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franciscan - September 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

How Fundamentally Male is God?

by Sister Judith Gray CSC

The Oxford Dictionary defines fundamentalism as 'the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible; the strict maintenance of the ancient and fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology.'

Although it might be denied, there seems little doubt that this can well be applied to the ascription of male gender to God.  The statement sometimes heard, 'Of course God is neither male nor female', with the addition, 'he is above gender' certainly embodies truth, but the pronoun gives it away!  How do we get around this in liturgy and in life without becoming caught into fundamentalism of another kind, or into cumbersome language?

Although the Priestly account of the Creation in Genesis Chapter 1 speaks of humanity's creation in the image of God in inclusive terms, 'male and female created God them', the second account from the Jahwist author in Chapter 2, leaves the male as the lord of creation, in charge of everything including women.  It is hardly surprising then that over the centuries Judaism and Christianity have been experienced as sexist religions with a male God and traditions of exclusive male leadership.  Both of these have legitimated the superiority of men within society and the Church.  There is, of course, an interaction between culture and the understanding of God, for if culture is male-dominated (and down the centuries it has been) the understanding of God is likely to be as well.

Misogynist traditions have reinforced notions of woman's physical, ontological and functional inferiority often leading to subjugation and oppression.  The following are among examples of attitudes found within the Christian Church, any number of others make similar assumptions.  (Their literal application is still at work in some parts of the Anglican Communion).

  'It is not right for a man to have his head covered, since he is in the image of God and reflects God's glory; but woman is the reflection of man's glory.' (1 Cor 11: 7)

 'Let a woman learn in silence and all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men.  She is to keep silent.'  (1 Tim 2:11-14)

'Why?' asks St John Chrysostom, 'is man made in the image of God and woman not?  Because image has rather to do with authority and this only man has.'  'Woman alone,' wrote St Augustine, 'is not in the image of God, but as regards the male alone, he is the image of God fully.  Woman's authority is nil; let her in all things be subject to the rule of man.'   And a gem from Tertullian (assuming the moral high ground!): 'Woman, you are the devil's doorway.  You led astray one whom the devil would not dare attack directly.'  One is tempted to ask if he is afraid of female seduction: anyway it is some relief that he was not raised to the altars of the church!

St Paul's wiser dicta seem to have been ignored to a large extent, 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'  (Gal.3:28). Yet Jesus' interactions with women are remarkable, ranging from defence of the unveiled woman with un-braided hair who gate-crashed the all-male banquet (Luke 7: 36-50), his affirmation of Mary of Bethany's role and stance as a disciple (Luke 10: 38-42), his talking alone to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30); to his responding to the wit of a Gentile woman (Mark 7:24-30).  In a strictly controlled Jewish society, Jesus challenges the sharp social boundaries of his day.  His Movement includes those at odds with the purity system - tax collectors, lepers, the physically imperfect, and women.

Of course the Fathers of the Church didn't think of image in a physical sense, but they assumed that men's capacity for freedom, rationality and overlordship rendered them, unlike women, in the image of God.  Consequently the relationship between women and men was distorted and both were diminished.   Any principle of religion which marginalises one group of persons, diminishes all.  The rhetoric of patriarchy, of God as dominant male, gives justification to a world conceived in terms of power/powerlessness.  At its best it engenders paternalism, at its worst, tyranny.  Watch the TV screens, listen to the rhetoric.

We see a similar subjugation going on in relation to creation which has been and is being  dominated, plundered and subdued, rather than reverenced.  All in all we can trace the way in which images of the male God have been set and are behind many of the dualisms visible around us: body/spirit, black/white, affluent/poor, rationality/ emotion, male/female, humanity/nature.

Jesus' way of addressing God in the trusting address of the small child, Abba-Daddy-Papa, seems to say something of the quality of loving in the household at Nazareth and his own direct experience of God and little about a dominating male figure.  During the centuries which followed, since the tender Jesus-image of the Father was in the main, lost, his mother came to embody the feminine elements, an unconscious compensation mechanism with which to represent the missing face of God.  On an imaginative and emotional level Mary of Nazareth provided the female imagery with which to speak of the divine.  Yet the independence and freedom of Mary's choice gets lost in a vapid image, serving patriarchal-femininity expressed in sweetness, submission and passivity.  Women are relegated to subsidiary domestic roles: 'the husband will be proud if his wife has read Shakespeare and Tolstoy, but he is practical and likes to eat well, so he will be doubly happy if he discovers that, in addition to a beautiful spouse, he has acquired a priceless queen of the kitchen and queen of the sparkling floors.' (Quoted from John Paul 1 while still a cardinal by Lavinia Byrne in Women Before God, SPCK, London 1988, p5).

The challenging of a fundamentalist acceptance of a male God, has implications for the language of liturgy and worship since, as the Preface to the Anglican Alternative Service Book (1980) says, 'Christians are formed by the way they pray, and the way they choose to pray expresses what they are' - a knotty subject confronting all of us.  At the least we can use pronouns for God as little as possible and enrich the liturgy with a wider variety of imagery.  The psalmody in A New Zealand Prayer Book - He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa, (Collins, 1989) manages to be entirely inclusive of both the divine and humanity without seeming contrived or jarring.

In the cross of Jesus we see that he confronts all that is negative and evil.  In the words of the writer to the Ephesians (2: 14, 16 alt.) 'He is the peace between us, and has ... broken down the barrier which used to keep us apart, by destroying in his own person the hostility… through the cross reconciling us to God in one Body.'  The resurrection-experience opens the door into transforming newness, 'new humanity, a new heaven and a new earth.'  The Risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene in the garden, 'do not cling to me.'  If we cling to stereotypes of either God or humanity we may miss the fullness of God's gift of newness.  Fundamentalism can keep us in a defensive position that deprives us of this. f

Sister Judith Gray is a member of the Community of the Sisters of the Church. She recently gained an M.A. in spirituality.


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