Thursday, Oct 18, 2018
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He said, She said: What gender is God?

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    “We do our best not to use ‘He.’” Rev. Sam Buehrer , Sylvania United Church of Christ.

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    “Language is limited, but God has no limitations.” Imam Farooq Aboelzahab, Islamic Society of northwest Ohio.

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When the Rev. Sam Buehrer is in the pulpit at Sylvania United Church of Christ, he makes a point to pay attention to his pronouns — particularly the ones he uses in reference to God.

“We do our best not to use ‘He,’ ” the pastor said.

Instead he might opt for a more generic term, falling back on a nongendered “God,” for example, when it makes sense in context. When it doesn’t, he might instead complement male imagery with female imagery, another way to de-emphasize an anthropomorphization of the almighty that, in his and in other religious traditions, has long skewed masculine.

He. Him. Father: Do these widely accepted characterizations mean that God is male?

Not any more than the alternatives mean that God is female, according to local faith leaders and scholars who considered the question through the lenses of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

“God transcends created categories,” said Peter Feldmeier, a professor of religious studies at the University of Toledo, in a point that each expert echoed.

Divine nature is so inherently different than human nature that it’s impossible to characterize God in terms of human-derived characteristics like gender, according to this line of thinking that’s largely shared among monotheistic traditions. So, in many ways, wondering whether God is male or female makes about as much sense as wondering whether God is tall or short.

Questions over the pronouns that we use to identify God — whether male, female, or consciously gender-neutral — tend to be more complex.

“The rabbis have this notion that when we start defining God in human terms, we limit God,” Rabbi Sam Weinstein said, “because we’re doing it within the context of our own vocabulary.”

Imam Farooq Aboelzahab, of the Islamic Society of Northwest Ohio, spoke similarly.

“Language is limited,” he said, “but God has no limitations.”

Religion does not exclusively characterize God in male terms and male imagery, said Mr. Feldmeier, who pointed to examples of feminine characterizations in Hinduism and, to a lesser extent, in Christianity. Pope John Paul II, for example, identified several biblical allusions to God as a caring mother figure in his writings on the dignity and vocation of women.

“[Pope John Paul II] makes it clear that God is beyond gendering,” Mr. Feldmeier said. “But if we’re going to genderize, let’s be clear that we know that, even in the biblical tradition, God has stereotypically feminized characteristics and is sometimes gendered as feminine.”

Rabbi Weinstein, of Temple Shomer Emunim, also said there are numerous names for God within Judaism, some of which, in Hebrew, are linguistically feminine.

When we talk about these types of characterizations of the divine, Mr. Feldmeier said, it’s helpful to recognize that what we’re really talking about are metaphors: By relating something we can’t wrap our heads around to something that we can fathom, like gender, we can start to make sense of it.

So when we present God in masculine terms as a father figure, he continued, we understand him as a provider, a protector, and other positive identifiers of a stereotypical father.

These metaphors can be helpful, he said. But they can also be limiting.

“Even if you say to yourself, ‘Of course God is not male, because God is beyond [gender] as God,’” Mr. Feldmeier said, “if you exclusively relate to God through that metaphor, then you’ve absolutized the metaphor to the neglect of possible alternative metaphors, including, of course, God as our Mother.”

The social implications of linguistically characterizing God as male — even while acknowledging, theologically, that he isn’t male or female — are worth considering, Pastor Buehrer said.

Consider those who have used scripture to justify abuse toward women, for example, or those who struggle to relate positively to a father figure.

“If you were abused as a child by your father,” and if you attend a church that exclusively refers to God as a father, the pastor said, “what kind of image then do you have about God?”

Gender-inclusive language, he continued, “allows us to move away from that.”

Pastor Buehrer’s church and denomination are among numerous Christian communities that have moved toward gender-inclusive language over the years. The United Church of Christ notably made waves as early as 1995, when it introduced a gender-inclusive hymnal.

Some branches of Judaism have seen a similar shift toward gender-inclusive language over the years, too, Rabbi Weinstein said.

“In the more liberal branches of Judaism, there has been an attempt, especially with translations of prayers, to begin to try to be more sensitive to that and to use terms that are more neutral,” he said.

But not necessarily so in Islam, Imam Aboelzahab said, in part because of grammar and linguistics.

Arabic and Hebrew, among other languages, use masculine pronouns more broadly than they do feminine pronouns, as, for example, when gender is unknown. When the imam uses masculine terminology in reference to God, he said he isn’t doing so with the implication that God, who he emphasized is beyond gender, is actually male.

“We have to have in our mind that ‘He’ is absolute, genderless,” he said.

To use feminine terminology, on the other hand, would be to consciously gender God. That would be inappropriate, he explained, because that would be contrary to how God revealed himself in holy texts.

“God is unseen and he called himself ‘He’ in the Qur’an, in the Bible, the Torah,” Imam Aboelzahab noted. “Since we didn’t see God, since we didn’t experience God physically, we should not call him by any name other than what he called himself.”

So the words we use matter, he said, echoing other members of the clergy and scholars, even if those words are admittedly limited.

“God cannot be described by our limitations,” the imam said.

Contact Nicki Gorny at or 419-724-6133.

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