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Why do we assign a gender to God?


Question and Answer


Robert J. Freer from Cincinnati, Ohio writes:

Why do we assign a gender to God? I feel that it started with the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father who art in Heaven. . . . .) That paternalism was objected to by the feminists who started calling God she. If God is not human, how can there be a gender assigned? I am still trying to rid myself of the image of a man up in the sky somewhere, wearing flowing white robes, keeping track of my good deeds and misdeeds!!

Answer: By Fred Plumer

Dear Robert,

You ask an interesting question and unfortunately a complete answer would take several pages. But let me try and answer your excellent and timely question the best I can.

Actually, we would have to go back roughly 10,000 years ago to even begin to understand what really happened. As the Hunters and Gatherers began to settle in the Mesopotamia Valley, they moved away from what anthropologist have suggested was a balanced responsibility when men and women had equal job responsibilities. Every single person had a “job,” a responsibility, including children, and there was no hierarchy because each person’s job might impact the survival of the tribe.

Up until this time in history most of the most powerful gods were female. It was frankly a more matriarchically society as you might guess. But when the Hunters and Gatherers realized they could build fences, raise animals and crops, protecting the boundaries became paramount. It was the men who began to take on the warrior mentality. To raise their crops, they needed workers, so the women stayed home to raise children to work in the fields. It was during that time that these societies moved from a matriarchically to a patriarchic society. The most powerful gods had become males. Keep in mind there were still many gods, but the most powerful were pictured as men at some point in this development.

When we get to the beginning of what we know as the Jewish tradition, roughly 5,000 years ago, there was still many gods, but the most powerful came to be known as YHWH, a word that was intended to never be spoken by practicing Jews. However, as centuries passed, different groups, in different eras, had their own name for god, i.e. Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, and El. Scholars generally propose that the Torah, the Christian Old Testament, was compiled from various original sources, two of which (the Jahwist and the Elohist) are named for their usual names for God (YHWH and Elohim respectively). Many modern Jews today, do not necessarily see their “God” as male or female. However, the more conservative Jews are still extremely patriarchal. They are still protecting their turf.

We really have no idea when the Jewish people decided there was one God, but it is clear from passages in the Torah that it was not the case in their earlier years. From Exodus 20:3…you shall have no other gods before me. This is repeated in the same citing in Deuteronomy 5:6.

However, I have used the term “God” here several times to explain how we became more patriarchal. But the truth be told, no one has been able to decide where the word God came from or how long ago. The word God is a relatively new European invention, which was never used in any of the ancient Judeo-Christian scripture manuscripts that were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin. Scholars tend to agree that is was sometime in the 6th century, probably in the Germanic culture and a derivation of the word, gudan.

So Robert, here is my point. It is the current society that decides who and what we call God, or god or Adonai or “Max.” And it is the society that decides what kind of attributes we assign to this thing we currently call God. Yes, it takes a long time, many lifetimes to make these changes. But our society is changing very rapidly right now and frankly our young people, the millennials, are not buying our ancient idea of God or the power we have given this figure, whether male, female or transgender. We now know it is not “a man up in the sky somewhere, wearing flowing white robes, keeping track of good deeds and misdeeds.” Many of us now have agreed it is not a male or female. The more scientists study our animal kingdom, the closer we humans seem to be. Are animals judged? Should we be judged? We all come into this world with different gifts, and wounds, opportunities and failures. How would a judging god decide how to weigh those factors?

Personally, I have found the String Theory encouraging. The idea that we are all inner-connected (by “string” or “god”) sits well with me, although I am not certain how to put that idea into a theology. However, this means when a “butterfly waves it wings, the entire universe is changed. That means what you do or what I do matters to the entire universe. Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if we people started acting as if this were true? Can you imagine the entire universe dependent on your actions?

And so you ask, what does Progressive Christianity have to say about this? It is about the very human Jesus, who in spite of, or because of, a troubled beginning, overcame the natural inclination to strike out or punish others. He became a mystic who showed us a way to live that transcends all of the things that have been piled onto Christianity that have little to do with living a full and joyful life. Rather than focusing on sin, he taught us to find the joy. Rather than focusing on the bad things in life, he taught us to look for the positive. He taught us to recognize the interconnectedness of all life and the power of love over hate. And he taught us not to fear death.

That is why I still am a follower of him. And these are some of the reasons, Progressive Christianity is still growing.

Thank you for your question. I hope I have answered it.

~Fred Plumer, President

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

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