A gender-neutral God: What, exactly, should be God’s pronouns?

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A gender-neutral God: What, exactly, should be God’s pronouns?

In 2023, members of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths grappled with questions of a gender-neutral God. Read on to learn more about divine pronouns.

Traditionally, when the Abrahamic religions describe God, masculine pronouns are used, whether in English, Arabic, Hebrew, or Latin. Think, for instance, of the Christian Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our Father who art in Heaven…’ Similarly, the grammatical structure of the Torah and Quran suggest a masculine speaker when God’s actions are described.[1] [2] Yet, is this treatment of God necessitated? Could there be a gender-neutral God, or a female or gender-fluid one?

Debates – some centuries and millennia old – over how to conceptualise God and gender resurfaced across Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities throughout 2023. From debates over religious service in the Church of England to Jewish and Muslim scholarship, members of these faiths are both pushing for and strongly resisting such change.

The more mainstream nature of the discussions is likely a product of increased societal attention to gender identity. This article will explore some of the contemporary questions and history behind the debates.

Church of England contemplates a gender-neutral god

In February of 2023, the Church of England announced that it would create a new commission to look into the potential for alternatives to using the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to God. The move came after a priest, Reverend Joanna Stobart, inquired during the Anglican General Synod – a meeting of the Church’s governing body – whether more inclusive language could be used by priests with their parishioners.[3]

The move initially garnered significant attention and misleading statements, with some thinking the Church had decided to cease using male pronouns to refer to God.[4] No such change has taken place. Yet, spokespeople for the Church, including the Bishop of Lichfield, Michael Ipgrave, who also serves as a vice chair of the Church’s liturgical commission that would explore the matter, noted that moves to be more inclusive in liturgical language had been a goal of the Anglican Church for decades.[5] [6] Additionally, a spokesman for the Church noted that, despite the use of historically masculine language, Christians “have recognised since ancient times that God is neither male nor female.”[7]

Not all have taken kindly to the move, though. The Reverend Doctor Ian Paul, in an interview, argued that replacing ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer with ‘mother’ or ‘parent’ would lead to an improper change and loss of meaning, as, “Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable but relate to their offspring in different ways.”[8] The Reverend Dr Paul was not the only one to raise issues with the potential move. A poll conducted by Redfield and Wilton Strategies for the Daily Mail found that of those polled, 65% opposed a gender-neutral God, 15% supported, and 20% did not know.[9] Support varied by age, though, with younger generations expressing the most support. This appeal to younger generations may be one of the driving factors for the move, as the Church has had difficulty attracting these generations to its flock.[10] [11]

A gender-sensitive update of the Hebrew Bible

In a piece published on the EARS website in 2020, we queried whether the Bible should be translated into a gender-inclusive language.[12] In the first half of 2023, the Revised Jewish Publication Society (RJPS) took a mild step in that direction, releasing an updated translation of the Hebrew Bible that seeks to avoid gendered pronouns. The RJPS, which has been around for 135 years, has not updated its translation in almost 40 years, making this update all the more notable.[13]

Jackie Hajdenberg of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency helpfully illustrates how the new edition, which is available alongside myriad other Jewish texts on the website Sefaria, differs from the previous, 1985 version: “Isaiah 55:6 [now] reads, “Seek GOD while you can, Call out while (God) is near.” JPS’ landmark 1985 translation, by contrast, reads, “Seek the LORD while He can be found, Call to Him while He is near.”[14] [15]

In explaining their rationale, the editors of the new edition cited their organisation’s history of wanting to convey the “plain-sense meaning” of the text in ways that would be “familiar to the contemporary audience” and would “emphasize a religious message.” In fact, they felt using masculine pronouns at times could confuse the meaning. After all, they cite to the similar belief expressed by the Anglican Church that God transcends traditional human gender categories.[16]

Not all, however, are as supportive. Several Orthodox Jews have publically spoken out about the move, which they see as an inappropriate insertion of modern Western politics and concerns into long-established, historic sacred text. Commenting on the controversy, a spokesman for the website hosting the new translation, Sefaria, stated that the site serves as “a library for the entire Jewish people,” and maintains several Orthodox renditions in addition to the new translation.[17]

Why not a female or gender-neutral Allah?

In many Islamic traditions, Allah – like God for Christians and Jews – is considered above traditional gender conceptualisations. This has led a series of Islamic feminists to switch how they talk about Allah, referring to the deity in gender-neutral or female pronouns.[18] This move, though it has been around at least since the 1990s, garnered increased attention in 2023, following the publication of a memoir about a queer Muslim immigrant, Hijab Butch Blues: A Memoir, in February and a subsequent article by Muslim feminist Hafsa Lodi in The Revealer.[19]

The argument, as Lodi describes it, arises from the fact that, in the Quran, Allah is referred to by both the Arabic pronoun for ‘he’ and for ‘we’. Similarly, Allah is described as having both feminine and masculine attributes.[20] Those pushing for change, like theologian amina wadud (who uses lowercase letters intentionally in her name), feel there is too much emphasis on the he and not the we. And, if Allah truly does transcend gender, why should anyone get upset when she is used instead of he?

Similar to the beliefs of the Revised Jewish Publication Society, and those pushing for reform in the Anglican Church, the motivating factor of the feminists is that the message of God and/or Allah ought to be conveyed in the manner that the listener most understands and is comforted by. If that means that Allah is to sometimes be described as a woman, then, for them, all the better.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] The Gender of God

[2] Why is Allah Referred to as ‘He’ in the Qur’an?

[3] Church of England to consider use of gender-neutral terms for God

[4] Church of England hasn’t stopped use of male pronouns for God

[5] Church of England to consider use of gender-neutral terms for God

[6] Church of England explores gender neutral God

[7] Church of England explores gender neutral God

[8] Gender-neutral God to be considered by Church of England

[9] God ‘should NOT be gender neutral’: Poll finds two-thirds of the public oppose Church of England using non-binary terms for deity amid plan by Bishops

[10] How churches are failing to reach a younger audience

[11] Has the Anglican Church lost its way?

[12] Should we translate the Bible into a gender-inclusive language?

[13] A ‘gender-sensitive’ translation of the Hebrew Bible has hit digital shelves. Not everyone is happy.

[14] A ‘gender-sensitive’ translation of the Hebrew Bible has hit digital shelves. Not everyone is happy.

[15] Preface to “The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation”

[16] Preface to “The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation”

[17] A ‘gender-sensitive’ translation of the Hebrew Bible has hit digital shelves. Not everyone is happy.

[18] If Allah Has No Gender, Why Not Refer To God As ‘She?’

[19] The Muslim Women Using Feminine Pronouns for Allah

[20] The Muslim Women Using Feminine Pronouns for Allah