Q: Why is God always referred to as "He," seemingly in all religions and spiritual discussion, rather than the much more appropriate "it"? Thank you. — J, Halifax, Pennsylvania

A: Thanks, dear J, for your gender-sensitive question about a God who has no gender.

We must begin by understanding that Hebrew (the language of the Bible) has no way to express a neutral gender. Every Hebrew word is either masculine or feminine, even when it is referring to something like a table (feminine) or a day (masculine) that clearly has no gender. So, there is no way to speak of God as "it."

Of course, we could refer to God as "she" rather than "he," and there are biblical verses that refer to God in clearly feminine terms, like Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah does attempt a more daring gender reconciliation. They teach that at the time of Creation, God divided Godself into two parts. The male part was called “The Holy One Blessed be He” and that was the transcendent part of God that does not touch the world. The female part of God was called the Shechinah, or “the indwelling part of God.” The Shechinah is the feminine part of God and that is the part that dwells near us and in us.

Christianity deals with the problem of referring to a genderless God by focusing on the male part that became Jesus and the female part that became Mary.

We have to say a word about Jesus, who represents the closest any organized religion has come to describing God as a human male. Of course, Jesus was not a human. Jesus was God assuming human form in order to die in atonement for human sin. But this explanation is not so easy. If Jesus is not human at all, then Jesus could not suffer and be crucified; but if Jesus was a man and could suffer, then he was not God.

The Christian solution is to affirm both God as masculine and God as feminine even if they seem contradictory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Book 239, states that God is not a man or a woman and that God transcends the divisions of gender.

Hinduism solves the problem by describing many different gods, some masculine and others feminine. However, the ultimate transcendent Hindu god, Brahman, is without gender.

Islam teaches that Allah is beyond all gender, and Arabic, like Hebrew, is also a gendered language. The Quran 36:36 teaches “Transcendent is He who created all the pairs.”

Buddhism does not believe in a creator God, but the Buddha was an enlightened man.

Every theistic religion in the world tries to include some reference to the feminine part of God, but it would be quite wrong to assume that God has a gender. God is a being, but a being that is beyond gender and beyond understanding.

My view of all this:

It is wrong to call God "he." It is wrong to call God "she." And it is definitely wrong to call God "it" because "it" is the pronoun we use to describe things and God is a being not a thing. So what do we do?

I have written several books for children about Bible stories, God and religion, and in all these books I avoided using a pronoun to refer to God. It is hard to write without pronouns, but in the case of God it is the only way to avoid the gender error of assuming that a non-human being was in fact a gendered being.

Avoiding gender-specific language also helps to avoid the harmful image of God as an old man in the clouds looking down on us like Zeus on Olympus. This is wrong on every level, not the least of which is that it teaches little girls that God does not look like you. The truth is that God does not look like any of us.

The fundamental problem in talking about God is not really gender. The problem is that everything we speak about is like something else, and so we are able to piece together ways of comparing what we seek to understand with what we already understand. With God there is no way to do that.

God is not like anything or anyone else. God is utterly unique; our language simply reflects the truth beyond our words. God is within us but God is also beyond us, and the ways to understand God elude us no matter how we try. That is the test of faith. We are called to believe in a being we can feel but cannot ever completely understand.

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