Simple homegrown solution to God's personal pronoun

Does it matter if God is he or she? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Does it matter if God is he or she? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
God or Godde? He or she? Does it matter, so long as people are comfortable with whatever they decide? For those to whom God is an important concept, is there anything important at stake in the pronouns that refer to God?

Quite a lot, actually. The maleness of God is taken for granted in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures, and for thousands of years it has been used to justify the patriarchy so deeply embedded in all three faiths.

Not any more! In recent decades women have rebelled against the conventions that held them back and down. In the West they have pointed an accusing finger at the Christian church, whose institutions sanctified women's subordination as part of the natural order of society. Thousands abandoned their churches to seek a more congenial experience in cults and groupings where a goddess was supreme.

The churches' response has been mixed. Some embraced the opportunity to open every aspect of church life and governance to women. Others are so boxed in by past dogma or literalist readings of selected biblical texts that they don't know how to jump the moat into our modern social reality.

It's a pity, though, when women's justifiable frustration and anger at the patriarchy of the institutions erupt into a contest over the central concept of God, and in particular whether God should be referred to as "he" or "she", "his" or "her". That seems to me to miss the point about talking about God at all.

It's a real problem, however, and I see three deeply entrenched barriers to tackling it effectively.

One is the legacy of male dominance in church life. Patriarchy is a bad habit which is notoriously hard to budge - look at the passionate resistance in the Catholic Church to women priests and bishops! One day a woman pope might pose the ultimate test.

A second barrier is the default setting of the Christian God, on Jesus' authority, as "our Father". This should be an imaginative evocation of the quality of Godness (abstract noun, neither male nor female), but instead is taken to reify God that is, make God into a real being with "Father" establishing God as male.

The third is a pesky feature of the English language, which requires us to use pronouns defining whomever we're talking about as "he" or "she", male or female or to use the neuter "it", which doesn't quite work for God, either.

If God is always "he", that reinforces maleness. If preachers substitute "she", as some do, that can come across as political correctness rather than theological insight.

Plumping for neutrality by alternating "he" and "she" adds nothing but confusion. Refusing to use either pronoun, instead saying "God" or "God's" at every reference, merely produces linguistic constipation along the lines of "God Godself cares with God's son for God's creation". Yuck!

The possessives "his" and "her" plunge English speakers into the same quagmire, a problem less acute in languages that attribute gender to nouns rather than to sexes. The French son and sa mean his, her or its, depending on the noun. So sa mere could mean his, her or its mother, son pere, his, her or its father. Which of these applies is deduced from the context.

English, mercifully, does have all-sex, gender-free possessives in "your" and "their". Indeed, "their" is so all-inclusive that it's currently being press-ganged into service as a PC singular whenever a person's sex is unknown or indeterminate, as in "The teacher fell and broke their arm." Yuck again!

But "they" and "their" won't work readily for God either even though one of the biblical words for God (Elohim) is plural.

Fortunately, New Zealanders of all people have a solution right under their noses. In referring to God, we can take sexual distinctions right out of the equation by adopting the Maori words ia, which can mean he, she or it, and tana or tona, meaning his, her or its. Tana/tona is a little tricky, since in Maori the choice depends on relationships and status, but anything would be better than being stuck with the prickliness of English's his/her alternatives.

So let's use ia to refer to God, for example "Ia restores my soul", and tana or tona for the possessive, as in "[God] remembering tana mercy", so avoiding the sensitivities of "his" and "her". It will sound odd at first, but we'll quickly get used to it, as we have with mana, whanau and kia ora.

On "our Father", more next time.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.



A gender specific God is not universally accepted. Within gnosticism (the Greek School, Logos), God is Spirit. This concept was/is followed by Christian Science: God is Spirit, Spirit is Good, Matter is irrelevant.

There is also the Shaker sect of the Atlantic seaboard, USA (they of invention and perfect furniture). Founder Mother Ann Lee taught that God comprised both male and female principles.