God's Gender
May 12, 2002

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

God is ineffable. What this means is that everything we imagine, think, or say about God is, because of the very nature of God, highly inadequate, poor theology at best. That's the first thing that always needs to be said before weighing anything we affirm about God. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215), in fact, defined as dogma the fact that all language about God conceals more than it reveals and is more inaccurate than accurate. All language about God largely misses the mark.

Nowhere is this more evident, or problematic, than in our efforts to conceive of and speak of God's gender. We speak of God as "He", as "Father", as masculine, but scripture assures us that God is not just masculine, nor just feminine, nor some neutered entity. God, as revealed in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, is eminently personal, gendered and sexed; but, as the first chapter of Genesis makes clear, God is equally male and female since both masculinity and femininity image God equally.

But how can this be conceived of or captured in language? Essentially, it can't. All concepts and language are inadequate here. This is one of the reasons why, for so many centuries, we commonly conceived of and spoke of God as exclusively masculine. It solved a lot of problems. God, as masculine, is the dominant (though not exclusive) image of God in Scripture. Given that we have no nouns and pronouns that capture both genders, for better and for worse, we opted to speak of God as "He" and "Father", rather than as having no personality. Conceiving and speaking of God as exclusively masculine was one-sided, but it helped save us from something even more debilitating, namely, a God without gender, sex, or personality ("The force be with you!"). So where do we go from here?

Mircea Eliade, in his mythical schema of things, suggests that, archetypally, at the center of things there sit two thrones. On one sits a King, on the other a Queen. But the two work as one, always in perfect harmony, in perfect mutuality, empowering each other. They rule as one and the kingdom and everything in it is safe because those two thrones sit at the center and the two together can create the energy and power needed to order, feed, and bless the people.

The center of things is, of course, where God sits. What Eliade is proposing, in fact, is a concept of God as perfect masculinity and perfect femininity, in perfect harmony, in perfect mutuality, in full adulthood, empowering each other so that the graciousness that is thus generated flows out and feeds, blesses, and protects all the people. What a wonderful image of God! How full of personality and gender! And yet, how beyond language!

Beautiful as this is, some of our mystical images go even further: How to conceive of God? Imagine perfect masculinity and perfect femininity making perfect love. That's what's happening inside of God and all the creativity and fertility within the universe is the result of that. Billions of galaxies, billions of people, and gracious energy beyond imagination is constantly being generated because, inside of God, loving embrace is happening.

Such an image is perhaps more poetic than theological, but, in the end, isn't all theology just that, poetry meant to inspire? More crassly, isn't all orthodox theology simply a set of words that God has given us permission to use without threat of being killed for blasphemy?

This image of God, as perfect masculinity and femininity making love, can, I submit, be a rich mine-field for prayer and reflection. Of itself, it won't solve the problem of the equality of the sexes, nor the struggle to find a more inclusive language about God, though it might serve as a valuable backdrop for these issues. Such a concept of God though can help us to see and contemplate more clearly what St. Augustine called, the "vestiges of the Trinity", namely, images of God within nature and human life.

If God can be conceived as perfect, fully-adult, masculinity and perfect femininity making love, then vestiges of God can be seen everywhere. The ecstatic embrace of the great King and the great Queen leaves traces everywhere: in the dew on the grass, in the flowers growing in a garden, in the interplay of light and smell that enchant a forest, in the peace that settles in as an elderly couple silently shares a meal, in the passionate embrace of lovers, in the respect and holy fear one sometimes sees between the sexes, and, of course and especially, whenever you see, in this world, femininity and masculinity empowering each other for the good the kingdom and the kids.

All good fairy tales end with a marriage, a prince and princess marry each other, become the King and Queen, and then "live happily ever after." That's an image that tells us what's happening inside of God and what, because of this wonderful marriage, God has in store for us.