Earlier we shared an interview with Kyle Kentopp, a United Church of Christ minister from North Carolina in the process of preparing for ordination who speaks out for LGBT inclusion in society and the church from the perspective of his lived experience as a transgender man. We have been following up the interview by, with permission from Kyle, sharing some writings of his on our blog focused on how the lens of a transgender life experience affects our picture of Christian theology.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
God is not a White Man — Gender Diversity within God’s Nature
Christian tradition has long held to an almost exclusive imagining of God as male. Throughout the centuries, biblical epithets such as King, Lord, and Father have become widely familiar and commonplace as Christian exegeses have been filled to the brim with the masculine “He/Him/His” pronouns. While these male titles and manifestations are certainly present within the Bible, to use these in a sole manner, as has become the popular Christian custom, is to neglect the numerous places throughout scripture in which God has been described in either plural or feminine terms. Due to the familiarity of the male divine and the inattention given to these non-masculine manifestations of God, it is to these lesser discussed images that this section gives primary attention to.
In the transgender community and in trans-friendly spaces, it is customary (and necessary) for individuals to be given the space to self-identify. Before any assumptions are made, it is often asked what name and pronouns a person uses because it is well known among the community that the ways in which others may perceive or identify an individual may have no bearing on who that individual truly is. It is possible to apply this similar logic when approaching the divine as well, allowing God to identify Godself through the self disclosures and revelations recorded in scripture. The Bible is of course a text written by human hands through a human perspective and so certainly carries much of the baggage, influence, and limitations of such an anthropocentric starting gaze on the divine being. At the same time, scripture is, as Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos describes, “a record of the experience of God’s presence in the faith community” (11). Much of what is recorded in the Bible are testaments to the lived encounters, however brief, of the self-disclosing movements and being of the divine. The human interpretations of such experiences may be remarkably skewed to fit whatever socio-cultural context is contemporary for the writer and/or the reader of these texts, yet it would be dismissive to say that because the scripture was written by humans that it therefore holds no true revelations on God.
God is described in several places as self-identifying through the divine’s own voice. The most famous instance is in the story of Moses and the burning bush. First, God identifies as the God of the patriarchs (Ex. 3:6), though never personally claiming the masculine as the deity’s own expression. To further establish who it was speaking to him, Moses directly asks, “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, ‘The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you,’ and they shall say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say unto them?” (v. 13). Note that Moses assumes the masculine when he asks “What is His name?” One would assume from Moses’ response in which he identifies the speaker as male that the voice from the burning bush may have been a masculine voice, yet can one assume a gender from this alone? God refutes this gendered designation when in response, God states, “I AM THAT I AM. Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you” (v. 14). The name of I AM underscores in one the divine transcendence and personal immanence in a single short phrase, for one cannot specify what I AM defines God as being anymore than one can specify what it names God as not being. The Hebrew name for “I AM” is YHWH, a name that has lost its vowels over time. That even the name itself cannot be pinned down as definitively being a certain way indicates the limits of human language and understanding. Wijk-Bos highlights that there is “identity and power in a name,” (29) which Moses knew full well when he asked for the divine to define Godself. Yet God refused to give a name that could be used to define, limit, or restrict the divine being into a single, particular form. Therefore, when asked to self-identify, the deity remains evasive, declining to associate with a single image and rather leaving open the possibility to inhabit and move through many forms and manifestations. In respecting this self-disclosure, the Bible uses this designation over 6,000 times, the most abundantly used name to reference the divine, though in English translations it is often turned into the masculine-associated epithet of “Lord” (Wijk-Bos, 29-30). It can be seen how the vague self-declarations of God can so quickly and easily be turned into masculine forms through human interpretation, even within the same verses in which God discloses the self in ambiguous terms.
While YHWH is self-revealed a number of times in an ambiguous and vague manner, there are also several instances throughout scripture in which God likens Oneself to feminine imagery and manifests as female. One of the most significant, recurring depictions of God is as a mother or as a woman giving birth, always in relation to either the Israelites as the chosen people or all the people of the world. It should be noted that these birthing imageries always accompany a vision of liberation, renewal, or underscore the intimate relationship between God and humanity. One such image appears in 2nd Isaiah, the part of the book that begins to move away on the emphasis of sin in 1st Isaiah and rather focuses on the hope of the future for all people (Wijk-Bos, 61). The people of Israel/Zion, however, feel that they are being forgotten. To this, God responses, likening Godself to a mother: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isa. 49:15, KJ21). Wijk-Bos highlights that the two lines “Can a woman forget her suckling child” and “that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb” are corresponding images that intensify one another. A reader would like to answer no to these questions, assuming that it is impossible for a mother to forget a child to whom she gave birth. This assumption stems from the understanding that in all the various kinds of love between humans, that which is held in a mother for her children is the strongest and most powerful. Even so, there are women who neglect or deny the role of mother with all the responsibilities of caring for, guiding, and protecting her children as best as she can. In this text, the speaking God acknowledges the human reality that it is entirely possible, and certainly does happen— that of a mother abandoning her children as if she has forgotten the ones to whom she gave birth. For God to identify with the image of the mother, the intimate relationship with humankind is being emphasized yet in such a way that promises a powerful love that is more secure than any human love and takes on the multiple subsequent responsibilities of being present for the children and guiding them to become the best they can possibly be (Wijk-Bos, 61-2). There are several other texts which discuss the divine as in labor and giving birth (Deut. 32:18, Ps. 90:2, Isa. 45:9-13) and as taking on the further responsibilities of a mother (Isa. 66:13, Hos. 11:3-4).
Interestingly, the book of Isaiah also records an intensifying image in which God moves from a male to a female depiction in direct succession. In chapter 42, verse 13 describes God in a third-person perspective as a screaming warrior, stirring up fury, and standing mightily against his foes. Then, in verse 14, the perspective suddenly becomes first-person from a divine voice, in which it is first stated that God has long kept a restrained peace before now coming into a mode of active renewal. For this renewal to occur, the divine becomes like a woman in labor, gasping and panting. At the core, both of these illustrations express strength, visceral and visible suffering, and a measure of sacrifice, all in the name of something greater than oneself that focuses on future promises. The close proximity of these imageries from one verse to the next in conjunction with their common core of shared characteristics asserts that these two seemingly separate depictions are meant to be taken together in reference to One God. This first reveals that YHWH is intimately and actively participatory in the human experience. Not only does God settle covenants with humanity, not only does God fulfill promises of deliverance, but God is also directly involved in the long and painful work that must be done in order to achieve that ultimate liberation. YHWH does not simply give commands to be obeyed, but is personally immanent, including in the inevitable suffering of such an experience as exemplified through these anthropomorphic portrayals of the divine (and later best exemplified by the incarnation). Secondly, in relating to the human experience, the divine can take on a plurality of gendered imageries that is held in the unity of the singular Godhead. The proximity and connection of these images explicitly signal that it is not two different deities being discussed, nor it is two fixed images that the one deity is switching between. Rather, the fluidity of these verses imply an ease of movement from one embodiment to the next while the core of the characteristics (strength, sacrifice, future hope) remains consistent. When one considers all of these factors, it is evident that these verses are referencing a single God whom easily flows through various gendered imageries.
One may argue that these multiple images of the divine that have been referenced as yet still work within a gender binary. Even while God moves through female and male, God still apparently does so in stereotypical characterizations of feminine and masculine roles. The example of the Isaiah 42 passage may only be revolutionary in the switch and implicit, underlying connections between the warrior, reserved for and expressed as a male role, and the birthing woman, similarly reserved for and expressed as a female role. It may be pertinent to mention once again the age in which these texts were written— a patriarchal age in which the mutually exclusive and highly restrictive gender binary was assumed as physically natural and divinely ordained. Even so, there are further scriptural examples of a gendered plurality within the manifestations of the divine that confuse the binary. The most prominent example of such a manifestation is in the incarnation.