Is God unknowable, beyond the possibility of the human mind to comprehend? There are plenty of good reasons to be intentional about keeping God abstract. To preserve the one God as a word of appeal for every person, regardless of whether that person is male or female, is most easily achieved by denying that God has either male or female characteristics. Even so, if we’re honest, we usually find ways to give that concept some human-like characteristics. We, human beings, prefer gods that look, talk, feel, and think like us. Because if God doesn’t have something in common with us, exactly how are we supposed to relate to God?
In technical-speak, we anthropomorphize God—we give God human characteristics. When we want a personal relationship with a personal God, our god will have something in common with us. Christianity’s god-man, Jesus, offers the possibility of such a connection. So does polytheism’s many gods. If we’re female, we might find it more comfortable to talk to, or pray to, a god we visualize as female. Or if we’re feminists (male or female), we might consider females to be superior to males and God will be female. Or maybe we simply prefer a god who is mother-like, with all of the stereotypical attributes of the perfectly matronly-matron: you know, warm, unconditionally loving, benevolent, concerned, tender, soft, gentle, etc. Imagine a female god who’s like the mother we have (or wish we had) but even better—mother-gods never, ever get crabby!
So powerful is the urge to imagine God as female that Jewish rabbis, in spite of Judaism’s resistance to anthropomorphizing God, sometimes used the name Shekhinah for God in the Talmud. Shekhinah is a feminine form of the Hebrew root-word meaning “to dwell” and so, the name Shekhinah denotes “God’s indwelling presence.” After the exile of Jews from the Holy Land and the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple in 70 CE, the rabbis taught that the Shekhinah shared the people’s suffering and grieved with them. As for Christians, during the Middle Ages, they turned to the Virgin Mary in ever greater numbers, looking for comfort and solace during a time when Church doctrine made Christ less of a concerned intercessor and more of a retributive judge. Mary continues to play an important role; for some Catholics she’s almost a fourth person in the godhead.
But the burning question remains—if we insist that God is radically unitary, do we resist the urge to anthropomorphize God or do we decide we’re okay with God having male or female attributes?
If we really must anthropomorphize, then we can have our cake and eat it too by following the lead of the Talmudic rabbis. They recommend qualifying our metaphors for God with the phrase: “if it were really possible [to say such a thing]”. We would then talk about how God is like a mother “if it were really possible to say such a thing.” Granted, this phrase gets clunky, especially when praying. Or we could follow the approach of the 6th century Christian theologian known as Pseudo-Dionysius, and adopt the habit of negating any positive, or concrete, thing we say about God. How does that work exactly? Like this: “God is a mother and isn’t a mother. Such a linguistic device indicates how God is not only beyond motherhood but God is also beyond non-motherhood; God transcends all predicates.
Whether God is male or female or neither (if it is really possible to say that God is either male or female), may God bless you (if it is really possible to say that God blesses).
Reference: Louis Jacob, “God: God in Postbiblical Judaism,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., 3547-3552 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 3548.