God: He, She, It?
We humans cast everything in molds patterned after ourselves. It’s not necessarily hubris. We simply know what it’s like to be us and not what it’s like to be, say, a mosquito. That’s why, throughout history, we’ve attributed near-human levels of intelligence, emotion, and creativity to everything around us, so much so that we have a word for it: anthropomorphism.
We see our own nature indelibly stamped upon the foundations of existence. For example: is human consciousness inextricably bound up with quantum mechanics? Did the mystics of a bygone age accurately depict, albeit in different language, what physicists only discovered in the twentieth century? Could the universe come into being in the first place without us being here to observe it? Intriguing speculations, but nothing at all to do with real quantum mechanics.
Or consider how we anthropomorphize gender roles. We brand certain characteristics — physical, psychological, or emotional — as “male” and “female.” Aggression is “male,” compassion “female.” Angularity is “male,” curvaceousness “female.” Yet there is nothing inherently male or female about such qualities. Some of these may on average apply to human gender, but they don’t necessarily cross species lines. Female lions do the hunting, and you’d be hard-pressed to discern the gender of a fish from its shape.
We even apply our prejudices to the plant world. In the art of bonsai, trees that curve are called “female”, as opposed to those with sharper lines, which are called “male.” But that’s just about artistic design. Plant reproductive morphology doesn’t conform to human expectations.
Human sexual dimorphism is a result of our own specific evolutionary history. The morphology of any species is linked to how its members make their way in the world: where they live, how they gather and process food, how they attract mates, the dangers inherent in their environment. The physical, psychological, and emotional differences between human males and human females are not themselves intrinsically male or female. By and large, they are specific to humans.
The construction of a man’s arm, for example, differs from a woman’s, which gives rise to the common boy’s taunt, “You throw like a girl!” and the amusement women often display when watching a man trying to hold a baby for the first time. These differences result from how our ancestors lived hundreds of thousands if not millions of years ago. Pretty much every difference between men and women arose in tandem with a social structure that made men the primary hunters and women the primary gatherers, men the primary protectors of the group and women the primary guardians of the children.
Along the way, we’ve imagined those differences stamped upon the entire universe. Even our languages project gender upon the rest of the world. Mark Twain had some fun with German’s use of masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns in his 1880 essay, “The Awful German Language.” One wonders what Twain would have made of the Tuyuca language, which is estimated to have between 50 and 140 noun classes! (Not all of those deal with gender, of course.) English doesn’t indulge in this behavior, thank goodness, but it does have have three gendered pronouns (he, she, it) and we often apply them to inanimate objects. A ship, for example, is spoken of as feminine when we all know it’s neuter.
Nor do we stop with the universe. We carry this penchant right up to the divine. Polytheistic religions typically portray a whole society of gods (male) and goddesses (female). Monotheistic religions often employ the male pronoun in referring to God. Which begs an interesting question: do we actually think of God as a bearded old man?
Actually, no. Artistic representations aside, no monotheistic religion regards God as literally male. Male and female are characteristics of biological organisms that reproduce sexually and thus do not apply to the Creator of life, the universe, and everything. It’s understood that God is without gender. So why do we so often call God “He?”
Probably for three reasons. First, it feels strange to refer to God as “It” if more personal options are available. Even when God is referred to as “It” in the original language, as I understand many passages of the Qur’an do, such reference feels strange to us. We’d rather cast God in personal terms, in human terms.
Second, referring to God as either “He” or “She” invokes a variety of images useful in exploring and understanding our relationship with God. Scriptures and traditions present this relationship from many angles. God is creator, king, judge, friend, counselor, healer, even lover. Given the historical context in which these religions formed, use of the male pronoun may have been more appropriate in many cases than the female pronoun. Only in recent times has anyone much rebelled against this usage, and such rebellion is not about God. Rather, it’s about dismantling our own gender stereotypes.
But that may not be the best approach to such dismantling, because third, God may have intentionally given us this imagery. If one accepts that the people who founded our major religions were the channels for divine revelation, then it’s rather hard to argue against the language they chose to use. If Jesus refers to God as “Father,” who are we to object?
One thing upon which all monotheistic religions agree is this: God is a reality far beyond human comprehension. “He” is not a reflection of us or of the universe generally. Rather, all things reflect “Him,” be they photons or planets, stars or galaxies, plants or animals, and most especially humans — men and women alike. His “image” is within all things, mirrored to varying degrees. Male and female merely display that image from different vantage points.