God the Geometer

A controversial article in the Daily Telegraph tells us that churches are increasingly referring to God as ‘she’ rather than ‘he’.

Does it matter? If so, why?

The article responds to the latest of the Westminster Faith Debates, last Wednesday’s impressive discussion of the likely impact of women bishops .Be warned: the Telegraph article is a classic example of a sensational headline being squeezed out of minimal information.

At the end it invites you to vote for or against referring to God as a woman, and as I write this the voting figures are: Yes, 11%; No, 85%, Don’t know, 4%. My guess would be that not all the voters were theologians; we are being told more about the Daily Telegraph than about God.

Nevertheless, the article has generated a lot of controversy. Why? The question itself is one thing; the fact that so many people get wound up about it is another.

On the question itself my own view is a pretty traditional Christian one, expressed by theologians through the millennia. The ultimate reality behind the universe, maintaining it in existence and giving us minds to understand small parts of it, is way beyond our understanding but must include certain features. One feature will be the ability to create and maintain the universe. Another is a mental element, with evaluation and motive; this is what grounds beliefs like ‘God is love’ and ‘our lives have a purpose’.

But everything we say about God is filtered through the language we use, and language is based on this-worldly experience. So nothing we say about God can be taken literally. The most common account of God-language is to call it analogy. In other words, to call God a judge or a father means God has something in common with human judges or fathers. However God’s judgeness and fatherness still lies beyond human definition, and would even if we weren’t constrained by the English language.

We call God ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘it’ because of the mental element. Our language forces us to choose between the two. Many believers, who haven’t read Thomas Aquinas and don’t understand the subtleties of analogical language about God, are so used to hearing God referred to as ‘he’ that they have got into the habit of thinking God is really male.

Literally, this means that if you pulled God’s pants down you would see the same kinds of things as you would see if you pulled my pants down. Here things get bizarre. I have often been in the company of people who insist on God being ‘he’ rather than ‘she’, but none of them seem to make the connection with what resides between God’s legs. Indeed, some of them are keen to insist that God doesn’t have legs, let alone genitalia.

So insisting on God being ‘he’ is not about God’s physical attributes. What is it about, then? Here, it seems to me, the feminist case wins the argument. It is about social roles. It is about thinking God does the kinds of things normally done by men rather than women. Insisting that God is ‘he’ not ‘she’ is to insist that male lifestyles and values are closer to the divine than female ones.

I suspect there is a sliding scale here. At one extreme are the churchgoers for whom unchanging sameness is important. The wording of the prayers, like the church they have been attending for decades and the old hymn book, are valued for being familiar. They do not want prayers to refer to God as ‘she’ for the same reason that they do not want to replace Ancient and Modern Revised with choruses projected onto a screen.

At the other extreme are those who genuinely believe God is to be thought of as male because there are God-given social roles for men and women and God’s roles are more male than female. A male God sanctions a macho lifestyle for males. Headship.

My own view is that the headship lobby are wrong about God, and dangerous. I have more sympathy for the opponents of change, because the obsessive activism of modern life imposes a rate of change with which we humans have not evolved to cope. I expect most Daily Telegraph readers are of this type.

Even so, good teaching could perhaps make them more aware that the divine being lying behind everything we know and believe, transcends our distinctions. And loves us even when we use our images of God as tools of oppression.