This profound and controversial theological question, worthy of debate in the higher reaches of academia, surfaces in the media regularly – and is, inevitably, linked to the issue of women priests.
Now this may seem a bit flippant, but it does remind me of a similar question concerning computers:
A language teacher was explaining to her class that French nouns, unlike English ones, have a grammatical gender – either masculine or feminine. One student asked, ‘What gender is a computer?’ The teacher couldn’t remember, so she divided the class into two groups and asked them to work it out for themselves. One group was composed entirely of women, and the other of men.
The women reckoned that computers should be masculine because:
1 In order to get their attention, you have to turn them on.
2 They have a lot of data but are still stupid.
3 They are supposed to help you solve your problems, but at least half the time they ARE the problem.
4 As soon as you make a commitment to one, you realise that, if you had waited a little longer, you could have got a better model.
The men, on the other hand, decided that computers were definitely feminine because:
1 No one but their creator understands their internal logic.
2 The language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else.
3 Even your smallest mistakes are stored in long-term memory for later retrieval.
4 As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your pay on accessories for it.
A similar question, because it is basically a problem generated by Indo-European grammar. English has dispensed with noun genders, but still hangs on to them for personal pronouns. When referring to God, we have a choice of ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’. ‘It’ won’t do, because ‘it’ carries such a strong implication that it is referring to something un-personal. Which leaves us with an unwanted gender choice – a choice that carries with it a lot of social and historical baggage.
A similar question, because the answer is inevitably coloured by our own gender bias and nobody is neutral. We all have an in-built tendency to project onto God an image of our own making, so if (consciously or subconsciously) you ‘want’ your god to be female, that is how you will view ‘her’.
A similar question, because the information that we have to work from (in the Bible) points in both directions. In order to describe the indescribable, the Biblical writers make heavy use of analogy and metaphor. God is pictured over and over again as a King, a Warrior, a Judge, a Husband and a Father. These masculine images predominate, but they are far from being the whole story. We also have feminine ones: a Midwife (Psalm 71:6), a Mother (Isaiah 66:13), even a hen protecting her chicks (Luke 13:34). (There are also inanimate images: David’s psalms frequently describe God as a Rock, but nobody – yet – has seriously suggested that God should therefore be neuter!)
“God created mankind in His own image,
in the image of God He created them;
male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
Gender matters to us because we are, as a species, ‘male and female’. We have to be divided in this way, in order to reproduce. But whether male or female, we are equally God-like. God is ‘above’ gender and has no gender (it might be more accurate to say that He incorporates both genders), but until we invent a non-gendered personal pronoun for the English language it is impossible to reflect that fact clearly in our everyday speech.
So what should we do? What would God’s answer be to this question? I suspect He would simply say, as He said to Moses, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) We can’t force Him into a human mould; we have to recognise that He is outside all natural categories. But when He had to opt for one gender or the other… in order to become an individual human being… which did He choose?