God Is Gender Non-Conforming

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

Comments (8)

Can you show me in the English Bible (King James Bible) WITHOUT referring to Greek Hebrew or Aramaic where it SAYS God is gender non-conforming?

This is a puzzling comment. You refer to the KJV as if it is the only reliable text, even above the original languages it was translated from. I understand this to be associated with what is commonly known as the KJV Only Movement http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Only_movement. I think the KJV is a beautiful rendition, poetic to the ears as it is read, however, not the most accurately translated version in the English language (see here: http://www.contenderministries.org/biblestudy/kjodebate.php).

However, to go along with your thinking, should we not refer to God in NON-gender descriptions such as El Shaddai (ALMIGHTY), Elohim (GOD) or Adonai (LORD), or even Yahweh (I AM)? How should one respond to such questioning if its fundamental premise is woefully backwards, suggesting the original languages out to be dismissed? Nevertheless, in attempt to answer your question... the Bible's female analogies of God in Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Hosea, Matthew, and Luke lead one to believe God is big enough to comprise both features. Unfortunately, the broader concept representing the wholeness of God's image (IMAGO DEI) created in "man", as in HUMAN, both male AND female, seems to be lost on many. Since I cannot emphasize that last sentence in bold, let me repeat: the broader concept representing the wholeness of God's image (IMAGO DEI) created in "man", as in HUMAN, both male AND female...

Words and language are used as images to communicate for the other's understanding. God knows this, but we often forget in our frail, finite understanding and think we can possibly comprehend such things we cannot fathom. To think we have the full understanding of who God is, well... is hubris (i.e. overly self-confident). We are so limited, God has to dumb it down for us so we can even begin to grasp... I think of Moses who was only able to see a GLIMPSE of God, or else just God' "glory" alone would destroy him.

Genesis 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: (KJV) And after God said this, God made women and men; both in God's image. So that is one place (in the beginning) where God says, God is gender non-conforming. Thank you for the OP.

Beautifully said! And resonant with Sunday's lectionary Gospel text- "Who do you say that I am?"

Thank you!

You see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear yet you have not eyes to see nor do you have ears to hear.
If you want to be the Fathers child then you must obey Him!
You are not yours , you are created by the Heavenly Father!
We are all children of God but He can revoke your Godly Birthright through your disobedience!
You are not obeying Him when you feel that your lifestyle has favor in His eyes. It is your human feelings not the Fathers and if you remain human in your feelings you will never become an spiritual child of the living Father .
Peace Be Unto You

Amen

So beautifully respectful of the mystery of God and how that is reflected in all God's people. I have noticed many of these same dynamics in my own journey of wonder. Thank you for saying this so clearly!

Oops! Sorry Amy! I thought your article was very thoughtful, open, and authentic. I don't know what happened... My original comment was intended as a response to the first comment posted regarding the KJV without referring to the original language.

Being a "somewhat" agender yet gay Christian, wouldn't it also be good to add "agender" for inclusivity? Just thinking for small editing purposes :)

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