God, pronouns and freedom

I have written previously about what pronouns should be used for God, regarded as a genderless being in most faiths. Should we refer to Him in the masculine, Her in the feminine or even Se in the neutral? I came to the conclusion that everyone is entitled to their own choice because God doesn’t have “preferred pronouns” like we mortals do.

This issue has since come to the forefront at certain American divinity colleges, one of which, Vanderbilt, has gone as far as to suggest that masculine pronouns for God is a “cornerstone of the patriarchy”. True, modern society is nowhere near as patriarchal as it was at the time the Bible was being written. But some people, particularly of faith, may insist on calling God a He because that’s what they’re used to. Fortunately, a spokesperson for Vanderbilt told Heat Street that the guidelines are “suggestions” and not mandatory as implied by the headline “DIVINITY SCHOOLS: STOP USING ‘HE’ OR ‘HIM’ TO REFER TO GOD”. It reads like a Daily Mail headline and is not a good look for an online magazine sometimes called “reactionary”. Despite the implicit accusation of sexism to those who use male pronouns for God, it’s not a punishable offence.

Neither should be calling God a She. The Jewish traditions in particular are very vocal about God having a feminine essence, the shekhinah. To call Her by feminine pronouns would both uphold this and to demonstrate a commitment to egalitarianism. Duke Divinity School encourages lecturers to mix it up– probably more for egalitarian purposes than in reference to Jewish mysticism- referring to God in the masculine then immediately switching to the feminine. However, this could get quite confusing and is far from ideal in my opinion. I can only imagine them being barraged by emails saying “what pronouns do I use for God in my essay”?

As for referring to God in the neuter, the only gender-neutral pronoun that has come into general usage is singular they. And that can get very ambiguous. The Abrahamic faiths consider God to be one being, so to hear someone say “They created the heavens and the earth” could be very jarring. This is in spite of the original Hebrew Bible texts frequently referring to God as “Elohim”, a plural form of the term meaning “Lord”, but this is most likely a holdover from pre-monotheistic times as They are referred to by singular male pronouns elsewhere. And let’s not go forgetting “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One”. I have been suggesting and using se as a GNP to replace singular they and I would be very flattered if people began using it due to the natural sound and disambiguity.

Religion is far more flexible than it’s ever been. This is often referred to by critics as “cafeteria religion” but that’s missing a lot of it out. Again, I say “your rules”. Nobody should be forced into using a specific pronoun or pronouns for God. He/She/Se never personally stated them in the Bible.


One thought on “God, pronouns and freedom

  1. codeinfig

    “The Jewish traditions in particular are very vocal about God having a feminine essence, the shekhinah. To call Her by feminine pronouns would both uphold this and to demonstrate a commitment to egalitarianism.”

    i dont care what pronouns they use, but if i hear one more country bumpkin pronounce it shi-ky-nah, i may refuse to listen to anyone from the south again. im from the south and i dont mind the accents, but using the wrong vowel just sounds completely idiotic.

    personally i think we would lose something by making texts about an already-non-gender-binary being (and that much is pretty clear already from genesis) gender-neutral or change genders over politics.

    if some people say male and others say female, thats true enough, probably? but it isnt god being “male” thats the problem– pronouns arent the source of all human oppression. taking things too literally, and using religion/status/authority/power as an excuse to be a jerk, is the source of all human oppression. being meticulous about pronouns is just a ridiculous way to miss the real point.



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