is important to every person on the planet and should be supported by one and all. (Of course, if it were, there'd be struggle, would there?) It's always puzzled me, though, why oppressed peoples of all sorts--targets of racism, sexism, homophobia, immigrant and class discrimination, etc.--can't combine forces more quickly to create a united front. While each group works on its separate agendas, we've not yet organized a common call, touched the right nerve in us, to rally everyone around the big issues.

On the rare occasions when it does happen--like "marches on Washington"--it's viewed as an "event" more than a statement. If it happened more often, things would change more quickly.

Quick story: the first time Walt and I were in Paris for Gay Pride we asked a friend, "Where's the best place to watch the parade?" He was puzzled at first. "You don't watch it," he said. "You march in it." So on Pride Saturday we found ourselves among 500K people streaming through the city. At one point Walt said, "I think there are 10 times more straight people in this parade that gay ones."

The miles to go in the women's movement (and the others) will travel much quicker when as many or more "outside supporters" are visibly counted in the fight.

May Godde will it so. ;-)


claire bangasser said...

"Outside supporters" -- Let's pray for those, Tim :-)
Thank you.