The Way We Talk About God: In Defense of "They"

A couple years ago, I became rather uncomfortable with the use of “he” as a pronoun to talk about God. The ways in which we talked about God especially in the American church struck me as deeply masculine – God the Father, Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit as maybe female, but mostly agender amorphous being. I remember being assigned in my freshman required Christian Thought class (yes, this was a thing at my undergrad) a short answer question on the pronouns we use to talk about the Holy Spirit. I recall simply arguing that the Holy Spirit must be a “he” because that’s how he is talked about in the Bible.

Needless to say, I had very little idea what I was actually saying.

As I learned more about feminist theory and feminist linguistics (though I am still woefully uneducated in this area), I began to be uncomfortable with the ways in which the corporate church talked about God – particularly when John Piper famously said that “Christianity has a masculine feel.” As a woman in the church, I felt like my femininity wasn’t valued in the ways I’d been told it would be, that my femininity was incidental, only functioning well in relationship to someone else’s masculinity.

The ways in which we gender objects and ideas shape the ways we look at our world. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s weird when a man refers to an object that he owns as a “she.” I understand the impulse to anthropomorphize, but the ways in which we do so create and reflect dynamics of objectification and sexualization. A muscle car being regarded as “she” in the same terms one would refer to a wife says a lot about how we value women.

I wonder if this same linguistic reflection is happening in how we talk about God. We position God as “the Father,” and refer to God as “He” throughout our sermons, our books, our liturgies. We gender God – not Jesus, who was a man, but the Creator-God – in ways that erase any presence of femininity within the God who created all genders. Additionally, “He” pronouns tend to portray, unconsciously, a conception of God as male authority. If God is our highest authority and our highest authority is gendered as male, what does that say about authority structures in a world that was created after God’s own image?

In the past year or so, I’ve been referring to God either by repeating the word “God” many times in the same paragraph – as above – or using the pronoun “They.” For me, it is important to acknowledge the work of the Trinity in our everyday speech, and such Trinitarian thinking often gets elided when we use the pronoun adequate for one part as the pronoun for the whole.

Now, this digs into the mystery of the Trinity, but I believe it is important to distinguish between the parts while also acknowledging the whole. “They,” as a pronoun, has shifted in meaning to be applicable both as a singular pronoun and as a plural. In such a case, I think the dual function of “they” becomes even more appropriate to refer to the mystery of the Trinity. The Trinity is, three and one, all at the same time; much like the uses of the term “they.”

Maybe this is simply stylistic rambling. But I think it important to examine the ways in which we talk about God the Creator, God the Son, and God the Spirit. Even our language is part of culture and creates meaning for the world around us. I challenge you to try out “they” for a little while, or search around for a pronoun that feels most comfortable for you.

What do you think? How should we talk about and refer to God?