The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
She makes me lie down in green pastures; she leads me beside still waters;
she restores my soul. She leads me in right paths for her name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
I am guessing that this version of Psalm 23 sounds pretty strange to most of us. I have spent the last twenty years studying feminist theology, and I have to admit that even for me changing all the ‘he’s’ to ‘she’s’ in this psalm sounds strange. Most of us are not used to hearing God referred to as ‘she’ on a regular basis. Even for those of us who have a strong intellectual rationale for lifting up the feminine dimensions of God, ‘she’ in reference to God sounds unfamiliar, uncomfortable and even unnatural. More than that, some would argue that it is controversial to refer to God as ‘she’ in church.
So we ask – Why does it sound strange to call God ‘she’?
Reflecting on this question brought me right back to high school. When I was confirmed, my grandmother gave me a Bible with my name engraved on the cover. And, like a dutiful granddaughter, I actually tried to read it. Except, I kept running into this huge problem. Reading the Bible made me angry. I mean, really angry. It seemed like every page of the Bible, with its language about God, was reinforcing the idea that God is male. Father, Lord, He, Him, King – there is nothing female or feminine about these words.
Now, keep in mind that I was just a teenager, reading the Bible by myself and getting angry. Nobody was coaching me to be angry. I hadn’t read any feminist theology or feminist biblical criticism. I wasn’t in a consciousness-raising group. I wasn’t trying to be PC. I had never even heard of gender and women’s studies.
I read the Bible, and it made me mad that God was almost exclusively referred to with male-gendered words. I couldn’t really even articulate why male references to God made me angry. I had this deep sense that something wasn’t right about it, and I wanted to change it. So I took up my pen and started crossing out all of the he’s, him’s and father’s in that confirmation Bible with my name engraved on the cover. I crossed them out and put my Bible away for a while.
In college, I had a whole new set of resources available to help me intellectually understand my anger. Even though I was a chemistry major, I took every class in the religion department that had anything to do with women and religion or feminist theology. I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who was angry about male God language. People were writing books about this and calling the church to reform its language, its theology, and its treatment of women. A seed of hope grew inside me, and I decided to go to seminary in order to prepare myself to help change the church.
On the first day of my first theology class in seminary, my professor, a tall, sixty-something balding white male approached the podium. In an authoritative voice he said, “If any of you use male language for God in your papers for this class, I will dock your grade.” I knew that I had come home to a faith community who ‘got it’, and for the first time in a long time I wasn’t angry when I went to church.
After three years in a seminary bubble, I re-emerged into the real world of Christian God-talk. It seemed as though not much progress had been made toward more inclusive language, so I set out on my call to reform the church. But I was still angry. Even though I had analyzed all of the forces of sexism and patriarchy and completely rebuilt my theology, the anger that lingered inside eventually caused me to shut God out. I believed in God with my head, but I couldn’t trust God with my heart.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Let it go, Siri” or “What is the big deal here? People refer to God as ‘he’ all the time. It isn’t harming anyone.” or “Just because I call God ‘he’, it doesn’t mean I think God is male.” or “The Bible calls God ‘he’ so it must be what we are supposed to do.” or “I knew it. Feminism leads people away from God.”
To each of these thoughts I could offer a long and intricate intellectual refutation. I’ve written tons of papers on this topic. Believe me, I could go on and on about this. For at least the last fifty years feminists have been making sound intellectual, biblical and theological arguments that God isn’t male and therefore should not be referred to as such. But not much has changed. For most people, it still sounds normal to call God ‘he’ and strange to call God ‘she’, and that makes me sad and frustrated.
In order to continue working for change, I realized that I needed to befriend my anger and understand its deeper lessons. In doing some intensive soul work, I realized that my anger is a protective response to more painful emotions that I hadn’t thus been able to name. In her pioneering work from 1973, Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly wrote, “If God is male, then male is God.” My gut instinct as a teenager to be wary of male language for God wasn’t really about the Bible. It was about the way in which our language for God – in scripture, liturgy, worship and conversation – creates our image of God and shapes our understanding of humanity.
If God is male, even in language only, then maleness is raised up to a higher status in human community. Anyone with a male body is more sacred, more holy, more powerful, and more important. If God is male, then my body feels less sacred and my whole being feels unsafe. Speaking about and imaging God in exclusively male terms undermines the fullness of my humanity as a woman. I do not want to have anything to do with that kind of God.
It has been relatively easy to restore my faith intellectually; it has taken a much longer time to heal my heart from the emotional pain of hearing God referred to in exclusively male terms throughout my childhood and teenage years.
I want something different for my daughter and for all of the children that are growing up in our world today, and that requires all of us to change the way we talk about God. I am hoping and working for the day when we understand that any gendered language for God is metaphorical and when calling God ‘he’ or ‘she’ sounds equally strange.
The Rev. Siri C. Erickson is a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. She is an ordained ELCA pastor and a graduate of Carleton College and Claremont School of Theology.