Why God being ‘God’ is inclusive for all
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.