Does God Have Gender? God as Man, Woman, and Child
How do people describe the experience of encountering God? It is very difficult to define, and so metaphors abound. In non-human terms, scripture likens God to fire, wind, and rock. In human terms the Bible compares God to a warrior king, a righteous judge, a jealous lover, a caring husband, a rejected wife, a woman giving birth, and a nurturing mother. In this piece I want to talk about a few of the ways God has met and ministered to me, ways I have experienced God and gained more insight into the ways of heaven.
(For the sake of simplicity, I often refer to God as ‘Him,’ but as you will see, I’ve experienced the Divine in a few different ways, not limited by gender or age.)
God as Man
Developmental psychology says that relationships with family and friends shape us, and experiences with people teach us skills and ground us in reality; but regardless of all theory, when I was fourteen years old and Jesus came into my life, He shaped me more profoundly than even the people who raised me. I drifted through childhood in the haze of an alcoholic, clinically depressed mother, and the future didn’t exist. As soon as Jesus was my companion, I knew I would go to college, develop my skills, reach for the pinnacles of experience, and be dedicated to Him forever. He changed me in ways no human could have.
Unfortunately, I grew up all too aware of masculine violence. In my family of origin are a man who broke a woman’s shoulder and knocked out her teeth, a man who stabbed a woman over two hundred times, and a man beat a woman in the face and strangled her. To say I grew up afraid of men, hating and resenting the panic that could suddenly take hold of me at the sound of a raised masculine voice, or a sudden masculine movement, would be crediting me with an understanding I didn’t have until years later. I didn’t know where my volatile emotions about men came from: I just knew they were dangerous creatures that had to be managed and placated if I was going to survive.
By the time I was fourteen, my relationship to the male half of humanity was broken, and I had no idea. To me, as to all young people, my experience was my normal. But Jesus made peace between me and men, without me even knowing what He was doing. He came to me with a distinctly masculine energy; I spent my prayer times absorbed in His love, His care, His lightness of heart. He was afraid of nothing: He owned the world. And because I was standing beside Him, I could begin to plant my feet on the ground for the first time. No therapist or program could have accomplished what Jesus did by simply being with me.
Some people lament the fact that Christian divinity has no clear female component: Father and Son are male, and the Holy Spirit is usually understood as either gender neutral or male. But Jesus’ clean and real masculinity knit me back into the human family in a way no Mother Goddess could have. He was kind; He was safe; He was on my side. I know I am not the only woman traumatized by male violence, and healed by the Perfect Man. Jesus’ masculine presence has the potential to redeem human men not only for heaven and eternity, but in the hearts of women here and now.
God as Woman
A number of times, God has come to me in dreams. When I was a teenager, in a particularly powerful, life defining dream, I was in my childhood home, and the danger was more and more desperate, with horrible creatures coming in and out, trying to carry me off. I knew I had to run away to escape them, but, afraid to leave home alone, I tried to convince someone to come with me. But all my friends said no. Eventually, I set out alone. Once away from home, my childhood hero Harriet Tubman appeared in front of me. I knew she was Harriet Tubman, famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, the Moses who led a thousand slaves to freedom, but in my dream she looked quite different from the frowning older woman in the famous photo. She was young, ageless really, tall and athletic, with form fitting 1970s clothes, a big afro, and a fierce, stunningly beautiful face. She told me I could come with her if I wanted, and she would lead me and others to freedom. The dream ended with me in the center of a group of other people, running through a nighttime cityscape of twisting alleys, following hard after Harriet.
The dream was about a few things. It mirrored the fact that after leaving home at age 14, I felt essentially alone, with none of my former friends or associates traveling through my new life with me. And the 1970s Harriet Tubman figure was God, who met me soon after I made the break with my old life. The woman in my dream was unrushed, with the stillness of great strength, but I saw instinctively that she was ferocious. Under her wing, I would be safe forever. And the way she made her offer - that I could join her if I chose – welcomed me into the adult world. This was my decision, and my choice had a power of its own. I saw I would belong to her, and to this community of hers, with a depth beyond any previous ties.
At the time I accepted the dream for the guidance it gave me. Later I understood that I was able to successfully receive all of this – the fierceness and strength of God, and the respect of God for my choice and my personhood – because God showed up as a woman. Male ferocity would drive me back into my shell, nor would I have been able to take seriously an offer of respect and autonomy from a man. In my experience, men made these offers to girls and women, but rescinded them just as quickly, when the moment for a real decision or opinion came. God came to me then in a form that made me able to understand Him, and set me free to choose Him.
The two stories I've told here don't follow our culture's gender expectations: I experienced God as a nurturing man, and as a fighting woman. God communicates in the ways we need, and also in the ways that will help us see broader horizons.
The Divine as Child
I’m going to shift here a bit, and talk not about how I’ve experienced God, but another aspect of the divine: how people see angels, those beings that populate heaven. Unlike humans, who are capable of being completely unaware of God, angels live their lives in God’s domain, and how we perceive them says a good deal about how we understand the divine.
The bible describes angels in a few different forms, some of them far from human. Ezekiel describes angels who have four faces (Ez. 1:6), and the book of Revelation describes angels who have wings covered with eyes. (Rev. 4:8)
But angels in art are usually human, with the addition of a pair of wings. I think this is because we humans understand concepts best when we use ourselves as a frame of reference. Angels with eagle’s and lion’s faces are to some extent unknowable for us, but a human form and face allows us to ‘read’ the representation of an angel the way we would make sense of another person. I don’t think the idea is that we really think the population of heaven looks like us, as that we need some way to make sense of them.
So angels are represented as humans. But what sort of humans? In some paintings an angel may look distinctly male or female, and in some cases, I find the gender ambiguous.
The representation I couldn’t fathom was that Renaissance tradition of painting angels to look like toddlers or even infants. This made no sense to me, since the aspects of angels most often mentioned in scripture – their strangeness, power and tendency to intimidate people – are all missing if the angel looks like the Gerber baby.
Then I had a baby, and those Renaissance painters all made sense. There is something otherworldly about babies. They look as though they can see things the rest of us can’t. They live outside of time, in one everlasting Now. Their love is deep and wordless. The world endlessly delights them, and they have both the freshness of youth and the gravity of age.
Before I experienced life with a baby I don’t know that I crystallized these thoughts about God. Seeing the angelic and otherworldly in my own child, I saw the Divine just a little better.
Experiencing God is different from all our other kinds of experiences, relying as it does on difficult to define spiritual senses. And yet, everything that happens in the world, and all the people in it, can illuminate Him for us. God can come to you as a wide-eyed toddler, a fierce woman, or a nurturing man. Or all of these, and more.
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