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God’s Pronouns are They/Them

People ask me why I cross myself. It started back in middle school when our confirmation pastor taught us about remembering our baptism. I cross myself and say my favorite trinitarian formula: Father + Son + Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of all Creation. For me, it is both a physical embodiment and a ritual in worship that involves movement. What that reveals is that sometimes I name God as Father. There is a place in my spiritual formation where I need that. My birth father died when I was 3, and even though I grew up with a step-dad I always called Dad, he was never Father. As a youth I had a strong connection with God as Father. That naming from my youth sticks with me. I’ve heard other stories of naming God as Father. I’ve known folks with terrible fathers that seek God as a positive example of fathering and parenting. I’ve also heard the other side, those with bad relationships with fathers which lead to a negative association of God as Father. The patriarchy, entrenched and emboldened by the Church, has used masc imagery to subjugate women and femmes and exclude them from leadership in the church. With centuries of an exclusive God-as-male theology, today we can say that the future is femme and so is the divine.

So, let me be clear about three things:

1. God is not a man or gendered.

2. All naming of God is an attempt to capture something beyond capturing.

3. Trinity, more than doctrine and theology, is at the core about relationship.

God’s pronouns are they/them.

The scripture writers play around with language. In Genesis 1:26, the writer has God saying, “Let us make humankind in our image.” Then the writer goes on in verse 27 to say, “So God made them in his image.” We could just as easily say her image or the divine image. In this passage, God is not gendered. Image is a masculine noun in Hebrew as is Elohim, tselem, salem. But languages with gendered words do not convey gender norms for inanimate objects. A boat in Hebrew is a feminine noun and wine is a masculine noun. That doesn’t mean boats and wine have sexes. What I want to pay attention to is the numbers: “Let us make humankind in our image.” I want to be clear here - this is doing some theological imagining. This is primarily a Jewish text and the singularity of God remains a pretty big deal for them. We can have a Biblical exegetical conversation about the original context of the scripture at another time. Instead, I want to ponder what the Word of God among us might tell us about God and about us.

Sometimes Christians like to point to this text as Biblical proof in the Hebrew scripture of a Trinity. I’d rather use it to highlight that God has never self-identified through a binary lens or a singularity. God’s purest essence is relational. When we understand that God IS relationship, we see evidence of this throughout scripture.

Proverbs 8 personifies wisdom as femme and co-creator with God. Before all things, in the alpha moment God was already relational. Creation itself is an extension of God in relationship. The Creator in relationship with the created and the creatures. God delights in this relationship - and creation responds in kind. Fields and crops exult and trees sing for joy. Leviathan is made for the delight of God. All of these are signs of how God has never existed as an entity outside of relationships.

Jesus is a particular expression of this divine dance. God’s relationship with people - a covenant relationship, a creator-creature relationship, a loving relationship, a connection that makes us, as the psalmist says, “a little less than angles” or what I would call having a divine spark within us or made of stardust - this relationship comes to be expressed as Emmanuel, an incarnational presence of God With Us. John’s Gospel says in the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. This is that reminder that God always exists beyond binary definitions.

This definition leads to questions - if Jesus is God why does he pray to God? Why does he call God Father if they are co-equal and co-eternal? And if we look at theology and scripture like a rational equation we never arrive at a solution. God is not rational. God is relational.

Instead of defining the boundaries of rationale thought, let’s lean into the mystery of boundless theology. The divine is in relationship with themselves. The flow and flux of a God who creates, liberates, and sustains. The one God who is Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Our relationship with the divine is both mystery and revelation, it is always emerging and changing. Like our personal relationships change and develop over time, our relationship with the ways we name and relate with The Holy One also moves. When we see the trinity as divine relationship it helps move us out of definitions that are limiting and binary and experience things differently.

Take the Lord’s Prayer for example. Some linguists claim Jesus isn’t saying “Abba” which means “Dad;” he’s saying Abwoon, an Aramaic word without gender signifying the birthing process, and the source of being.

Queer theologians like Professor Susannah Cornwall propose an intersex Jesus to deconstruct gender binaries and theologies of exclusion. There are things that push beyond our memories and traditions and expand our definitions.

I’ve come to realize that my theology doesn’t fit neatly into a box or category. It is how I’m both Lutheran and Congregational. Together, we are a community of covenant with BOTH God and one another. We live in plurality, the world is more nuanced, beautiful and complex than either/or.

This is how I understand God’s pronouns are they/them. The singular they moves from a binary, either/or expression toward a both/and inclusivity. There is something divine in honoring that.

Like all metaphors, there is a limit to this expression. Unlike the trans and intersex communities, referring to God as Father isn’t misgendering nor is referring to Spirit as she. But to see God exclusively in gendered terms, God as only masc, Spirit only femme, Jesus’ ontology as maleness is a misgendering. It fails to capture the complexity of an identity beyond labels. It confines God to a trinitarian formula that says more about us than about God. Instead, let us join the dance of the Trinity that moves in waves and flows in and through and among us.

With this understanding, of course God would say let us make humans in our image. God makes both male and female. And femme and masc. Cis, trans and intersex. The divine image captures all genders.

It means I can pray to God as our Father, our Mother. I can still use beloved hymns that use masculine imagery and sing out Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth. I can express the mystery of the Trinity as one God who is Creator Christ and Holy Spirit. I can name the trinity as Lover+Beloved+Love. I can declare that They so loved the world They gave Their only begotten so that we may have life everlasting.

Rev. Steve Jerbi is Minister of Worship and Christian Formation at University Congregational UCC in Seattle, WA. This was adapted from his sermon on Trinity Sunday, 2021.

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