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Is God Male? Why Some Clergy Are Changing Their Language

“Our language, limited by fragile and feeble human brains, will never be enough to describe God, so we tie ourselves in knots,” writes Church of England priest Kate Bottley. Viewing God as female makes sense to some people, she says, because they’ve had difficult relationships with a human father. And Scripture uses some female imagery for God, Bottley notes: “God as mother hen protectively gathering her chicks under her wings. God as a woman making bread…shaping us. God as a nursing mother, feeding and connected to her child.”

Biblical texts and writings from the early Christian church, for example, says that Sophia, the feminine figure of Wisdom, worked with God to create the world.

Although God is Spirit and transcends gender, humans need pronouns to talk about God. That’s where the problem comes in, writes Stephen Tompkins at bbc.com:

It’s hard to talk about God without giving God a gender. To talk about God we have to call God something, and avoiding pronouns altogether is cumbersome, as I’ve just demonstrated… “It” seems a bit rude, talking as if God was an impersonal force like gravity or inflation. So God has to be “He” or “She,” and in a patriarchal society there’s no contest. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “God is neither man nor woman: he is God.”

Some theologians use the pronoun “Godself” to avoid “he” or “she” references. Elaine Storkey calls Godself an “easy alternative—especially when I am speaking to people outside the church who are particularly conscious of gendered language.” Storkey notes that even though “God is always bigger than our language,” some of the metaphors we use for God are “inevitably gendered.” Yet any wording “only ever gives us a glimpse of the breadth and majesty of God.”

Feminist theologian Mary Daly—known for her quote “If God is male, then male is God”—suggests moving beyond pronouns and even nouns. “Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun?” she writes in Beyond God the Father. “Why not a verb, the most active and dynamic of all.”

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 28 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.