God is She, He, and Neither: an exploration into language

June 6, 2017

All language is metaphor. Any attempt to describe the richest parts of life- like love, friendship, nature, and faith- all fall short. Language only scratches the surface of meaning.

This is never more real for me then when I am writing a birthday or anniversary card to my husband. The more in love you are with someone, the harder that love is to describe. In the beginning, my pen flew across the card, pouring out my sappy, romantic, and sometimes nauseating love for him. But now? How can I put the love of 11 years and the hope for 100 more into words?

This is the true of God as well and it doesn’t help that the English language makes it even harder to describe this Absolute Power. Our personal pronouns are gendered. We cannot refer to a living thing by “it”. (I am not sure what would shock people more, referring to God as “It” or as “She”…) Not only is it cold and distant, it just sounds wrong.

Therefore, we end up using gendered terms when referring to the Absolute. We need imagery, we need symbols. All religious pursuits, all spiritual journeys, require metaphor. We are attempting to understand and connect with a cosmic reality that is larger and more infinite than ourselves.  Our language cannot fully grasp or define all that is the Divine. I don’t think it is supposed to, and so we use our language to try to make sense of something much too grand for our understanding. We do the best with what we have. Even Jesus spoke in parables.

In the Christian tradition, even though words fall short, we have been given other descriptive names for God: Adonai, El Shaddai, Elohim, I Am, Divine, Creator,  to only name a few. We have generations of women and men who have spent their lives devoted to understanding God and attempting to use human language to define our Creator.

–And Yet, which do we normally hear? “Heavenly Father”, “God the Father”, “He”.







Our Western view of God is




When I was a child, I pictured God as an old white man with a beard who lived in the clouds, and I think many people have similar memories of God.  But how can it be that 2,000 years after Jesus, we still believe in this Zeus-like God? Has Christianity really done nothing to change this God we inherited from the Greeks? How many of us have had worked through this harmful imagery to find a vision that speaks to our deeper truth? How many of us haven’t gotten that far? I’ve needed to  spend the majority of my adult life unlearning this view of a distant, angry, father-figure God, who was ready to “strike me down” with his thunderbolts.

Through our language, and maybe because of our language, we’ve allowed ourselves to forget that we are made in God’s image. Male and Female, created as representations of divinity. Instead of recognizing that we are mirroring the Creator, we’ve re-made God in our own image. Our image of what is right and powerful. And apparently we all collectively ended up believing that God is an old white dude. In doing so, we are implying (sometimes not so subtly)  that male is more God-like and female decidedly less so. I mean, God isn’t even human– much less only male

As spiritual beings, we have at our disposal hundreds of names and ways to refer to God. But we’ve gotten lazy. We don’t allow our creativity or our imagination, or our soul to be part of the dance. In a sense- we’ve become apathetic idolaters.


“When only one image is allowed to serve as the grid for speaking about God, it becomes idolatrous. It comes to be viewed not as a symbol, but as fact, as an actual description.”  – Vanderbilt Theologian,  Sallie McFague


We have hundreds of names to use to refer to The Divine. But I only ever hear “Father.”

Continuing to refer to, and imagine God as solely male, robs us of a full experience. If we come to the conversation thinking we know everything there is to know about this Power, we’ve  negated the purpose of interacting with the Divine in the first place. We are missing out on an entire personhood of creation.  

I think we know this. Deep down. We readily remind each other that God is neither male nor female, but have you ever, ever, ever, heard someone use a female pronoun? Have you ever heard a prayer start with “Mother God.”  I don’t think this is necessarily out of malice. We all use male terms in reference to the Absolute. That is what we are most comfortable with, that is what we were taught. But it is wrong. It’s just not enough.

If you don’t think this is a problem, if you don’t think it is an issue with real repercussions that have been felt for thousands of years, try starting your next prayer  with with “Mother God,” and see how far you get. You’ll come face to face with your own idolatry and sexism, just like I did.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the book The Shack. This friend of mine told me how much she liked it- until Young portrayed God as a woman “Because,” she began, somewhat concerned and with a furrowed brow,  “well, God is actually a man, right?”

(“Not a symbol, but as fact, as an actual description”)


So, although my blood began to boil, and my eyes swelled with tears, I responded softly and simply: “No. God is not a man.”  Because how could I boil down a truth that could fill libraries into one conversation?

This is not a purely academic issue. Although, I feel most comfortable in academia, far removed from my heart and feelings, far removed from wounds and scars and the exhaustion that comes from having to remind people that my voice belongs. But I do not believe I am overreaching when I say that the implications of only validating a male image of God have altered the world from God’s original intention.

Without the balance of both female and male imagery, without the balance of both pronouns, the Female part of The Divine is lost. It is lost from our messages, it is lost when we read the Bible, and it is lost in our culture. And what we are left with is a world that undervalues, overlooks, and excludes the feminine. We are left with a world where women are more likely to be illiterate, homeless, raped, and murdered than men. We are left with a broken and bleeding world. Not only are we missing out on understanding a beautiful part of God’s character, but we end up with a world full of oppression against women, unspeakable violence, and everyday reminders that there is an hierarchy in place, and we females better learn where we stand (or should I say kneel?)

It is clear to me that this view of God supports and even promotes patriarchy, inequality, and at least a disregard for women, if not sometimes a hatred of women. This is not unique to the Christian faith. Any faith practice, where God is viewed as singularly male, creates a hostile environment for woman. Male supremacy is woven into the tapestry of our faiths. Every image, every story, every prayer, both heralds from it, and upholds it.





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  • Stephen June 6, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Part of the problem is that “God” is the term for a MALE deity. (Remember “Goddess”?) We can’t conceptualize a gender-neutral entity while using a gender-specific term. This is why I prefer “Source” or “Spirit.”

    • alyseelin June 7, 2017 at 10:27 am

      Thank you for your comment and thoughts! I agree that the term God is almost always used to refer to a MALE deity- though I don’t think it needs to be this way forever. In reference to “Goddess”, I would personally love to see this word make its way into mainstream religion (Christianity or otherwise) but unfortunately I think we are quite a few years from that really happening, given the pagan connotations it (incorrectly) brings with it. I wonder- is it easier for people to wrap their heads about using both “God” and “Her” in the same prayer/sentence, or to use “Goddess”. Or, as you say, do we do away with all gendered terms, as the Ultimate Power is hardly anthropomorphic anyway, and simply refer to this power as “Source” or “Spirit”?

      I so appreciate your comment and engagement in this conversation. I think we can only create change by actually engaging one another in conversations of this nature.

      – Alyse

      • Stephen June 10, 2017 at 8:22 am


        I used to attend a Unity church where the minister began his prayers with “Father/Mother God.” It’s not gender neutral, but at least it’s gender inclusive. It’s a start.