About a year ago I came up with a list of the 10 worst doctrines in church history – the 10 beliefs that I feel have caused the most harm in the name of God, and have done the most damage to the reputation of God and the church.
Briefly stated, the 10 doctrines are: substitutionary atonement (Jesus’ death understood as a “punishment” for our sins), the idea of hell as everlasting conscious torture (ECT), double predestination (God has predestined some to heaven, others to hell), Pelagianism (“salvation by works”), “just war” theory, exclusivism (no salvation outside of the church), sola scriptura (the Bible is all we need), infallibility of the pope, biblical inerrancy, and “cheap” grace (we can be saved through faith, even if no good works follow).
What I never realized, until recently, is that almost all of these doctrines can be traced back (in one way or another) to a stereotypically male view of God and the world.
With the exception of “cheap grace,” all of these seem to be the result of an all-male priesthood, and an all-male understanding of God. When you look more closely at gender stereotypes, you will probably see the connection.
Stereotypically, women are usually connected with traits like passivity, submission, emotion, intuition, love, peace, patience, receptivity, fluidity, compassion, romance, and spontaneity. Conversely, men are often said to be aggressive, dominant, rational, angry, vengeful, fixed in their thinking, sexual, and formulaic.
When a religion pictures God as essentially male, and restricts leadership roles to men, the results are pretty predictable: God is seen as essentially aggressive, domineering, vengeful, and unmoved by appeals to emotion.
Religions centered around such a God tend to be more logical than intuitive. They tend to be highly legalistic, and value external authority over personal experience. Much of American Christianity fits this description.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we find doctrines of the sort I mentioned showing up again and again.
The doctrines of substitutionary atonement, hell as eternal punishment, and ecclesial exclusivism all point to a God who is stereotypically male: a God who’s angry with humanity and looking for someone to punish. Similarly, the doctrines of papal infallibility, sola scriptura, biblical inerrancy, and “just war” theory all feed on the stereotypically-male need for rigid, external forms of authority.
Certainly the other extreme (a matriarchal religion that sees God solely in feminine terms) wouldn’t be good, either; but it seems to me that most American Christianity is off-balance, leaning heavily in the male direction.
It helps to know that not all of the imagery used for God in Scripture is masculine. God is described in motherly terms in the books of Deuteronomy (32:11-18), Isaiah (49:15), Hosea (13:4-8), and the gospel of Matthew (23:37). The book of Proverbs personifies God’s wisdom as a woman (8:1-36), and the gospel of Luke describes God as a woman looking for a lost coin (15:8-10).
If we can allow ourselves to experience God as both male and female (and also beyond gender), this will have sweeping effects on our theology. It’s much harder to fall into the errors I mentioned earlier if we visualize God in a variety of gender roles.
To be sure, there are Scriptures that portray God in stereotypically “male” ways – as aggressive, vengeful, and unyielding. This is part of the human experience, and probably has at least some correlation to Divine reality.
But Scripture also portrays God as deeply compassionate, nurturing, and patient. If all of our imagery for God is masculine, we risk losing sight of the more “feminine” characteristics – which are just as much a part of God as the others. This is (often literally) a hell of a loss!
(This isn’t to say that women can’t be aggressive, or that men can’t be compassionate, nurturing, or patient – only that these qualities have historically been associated more with the feminine than the masculine).
My concerns here aren’t limited to Scripture, however. In my own experiences with God, I have come to know (at least) three distinct personalities; and one of these (the Holy Spirit) consistently appears to me in a female form.
For me to speak of God only as “He” (and not also “She”) would be dishonest to my actual experience. The God I know is both male and female, and also beyond gender altogether.
The moment I acknowledge this, my theology begins to move in a direction that makes many Christians uncomfortable – but I’m convinced it’s the truth.
(Coming Soon – “With What Kind of Body?”: Reincarnation and Resurrection Revisited)