One of the more contentious debates within contemporary circles concerns the gender of God. For centuries, the common, though unreflective, notion was that God was masculine—God the Father! Today there are strong feelings, both ways, about that.

Feminists and others are demanding that the churches change their way of thinking and speaking about God to reflect the fact that God is not any more masculine than feminine. Others, however, are digging in an attempt to defend the more traditional notion.

How are we to conceive of God? Is God male, female, genderless? The debate here is both serious and important. Occasionally, too, it exhibits its own sense of humor, as in the case of Janet Foster, who, arguing as a woman, submits that God can only be conceived of as male:

God is a woman, the feminists cry,
But any fool knows that’s a terrible lie.
He toiled for six days, spent the seventh in
If God were a woman, she’d toil the full seven

God can’t be a woman, as some people say,
Or he wouldn’t have needed to rest on that
‘Cause since time first began and we women
know best,
Only children and man—and God—need a rest!

More seriously, though, how is God to be conceived of and spoken about?

There is a double issue involved in grappling with this—a theological one and a pastoral one. The pastoral questions are trickier: How, concretely, do we begin to speak about God if we cease conceiving of, and speaking of, “him” as male?

Do we use gender-neutral terms—Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier? What would this do, long­range, to our conception of God as a person? Is today, when father-hunger is perhaps the deepest longing within our whole world, a good time to start moving away from the concept of God as father?

These are hard questions which, at present, need much study and discussion.

The theological question, however, is clear . . . and that needs unequivocal affirmation: God is as much female as male, as much mother as father. That is beyond serious dispute. Christian tradition is clear everywhere, and especially in the creation story, that male and female both equally image the likeness of God.

Moreover, in discussing the question of God’s gender, more important even than explicit scriptural affirmations is the whole question of our theology of God and our language about God.

All proper theology of God begins with, and grounds itself upon, the affirmation that God is, by definition, ineffable. What this means is that, because God is infinite, without boundaries, God is, by that fact too, inconceivable and unthinkable. We can know God, but we can never think God.

Our minds can never capture God in a concept. Even less can we ever accurately speak about God. All of our concepts and all of our words, including those in Scripture itself, are highly inadequate, telling us always more about what we don’t know than what we do know about God. No concepts and language about God are even remotely adequate, let alone accurate.

We use the revealed language that the Scriptures give us, not because we pretend that it captures God with any accuracy and adequacy, but because it is less inadequate than other language and we have been given permission by God to use it­—and thus, in the apt words of Annie Dillard, can use it without being blown apart from heaven!

But in the end, as the church itself has dogmatically defined (at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215), everything we think about and speak about God is more inadequate than adequate, more inaccurate than accurate.

All of this is doubly true vis-a-vis Gods gender. God is not simply male, just as God is not simply female. Nor is God neuter, a genderless force. All thought and language fall short here.

Given the truth of this, none of our personal nouns or ordinary pronouns can be used about God with any accuracy. Perhaps the best route to go here is that used, centuries ago already, by Julian of Norwich who wrote of God:

“As truly as God is our father, so just as truly is he our mother. In our father, God Almighty, we have our being: in our merciful mother we remade and restored . . . . It is I, the strength and goodness of fatherhood. It is I, the wisdom of motherhood. It is I, the light and grace of holy love. It is I, the Trinity, it is I, the unity.”

In that unity we move and have our being.