They is God

Magdalena Dziaczkowska, Lund University & Hebrew University; Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki & Stellenbosch Universities

In Christian theology, God has traditionally been referred to as “he”. We believe that the pronoun we use matters because of its power to shape our images of the divine. God-talk conditions our understanding of God and therefore we should search for the possibly least misleading way. “He” has biblical grounding and has sometimes been argued for with the gender of God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the strong tradition behind this solution, it is not without problems.

It goes without saying that God does not have sex (except as incarnated) because sex requires corporeality. However, does God have gender? Arguably, theologies that refer to God as “he” without problematising, subconsciously assign gender to God. That is problematic in the sense that then theology turns the point of reference upside down: theologians construct a god that is created in the image of man instead of theologians being content seeing themselves as images of God. Even in languages with gender neutral pronouns, one often places God in a social position that is gendered, most notably “Father”, following the biblical example. However, this Father gives birth to the Son, an activity traditionally reserved for the women. Additionally, there are also female biblical images of God, albeit fewer than male ones, like hen in Mt 23:37/ Lk 13:34.

One can also decide to refer to God as “she”. In that case, the point may be that one wants to signal the problematic nature of Christian traditions referring to God as “he” and make the reader or hearer pay attention to the problematic nature of referring to God with gender-specific terminology. Another motivation behind such decision is that one wants to refer to God taking sides with the oppressed by choosing the pronoun of the underprivileged gender. This motive comes close to Black theology referring to God’s blackness or liberation theological emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor. However, by assigning to God a female pronoun, the theologian again constructs a god that fits her/his agenda and in the end is the image of his/her intellectual landscape. Moreover, this decision swims against the current of tradition and seemingly assigns God with gender – not a pleasant theological position.

Very many human languages do not have gender-segregated pronouns the way Indo-European languages do. That saves God-talk from discussion about pronouns. In such languages, detectives have no problem choosing a pronoun for the unknown murderer, or one referring to a person with an unfamiliar first name, or deciding which pronoun to use for a person not identifying with any of the two dominant genders. Therefore, in Swedish, one has introduced the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” that covers both “hon” (she) and “han” (he). “Hen” is actually a loan from non-Indo-European Finnish that lacks gender-segregated pronouns. In Swedish, going over to “hen” would therefore appear natural. However, all the above proposals miss the most central quality of God seen from a Christian perspective.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Perugia_-_Trinit%C3%A0_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_-_5_ago_2006.jpg
Allegory of the Holy Trinity, painted as three faces fused in one, in a medieval fresco in Perugia. Image: Giovanni Dall’Orto.

The nature of God expressed during the first ecumenical councils highlights double nature of the divine: God is one but in three persons. Therefore, using gendered pronouns referring to God is misleading in a twofold way: firstly, it suggests God’s gender, and secondly it takes away the attention from two main points  that Christians have traditionally ascribed to God: unity and relationality.

In English, the dominant proposal to replace “he” and “she” is not to take a loan from another language (like the Swedish “hen”) but instead to apply “they.” It highlights gender inapplicability and makes sense in light of the relational nature of the Trinity. Considering trinitarian theology, implying “they are one” by the very nature of the pronoun used appears as brilliant. However, one can imagine resulting charges of polytheism and lack of understanding the unity of God, especially in the context of the interfaith dialogue. Only when “they are” referring to singular has become as commonplace as “you are” – the latter has replaced the singular proper “thou art” – the polytheistic implication disappears. However, when that happens, one also loses the trinitarian reference. No one would think that a theologian using “you are” today in relation to God necessarily implies the Trinity.

Hence, one could deal with this tension between God’s unity and trinity by using the verb in singular: they is God. This statement, at first glance awkward, expresses the duality of God’s nature and at the same time points to the limitations of human language in accessing the mystery of the Trinity. Human words and grammar simply cannot express this mystery. Therefore, the breach of grammar makes this option appear as the least misleading of those discussed above.

February 10, 2021

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