Sunday, June 6, 2010

The masculinity of God

This extends a comment I made here.

Catholic philosopher Edward Feser’s claims about treating God as masculine make far too strong a set of metaphysical claims from far too little. Yes, it is not appropriate to refer to God-as-a-Person as 'It'. Since many languages (including English) require persons to be male or female (i.e. there is no general human pronoun), then a gender has to be assigned for ordinary language use. Since public/formal authority is generally male, and God is the Ultimate Authority, it is natural to assign God as being masculine.

But the issue only arises due to a lack of non-gendered language. There is no metaphysical necessity in this.

Furthermore, humans have in fact been quite varied in their family and authority structures. Since men have stronger upper body strength, are more expendable for reproduction and do not have the vulnerability that pregnancy and nursing provides women, formal authority has typically (but hardly universally) been male.

As these features have become less important in modern social life, formal authority has become noticeably less male. This is not some “decay” from the “proper state” of human affairs but a perfectly understandable adaptation to changing circumstances. Part of the ebb and flow of the status of women in Western society. For example, women in Dark Age Anglo-Saxon England had noticeably higher legal status than women in “Enlightenment” C18th England—of the 30 surviving Anglo-Saxon wills, 10 are from women (and are exactly like the male wills) while Alfred the Great’s daughter “The Lady of Mercia” led armies. Coverture marriage was not part of Dark Age marriages, which relied on much more contractual Germanic (or even surviving Celtic) notions of marriage.

Of course, religious conceptions of authority can themselves affect social patterns. Islam’s much stronger sense of gender hierarchy led to female rulers becoming almost non-existent in the Islamic Middle East, in contrast to the situation prior to the Islamic conquest, while coverture marriage came from applying Christian doctrines sacralising marriage as husband and wife becoming "one flesh" (in law, the wife being subsumed into the husband's legal "flesh").

A perennial problem with the natural law approach is that it is very easy to read what one is used to as having or manifesting some general metaphysical quality or necessity, when it does not. (A lack of metaphysical necessity that recent social changes and historical variety both indicate). Feser’s claims reading far too much into using masculine language to talk about God are another case of this.


  1. There are other complications. In Hebrew, G-d often refers to Himself in the plural, long before this was a politeness convention. (‘Elohim’, for example, is the plural of ‘El’ = ‘God’, and all the talk of “Let us go down, and we shall make a helpmeet for him’, &c &c.)

    This is reflected in the translations, and was probably a heavy influence in the ‘Royal We’ and general use of the second-person plural as a polite form of the second-person singular. (singular ‘You’ instead of ‘thou’, ‘vous’ instead of ‘tu’, that sort of thing.)

    So in the original estimation, G-d was masculine, but inherently plural. Does that imply a Heavenly committee?

  2. Language and translation are such fun.

    Plurality is a way of expressing grandeur of status.

  3. "Feminists who pretend otherwise are worshipping a god of their own invention. There’s a name for that sort of thing."
    Found this quote more than a little amusing.
    By coincidence Dr.Who was just starting when I followed your link.

  4. There may be a certain irony involved :)