Why God being ‘God’ is in­clu­sive for all

The Buffalo News - - LIFE COLUMNS - – From J, a vol­un­teer chap­lain from Harrisburg, Pa.

Q: Re­cently you wrote about God and 12-step pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly Alcoholics Anony­mous. In their state­ments they re­fer to God as “He.” In my work with women in prison and in re­pro­duc­tive jus­tice, I stress that since women and men are both cre­ated in God’s im­age, God does not look like peo­ple. And even though the He­brew Bi­ble used ‘He’ (being writ­ten by males), their ap­proach need not limit us, don’t you think? My sem­i­nary pro­fes­sors at Lan­caster The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary tended to use no pro­noun – could you try that ap­proach? Peace and shalom.

A: In 1989 I wrote my first book, “Does God Have a Big Toe? Sto­ries about Sto­ries in the Bi­ble.” In that book for chil­dren, in the nine books fol­low­ing it for chil­dren and adults, and in over three decades of writ­ing this col­umn with Tommy (and with­out him) I have never called God “He.” I have never used the per­sonal pro­noun for God because, as you point out in your sen­si­tive ques­tion, God is not a per­son (and ... does not have a big toe!). Bib­li­cal He­brew is dif­fi­cult in this re­gard because He­brew does not have the neu­tral pro­noun “it.” Even so, there are an­thro­po­mor­phic el­e­ments that the Bi­ble al­lows to creep in like God “walk­ing in the Gar­den of Eden in the breezy time of day” (Genesis 3:8) and an­thro­po­pathic el­e­ments like God be­com­ing an­gry or jeal­ous, but these rare lapses of pure and proper the­ol­ogy ought not dis­tract us from the truth of the the­ol­ogy of the He­brew Bi­ble that God is an in­vis­i­ble being who is not a per­son and there­fore can­not be a man. So clear was this be­lief that even Moses, who asked to see God, was re­fused (Ex­o­dus 33:20). The God of the He­brew Bi­ble is not a man. Later in Jewish his­tory, dur­ing the rab­binic pe­riod, God’s gen­der is in­tro­duced as a split be­tween two metaphors for God, a mas­cu­line as­pect and a fem­i­nine as­pect, though in both cases God is not iden­ti­fied as ei­ther a man or a woman. The mas­cu­line el­e­ment was called “The Holy One Blessed Be He” (He­brew: haka­dosh baruch hu) and the fem­i­nine was called “The Pres­ence” (He­brew: shek­inah). How­ever, the unity and iden­tity of God as a being be­yond gen­der dis­tinc­tions re­mains clear in Ju­daism.

The great prob­lem of keep­ing God’s gen­der neu­tral is the rise of Chris­tian­ity and the fig­ure of Je­sus who ob­vi­ously ap­peared on Earth as a man. If Je­sus was a man and Je­sus is God then God is ob­vi­ously a man. How­ever, Chris­tian­ity in­cludes God as the Fa­ther and God as the Holy Spirit in the tri­une iden­tity of the Trin­ity, and this mod­i­fies the idea that God is only Je­sus. Je­sus, for Chris­tians, is just one of three man­i­fes­ta­tions of God in the world. Fol­low­ing early church coun­cils that dealt with the prob­lem of Je­sus being both a man and God, the Cat­e­chism of the Catholic Church No. 239 states that “God is nei­ther man nor woman: he is God”. (Per­haps it should read, “God is God”).

All this may pro­duce gram­mat­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, but it also pro­duces a bet­ter more in­clu­sive the­ol­ogy.

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