I grew up learning about a God who was a “He.” Sporting a white beard and positively owning that throne in the sky, this was a God who threw lightning bolts when you strayed from the path of righteousness.
When I got to college, I took a necessary break from believing in God.
Even before I knew I was queer, I knew I could not believe in a God who would so easily, so gleefully condemn God’s own beloved children to damnation. I simply could not reconcile the authoritarian image of God that I was taught as a child with the unconditional love shared in the same breath.
When I began studying religion, I stopped using pronouns in reference to God. Given my growing sense of agnosticism, removing “He” as a descriptor of God was obvious. I wasn’t sure about anything related to the divine mystery I once knew as “Father,” so how could I possibly know anything of God’s gender identity?
By the time I reached seminary, I’d been introduced to the practice of replacing “He” with “She,” embracing the oft-overlooked feminine qualities of the divine, and counteracting the long-standing Christian misrepresentation of God as a masculine deity.
Imagining God as “She” provided a balm to the deeps wounds of misogyny and helped me see myself as made in the image of God.
I celebrate the feminine nature of God. I celebrate God as Mother, the giver of life and the divine, nurturing embrace. I celebrate God as the source of being and fierce protector of God’s creation.
However, I know from experience that these “feminine” traits are not exclusive to female-identified people. For example, whether we identify as female or male, we all have the capacity to be nurturing. Understanding this as only a “feminine” trait is unfair to both women and men. The same is true for traditionally “masculine” attributes and experiences.
When I finally reclaimed my faith in God, I claimed a faith in a being that, by definition, exceeds our expectations and rises beyond our imaginations. That’s why I do not believe that God conforms to our expectations of what gender should be, or how it is supposed to be performed in the world.
If God doesn’t transcend the limits of our human understanding, then who or what can?
This does not mean we shouldn’t understand God as Mother, or even Father. As a good Baptist, I affirm our ability to commune with God on our own terms. But neither “He” nor “She” encapsulates what I understand as the expansive identity of a God that, by definition, cannot conform to our expectations.
As a result, I’ve stuck with my agnostic instinct, calling God, simply, “God.” For years, I’ve avoided pronouns when speaking of God, rearranging sentences to deemphasize those pesky little words and simply trailing off if I stray toward the gendered language that was so deeply engrained in me as a child.
In hymns and liturgy, I sometimes change pronouns, and I sometimes do not. I’m often too busy finding the harmony to make such changes in a song, but in the right moment, I’ll sing with a breath instead of a word when a hymn drops a “He, “Him,” or “His” in reference to God.
In the process, I’ve learned that pronouns are not necessary to forming a sentence, much less an identity.
When I began meeting folks who identify as gender queer, I stumbled over new pronouns as most of us do when we try new things. Ze, hir, hirs; She, her, hers; He, him, his; They, them, theirs—and many more.
For me, learning to use new pronouns has required both a practice of intentionality and a community of accountability. While incorporating new pronouns has been a challenge, I found it surprisingly easy to make the switch when my first partner asked me to stop using pronouns altogether during the early stages of his gender transition.
For a period of a few months, I called my partner neither “he” nor “she,” neither “they” nor “ze.” Suddenly, my years of practice, the years of rearranging sentences and avoiding gendered language for God, came to fruition.
As a Christian, I believe using a person’s preferred pronouns is a necessary practice of welcome and hospitality. Calling someone by their preferred name is a practice of respecting identity—seeing a person the way they want to be seen, knowing a person as they desire to be known, and welcoming a person in community on their own terms.
Respecting preferred pronouns is a way we can embrace each individual as they were created, each in the image of God.
And when I don’t know someone's preferred pronouns, I’ve now had enough practice to simply avoid gendered language until I find the appropriate moment to ask: “What are your preferred pronouns?”
We can’t ask this question of God. So why not live into the divine mystery of a deity who challenges our assumptions, defies all genders, and invites us to step beyond our expectations into a world of beautiful diversity?
Photo via Elizabeth Stilwell