The Gender of God

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THE GENITALIA OF GOD is not a topic open to discussion among, well, almost everybody.

It is at once sacrilegious to wonder what lies between God’s legs and heretical to not accept the commonsense dogma that God uses the door marked “Men” when He’s out to dinner and has had three glasses of iced tea. As an inhuman spiritual being, God’s gender is supposedly utterly unimportant, which is why we call Him “Father” and why He has a son and no daughters. We demonstrate His lack of gender by giving Him a beard, muscles like Neptune, and a countenance as furrowed as a rabbi’s. Some say He is an angry god, others call Him powerful or even frightening, but none claim He can make a heckuva poached salmon, knit an intarsia pattern so complex it could make you weep, or run Israel in the early 1970s.

As a little girl in a Catholic school uniform, I was instructed that the “He” in reference to God was the universal “he” which includes all of us, even we “shes.” If that is true, I asked Sister Emerita in second grade, then how about we just use the word “she,” the three letters of which do, in fact, contain both gendered pronouns? Her response, which involved a ruler and my knuckles, was my first lesson in the fact that God’s gender is not a topic open to discussion among, well, almost everybody.

I was passed along to the parish pastor who grew annoyed with my queries about why women couldn’t be priests. Mine weren’t intended to be political questions; I simply wondered and didn’t understand what was so upsetting about the wondering. The response to a little girl was political; the question from the little girl was not. Someone was always lecturing in mass about how more acolytes were needed for the missions, and it seemed obvious to me that half the congregation was being overlooked. Get a few women in there and fill those quotas, I suggested, just trying to be helpful. I was too young to be awakened as a feminist but not too young to be indoctrinated into patriarchy. I was told that God wanted women to serve Him by raising children and keeping house, a desire curiously in alignment with that held by one of the two earthly sexes.

I came to realize that gender and God were concepts not allowed to co-exist in the same sentence, and that the entire topic was best filed under Conversations That Make Adults Squirm, right in there next to how babies arrive, what is heroin, and how much money does Grandpa make. I learned to help everyone else feel comfortable by pretending that it made some kind of sense to me that we depict God as male, believe He had a son without a wife, and see as reasonable that His son had apostles but no female followers of consequence. (Don’t even try to bring up Martha—she was back in the kitchen, and Magdalene was slandered with the insult that sticks most easily to a woman.)

For a while, I was even able to pretend that men were by nature holier than women—never mind the foolishness, alcoholism, and cruelty I saw in some of the clergy around me—and therefore, only lads were fit to be altar boys and only men were fit to be priests. It mattered not that I could recite the entire Mass in Latin before I was 10 and had straight As in Catechism and Religion, and that poor, pitiable Karl Larson still couldn’t multiply by four—Karl was the one God wanted up there slinging the incense on First Fridays. And so Karl climbed the altar steps, and I sat in the pews with a chapel veil bobby-pinned to my head, just as God desired.

God was, apparently, quite particular about our gender, though we weren’t allowed to inquire about His. This particular pretense was such a speed bump to my logic that when I got to college, it was the first of my philosophical paradigms to be tossed out the window, followed closely by my Catholicism. The inherent holier-than-thou-ness of males is just too profound a rejection of half the planet to be anything other than man-made. More than one learned and accomplished nun guided me and my women’s college classmates gently to this fact and then stood well back to watch the explosions.

When I got a little older, I had my first mystical experience: 38 hours of labor and the birth of my daughter. It was followed by two similarly all-too-lengthy and exhilarating mystical experiences that produced sons. Pregnancy, labor, birth: Lessons in the wondrous mixture of pain and love that is creation, if ever there were clear lessons. You go ahead and push a nine-pound baby past your thighs and then try to tell me that humans are not meant to understand the simultaneous power and powerlessness of creation and the realization that new life will take its own darn directions, despite loving parenting, once it hits its 13th birthday. If God didn’t think women should be priests, if God was male and for males, then why would He assign one of His most literally awesome experiences to the half of the population He didn’t want to hear from, the half that should keep their hair covered and their heads bowed and their voices stilled? Why wouldn’t the cries of women in labor and the lullabies of nursing mothers be part of the canon of the faithful? By the time I wondered these questions, I had learned to stop wondering them aloud. I treasured all these things and pondered them in my heart, just like Mary in Luke 2:19.

Eventually, I decided that God must be at least as logical as a Jesuit and therefore would brook none of this nonsense. I didn’t want to divorce God just because men had painted Him so or imagined Him thus or stuffed their prejudices into His mouth or claimed His intentions as specific to one church or one race or one gender. So I just reinvented Him. My god requires no capitalization, for one thing. For another, my god is certainly not a he, but neither a she—those are just two takes on the multifarious gendered nature of life, and as the good goddess knows, there are way more permutations than that. Whatever the force that created all this, be it ions or strings or a Charleton Heston look-alike, why do we imagine it sorting itself by gender and choosing just one?


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