Appendix IV: Gender and God

By William H. Ralston, Jr.


It seems to me that a good deal of the ink being spilled, and tempers ruined about whether God is He or She or It, or all of the three, or none of the three, might be avoided if a very simple but quite fundamental theological distinction was borne in mind.

A few of us read (or tried to read) Dr. Hankey’s essay in philosophical theology published a few years ago, God in Himself. This title carries the basic Bible metaphor for God. It assumes that this “name,” a masculine gender name, proceeds from and can be re-located within the nature of the divine being. Such an assumption is based on one’s acceptance of the Biblical revelation of God as definitive and normative for human beings. But the book’s title also indicates something else.

There is a difference of which we must always be cognizant when we speak of God. The Bible is clear that God as God, the absolute divine Being, cannot be known as such. The way this is put is that we cannot know the proper Name of God. What we cannot name we cannot in essence know. Plato rings the changes on this problem in the most recondite of all his dialogues, the Parmenides, which more or less ends in a dilemma: you can both say and not say anything and everything about “the One,” about Being itself.

And so, as Isaiah concludes, God dwells in the thick darkness which the earliest Hebrews experienced in the blackness of the desert storm, with its blinding winds and clouds: “Verily thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel.” When Moses, after he had broken the first set of tablets, was toiling away on their replacement, he made a mistake through curiosity and a lack of confidence, and asked God for a closer look. The response is a metaphysical comedy of the highest order. God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock, and then shows him the divine backside. It is a moment of sublime hilarity. And the meaning is clear. Moses had been warned off at the burning bush, and told to mind his own business. Now he finds that the divine “face” is impossible to behold.

Even old Zeus cannot show himself as he is to his various lovers. When Semele, one of these, demands to see him in his full divinity, she is incinerated in a moment. Can one even begin to imagine what Jahweh, who “forms the light and creates darkness,” who “makes peace and creates evil,” who holds the universe in his hand, from the infinitesimal micro-particles of energy to the immense galaxies so far away that their light can never reach us – what this God might be “in himself,” as pure Deity, God alone, Being itself?

He held his hand over Moses to spare him, when Moses should have known better than to ask. And the heavenly ribaldry of the story puts us just as precisely in our place as does Mrs. Turpin’s revelation at the pig parlour in Flannery O’Connor’s marvelous story.

The Prayer Book Articles of Religion, echoing centuries of Biblical and Christian doctrinal understanding on this point, say plainly that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” We cannot in any form “personalize” God as God or treat God as an “Ego.” Even “I am what I am,” glorious as it is, remains a metaphor, in that it ascribes a self-identifying personality to the divine Being. “I will be as I will be,” which is another way to put this famous response, warns us off any untoward assumptions, but still leaves God with an apparent “psychology.”

But God as God has no such psychology. The Christian dogma of the Trinity is the very carefully stated response to the revelation we have been given, and is the outer limit of our knowledge of it. It is the way we have of speaking of the Person of God, as we, personal beings who are the creatures of such a Being (“made in the image of God” is the way we have been taught to express it), have been given to know it (that is, as it has been revealed to us). After all, God must be at least “personal” in some way or other if there are “persons” within the universe God made.

Since God as God is “beyond personality,” it is absurd to conceive the divine Being as specifically oriented to gender. So far feminist theology has a point, and that point has been being made forever in serious Biblical theology, both Jewish and Christian. God is ineffable, and cannot be known (grasped within a human system of knowledge which exhausts the divine being in its essence). All our speaking of God in that inner private sense of “Being” is learned, and, one hopes, reverent ignorance.

But the feminists fail to make the distinctions between the divine Being, God in essence; what that Being has chosen to reveal to us; and the form in which we have been given and receive such knowledge. It is not possible to address the God of the Bible as “she.” If you want to do that, find another revelation and mode of religion. Many in the Old Testament thought they had found it. Worship of the Mother is no new thing, nor are the preoccupations with fecundity and nurture.

The centuries-long struggle with the baals of the land of Palestine bears witness to the seriousness with which the desert-based revelation of the Hebrews took this aboriginal feminism, and in the end both defeated it and absorbed it. What is further interesting is that in the history of religions such adoration of the earth and the co-ordinates of “nature-nurture” (the old goddess) are invariably involved with blood and human sacrifice. This goddess is not benign.

And I must say for myself that I see in the holocaust of the blood of the unborn in our society a revival of this death-dealing dark side of such a cult, whether ancient or modern. It is ridiculous for proponents of the goddess to ascribe the licence for battle and murder to a “masculine” diety. The old girl is even more cruel and more bloody. Neither a Druid nor a Bacchant is anything you would want to meet in the moonlight.

All our talk of God is metaphorical. One knows perfectly well that God is not “he” or “father” in any generic sense that would ascribe masculinity to God. in essence. Nevertheless, within the revelation that “the people of the Book,” both old Covenant and New Covenant, hold to be decisive, there is a system of authoritative and significant discourse which, I think and believe, we are not at liberty to alter if we are to remain faithful in any way to its revelation. Not to do so means we have chosen another religion and altered the structure of what we have been shown. Anyone is free to do this and speak about it, but you cannot claim to be “of the Bible,” or “of the Church,” if you do.

This article has been reprinted, with permission, from the Parish Paper of St. John’s Church, Savannah, Epiphany V, 1992.