“Is God a boy?” my son asked me. He was almost 4 at the time, and he had already determined he was a boy and Mommy was a girl. He’d accepted a basic assumption expressed everywhere in our society: Every living being has to fall into one of two slots—boy or girl.
This binary division is baked into the Euro-American mind. We often think of it as something so obvious, so based on common sense, that we apply it to all beings, including God. It doesn’t matter that biological research reflects a far more complicated and varied reality; it doesn’t matter that other cultures and historical periods have looked at gender differently. Although both the Bible and earlier church tradition used gender-fluid metaphors and concepts, we’ve been overlooking those for centuries. Even now, living in a world where gender issues are discussed far more openly than they once were, many of us continue to use these automatic either-or categories. We’re still applying them to every baby who’s born—and we’re still using them to understand God.
Categorization is a deeply embedded thought pattern. According to neurobiologist Pieter Goltstein, we use categories to “to simplify and organize” reality. His recent study, reported in Nature magazine, found that categorization takes place in the prefrontal cortex, an evolutionary skill that helped us quickly identify dangerous from harmless. It’s still an effective mental shorthand that allows us to make sense of the world.
Unfortunately, it can also hinder our awareness of reality. Categories, says Goltstein, are neural connections, and if these become rigid and fixed, we may not detect important qualities outside our established thought patterns. We only perceive the aspects of the world that match up with our expectations, rather than interacting with a multifaceted and constantly surprising reality. We see broad categories rather than unique individuals.
Our perceptions become even more blinkered when categorization is reduced to only two choices, as in you can be male (a category that requires you also be masculine) or you can be female (which means you must also be feminine). But you can’t be both—and you certainly can’t be anything else. “It’s simple biology,” is the comment often made in defense of this dualism.
Except it’s not biology. Assigning physiological sex is far more complicated. People with a Y chromosome (meaning they “should” be male) sometimes have female anatomy—and vice versa. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female,” endocrinologist John Achermann told Nature magazine, “and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure.” This ambiguity may happen for a variety of biological reasons at differing stages of development in at least 1 in every 100 people, resulting in a range of gender expression. We can’t say this is unique to humans, either; wildlife biologist Juliet Lamb explains that “snakes, lizards, beetles, fish, and birds, to name a few, all exhibit ‘transgender’ behaviors.” Turns out, we can’t use “nature” as justification for our gender assumptions.
Simplistic dichotomies like male-female have another problem as well: We tend to rank one as better than the other. The assumption that men are inherently superior to women undergirds patriarchy, a form of rigid categorization that, according to historian Gerda Lerner, began some 5,000 years ago in the Near East. Patriarchy arose out of historical conditions in Mesopotamian societies, writes Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press). If she’s correct, we’ve been using an outdated neurological pattern based on societal patterns that no longer even exist.
Some Catholics, as well as many other Christians, would disagree. Instead, they say, binary gender is not merely a set of convenient mental pigeonholes but rather a God-ordained reality. The Bible, after all, begins with the same primordial division: “God created humankind in his image,” says Genesis 1. “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
As we are realizing today, pronouns are important. When the masculine pronoun is assigned to God in this verse (as it is in the original language), it counteracts any implication of equality. Females may have been made in the divine image, but if God is a “he” who created males first (Gen. 2), then females must be blurred, secondary copies, not as complete or accurate as males in their divine representation. Furthermore, a God who is “he” naturally favors the humans most like him, who bear his image most precisely.
Some of these assumptions are based on language. For human beings, categorization and language development go hand in hand, and we have a hard time thinking anything for which we lack words. As Shannon TL Kearns, author of In the Margins: A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture (Eerdmans), says about his own spiritual journey, “When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about gender—so coming to terms with my own identity took longer because I had no language to describe it or understand it. The God I grew up with was similar. We had no language for understanding God as anything except male.” Our language not only reflects our beliefs but, as Rabbi Neil Gillman, author of “The Feminist Critique of God Language,” points out, “It shapes the way we construct our experience of the world.”
Hebrew has no nongendered pronouns, as English does, which means if you were speaking in Hebrew (or any of the Latin-based languages, for that matter), you would refer to a book as “he” and a loaf of bread as “she.” For the most part, this is a purely grammatical categorization, and a case can be made that the Hebrew Bible refers to God as “he” simply because the word god is grammatically masculine. At the same time, whenever the Hebrew scriptures speak of the Spirit, they use feminine pronouns, because spirit, in Hebrew, is grammatically feminine.
Bible translators, however, never used feminine pronouns, even when talking about the Spirit. In English, all three persons of the Trinity were referred to as masculine. Generations of theologians and Bible scholars interpreted scripture through the lens of their own assumptions about gender and God.
If we remove that lens from our vision, we may be surprised by what we see. For example, “I can’t think of a single text in the Bible that says gender is related to morality,” says Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ Catholics. “There is actually a lot of gender fluidity in the Bible.”
She’s right. The Hebrew scriptures refer to a feminine God. The first verse of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:1, uses a noun for God that’s masculine—but in the next verse, a feminine Spirit hovers over the waters of creation. Later, in Genesis 17, God self-identifies as “El Shaddai”; although many generations translated this as “the Almighty,” today’s Bible scholars indicate a more accurate translation is “Many-Breasted” or “God with Breasts.” This name for God is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures, always connected with fertility and a mother’s love. Where our English versions speak of God’s “mercy” and “compassion,” the literal translation is “womb,” implying the emotion a woman feels for the fetus in her uterus.
“The current rejection of the LGBTQ communities is a huge, bleeding wound.” Maryanne Duddy-Burke
Bible scholar Lynne Bundesen believes the divine feminine is neither a trivial aside inserted here and there in the Bible nor a modern contrivance grafted onto the original scriptures. In Bundesen’s book The Feminine Spirit at the Heart of the Bible (Anamchara Books), she looks closely at the original languages and stories used throughout the entire Bible. Woman-God, she concludes, “is essential to the very structure of scripture.”
To give just a few examples: The verb used in Deuteronomy 32:18 graphically refers to the writhing and anguish of a woman’s labor. The divine voice in the Book of Job describes itself as giving birth, bringing the sea, the dew, and the winter frost from its womb (38:8, 28–29). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is a birther (Is. 42:14); a mother bird who shelters us under her wings (Ps. 91:4); a midwife who helps us give birth to ourselves (Ps. 22:9); a woman in charge of a household (Ps. 123:2); a nursing mother (Is. 49:15); the mother of a toddler (Hos. 11); and a mother bear (Hos. 13:8). In the Book of Proverbs, Divine Wisdom is a woman who hangs out on city streets, shouting her message (1:20–21); she plays and rejoices, delighted by human beings (8:30–31).
We find references to Mother-God in the Christian scripture as well. Jesus claims for himself a feminine image from his Jewish tradition: a mother bird with sheltering wings (Luke 13:34). He also uses a story about a woman searching for a lost coin to explain the persistent love of God (Luke 15:8–10), and he speaks of both God and Spirit as giving birth to our new identities (John 3:5–6, 8:41). In the epistles, we read that God gives birth to us (James 1:18, 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1) and then nourishes us with divine “milk” (1 Peter 2:2–3).
The Bible also has a multitude of masculine images for God—king, father, warrior, and bridegroom, to name just a few—and many Christians disagree totally with Bundesen’s claim that the feminine Spirit is at the Bible’s heart. Instead, they say, divine masculinity occupies that position. As Bishop John Stowe points out, “We know that the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate, became flesh as a male. We also have ancient language referring to God as ‘Father,’ and that is in fact the preferred way that Jesus addressed God according to the gospels.” This is often the trump card used to settle any question about divine gender.
Before we use masculine divinity as the definitive blueprint for human life, however, we should consider the rich array of other biblical words used for God’s identity, including nouns that are gender neutral in English: a rock (Deut. 32:4,15), an eyelid (Deut. 32:10), a tower, and a ram’s horn (Ps. 18:2). Jesus called himself light (John 8:12), a door (John 10:7), bread (John 6:35), and a vine (John 15:1). These words are metaphors, not intended to be taken literally.
Hebrew tradition reveled in linguistic representations of God, but many cultures in the ancient world also created visual representations of their deities, portraying them in the shapes of both women and men. The Torah, however, forbid Jews from making “graven images” (Ex. 20:6) that would lock their concept of God into a single form. The early church understood this to mean that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and cannot be categorized as either masculine or feminine. Today, says Stowe, “All Christian theologians should agree that God is not gendered.”
When we insist God is masculine, Stowe goes on to say, we imply “support of a patriarchal culture that diminishes the importance of females or only sees them as subservient to men.” As Duddy-Burke points out, “The impact is far deeper than words. The image that so many of us were given of God as the stern old white man sitting on a throne is exclusionary. If you’re not white, not male, not rich and powerful, not well-dressed with a team of angelic servants, how can you aspire to godliness?” And Stowe says, “An approach to God the Creator that acknowledges God’s image and likeness is borne by all human beings could lead to a fuller recognition of the equality of the sexes.”
“Woman-God is essential to the very structure of scripture.” Lynne Bundesen
So why can’t we simply set aside the issue of God’s gender as theologically irrelevant? Partly, because here again we run into language problems. We can’t use the nongendered “it” pronoun when speaking of God, because that implies we’re talking about something inanimate—and we believe God is a person. Our grammar confines us to the same binary division of male and female. We have no way to talk about a God who is “beyond gender.” Furthermore, this approach still rules out the possibility of feminine divinity. In the either-or gender choice, this theology opts for “neither.”
“Instead,” Duddy-Burke says, “maybe we need to become more comfortable with gender-bending. The Catholic Church has, believe it or not, a long history of it.” Early Christian theologians such as St. Ambrose wrote that “gender cannot be attributed to the God-head,” and yet he went on to describe God’s “spiritual breasts and a spiritual womb.” In the seventh century, at the Council of Toledo, the church proclaimed that “the Son came from the womb of the Father.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in the 11th century about “sucking on the breasts of Christ.” Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic, went so far as to say that Jesus is the epitome of motherhood, “our true Mother.”
In the centuries since the Middle Ages, though, the church rejected any divine gender-bending. “The message I got at church,” says a trans teenager who has not yet admitted her identity to her parents, “was that God was male and I was a boy, and that was that. I didn’t like myself . . . and I didn’t like God because he was like the big enforcer who’d send me to hell for being a girl. When someone told me God could be a woman, my first thought was, Well, then, so can I.”
“I realized,” Kearns says, “that a more expansive view of God and myself was already affirmed in both the scripture and the tradition. I found a vocabulary to talk about a bigger God.”
Duddy-Burke believes this is the “prophetic mission” of LGBTQ communities: They open up the boxes where we’ve confined God and one another.
“All Christian theologians should agree that God is not gendered.” Bishop John Stowe
This perspective, Duddy-Burke says, does not subvert the Bible. It does not water down our faith, because “it’s not about dismissing or going shallow, but rather going deeper. We take our faith very seriously; it shapes everything we do. We are always digging into the scripture, the tradition, the lives of the saints to find ways to reclaim the spiritual truths we need for life today.”
Kearns points out that the gender discussion is not an intellectual debate about spiritual abstractions; these issues have also become weapons in the ongoing polarization of our nation. “This work is scary,” Kearns says, referring to his role as an activist for trans equality. “That’s why I need to be grounded in my faith community, to have the strength I need. The rise in the trans community’s visibility happened without a rise in protection, so it created an incredibly dangerous situation. Trans and non-gender-conforming people are living out loud—but without legal protections.”
Our society’s discomfort with gender ambiguity has negative implications for the church as well. “When people are not able to be visible and celebrated as who they know themselves to be,” Duddy-Burke says, “it is also deeply damaging to the fabric of our faith community. It leads to people leaving—and I see that as amputating parts of the body of Christ. The current rejection of the LGBTQ communities is a huge, bleeding wound.”
Expanding our ideas about God and gender could bring new health to both our society and the church; it can also open up new possibilities in our spiritual lives. “In the end,” says the teenager mentioned earlier, “I realized something big—God is huge. Way bigger than I used to think. Bigger than male and female. I mean, God is really queer.”
The definition of queer, says sexuality educator Elise Schuster, is about embracing “authentic selfhood,” “outside of mainstream ideas.” But can we apply this term to God without risking heresy?
“Yes!” Kearns says. The biblical divine Spirit is never “mainstream.” She is as wild and unpredictable (John 3:8) as he is powerful and creative (Eph. 3:20), and, ultimately, they are a mystery too vast for human comprehension (Job 11:7). God defies categories, for divinity is rock and water, ground and tree, father and mother. This multihued, many-sided God does not negate or sterilize gender, doesn’t place it only in a human realm denied to divinity, but instead enfolds and affirms the entire range of sexual expression.
Still, it’s not easy to see past our culture’s categories. “We’ve made such fundamentally flawed assumptions that we need to dismantle,” Duddy-Burke says. “It’s a tough sell, but it’s the next step in bringing the divine realm to earth.” And luckily, as Goltstein reports, the brain patterns that underlie our categories can be broken and reformed.
And then, if we finally stop reducing both God and people to either-or categories, maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of what Paul in his letter to the Philippians called “the flowing abundance of God’s splendor” (4:19). We’ll no longer lock divinity into any set of human expectations—and we’ll discover in each other the one who created us all, without exception, in the image of God.
This article also appears in the June 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 6, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Andrea Ferrario