Listen To Article
(Photo: flickr user Rolands Lakis)
By Kate Kooyman
When I was a kid, my aunt was babysitting me while my parents went out of town. She must have said something about God that piqued my interest, and I asked her, “Is God a boy or a girl?” She pulled her Bible off the shelf, and showed me a place where God was referred to as Father, pointed out the pronoun “he” in another passage, turned to Matthew’s account of Jesus being born “a son.” Crystal clear to me: God’s a boy.
I was also taught that I am created in God’s image. So envisioning God as male forced me to be inventive about what parts of me were the God-ish parts. Where my big brother might have been able to take this notion at face value — “I’m like God” — I naturally had to make some accommodations. Was the God-like part of me my mind? My piety? Was I like God when I was creative? When I was strong? And… what parts of me were not like God?
I’ve grown up a bit since then, and I’m working toward a more mature image of God and of myself. I mentioned to a clergy friend that I’ve been using the feminine pronoun “she” when I talk about the Holy Spirit — which I didn’t make up. There’s lots of history in the Christian tradition of calling the Holy Spirit a “her”; the Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine. I confessed that every time I say it I feel a little weird — but good weird, like growing up. She raised her eyebrows, expressing that she’d never dare to call the Spirit a “she” while leading worship. Too risky.
There’s a national dialogue happening right now about consent, assault, and rape culture. As women have shared their stories — and it seems like we all have one to tell — I’ve begun to wonder if these things aren’t related. We have been groped on busses, endured aggressive shouts from strangers, smiled at off-color jokes in the breakroom. We have feared walking through parking lots, feared accepting drinks at parties, feared speaking up to our bosses. We have avoided being rude, avoided “setting him off,” avoided the skepticism of those who would question our story. And those are the stories of the lucky ones. Women are not fully human in this culture, which is a secular way of saying that we aren’t seen as fully bearing God’s image.
I wonder a bit about the men who are the other characters in these stories — how they recall those incidents. I wonder if they’re shrugged off as learning experiences, as the unfortunate (but necessary) means by which a boy in America learns to become a man. Somehow we have normalized sexual harassment, persuasion, and even assault against women as simply part of the sexual development of boys. I wonder if we train our girls to expect this, even coach them to like it, because somewhere deep down we believe our boys have an inherent value that girls do not have. That our boys are made in God’s image. And our girls are too, almost.
I fear that my sons are growing up with a faith that asserts God’s maleness, and insinuates that their own maleness is God-like. I fear that it will create a worldview that sees women as the bearers of less inherent holiness than they bear. I fear that this fuels, rather than extinguishes, the disrespect, commodification, and abuse of women’s bodies that has become so commonplace in this country.
But then again, maybe the Holy Spirit is at work even now — in the midst of Access Hollywood buses and shielding our kids’ ears from the evening news. Maybe the Spirit is moving us toward the courage to name the harm that’s been done and take steps to repair it. Maybe we’ll emerge not only with a healthier perspective about men and women, but with a bigger, more challenging, and mysterious, and more faithful understanding of God, too. Who knows. She moves in mysterious ways, that Holy Spirit.
Oh, how I love everything about this. Thanks, Kate!
Well done! Certainly timely. So very important. Perhaps we can thank Trump someday (albeit at the expense of his victims) for helping us see this more clearly.
Thanks Kate for your insightful article
I am over 70 years old and grew up when no one was discussing these gender issues of the Bible (that I was aware of.) When I read that man was created in God’s image, and I was a young girl, it never occurred to me that this somehow excluded me in any way at all. I really thought the point was to distinguish man from animal. And I was rock solid that I was part of mankind not the animals. Therefore I was created in God’s image. I still think that is what that verse intended, don’t you think so too? I do not feel slighted or hurt when hurt was not intentionally meant.
And as to “mankind”… it is a word that is phasing out of use today, but when written it was simply meant to refer to all humans. If changing the wording now will make more people feel included and comfortable that is fine, but If you name the Holy Spirit “Her” won’t the guys feel left out?. You would have to do so much fancy reconstruction. And I guess technically God is neither male nor female anyway. If all the stories about God were blanded down to be totally gender- neutral some of them would lose their richness and I think we would all really miss that. This will not be an issue that is easily solved to meet everyone’s needs.
Well done, Kate. Thank you.
One time I called the Holy Spirit “She” in an article I wrote. Two (male) senior CRC leaders talked about it to check if that was okay. They decided it wasn’t. I kept the female pronoun in anyways, with the support of dear pastor friends. I wonder why the response to that pronoun was so strong, when the rest of the article wasn’t about the gender of God at all? If God has no gender, why is it so important that we call Him/Her by a male pronoun? That incident upset me much more than I thought it would. It was really painful. Thanks for this, Kate. It’s important.
Brilliant and beautiful. Amen to this.
Thank you so much, Kate. Keep going! I recently led a contemplative retreat for about 10 women. Because many of the women in response to our inquiry about how they were imaging God these days offered feminine images, we decided to create our closing liturgy with that in mind. Using the Hebrew name “El Shaddai” (breasted God), we created a liturgy that used this name and the feminine pronoun for God. Like you, I have been “experimenting” in my own life with God in imaging and naming God also as female. However, this was the first time I had experienced this corporately and it was profound! As we shared an Agape Feast of oatcakes and honey, we said to one another, “Taste and see that El Shaddai is good.” Wow. That is a moment I will not forget, and one I hope to experience increasingly.