When you’re referring to God, should you use ‘he,’ ‘she’ or something else? I’m not sure anything would be an adequate God pronoun.
For centuries, the God pronoun has always been masculine. We use he, him, and his, usually capitalized, to refer to God.
Genesis 1:27 states God made man “in His image.” Of course, the story of creation was written by man, and the writer of that story, obviously, was not an eyewitness to creation since he hadn’t been created, yet. The Bible also describes God as saying He would create a “helper” for man. 1 Corinthians 11:7 says man is the image and glory of God, but that woman is the image of man.
But there have always been exceptions to that male pronoun for God. In a 60 Minutes interview, Oprah Winfrey, when asked about God, said, “I love Her.” The popular book The Shack and the movie it inspired portray God as a woman. For some Christians, things like that go over like a lead balloon.
Does ‘Singular They’ work adequately as a God pronoun?
A growing number of people, however, perhaps inspired by increasing gender discussions, say it’s time to rethink a single-gender description.
The Jewish nonprofit GatherDC writes that the Bible refers to both masculine and feminine aspects of God. By definition, one can use the male pronoun he, generically, demonstrating what the group calls “the privileging of male over female in the English language.” But, it says, using a female pronoun may unintentionally distract people from the point of the sentence: God.
One might make the same case using the Singular They pronoun to refer to God. The Singular They, particularly when used to refer to a known, specific person, can distract from the message. It sounds out of place. It sounds like a mistake, no matter how genuinely and accurately it describes the person.
Writer Mark Silk recently cited a piece in the New York Times that linguistics professor John McWhorter wrote. McWhorter, he said, enthusiastically wrote about Singular They and its use as a third-person alternate to he and she.
But consider this example:
“Roberta wants a haircut, and they also want some highlights.”
Roberta may identify as they, not she. But to the average reader, without the writer first explaining that, something just sounds off about the sentence.
Consider, however, this use of they for a generic pronoun:
When a customer asks for a haircut, they can receive a discount on highlights.
They seems to work better here because “a customer” is a generic person. We don’t know whether that person is male or female. It sounds different when it’s a specific person and even moreso when we know the person’s name. It still sounds odd to refer to one specific person with they.
But the Bible makes clear that God is actually three beings in one. Two of them, within the Bible, receive male gender pronouns: The Father and the Son. The third, the Holy Spirit, is the least understood of the three. Even faithful Christians have a difficult time describing exactly who or what the Holy Spirit is. We don’t know the Holy Spirit’s gender, but it’s probably safe to assume the writers of the Bible assumed it must be male, too.
But Scripture may change your view.
Silk argues Monotheistic Abrahamic theology has had to deal with “an embedded grammatical pluralism” from day one. In other words, original texts long referred to God as “plural.”
“The word for god in ancient Hebrew, e lohim, is a plural form, used with reference to both the Hebrew god and any other god or gods,” Silk writes. He cites Exodus Chapter 20 as God is about to present the 10 Commandments:
And elohim spoke these words, saying. I am JHWH your elohim who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no elohim before me.
Jewish theologian Maimonides wrote in his “Guide for the Perplexed:” that “every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries,” Silk says.
So if God refers to God with a word that means multiples, perhaps, Silk suggests, perhaps they is not so far-fetched a choice.
Do I think people will adopt a plural God pronoun?
I seriously doubt it. I think that after centuries of language that depicts God as father and He, that change won’t happen quickly or easily.
Too many in the religious community automatically regard anything different as heresy. They won’t even consider a different possibility.
I think the interesting part isn’t about what you call God, but how you think about God. The suggestion of a different pronoun reinforces the idea that we cannot fully understand the true nature of God. God, after all, is far more than we mere mortals can fathom. If we’re fortunate, we may one day receive a better understanding of the nature of our Creator.
But until then, maybe the very notion will help us want to know God better and spend a bit more time seeking that relationship.
That certainly would not be a bad thing.