Why Call God a He?

Hello, readers, a a pleasant beginning of Advent to you!

One thing I would request is that if you’re going to make a comment on this post arguing against it, please make sure you read the whole thing before doing so. Few things are more frustrating than having someone argue against a point you make when it turns out that you answered the person’s objection, but they didn’t read the post carefully or long enough to notice. Anyway, to business… ;)

Somewhat recently I was asked to do a post on the feminist view which tries to make God female—the view which uses the pronoun “she” when referring to God, the view which almost always wants women to be ordained to the priesthood, and the view which, rather than saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, says, “In the name of the Creator, the Word, and the Sanctifier”, so as to avoid obviously male titles. Now, I suppose that in order to discuss this issue, we need to look at it from two angles: firstly, is there a legitimate problem with calling God a “she”, and secondly, why does the Church have a tradition of calling God a “he”?

There a Problem, Officer?

This may surprise some of you, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with calling God a she. But you want to be very careful for a few reasons. One, the Church has always called God “He” for a reason (more on that later). Two, you must be well-learned on this issue and don’t do it unless you’re ready to give a good explanation for it; if you can’t explain it well, you may spread confusion to your hearers, which is never good. Three, there’s a certain sense in which the people or ideas associated with a neutral thing can taint it and make it bad (in this case, the feminists who want God to be called a “she”). For example, although there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with receiving Holy Communion under the species of both bread and wine, the Church decided to restrict the practice for a good while because heresies were going around, asserting that one did not receive Our Lord whole and entire without receiving both. So to drive home the point that yes, Christ is received entirely in one species or the other, the Church did not allow Communion under both species, even though it’s not evil in and of itself (and yes, I know it’s allowed now; I don’t dispute that).

Anyways, while I would perhaps question the prudence of the statement you’re about to read, it’s nevertheless true that Pope John Paul I said the following in his Angelus Address on September 10th, 1978:

…we are the objects of undying love on the part of God. We know: he has always his eyes open on us, even when it seems to be dark. He is our father; even more he is our mother. He does not want to hurt us, He wants only to do good to us, to all of us. If children are ill, they have additional claim to be loved by their mother. And we too, if by chance we are sick with badness, on the wrong track, have yet another claim to be loved by the Lord (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_i/angelus/documents/hf_jp-i_ang_10091978_en.html).

Once again, I would urge caution. The reason this statement can be made is that God is sexually neutral. To have a gender is the property of a body. God became a man at His Incarnation, but in and of Himself, according to His divinity, He is neither male nor female. Additionally, man and woman both are created in God’s image, so God has properties associated with fatherhood (justice, strength, the tendency to sacrifice oneself for the good of others) and also properties associated with motherhood (gentleness, mercy, a capacity to nurture, and what have you). So God is not more male than female. He is neither male nor female, yet reflects both.

Another thing you want to be aware of is that when the Holy Father said, “…even more [God] is our mother”, a couple things must be taken into account. The way it’s worded here, it looks as though he’s saying, “It would be more correct if we stopped calling God ‘Father’ and started calling Him ‘Mother’ instead”. Well, not so fast. The statement I quoted is a translation of the original text, and it’s quite possible that in the Italian there is a clearer nuance which the English doesn’t convey. Also, if the text appears as shady, be aware that this Angelus Address was not an act of the pope’s infallible magisterium. A pope can speak error. He cannot define error as a dogma of the Faith, but in speaking, he is able to slip. So while I’m not saying that what he said is wrong, it’s certainly not a dogmatic statement and does not require the assent of faith.

Back on the main issue of “is there a problem with referring to God in feminine terms”, you’ll sometimes find that Christ Our Lord is portrayed as a mother pelican (such as in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adore Te Devote). Same logic applies: God has properties of both the male and the female. It’s not inherently wrong to speak of Him in female terms, but should be done carefully, with the right audience, and not too often, so as not to spread unnecessary confusion.

Why Speak of God as Masculine?

While I’m going to save the best argument for last, I feel like for the Catholic, the fastest initial explanation is that Christ Himself constantly called God “Father” and commanded us to do likewise. He could have said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father or Mother, who art in Heaven…”, but He did not. He told us to call God “Father” and continually did so Himself. And don’t let anyone tell you that was just because of the times He was in. He had no problem breaking protocol elsewhere if necessary (eating with sinners, bypassing ritual hand washing, claiming to be divine, what have you). If it were really imperative that God be thought of as feminine, I feel like He would have let us know.

Another argument is that Our Lord, in becoming human, became male. Think for a moment. Jesus Christ is the fullness of God’s revelation, because Jesus Christ is God “manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16). Given that the Incarnation was God’s greatest chance to make Himself known, is it not likely that He would have become female if He wanted people to think of God as feminine? If it were truly better to call God a “she”, would it not have been more sensible for Christ to be a woman? It seems so to me, and yet He became a man.

I’d like to give one last argument, which is superior to the above two and points simultaneously to why God became male and why God is referred to in male terms at all. The crux of this one is that man gives and woman receives, God reflecting the male tendency to give, creation reflecting the female tendency to receive. It is the nature of God to give of Himself. You can see this in the life of the Trinity, as the Three Divine Persons constantly love One another and give this love without limit. You can see it in the Incarnation, when God condescended to human frailty for our welfare. You can see it in the Crucifixion, where He laid down His human life for us. And finally, you can see it in the Holy Eucharist, where Christ condescends to the frailty of bread and wine, but does so that we might be filled with His grace. This need to give, to sacrifice, is a masculine thing. Man gives, woman receives. You could use any number of situations to demonstrate this, but here’s what I would argue by the end of it all:

Yes, God is neither male nor female. Yes, God could feasibly be considered female if necessary. Yes, man and woman are both made in the image of God, without favoritism. But in spite of all of this, it is most appropriate to call God “He” because not only in His divinity, but also in His earthly life, God did what men do primarily: He selflessly gave Himself for the welfare of others. God reflects the masculine, while all of creation—the human soul as well as the Bride of Christ, the Church—is the feminine, which is receptive, as the female is, to God’s giving. I can write more about the female quality of the genderless human soul in another post, but for now, simply except that fact, regardless of any discomfort it causes to the men who read this. Although they are both without any sex, God reflects the masculine, while the human soul (whether belonging to male or female) reflects the feminine. Thus, it belongs to God to be called “He” and it belongs to creation to be called “she”. Anyone who wants God to be a woman fails to grasp this essential fact.

Now, this is partly why I asked you up above to read the entire thing before arguing. I’m not saying that women don’t give or sacrifice, or that men can’t be receptive. Indeed, men and women alike are called to offer their own personal sacrifices together with the great Sacrifice of Christ, and men are “feminine” in the relationship with God, receiving His graces in their souls. But the point is that, primarily, the male acts as giver, the female as recipient. It doesn’t need to work all the time like that, but generally, it holds true.

And so we reach a rather informal conclusion. Any other arguments I didn’t give here are welcome. I hope you’ve found this post intriguing.

Farewell, until next time.

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5 thoughts on “Why Call God a He?”

  1. Are these all your own arguments? Especially the male/female being giver/receiver bit? While I’m glad you noted that you were generalizing and that clearly this isn’t always the case, I don’t even think your generalization is at all accurate. There is a group of women who do primarily receive, but that is a negative stereotype. Even in Catholic tradition, all a woman does is give. She gives herself to her husband and her children completely. While I may have an inherent bias, being an ex-catholic, I think you failed to address that God was primarily a “he” because he was a “he” in the Old Testament, before Jesus ever showed up, and he was male because of societal tradition. I mean, an all powerful female deity? Not quite as intimidating as the vengeful god of the Old Testament. Jesus would have found it somewhat difficult to start calling God his mother after an Old Testament tradition where God was treated as male. Not only that, but how could he have referred to him as mother when he had Mary as his mother too? Lesbian connotation would have freaked everyone out. I really think there is much more support for God being a “he” in tradition and culture and the role of the male as powerful, than in anything else.

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    1. The Catholic Church makes similar references to male as giver and female as receiver. This is primarily a statement about our sexuality and how, through it, we image the Blessed Trinity. To put it bluntly, the man gives his seed, the woman receives it; and this exchange of giving and receiving creates life. By this, the Church does not mean to imply that a woman’s life is not filled with acts of giving, because of course everyone knows women give of themselves constantly. But that is not what Michael is referring to in this post. There is a deeper reality behind our maleness and femaleness than meets the eye. In this particular sense, woman can not give (seed), and man can not receive (conception), in spite of our society’s current state of denial about such matters.

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      1. Interesting. I was unaware that sexual function made either gender primarily a giver or reciever. I wouldn’t grant that to be a good way to define them either, but I can see the reasoning. Nonetheless, the remainder of my point still stands.

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  2. + JMJ +
    Very enjoyable and informative article, Mike. In my neck of the woods, I have encountered many who refer to God as “she” (sadly, even inside my parish). These are some very good points, some of which I have not heard before. Thanks for post! :)
    Happy Advent, everyone!

    In Corde Matris,

    ~Crucesignata~

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