“A God who is beyond sex/gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women.” So wrote Asma Barlas in her article “Islam and Feminism.” Barlas states at the beginning of the article that she doesn’t like to call herself a feminist and yet she made an observation that could revolutionize religion by doing away with gender differences.
Some feminists, especially in the ’70s, were fond of speculating what religion would be like if God was actually a woman. I always thought that exercise was silly, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way. Now I know: it’s because God is neither male nor female.
It’s unfortunate that we use the masculine pronoun whenever we refer to God (I do) because that only perpetuates the idea that God is male in character. Some people may honestly believe that He is. Others may honestly believe that She is female. But if you think about it, it’s clear that God is infinitely bigger than any box we can put Him into. We can speculate all we want—He is neither male nor female. He is male and female. He is androgynous. But it only makes sense that He is, as Barlas writes, beyond sex or gender. He simply is.
It seems to me that if we kept that observation uppermost in our minds we could eradicate much of the sexism that exists in most religions. Of course men like to think of God as a male because that makes it seem like God sides with men. Men also strenuously object to the idea that God could be a woman, because they’re afraid that women would then start to claim the upper hand (as men have). But what if God sees us each as persons who only incidentally are male and female (because of the mechanics or reproduction)? What if He doesn’t favor men over women or the opposite? What would our church fathers (and I use that term to refer to all religions) do with that?
You may be thinking, well, what about the holy scriptures (again, I use this for all religions) that appear to set the stage for the supremacy of men? I would argue that a closer and more objective reading of these scriptures would reveal that they do no such thing. In all ages and in most religions, men have interpreted God’s words to give themselves the advantage. When women have been able to do the interpreting, we see a quite different view of gender. None of us can help injecting our own viewpoints into the way that we read God’s words.
Christianity is a prime example of this. Not one book of the (accepted) Bible was written by a woman. None of the apostles were women. (Why wasn’t Mary of Magdalene considered to be an apostle?) Jesus of course was a man and he didn’t even marry. Why did God send a Son and not a Daughter? (Why did God become a man when He Himself has no gender?) The people who decided which books were in the Bible and who developed the doctrine of the Triune God were all men. Is this just an accident? Or was Christianity shaped to fit the viewpoints of the men who set themselves up as experts?
Or take Islam. The Qur’an doesn’t say that women have to stay in the house, that they don’t belong in the mosques, that they can’t go anywhere without their husbands’ permission, that they must cover their faces, that they can’t go to school, and yet over the years scholars who were men added these restrictions based on the way they wanted society to be structured. Their reasons were political not spiritual. They saw society as a patriarchal system and they sought to keep it that way.
I’m not a religious scholar. I was a minister’s wife for ten years and taught my share of Bible studies. (I also read a lot of my husband’s texts when he went through seminary.) I’m only just beginning to read the Qur’an. And I am a feminist, so of course I’m going to take issue with the idea that men should be the ones who interpret the way we see God. But if I believe that God is bigger than male and female, that He has a vested interest in seeing that all people become faithful to His will and bow to His majesty, then I can’t help but ask these questions.