The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Why is God gendered?

Richard J. asks, Why do some religious traditions assign gender to a transcendent divinity?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Father Michael Nasser, who writes from an Eastern Christian perspective and is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church, responds:

“While many religions assign gender to transcendent divinity, Christianity is unique in that we refer to God as masculine from the man Jesus, who we revere as God’s Son, and who referred to God as His Father. He even encourages us to call upon God by the words, ‘Our Father…’

“That being said, we also understand that God in His essence is beyond human categories or definitions. Any human designations such as gender, personality or appearance are merely attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“In point of fact no human tradition has ever “assigned” gender to God. He assigns it to Himself, in His written Word. The reason lies in the close connection between gender and personality. The difference between or among the genders of our language is the difference between personal beings (‘he’ or ‘she’) and impersonal things (‘it’). God identifies Himself in deeply personal terms: “I am the LORD thy God” (Exodus 20:2).

“Christianity teaches the tri-personality of God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In His infinity, God transcends all things. In His personality, God can be known and loved, just as He knows and loves each of His adopted children in Christ. It is the joy of every Christian to experience “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost” (II Corinthians 13:14).

“Attempts to recast the doctrine of the Trinity in gender-neutral language fail because they contradict the very basis on which this doctrine is believed and confessed: “Because God hath so revealed Himself in His Word, that these three distinct persons are the one only true and eternal God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 25).”

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“God is beyond gender, yet in him the fullness of both, male & female are found. Our understanding of God is limited by our smallness so when we speak of his characteristics we automatically think of the gender that typically exudes those specific characteristics. For example when we read Hosea 11:3, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms;“ we think of God as a caring mother.  And when he says, ‘as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you;’ we think of God as a loving and compassionate mother. But, the Father imagery of God is also clearly portrayed all throughout the Bible: Deuteronomy 32:6, Isaiah 63:16, Jeremiah 3:19, Romans 8:15-16, and many others. This is so that we know that God is beyond one gender. He is the completion and perfection of humanity!”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Language has its limitations. God is no more male or female than the newspaper or electronic device from which these words are being read. That said, gender language is used to describe analogously what we know. Language is imperfect. As such, it is not possible for the finite mind of the human being to describe the infinite transcendent divinity. Humans are stuck using language, imperfectly at that, to describe something they may know but this being is far greater than humans may conceive. Ergo, the dichotomy… the finite world trying to describe something infinite.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“When Hindus refer to God in the most transcendental form we use the word, ‘Brahman.’ No gender or image is assigned to Brahman. More often than not, we refer to this primal consciousness as ‘It.’ However, besides Brahman we have a pantheon of deities that allow for a more personal relationship with Divinity for those who need this. Here we have a variety of gods and goddesses. All, ultimately, find their reality in Brahman. They are, in essence, personifications of the various aspects and attributes of The One. So if we feel the need for the compassion of a mother’s love we can invoke such an image. Or we may be drawn to a male deity for some purpose. The important thing to remember is that these are psycho-spiritual aids on the path. The need for images and archetypes disappears when realization comes.”

My response:

Language comes from a human culture in which a non-gendered pronoun, if one exists, denotes an object of lesser value than a gendered one; and further, the male gender is more powerful than the female gender. Until we change our culture and our language to support a non-objectified non-gendered reference, my tradition does its best by removing, as much as possible, gender assignations to God.

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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