When You Need Better Ways To Talk About God
So God created mankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Cor. 3:18
Imaging and imagining the feminine divine
It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by Christians, that God is neither male nor female. God is spirit.
However, we often speak as though God were, in fact, male. We use masculine pronouns — he, him, his — and most often rely on male images and metaphors to describe God.We sing about God being King, Lord, shepherd or warrior. And even the metaphors we use that are seemingly gender neutral, such as rock, fortress, or shield, have masculine connotations.
The language we use is worth examining because language is powerful. It shapes our thinking and our imagination about who God is, what God might have to say and who might most closely represent God.
No one, at least no one that I know, would claim to believe that God is inherently male.
But by using a majority of masculine imagery and language to describe God, we subconsciously reinforce the idea that being male is the best way of imaging the invisible God; that, somehow, to be male is to be more like God.
For me, this raises two major questions. First, is this the most faithful way of speaking about God that we can find?
And second, how do I, as a woman, bear God’s image? How can I reflect the image of a God that I speak and think of as exclusively male?
It’s impossible to talk about God without considering the holy mystery of the Trinity — the God who is one, yet three persons at the same time. At the heart of the Trinity is the relationship between Father and Son. Jesus came to earth as a first century, Jewish man and invited us into a family relationship with God as our Father. This still doesn’t mean that God is male, but it does seem reasonable to use masculine pronouns when talking about the Father or Jesus.
However, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is a different matter. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word ruach, translated as Spirit, is a feminine noun. In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the word for Spirit is also feminine. Its New Testament counterpart, the Greek word pneuma, is neuter, denoting neither male nor female. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to use feminine pronouns when referring to the Holy Spirit.
I tried using feminine pronouns in a piece I wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit recently. At first it felt a bit awkward, a bit risky and possibly even slightly sacrilegious. But as I wrote, describing the Holy Spirit as ‘she’ began to open up this wide, expansive place in me.
You see, while I am very comfortable in relating to God as a Father and Jesus as a friend, or brother, it is harder for me to feel that I am made in their image; that I am like them. I am not a Father or a son, and I never will be. I am a woman, in my body and in my soul. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt. I am confident and secure in my gender. I love being female.
So as I began to think and write about God the Holy Spirit using feminine language forms, I began to identify with her in a way I never had before. I began to feel a much greater affinity with being created in the image of God who can be spoken about in female terms too. I felt somehow bigger on the inside, more able to stand up in the authority of who God has created me to be.
Referring to the Holy Spirit in feminine language doesn’t mean that God is female, any more than using the term Father means that God is male. But it does help me to see that as a woman, I can reflect God’s image just as I am. It releases me from a vague feeling of being second best, of being one step removed from bearing God’s image. It helps me to see that I can participate in God’s work of redemption and bringing the kingdom because of my gender, not in spite of it.
And that, I think, is a good thing.
I also think it’s important to highlight the many female images and metaphors that the Bible uses to describe God. So over the next few weeks I’m going to unpack some of these, beginning with the female metaphors that Jesus uses. I hope you’ll join me as we explore them and expand our understanding of God together.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy: Moral Bankruptcy and Mother Hens.
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