Calling God “She” — It’s Just Another Pronoun!

It’s the 12th, and that’s the day I post on the Emerging Voices blog on Patheos. This month, I’ve posted the entire piece here first because it talks about why I refer to God as “She,” and why that shouldn’t be such a big deal. 

"She" - Digital image by Marg Herder

Many people believe (even at a subconscious level) that to refer to God using female pronouns is just plain wrong, if not heresy.

I am constantly amazed at the linguistic contortions people will go through to make the point that, while God is not male or female, we still must use male pronouns to refer to “Him.” Other writers assert that God is spirit, not gendered in any sense of the term, but they still use “He” and “His” exclusively throughout their argument.  (Google “Is God male?” to see what I mean.)

I understand that to refer to God using male pronouns is not necessarily an attempt to assert God’s masculinity (though, certainly, it is for some).  Instead, since many languages lack a gender neutral pronoun that can be (non-pejoratively) applied to living beings, using a gendered pronoun becomes necessary.

But I also understand why the male and not the female pronoun was selected by authors, translators, and everyone else involved in the creation of the Bible. It’s because of the longstanding belief that the male version of a human being is superior to the female version.  It’s patriarchy, folks, plain and simple.

So for me, calling God “She” serves as a bit of an antidote to the venomous anti-female bias inherent in Judeo-Christian history.

When I call God “She,” it reminds me, every time I say it or write it, that half of the human beings here on Earth are not “other,” and in fact, those people who identify as female are also created in the image of God.

With that said, I am not attempting to “gender” God when I say “She.” My use of female pronouns doesn’t evoke in me the image of a human being, or even some big ol’ goddess hanging around in the sky.  Instead, when I say “She,” when I think of “Her,” I get a full, warm, compassionate feeling in my heart. I get a God-of-Love feeling.

When I say “He,” I don’t get that same feeling. Maybe it’s because of the image of God I absorbed during my childhood, the scary dude who sat up in heaven and “judged the quick and the dead.” Maybe it’s because everyone I’ve ever met who makes it a point to exclude LGBTQ people calls God “He.” I don’t know.  But I do know that “She” just feels more like a God-of-Love to me.

This might be different for you.  But there’s no right or wrong in it!  It’s just a linguistic choice we are all free to make.

God is no more female than male. God is God and, as such, God is certainly not something that can be contained or fully described in any linguistic symbols we might come up with.  There are no words that could possibly accurately and completely represent that particular referent.

But we do have occasion to want and need to talk and write about God, even though all the linguistic terms we use represent God in some type of image that is limiting.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Deuteronomy 4:15–19 (NIV).

To linguistically portray God as a father, or God as a woman giving birth, or an eagle, or a sacred wind, all of those things put a limiting image up to represent God.  And, for that matter, so do the three letters, G-O-D.  All the ways we choose to refer to God are images, all are limited representations, all are potentially idolatrous symbols. But all our metaphors and ways of referring to God are not necessarily idolatrous.  Only potentially.

For me, without the use of pronouns in my writing and talking about God, it becomes very difficult to linguistically represent the aspect of personal connection I feel.  And for me, “She” fits better.

Sure, I’ll still wonder, when someone refers to God as “He” all the time, if they have really thought about why they do that.  And if given half a chance, like maybe right now, I might suggest to them that it could be interesting to explore any aversion they feel about using female pronouns for God.  They might want to consider what stops them from allowing God to be linguistically linked to the beauty, value, and spiritual worthiness of half the human population.

But in the final assessment, I don’t think any of us is qualified to tell anyone else how to refer to God. We just aren’t. So maybe the best we can do is approach each person’s way of referring to God with compassionate curiosity, remembering our perception is always lacking, and our written and spoken expression is always inadequate to illuminate what is most important.

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” First Corinthians 13:9–10 (NIV)

I’ve been calling God “She” for a number of years.  I’ve written previously about how I started doing this (“The “She” in My Pocket” on this website, and“The Power of an Unexpected Pronoun” on the God Is Not a Guy website).

 

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Marg Herder
Marg Herder is the Director of Public Information for EEWC-CFT, a Christian feminist organization working for gender (and LGBTQIA) justice in Christianity since 1974. She is the content manager and developer of the organization’s website, Christian Feminism Today. Marg identifies as a trans* lesbian writer, musician, and feminist spiritual seeker. She works to draws attention to the ongoing violence directed at women and LGBTQIA people in this “Christian” society, the desperate need for an understanding of God that includes the Divine Feminine, and Christ/Sophia’s desire that each of us move deeper into our own practice of non-violence.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. In my opinion and experience as a male, once you open yourself to referring to God as “She” it changes everything. If you acknowlage that God is not exclusively “He,” and you allow yourself to be open to the various places in scripture where God refers to God’s self in feminine metaphors, you recognize the equal value of women. Once you cross that bridge, patriarchy no longer makes sense. Long held opinions and actions begin to be challenged.

    It becomes very uncomfortable when you realize that an inaccurate concept of God has been your justification for marginalizing women and being part of oppressing the female gender. Once you struggle with that reality and accept your responsibility, you begin to value women as equal image bearers of God. This altered concept of God leads you to understanding God as a loving, gentle, gracious, mothering God. You no longer have to make God a cosmic macho man.

    If you’re not careful, you begin to view others in a different way and you recognize other unfounded phobias and biases in your heart. Soon you release thoses phobias and grow to value and love even people with a different sexual orientation.

    As it progresses, you realize that male dominance has led to a long history of violence among people and the destruction of the earth. You want to see those patterns change so you begin supporting personal and political actions that will hopefully change the tide. You can no longer be satisfied or accept the status quo.

    Ultimately, this one simple change in the pronoun you use referring to God, can make you passionately desire to be more like Christ. Wow, what a mess that becomes. It all becomes so inconvenient. Had I held tight to a concept or image of God that was exclusively male, I might have never fallen down this slippery slope.

    Actually, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I highly recommend it .

  2. No matter what metaphores have been used, God, Father, Son, Lord and he, are the titles he’s chosen and therefore the ones we are to use out of respect, to honor him.

    My desire to call God he is not a sexist one — just seeking to respect his choices.

  3. I’m Christian. I’m feminist. But I oppose to this.
    Calling God “she”, unless you’re an atheist who thinks God is just a concept that you can freely twist, isn’t a simple grammatical choice. God, when inspiring his Word, openly and repeatedly referred to himself as male. This doesn’t mean men are superior or that God is patriarchal. It is *HIS* choice.
    I’m sure you refer to Leelah Alcorn as “she” out of respect, even if it doesn’t feel “good”, don’t you? Why not show that respect to God too, then?
    God bless.

    • Ah, but Alex, God doesn’t always refer to God’s-self as He. Many metaphors refer to God in female terms. From Jann Aldredge-Clanton’s article on this website:

      However, a cursory reading of the Bible reveals many metaphors for God. And a small amount of theological thinking suggests that all human language about God is metaphorical. God is both mother (Ps. 131:2; Isa. 49:15; Isa. 66:13) and father (Ps. 103:13-14; Rom. 8:15); rock (Exod. 32:4; Ps. 95:1) and fire (Exod. 3:1-6); pillar (Exod. 13:1) and eagle (Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11), midwife (Num. 11:12, by implication); Shekinah or Shekinah God (Exod. 40:34-38); and shepherd (Psalm 23; Luke 15:4-7; John 10).

      There are even more than this where a feminine Hebrew noun is used to refer to God or an aspect of God.

      I certainly do refer to Leelah Alcorn as “she” out of respect, and it feels wonderful and affirming to me to do so. Because Leelah was a human being. “She” describes the gender she preferred to consider as her own.

      I call God “She” because I believe that describes God as aptly as does “He.” Not because I’m an atheist. LOL. And I never said that calling God “She” was a simple grammatical choice. I said it was a deeply personal and meaningful choice.

      I am glad you count yourself a feminist. But I will paraphrase what I said in the article, namely, it could be interesting for you to open yourself up to exploring the aversion you feel about other people using female pronouns for God. Nobody’s asking you to do it. I’m only explaining why it’s important for me to do so.

  4. Maybe using male pronouns exclusively for the divine (for God, or Being, or whatever) is like what Carol Adams calls (albeit about something different) an “absent referent”–“He” used for God is to use something other than God, i.e., a human construct. Since God is always more than, something other than, human it does not fit to use male only language. I suspect the same could be said about feminine pronouns, but as you so well articulated, there is indeed a visceral and affective aspect between gender language (this is certainly true for me given my family of origin). My challenge is in the pastoral context–however many times these issues arise in small groups, I realize just how deeply embedded these male images and/or monikers are present in so many church folk (most of the well-meaning). And after discussing these issues they turn right around and go back to “Father” or “He” or “mankind.” The struggle is never-ending. A good word is your article!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Robert. I think you are so right about how deeply embedded the images and words are. I know it was hard for me to get there, even though at the time I was trying to do so I was feeling estranged from Christianity. Maybe it’s just one of those barriers we will have to keep chipping away at. Grateful for your thoughts. Thank you.

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