25 Feb God is not a man.
In my last blog post I wrote about the most dangerous question: What do you want?
This week I want to write to you about a belief that has gotten in the way of me asking that question. (And this is a bit convoluted so you’ll have to go with me).
The belief: God is a man.
Okay, let’s start with the easy stuff.
No, of course I dont think God is a man (ie. hu-man), apart from when he appeared in fully human form as Jesus. He is divine, ultimate, above and beyond our comprehension of what ‘man’ or gender is.
But despite this obvious truth, whenever God is mentioned (certainly in the spaces I grew up in, church, school, general society) God was exclusively described using male pronouns.
Never She. Never They.
Long before this became an emotional (and when I say emotional I mean, a gut, centre of my being, issue), I would talk in general terms to make sure everyone knew how enlightened I was. I would say, of course God is both male and female. Both genders were made ‘his’ image (as described in Genesis), and of course if we wanted we could refer to God as She or Her.
But I didn’t.
And yes, I read The Shack and loved the description of God as a no-nonsense, warm-embracing Mother.
I was all over that. ‘But of course’ and ‘No, I wasn’t shocked’.
And yet, I still referred to God as He in every conversation. And at church I didn’t blink when we talked about Father God, or Lord, or Master Creator, or He or Him. I sang all the songs using all the male pronouns and didn’t flinch.
Until, it was all I could see.
It kind of snuck up on me.
I started to see the threads of the patriarchy (as I talked about in my last post) everywhere. It was like my eyes were suddenly opened.
I had a few conversations. I noticed how many of the men I knew spoke with confidence and surety. How they made statements without caveats. I heard how I started sentences with “I’m sorry but” and ended them with “if you don’t mind” or “if that works for you”. I saw the women on the childcare rotas. I realised how I held all the mundane but vital information in my head about PE kits and lunch preferences. I saw the memes which removed all the men from the images of parliament and witnessed the remaining few lonely women sat among a sea of green benches. I saw the statistics about male violence against women, and domestic abuse. I saw the rape prosecution rate. I got angry.
The church we were attending at the time was pretty egalitarian. Women led worship and preached. We had male and female lead pastors.
And yet still God was always He. Lord. Father. Son.
Ultimate power, ultimate goodness, ultimate holiness: always male.
I would stand in church and instead of singing the choruses, I would try to work out what they would sound like if we sang to ‘her’. I thought about the difference between the word, Lord and Lady. Was that the right alternative? Even words which aren’t apparently gendered, such as Saviour appeared in my head as male. And don’t get me started on the use of war imagery. Warrior God. God who fights for me. God who is captain of the army.
The linguistic gymnastics became exhausting. Some weeks I just sat down and thought about something else.
In 2020 we went on holiday with two other families. One of the other Dads used to be a worship leader and I was talking to him about these ideas while we sat on the beach, a very competitive game of four-square happening to our left. He nodded along in agreement, until I asked him if he could write a worship song to Goddess. I asked him what would happen then? How would that feel?
Suddenly his agreement halted. This was a step too far. But why?
On many levels it made sense that we have described God as male. This is how the Bible predominantly talks of him. (Yes, I know the verses about a Mother hen, but let’s be honest this is one of the very very few examples of God being described as anything other than male). And if the Bible is (as I was taught) the absolute – don’t argue with a verse of it – word of God then it makes sense we should follow this example.
And, of course, when talking about ultimate power, it makes sense to use male terms. Men have historically had all the power, and in many (most, all?) ways still do. Why wouldn’t we use male pronouns, and male names to talk of the most powerful reality.
(To answer my younger self: because language creates and determines reality. First we must change how we talk, that is how we start to change the world.)
Despite my discomfort with an exclusively male God, and growing sense of alienation in church, I fought the desire to think of God as anything other than male. I think there were a few reasons for this:
1. Firstly, a male God made me feel safe. If God is big and strong and a warrior and captain of heaven’s armies then great, I don’t have to be strong. I will be protected. As someone who has a history of mental illness, as someone who battles with anxiety, this felt like a great option. Even if I can’t look after myself, he will look after me. He will protect me from illness and playground bullies and even my own intrusive thoughts.
2. Secondly, if God was male then when I failed him (as I did often) it wasn’t entirely my fault. How could I be like him? I was a her. The God I knew had exacting standards and expected me to be holy. He always wanted me to do-more and try-harder. I messed up often and in some dark hidden part of me I put this down to my gender. Over the past few years as I have peeled back surface beliefs to see what is festering underneath I have found unexpected internalised misogyny. I don’t beat myself up about it, but recognise this as a devastating consequence of living in a world where women have always come second.
3. Thirdly I felt there something witchy-y or occult-y when referring to God as female. The words for sacred women (priestess, Goddess, witch) had been used exclusively negatively in my upbringing. The danger of witchcraft had often been repeated (interestingly no one ever seemed too bothered about wizards, these men seemed fairly benign and always fictional). It was the women who tried to have spiritual authority who were routinely depicted as evil and manipulative. It is no wonder some inner part of me tried to reject the idea of a female God.
4. Finally, I had no idea how to start. I had been programmed to think of God as male. It was as normal to me as the fact I have two legs, or that I hate getting out of bed in the morning, or will always have one cup of tea too many. How do you de-programme yourself from a thought process that is intrinsic, that is automatic? Is it even possible?
I believe it is possible, it has to be, but there are a few things I know now which I didn’t know a couple of years back when I really started trying to change how I think. It is bloody hard work (much harder than I anticipated). It can cause quite a bit of conflict. And excavating this systemic thinking will uproot a load of other patriarchal bullshit you didn’t know you were carrying around.
It is a bit like when you are digging in the garden, trying to rid an area of stones and roots which will hamper the growth of the plants you intend to grow there and you find a bit of a root. Ah well, ill just dig around it and get it out of the earth, you think. But the more you dig, the more you discover this root is big, bigger than you could have imagined. And it runs under all the other plants you have already cultivated, and in fact it is attached to that bloody huge tree which creates shade over half your garden. Digging it up is going to disrupt everything.
And so it was with understanding God as male.
It disrupted everything. It affected everything.
To move forward I had to expand my idea of God. This was going to take some time.
(I know I haven’t circled back to the most dangerous question, I will. More coming soon).
A poem to end with:
I walked out
I walked out when it was clear the white man was talking about money again,
And how, you didn’t have to be a millionaire, but it helped.
I walked out when another white man told me about being a Mother
How to do it, what it meant.
I walked out when we kept calling God ‘He’ and ‘Father’
and I found no place for me in the liturgies and prayers.
I walked out when I realised my voice and opinions
were not respected and valued,
When my words made you nervous and you shut me down.
I’ve been thinking,
How would it be if three quarters of the men who ran the churches resigned
in a prophetic act to create space into which a new kind of leader could grow?
Moving aside with no one ready to step in,
no young man vetted to continue in the way it had always been done.
Preservation of the brand finally bowing to innovation and evolution.
What if, for once, these men acted as bizarrely as the prophets of old
Lying on their right arm for a year or more
As a symbol things had been one-sided for too long.
What if they cleared the ground
to make room for the new, the other.
Maybe that would build the Kingdom of God.
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