The reference to God as ‘he’ permeates the religious worldview of many, and over the millennia the social effects of this gendered view of God have become increasingly apparent
I vividly remember my first ever Religious Studies lesson at comprehensive school – one of my first classes on the very first day. The teacher tasked us to draw a picture of what we thought God looked like. Everybody, myself included, drew some variation on the figure of a white male. We were aged eleven at the time, and it was long before we’d started to think about our life ambitions, career plans or even what we wanted to study at GCSE. Yet every single one of us, whether we followed a religion or not, thought that the supreme being who created and legislated over our universe was a white man.
Only now after completing a theology degree, discovering feminism and 14 years’ worth of exposure to new people, experiences and opinions does that class work seem significant; my detailed memory instead being down to a fresh and geeky eagerness I had for my new school at the time. It was thus not until university that I started to give much thought to gendered language. Even in sixth form I widely followed the convention I’d found in textbooks and used terms like ‘man’ and ‘he’ to represent humanity in my essays. I was a keen, critical, intelligent student but any kind of issue with the male pronoun always passed me by; they were just words.
I am often met with the same attitude when I express unease about the gendered language use in religion now. The Christian Godhead, which I’m frequently told by my Christian friends and from my studying theology, does not actually have a gender. The male pronoun is a term of convenience for something which is above being categorised or understood through traits like gender. Yet everywhere and from a very young age in Christian cultures we hear that ‘he’ is all-powerful, that ‘he’ is all good, that ‘he’ sent his son to save us. At six years old when we are about to perform in the nativity we are not told that ‘God is gender neutral, but for convenience reasons we call it a he.’ And at that age we would be highly unlikely to understand that kind of conceptual idea. Yet by the age of 11, the damage has already been done. In that Religious Studies lesson of largely non-religious kids, everybody had already formed their view of God. When asked to conceive the inconceivable by drawing it, we conceived the inconceivable to be male.
Though I’m no expert in the linguistics or philosophy of language, I do know that language is an incredibly powerful tool in shaping our view of the world. Language isn’t only the way via which we receive and express information – it is more fundamental than that. It is the way in which we think, and therefore understand, everything our five senses tell us. And in which case it’s no surprise that though God might be genderless, those of us who do not spend all day buried in theology books or contemplating the supreme being subliminally understand ‘him’ to be male. And when we are given the impossible task of creating an image of the inconceivable, we turn to gut feelings. What would God look like? The conclusion we all reached in that classroom was that God would look like a man.
Even so, does this matter? I’ve already pointed out that most of that Religious Studies class was not religious. So, why should it matter what we called God?
As feminist theologian Mary Daly put it, ‘if God is man then man is God.’ From an early age, the gendered view of God we acquire gives us the notion that the ‘person’ in charge of the universe is male. And ‘his’ power, ‘his’ goodness, ‘his’ knowledge start to become subliminally engendered too. Power, knowledge and justice come to be seen as masculine. Following what we are told from centuries of historical and religious discourse we conclude that a woman’s role is that of support. Women fade into the background as we learn about the godly and important acts of male protagonists. Women are generally portrayed as background figures and supporting roles – rarely much is said about their individual identity or achievements. The tendency for women’s self-denial, or at times even self-sacrifice, pervades our education. When from an early age our school classes and assemblies focus heavily around the traditional myths and stories from religion, it is no wonder that by the time we reach a more critical and understanding age these ideas have been (often irreparably) entrenched into our mindsets.
That’s one of the reasons why we revile so many women who display strength or ‘godly characters’, so often treating those who have achieved in ‘male’ disciplines with an ‘honorary male’ status or applaud them for ‘keeping up with the guys’ as though there is in some way an assumption that we would not. Alternatively, women are often vilified for actions which are greeted neutrally or outright celebrated when performed by men – vitriolically labeled hysterical, she wolves or whores for almost identical behaviours as her male counterparts.
Perhaps that’s why in my teenage years I came to see Margaret Thatcher, whose politics I instinctively abhor, as a heroine. I was ambitious and mad to explore the world. In the absence of strong examples of leadership, and in defiance of those who used her single example as a rather baseless argument against all women in power, I was inexplicably drawn towards this woman. I was determined to like the unlikeable, I couldn’t help but admire her for not letting society make her rules. Thatcher did little to help other women reach similar levels of achievements, and she stands for very few of things that I value about our state. However, she provided an important example of a woman in typically ‘male’ position to counter years of my being taught about male achievement. For that, I was enamoured with her when I was a teen.
I am not suggesting here that religion is the root of all misogyny in our society (though it has traditionally been a powerful influence), but instead trying to put across the case for why our language use matters greatly in this context. From as early as the middle ages women including Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich have explored ideas about God’s masculine and feminine traits. To recognise the contribution of strong women within Christianity, or some of the opportunities Christianity has offered women over centuries of its history, is far from hypocritical. Though in many of its organised manifestations the religion may be patriarchal, to probe deeper is to discover many values which match feminist ones. Though not a Christian myself, I would be a fool not to see that ideas about peace, love, equality and tolerance can abound. And though this article has taken Christianity to be its focus, similar problems can certainly be observed within other world religions and cultures. The purpose of this article is simply an answer to the question I am all too often asked:‘if we have to use something to talk about God, is it really that bad to use the word ‘he’?’ My answer? A resounding yes.
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