Where I come from, mistaking a boy for a girl is a serious offense. Sure, everyone mixes up a neutrally-clad infant in a stroller—“Oh… what a cute little girl.” (“Ahem, that’s my son.”) A parent is not usually deeply insulted by this mistake. But the stakes get higher as we get older. Where I come from, calling a locker room full of football players “ladies” is an insult. It’s phrase thrown out by a raging coach to provoke anger at being mistaken for a group of females. “Alright, LADIES, how could you let them intercept the ball?!?!” There is, perhaps, no deeper insult to a room full of boys. They are fuming at being called “girls” (read: a group of incompetent, overly-emotional, athletically-challenged ‘losers’).
Over and over on television and in movies, men insult one another most profoundly by using phrases like, “You’re such a woman” and “Stop crying like a girl.” Sometimes the insulter uses more universally defaming, yet squarely female, words like, “bitch” or “whore.” These phrases slap on a distinct status of ‘less-than’, stupid, sexually-abusable–the person in society who is the object, not the subject.
On the other hand, walking into a girls’ locker room full of basketball players and the coach is very likely to say, “Hey guys! Let’s go!” No one reacts. Being called a ‘guy’ doesn’t even make a girl feel uncomfortable, let alone raging mad. In fact, we females may take the label ‘guy’ as a backhanded compliment. Being worthy enough to be labeled ‘guys’ means we’re strong, smart, athletically-capable ‘winners.’ We are the norm, the leaders, the subjects, not the objects! Yet, the label isn’t quite accurate. We are not ‘guys.’
There is perhaps no equivalent word or phrase that evokes the feelings of incompetence, ineptitude, and utter shame in females the way that it does when you call men, “women.”
Could this cultural reality have something to do with our hesitance to call God “woman”? Could it be that we don’t want to degrade God in the most culturally shameful way possible by mistaking ‘him’ for ‘her’? Could God be insulted by such a label? Is God ashamed of being called ‘she’? Are we?
My students sometimes hesitate to call God ‘she.’ They are not opposed to this label in theory, but almost none use it in practice. They understand it—they’ve read the parts of Scripture that image God as a woman; they know in their minds that plenty of scholars use ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ when referring to the Divine. Yet, they hesitate.
I understand this. For most of my students who were raised in churches or synagogues, calling God ‘she’ sounds heretical. Their religious leaders just don’t do it. For my students who are mainly unchurched, a lot of their theological education has come from popular culture and news. Again, if God is mentioned, God is labeled, ‘he.’
I get it. But I can’t help but wonder if, under the theological conundrums, there is something more sinister at work. That is, the notion that we are insulting God by calling God ‘she,’ just as we are insulting those big, tough football players by calling them ‘ladies.’
Part of me does not want to abide this, however. That part wants to tell my female students, “You are just as much like God as your brothers and your father. You can relate to God as a wiser, older woman who knows what it’s like to be female, to face pressures and confusion about your identity. God understands this. You can relate to God as a teenage girl, working to make a place for herself in the world. You can talk to God like you talk to other women.”
When I suggested this to one well-churched female student, she was basically speechless. She could see how talking to God as though she were talking to a woman would change everything.
Finally, imaging God as ‘She’ challenges us to re-think our stereotypes of women and men. She is strong and fierce. She is tough and cunning. She is mean and raging. She is almighty. He is comforting and nurturing. He is soft and gentle. He sings sweetly to a crying child.
Imaging God as a woman not only changes our relationship with God, it changes our relationship with other humans. As many other scholars have noted, using female images and vocabulary to describe God will change our world. We will begin to treat all women with respect. We will not stand for the abuse of women of any age, race, or culture. We will see women in their multiple dimensions – strong, vulnerable, nurturing, and authoritative.
By calling God ‘She’, we not only open our imaginations to a God who can be compassionate and warm, but we open our imaginations to a human female who can be mighty and strong.
Of course, shame is contrary to the nature of God, who is ultimate freedom. There is no shame in true freedom. God is not ashamed to be called ‘she’ — neither should we be.