The Vatican recently released a statement penned by Cardinal J. Ratzinger on the role of men and women (thank you “Ms.” magazine for bringing this to my attention). Among other things it blames feminism for an “ideology of gender”. From there is degenerates into more traditional Catholic comments on the role of women. However, the accusation of an “ideology of gender” is rather thought-provoking and this is certainly not the first time I’ve encountered it.
David Ford expresses a very honest, empathetic, and sincere struggle with the issue of masculine and/or feminine pronouns being used in relation to God in an epilogue to his book The Shape of Living. Ultimately, he concludes, to refer to God as “she” or “her” is to ascribe gender to God when God is essentially genderless. In the end Ford decides it is best to continue to refer to God as “he” because that is the language used within scripture (and tradition) and people do not use it thinking that means God is male, as an elderly woman in his congregation says to him, “But I never thought of him [God] as male.”
I think Ford’s argument may be a little naive with the rise of feminism and the recognition of the many ways in which women have been oppressed. This has been an oppression that Christians have contributed to (I say “contributed” because Christianity should not be made the root cause or even the greatest evil in relation to this. Other socio-political and ideological forces must be recognised. After all at its very core Christianity is radically egalitarian). In a way feminism has revealed how an ideology of male gender has crept into Christianity. Something has changed and we cannot simply go back to the old way of doing things. Rather we must go forward and find a new way of doing things that does not contribute to oppression and is sensitive to those who have suffered.
Therefore, Ratzinger’s critique does hold some water in this regard. Instead of affirming the perverted forms of Christianity that have built an ideology of male gender around God, certain feminists seek to build an ideology of female gender around God.
I can see only two ways around this dilemma. The first is to move fluidly between calling God “he” and “she”, “him” and “her”. Recognising that God is neither we should be able to call God both as we look for a convenient personal pronoun (damn this English language that has no adequate neuter pronoun to express person-ality). Thus those who are steeped in tradition should be just as comfortable referring to God in female terms and those who have embraced feminism should be just as comfortable referring to God in male terms. As we move fluidly back and forth between these terms (not just referring to God as female when s/he exhibits stereotypical female attributes but also when s/he wields power and authority, and not just referring to God in male terms when s/he exhibits stereotypical male attributes but also when s/he demonstrates creativity and sensitivity) we should, over time, arrive at a conception of God that transcends all ideologies of gender.
The second solution is simply to drop all personal pronouns in relation to God. Therefore, although it may feel less poetic, and at times just plain awkward, God should just be referred to as God or in language that is neither male nor female (the pronoun “it” is not an adequate replacement because it lacks person-ality).