Wednesday, November 04, 2009

on the maleness of God-talk

Apparently, the presumed maleness of God is not something one can casually comment upon in one's Facebook status updates without causing consternation from unexpected quarters. So, naturally, it seems to me that a blog post is the obvious way to follow up. (Yes, that was a nice way. I'm making fun of myself, y'all, and my inability to keep my mouth shut, leave well enough alone, etc.)

Actually, I'm not going to say much myself in this post. Instead, I am going to quote extensively from Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God, because 1) she's awesome and 2) she makes a really nice shield.

Johnson offers three basic ground rules for engaging in God-talk, that is to say, doing theology (whether one does theology professionally, or personally, or in my case, both). 1) remember that "the reality of the living God is an ineffable mystery beyond all telling;" 2) therefore, "no expression for God can be taken literally. None;" 3) Therefore, "from this, Thomas Aquinas argues...we see the necessity of giving to God many names" (Johnson 17-22).

Applying these reminders for our God-talk specifically to the issue of God's presumed maleness, we get this: 1) God is beyond our socio-linguistic categories, including that of gender; 2) no pronoun (male, female or neuter) in reference to God can be taken literally; 3) we need ways to reference God that incorporate every possible category since they all equally apply/do not apply.

Johnson herself observes this regarding the univocal, historical, traditional maleness of Christian God-talk:

"the practice of naming God exclusively in the image of powerful men has had at least three pernicious effects. First, because it offers no alternatives, it gets taken literally. Thereby it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of the infinitely ruling man...Second, in addition to this theological error, the exclusive use of patriarchal language for God also has powerful social effects...In the name of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, men have assumed the duty to command and control, exercising authority on earth as it is in heaven...Third, by giving rise to the unwarranted idea that maleness has more in common with divinity than femaleness, exclusively male images imply that women are somehow less like unto God...a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness...Thus is set up a largely uinconscious dynamic that alienates women from their own spiritual power at the same time that it reinforces dependence on male authorities to act as intermediaries for them with God" (Johnson 98-99).

Johnson goes on to discuss the wealth of biblical imagery of Mother God, only one among many female images of God in the biblical text.

But I want to emphasize her main point, which I will paraphrase thus: insisting that God is male reduces God to the image of man. And God is not a man.


Carolyn said...

This is excellent. Thank you for posting.

Lara said...

Why does thinking that God is not a male freak so many people out. It just doesn't rock my faith to think of God beyond gender. That was one thing I liked in The Shack. That the God figure was a woman named Papa. Thanks for continuing to "not be quiet" in your corner of the world. It gives me strength to make noise in mine. :)

Keith Brenton said...

God is Spirit, as I recall John 4:24 saying, and even though Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in John 15:26 with the default male pronouns, it's kinda hard to lock down any place in scripture where any spirit is endowed with gender-specific genitalia.

Unless you count John 3:6, of course.

JJT said...

I think the way to tackle this question, pedagogically, is to put it this way. Re Incarnation, are we claiming that God became human, or that God became male? Which way of talking about this do we actually use, and why? What does it mean to emphasize "male" rather than "human"?