Posted by: Allyson | July 30, 2008

Religion and Gender

This past weekend, I was back in Ohio attending a wedding.  It was the most traditional ceremony I had been to.  The first wedding I attened, my cousin’s, had Christian themes but did not make religion the focus.  My own wedding, while fairly traditional in the Jewish sense, incorporated a few non-Jewish elements, largely for the benefit of my non-Jewish family.  But my friend’s wedding was straight-up Protestant Christian, very traditional.  I was a little surprised, given that both members of the couple are very liberal, and when at home in Virginia, they attend a very liberal church (not Unitarian; it’s definitely straigh-up Christian, but still really liberal).  But I suppose the traditional aspects were meaningful to them.  And anyway, it gave me a lot to think about.

First, I realized that, even if I believed in a god, and I believed that all the Jesus mythology was real, I don’t think I could ever be a member of an organized religion because there is so much I disagree with on a philosophical level.   Throughout the ceremony, there were prayers and hymns that emphasized the idea of two people becoming one.  That just does not sit right with me.  I am an individual; my partner is an individual.  He does not “complete” me, nor I him.  We are not one unit because we are married; we are two different people forming a partnership and working together to make ourselves and each other happy.  We don’t amalgamate into one person, not even “spiritually.”  We’re independent; we just happen to love each other, trust each other, live together, and share resources.  It’s like having a roommate, but better.

The other thing that I have been pondering is the idea that a god has a gender.  In this ceremony, the minister emphasized over and over that the Christian god is masculine.  When I attended synagogue with my partner, the Jewish god was considered masculine.  I’m pretty sure Allah is considered masculine.  So basically, in all of the monotheistic religions I know of, the god is a man.  But the idea of god as a man does not make sense to me for the following reasons:

  1. I think that, if a god existed, that god should be genderless.  I don’t have any really logical reason for thinking so.  It just seems to me that a deity would transcend gender.  When I think about this, I think about a bumper sticker I’ve seen around that says: “God is too big to fit into one religion” (or something along those lines).  As an extension of that, I would think that a god would be too big to fit into narrow conventions and ideas about sex and gender.  Isn’t a god supposed to be able to “transcend” base mortal desires and death?  Shouldn’t that god then be able to transcend the constraints that gender places on all members of society, male and female?  If we recognize that gender is socially constructed, but believe that a god is natural (and not the product of human imagination), then why does that god have to be bound to base, man-made concepts of behavior and identity?
  2. If, for some reason, a god exists and that got MUST have a sex/gender, doesn’t it make more sense that that god should be female.  Deities tend to be responsible for the creation of the universe, earth, and humankind, right?  Well . . . in nature, it’s the female of the species that creates life.  So why wouldn’t the deity who created life also be female?  I suppose the argument could be made that, at least in the monotheistic religions, the god does not produce the world sexually, so therefore the god does not necessarily have to be female.  But, at least on earth, things that produce asexually (amoebas, bacteria, cells, etc.) do not have gender; they do not have genitalia.  So therefore if a god produced the world asexually, doesn’t that further the case for deities being genderless?

Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like

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Responses

  1. I’ve been to a lot of Protestant weddings in Ohio (I live in Ohio!), and I’m often repelled by some of the language and ideology as well. I haven’t given much thought to the “two people becoming one” thing, but I get your point. The worst is when the pastor brings up that jazz about the husband being the spiritual leader of the household and the woman answering to her husband while her husband answers directly to God. UGH. I always cringe waiting for “love, honor, and OBEY” or for “I now pronounce you MAN and wife”, but I luckily haven’t heard either of those since I was a little girl.

  2. Whatever a god would be if he/she/it existed isn’t really of any consequence. What is of consequence is: what can humans conceive of? An omniscient and omnipotent being is already a concept that’s hard to wrap your mind around. Most people need something they can relate to, something they feel familiar with in order to grasp a concept. And since neither omniscience nor omnipotence is something mortals practice on a daily basis (though some try), they need something else. This ‘something else’ becomes the visual interpretation of an appearance and a personality, and along with that goes gender. If there is an appearance, people (mostly) need to know if it’ll be bearded or breasted, otherwise it won’t compute.

    As for the chosen gender being male, well, monotheistic religions came out of patriarchal societies… don’t tell me you’re surprised that their depiction of a deity became male. There are (usually) only female deities when there’s more than one, and these came out of societies where women had it considerably better legally, than they’ve ever had in the montheistic societies.

  3. Tracey-

    This ceremony definitely was not that conservative – there was no talk of “obeying” or who was the spritiual leader of the household. But the minister did introduce the bride and groom as “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,” which really made me cringe.

    But it’s probably in some way good for me to be exposed to these things. I can definitely spend a lot of time in my secular bubble and forget about religion and its influence on the rest of the world (both the good and the bad).

  4. […] Religion, Gender, and Language Last night, my partner and friend and I were discussing yesterday’s post during dinner.  My friend told me that in Catholic Canon, the Catholic god does not have a gender […]

  5. I came by this site via Muslimah Media Watch – I just wanted to clarify that in Islam, Allah/God has no gender, and is only referred to as ‘He’ because of linguistic considerations. God is the creator of male and female, but is neither of those Himself. Within the ‘asma al husna’ (the beautiful names or descriptions through which we may draw close to God) there are what we would see as both masculine and feminine characteristics – for example the most well-used ‘names, ‘Al Rahman’ and ‘Al Raheem’ come from the root word for ‘womb’. (These two words are usually translated as ‘Most Gracious, Most Merciful.)

  6. jemimaslana-

    It’s not that I’m necessarily surprised that deities turned out to be male. But it’s something that simply does not sit right with me, and therefore I feel the need to critique it and question it.

  7. ummzeno-

    Thank you for your comment, and for helping me better understand Islam. I admit that I have not had much exposure to this religion, so I appreciate the clarification. Some people have explained similar ideas about other religions, which is why I wrote a follow-up post, which looks more at language than gender in and of itself.

  8. I was at a Passover seder with someone who replaced every gendered pronoun referring to God in the haggadah with “God”. It got a little clumsy in parts (“God Godself led the Jewish people out of Egypt”, etc) but I think it worked quite well, and led to an interesting discussion (during the meal, not as part of the “official” seder discussion) of pronouns and how we need some gender-neutral ones.


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