Gender and god

Gender of God

The gender of God can be viewed as either a literal or an allegorical aspect of a deity. In polytheistic religions, the gods are more likely to have literal sexual genders (and can often interact with each other in sexual ways). In monotheistic religions, there is no comparable being for God to relate to in a literal sexual way, and so the gender of the deity is more often an analogical statement of how humans address and relate to God, rather than an objective statement about the person of God.

The views of several individual religions are summarized below, and are not exhaustive.

Clarify terms


The first definition of god provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is "A superhuman person (regarded as masculine)". It goes on to note that, "when applied to the One Supreme Being, this sense becomes more or less modified", and also that, "Even when applied to the objects of polytheistic worship, the word has often a colouring derived from Christian associations. As the use of God as a proper name has throughout the literary period of English been the predominant one." Thus, English language usage of god and God vary sufficiently widely for the OED to note the variation, and to use the imprecise phrases "more or less modified" for God, and "often a colouring" for god.

The etymology of the word is given by the OED as Proto Indo-European (PIE), from either the verbal roots for to invoke or to pour (libation or blood in sacrifice). It enters modern English not via Greek or Latin, but via Gothic guþ and Old Norse (ON) goð, in which "the words always follow the neuter declension, though when used in the Christian sense they are syntactically masc[uline]." Old High German (OHG) shows the same pattern of neuter plurals but masculine singulars, "the adoption of the masculine concord being presumably due to the Christian use of the word." The OED further suggests, "The neuter [substantive], in its original heathen use, would answer rather to [Latin] numen than to [Latin] deus."

Further disambiguation of the concepts subsumed by the modern English word in the title of this article becomes apparent as the OED notes "an approximate equivalent" to deus in ON and OHG survived into Old English as ōs. However, this was only applied to "higher deities of the native pantheon, never to foreign gods; and it never came into Christian use."


Gender is also an idea that has been been progressively disambiguated in the field of sexology by John Money, and in cultural anthropology by Donald Brown (see also Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate). A more precise term is gender role (sexual dimorphism of preferences in social behaviour), in particular those aspects of gender roles which are universal across cultures, like masculine generative, providing and protecting roles and their consequent authority (Steven Goldberg 1972, 1991; Brown 1991 and others), also the feminine maternal and nurturing roles, all of which are frequently observed by scholars of comparative religion, particularly in the common fertility motif of a Sky Father and an Earth Mother.

Comparative religion

What is understood by words for god varies across cultures and has sometimes changed dramatically at various times. Buddhism challenged various ideas in Hinduism, the montheism of Judaism challenged its polytheistic neighbours, and in European history, the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity under Constantine I, later becoming its centre, but being challenged itself during the Reformation.

A simple view of the history of religion as an evolutionary process was proposed in the 19th century— from animism to polytheism to monotheism, with some believing theism, atheism or agnosticism to be the most advanced approach. Such views are no longer widely current either in the study of religion, nor in philosophy. Analytic philosophy widely considers speculative metaphysics to be outside the reach of epistemology and scientific scrutiny. Comparative religion notes distinctive idiosyncracies across major religions that are better explained by close historical scrutiny, rather than appeal to a simplistic theory.

Nonetheless, animist religions are common among preliterate societies, many of which still exist in the 21st century. Typically, natural forces and shaman spiritual guides feature in these religions, rather than fully fledged personal divinities with established personalities. It is in polytheism that such deities are found, Hinduism being the largest current polytheistic religion. Animist religions often, but not always, attribute gender to spirits considered to permeate the world and its events. Polytheistic religions, however, almost always attribute gender to their gods, though a few notable divinities are associated with various forms of epicene characteristics—gods that manifest alternatingly as male and female, gods with one male and one female "face", and gods whose most distinctive characteristic is their unknown gender.

In the philosophies of several polytheistic traditions, a primal, "high" God is postulated as source of the lesser gods (and demi-gods) of the pantheon. In some religions, like Buddhism, such philosophising goes further, considering ultimate reality to transcend pantheons of gods, without proposing a high God in their place. Buddhism considers annihilation or nirvana to be ultimate reality, and the desire for existence to be the wrong-headed heart of human misery. European nihilism since the 19th century may owe a debt to western thinkers discovering Buddhist ideas from that time of increased trade with the East.

Nonetheless, a hegemonic western conception of metaphysics, influenced strongly by Judaism and Christianity is identifiable in European literature from Greek and Roman authors through to the present, such that English language betrays an inherent bias towards monotheistic thought. Where animist languages may not even have words for personal deities, but rather a nuanced vocabulary of spiritualism, and polytheistic cultures have lexis suited to articulating relationships between deities in a pantheon, some modern English speakers only recognize alternatives such as God, gods or no God, being unfamiliar with Buddhism and animism.

When considering the literature of the world's religions and metaphysical philosophies, the diversity of the underlying conceptions of the spiritual realm is foundational to appreciating any points of comparison. Comparison of views of the gender of spiritual entities is no exception. Each religion or philosophy needs to be understood in its historical, social, linguistic and philosophical context. Thus, matters of gender do apply to animism, but not in the foundational way they do in polytheism and monotheism. Additionally, since animism is largely associated with preliterate societies, we are dependent on the ethnographies of cultural anthropologists rather than documented scriptures and later commentary. Shinto is a notable exception.

This article first presents the views of the five major religions—the Indic Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Abrahamic Judaism, Christianity and Islam—and then a range of other notable religious views.


The oldest of the Hindu scriptures is the Rigveda (2nd millennium BC). The first word of the Rigveda is the name Agni, the god of fire, to whom many of the vedic hymns are addressed, along with Indra the warrior. Agni and Indra are both male divinities.

The Rigveda refers to a creator (Hiranyagarbha or Prajapati), distinct from Agni and Indra. This creator is identified with Brahma, first of the gods, in later scriptures. Hiranyagarbha and Prajapati are male divinities, as is Brahma (who has a female consort, Saraswati). There are many other gods in the Rigveda. They are "not simple forces of nature" and possess "complex character and their own mythology". They include goddesses of water (Āpaḥ) and dawn (Uṣas), and the complementary pairing of Father Heaven and Mother Earth. However, they are all "subservient to the abstract, but active positive 'force of truth'" (Rta), "which pervades the universe and all actions of the gods and humans." This force is sometimes mediated or represented by moral gods (Āditya such as Varuṇa) or even Indra. The Āditya are male and Rta is personified as masculine in later scriptures (see also Dharma).

In some Hindu philosophical traditions, Brahma is depersonalized (and demasculinized) as Brahman, the fundamental life force of the universe. However, theism itself is central to Hinduism.

More then often worship of a pair rather than one person constitutes worship of God, such as worship of Radha Krishna in traditions worshiping Krishna, who is male, include preference and veneration to his Radha, who is worshiped as supreme. Its an accepted view that union of Radha and Krishna may indicate the union of Shakti with the Saktiman, and this view is existing well outside of orthodox Vaishnavism or Krishnaism.

There are some Hindu sects, such as Shakta and Tantra, that have a well-developed philosophy of a mother goddess, Shakti, and literature that harmonizes this to greater or lesser extents with vedic and other traditions. In these traditions, Shiva is often conceived of as the consort of Shakti, rather than vice versa. The common separation of Shakti and saktiman, i.e. Female and Male principle in god arrives at the conclusion Shakti and saktiman are the same. Each and every god has its partner, 'betterhalf' or Shakti and without this Shakti he is sometimes viewed being without essential power.

Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible (also known as Old Testament or Tanakh) is a record of the thoughts of early Jewish writers. One of its traditions is the descent of the Jewish people from a man called Abraham. In later times, Christians then Muslims accepted the Hebrew Bible's tradition regarding Abraham and its moral excellence. Hence together, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known as the Abrahamic religions.

The first words of the Hebrew Bible are B'reshit bara Elohim — "In the beginning God created. The verb bara (he created) suggests a masculine subject. Elohim is also masculine in form. The most common phrases in the Tanakh are vayomer Elohim and vayomer YHWH — "and God said" (hundreds of occurrences). Again, the verb vayomer (he said) is masculine; it is never vatomer, the feminine of the same verb form. The personal name of God, YHWH, is presented in Exodus 3 as if the Y (Hebrew yod) is the masculine subjective prefix to the verb to be.

In Isaiah 62:5, God is compared to the bridegroom, and his people to the bride.

  • "For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee."

Some literary approaches to the Hebrew Bible have argued that parallels between Biblical stories and earlier Sumerian, Akkadian and Canaanite creation myths show a matriarchal substratum that has been overlayed by a patriarchal approach. "In the Bible, the earth is the feminine complement of God: the two combined to form man, who articulates their relationship, for example, in sacrifice.


Traditional view

Although God is referred to in the Hebrew Bible with masculine imagery and grammatical forms, Jewish philosophy does not attribute to God either sex or gender. At times, Jewish aggadic literature and Jewish mysticism do treat God as gendered.

Judaism often relates to God through different "aspects" of God (cf. Sephirot). As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan puts it, "[E]very name and every description that we may give to God can only apply to His relationship to His creation"

Thus, although God is not gendered in Judaism, Benjamin Blech writes that God has both masculine and feminine aspects

In addition, God's "presence" (Shekinah) is a grammatically feminine word and is often employed as a feminine aspect of God.

Many traditional rabbinic commentators, however, such as Maimonides, view any such beliefs as verging on avodah zarah - idolatry. Secondary male sexual characteristics are attributed to God in some piyuttim (religious poems). These include a description of the beard of God Shir Hakavod, "The Hymn of Glory", and similar poetic imagery in the midrash Song of the Seas Rabbah.

Traditional meforshim (rabbinic commentators) hold that these descriptions, like all physical descriptions of God, are metaphorical or symbolic.

Modern feminist views

Modern feminist views in Judaism retain the traditional view that God does not have any gender, but experiment with the use of feminine language and symbolism for God.

For example, feminine characterisation of God is found in a feminist siddur (Jewish prayerbook). Reconstructionist Jewish Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (Reform Judaism, Winter 1991) comments:

The experience of praying with Siddur Nashim ... transformed my relationship with God. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be made in God's image. To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman's body, with womb, with breasts - this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.

Rabbi Paula Reimers ("Feminism, Judaism, and God the Mother", Conservative Judaism 46 (1993)) comments:

Those who want to use God/She language want to affirm womanhood and the feminine aspect of the deity. They do this by emphasizing that which most clearly distinguishes the female experience from the male. A male or female deity can create through speech or through action, but the metaphor for creation which is uniquely feminine is birth. Once God is called female, then, the metaphor of birth and the identification of the deity with nature and its processes become inevitable

Ahuva Zache affirms that using both masculine and feminine language for God can be a positive thing, but reminds her Reform Jewish readership that God is beyond gender (Is God male, female, both or neither? How should we phrase our prayers in response to God’s gender?, in the Union for Reform Judaism's iTorah, ):

Feminine imagery of God does not in any way threaten Judaism. On the contrary, it enhances the Jewish understanding of God, which should not be limited to masculine metaphors. All language that humans use to describe God is only a metaphor. Using masculine and feminine metaphors for God is one way to remind ourselves that gendered descriptions of God are just metaphors. God is beyond gender.

These views are highly controversial even within liberal Jewish movements. Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews hold that it is wrong to use English female pronouns for God, viewing such usage as an intrusion of modern feminist ideology into Jewish tradition. Liberal prayerbooks tend increasingly to also avoid male-specific words and pronouns, seeking that all references to God in translations be made in gender-neutral language.

Christianity, and other New Testament related beliefs

Majority usage

In Christianity, the New Testament is the primary source of beliefs about God. Perhaps the two most significant debates in Christian history sought to understand what the New Testament implied regarding:

  • Jesus as both God and man (Christology); and
  • God as three persons in unity — the Trinity.

The three persons of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The names "God the Father" and "God the Son", derived from the New Testament, clearly imply masculinity. In the case of the Son, masculinity is reinforced by the belief in his incarnation as the man, Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament also refers to the Holy Spirit as masculine in number of places, most clearly in the Gospel of John 14-16. John reports Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit as Comforter (masculine in Greek), and uses grammatically necessary masculine forms of the Greek pronoun autos. Grammatical gender, on its own, says nothing about natural gender. However, when John reports Jesus speaking of the Holy Spirit as Spirit, grammatically neuter in Greek, he uses the masculine form of the demonstrative pronoun ekeinos ("that male one"). This breaking of the grammatical agreement, expected by native language readers, is an indication of the authorial intention to convey the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and also the Spirit's masculinity.

These texts were particularly significant when Christians were debating whether the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is a fully divine person, or some kind of "force". All major English Bible translations have retained the masculine pronoun for the Spirit, as in John 16:13:

Version Text
King James Version (17th century)

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth:
for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak:
and he will shew you things to come.
New American Standard Bible (1963)

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth;
for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak;
and He will disclose to you what is to come.
New American Bible (1970)
Roman Catholic

But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
New Revised Standard Version (1989)
Gender neutral

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;
for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will disclose to you the things that are to come.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, in reference to the Father as revealed by the Son that: "God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God." This makes it clear that God has masculine gender role, rather than male biological sex; as indicated by the pronoun He in the official English translation of Ille in the Latin original. The specific masculine role the CCC discusses is fatherhood. It notes, however, that God is not limited to this role alone—maternal similies are also used in the Bible. It also notes that human fatherhood only imperfectly reflects God's archetypal fatherhood. God is referred to as masculine in Catholic teaching and practice.

On the other hand, use of "feminine" imagery (like the personification of divine wisdom in Proverbs) has been expanded upon by some Christian writers. In Syrian Christianity, the Syriac language uses the grammatically feminine word ruah for the Spirit. This and the occasionally associated "hovering" and "dove" imagery of the Bible, led some 4th century theologians, such as Aphrahat and Ephraim, to use explicitly maternal language for the Spirit. Eastern Orthodox theologian Susan Ashbrook Harvey considers grammatical gender itself to be significant in early Syrian Christianity: "It seems clear that for the Syrians, the cue from grammar — ruah as a feminine noun — was not entirely gratuitous. There was real meaning in calling the Spirit 'She.' Some documentation of the 2nd century heresy known as Gnosticism has survived, also in Syriac, where the Odes of Solomon use feminine imagery for the Spirit.

A few recent theologians, while retaining masculine reference to Father and Son, have explored feminine alternatives for the Holy Spirit. Some have related this to perceived maternal functions in Scripture or Christian tradition. These include: Clark H. Pinnock, Thomas N. Finger, Jürgen Moltmann, Yves M.J. Congar, John J. O'Donnell, Donald L. Gelpi, R.P. Nettlehorst, and Evan Randolph.

Recent Inclusive Language Usage

Recently, a few Protestant denominations have adopted or encouraged the use of inclusive language (such as both feminine and masculine language, or non-gendered language) when referring to God; these include the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Metropolitan Community Church. The New Century Hymnal, the hymnal of the United Church of Christ (UCC), uses inclusive language; one of its concerns while being authored was reducing the solely-masculine use of language for God, and/or balancing masculine images with feminine and non-gendered images, while retaining masculine imagery for Jesus regarding his earthly life. At least two UCC conferences (Massachusetts and Ohio) have adopted guidelines for using inclusive language, and the majority of clergy and laity in the UCC report using inclusive language when referring to God during worship. The Metropolitan Community Church encourages inclusive language and uses "God - our Parent-Creator", "Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God", and "the Holy Spirit" in its Statement of Faith to refer to the three persons of the Trinity.

The Inclusive Language Lectionary, published by the National Council of Churches, states in its introduction "The God worshiped by the biblical authors and worshiped in the church today cannot be regarded as having gender, race, or color.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that both God the Father and Jesus have distinct, perfect, immortal, physical male bodies. Gender is considered "an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." The Holy Spirit has a spirit body, not a physical body, and is also considered to be male. One Mormon hymn refers to a Heavenly Mother, partnered to the Father. The official doctrine of the Church is that prayers should be directed to the Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Spirit. The Heavenly Mother is not worshipped.

Messianic Judaism

The B'nai Yashua Synagogues Worldwide, a Messianic group headed by Rabbi Moshe Koniuchowsky, holds to the feminine view of the Holy Spirit.

There are also some other independent Messianic groups with similar teachings. Some examples include Joy In the World; The Torah and Testimony Revealed; Messianic Judaism - The Torah and the Testimony Revealed; and he Union of Nazarene Jewish Congregations/Synagogues , who also count as canonical the Gospel of the Hebrews which has the unique feature of referring to the Holy Spirit as Jesus' Mother .

Other variations

While being small in number (and not "feminist" in the modern sense), there are some Christian groups whose thinking in regards to the gender of the Holy Spirit is, in part, based on the understanding that the Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is feminine, and that is then based upon skepticism toward Greek primacy for the New Testament. They are skeptical of the neuter Greek word for "spirit" (Greek pneuma), and the masculine Latin word, because the logos ("oracles" or "words") of God were are said to be given unto the Jews ().

Foremost among these groups, and the most vocal on the subject are the Branch Davidian, Seventh-day Adventists. In 1977, one of their leaders, Lois Roden, began to formally teach that a feminine Holy Spirit is the heavenly pattern of women. In her many studies and talks she cited numerous scholars and researchers from Jewish, Christian, and other sources.

They see in the creation of Adam and Eve a literal image and likeness of the invisible Godhead, male and female, who is "clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" (). They take the Oneness of God to mean the "familial" unity which exists between them, which unity is not seen in any other depiction of the Godhead by the various non-Hebrew peoples.

Thus, having a Father and Mother in heaven, they see that the Bible shows that those Parents had a Son born unto them before the creation of the world, by Whom all things were created..

These concepts are also taught among other groups, to one degree or another.


The oneness of God is of primary importance in the Qur'an and Islam. In Qur'an, Allah is most often referred to with the pronouns Hu or Huwa, and although these are commonly translated as him they can also be translated gender-neutrally, as it. This is also true of the feminine equivalent, Hiya. Allah is neither male nor female, and is said to transcend gender. It is considered blasphemy for Allah to be placed in a human or animal sexual gender category. "...Hu births not nor is Hu born, there is none like unto Hu" Surah 112 Qur'an. Other references include the first person pronoun, and the relative pronoun ma (that which), as in the phrase "the heavens and that which created them" (surah Shams (91), verse 5).


The scripture of Sikhism is the Gurū Granth (GG). Printed as a heading for the Guru Granth, and for each of its major divisions, is the Mul Mantra, a short summary description of God, in Punjabi. Sikh tradition has it that this was originally composed by Nanak Dev (1469–1539), the founder of Sikhism.

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ ॥
ISO 15919:
English: One Universal Creator God, The Name Is Truth, Creative Being Personified, No Fear, No Hatred, Image Of The Timeless One, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent, By Guru's Grace.
The sixth word of the mantra, purakhu, is the Punjabi form of Sanskrit (पुरुष), meaning man (personal and male). Verse 5 of a 16 verse hymn in the 10th mandala (or cycle) of the Sanskrit Rgveda (RV) called puruṣa sūkta, speaks of a primal man, Puruṣa, from whom Viraj (woman) was born, being himself then reborn of her.

  • From him Viraj was born; again Purusa from Viraj was born. (RV 10:90:5)

The masculine gender sense of purakhu in the Mantra is found in a verse like the following.

  • That house, in which the soulbride has married her Husband Lord—in that house, O my companions, sing the songs of rejoicing. (GG 4:3:10, p. 97.)
  • You are the Husband Lord, and I am the soul-bride. (GG ::, p. 484.)

Irrespective of the native language meaning of the Mantra, the standard English translation neutralises the implied gender role. Nonetheless, the Guru Granth consistently refers to God as He, even in English. He is also almost uniformly referred to as Father.

  • In attachment to Maya, they have forgotten the Father, the Cherisher of the World. (GG 4:9:42)
  • You are our Self-sufficient Father. || 2 || O Father, I do not know—how can I know Your Way? (GG 4:26:96, p. 51.)
  • You are the Universal Father of all, O my Lord and Master. (GG ::)

Some of these references are inclusive, where God is both Mother and Father.

  • The One is my Brother, the One is my Friend. The One is my Mother and Father. The One is the Support of the mind; He has given us body and soul. May I never forget God from my mind; He holds all in the Power of His Hands. (GG 4:8:78)
  • Relying on Your Mercy, Dear Lord, I have indulged in sensual pleasures. Like a foolish child, I have made mistakes. O Lord, You are my Father and Mother. (GG 4:26:96)

There is at least one reference to God as Mother, without reference to his fatherhood.

  • "O my wandering mind, you are like a camel - how will you meet the Lord, your Mother?" page 234

See also

Notes and references

Further reading

External links

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