Thursday, May 13, 2010

God, man, and masculinity

A reader asks how God can legitimately be characterized in masculine terms, as He traditionally is. After all, sex – being either male or female – is part of our corporeal nature, while God is incorporeal and thus literally neither male nor female. Part of the answer has to do with natural theology – that is to say, with what we know of God through philosophical arguments alone – and part of it has to do with what we know from divine revelation.

Consider first that among the things we know about God via natural theology, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (where the relevant A-T arguments are defended at length in The Last Superstition and Aquinas), are that His attributes include intellect and will. But since possession of intellect and will is definitive of persons, it follows that God cannot correctly be referred to as an “it” or in any other impersonal terms. (It is true that for A-T, terms like “intellect” and “will” apply to God in an analogical rather than a univocal sense, but that does not affect the point. For what it means to say that there is in God something analogous to intellect and will in us does not make God less than personal; quite the opposite.)

So, only personal terms will do. But why “He” rather than “She”? Well, consider further that from the point of view of classical natural law theory, the fundamental natural social institution – the family – has the father as its head. Obviously this is a large and controversial topic, and one I have no intention of getting into here in any detail. Suffice it to say that the claim is not that men are morally superior to women, or that they have dictatorial rights over their wives and children, or that all men are born leaders and all women born followers. The claim is rather that in any orderly social arrangement there must be some ultimate authority, and that nature has ordained that at least in the normal case it is in the father in whom this authority resides. For when human beings are living in accordance with what the natural law requires of them in the area of sexual morality, families will tend to be large. Obviously this would put a very great burden on mothers if there were no one to protect and provide for them and their children, but protecting and providing for them is precisely what a father is supposed to do. And that, from the point of view of natural law theory, is why men tend to be more assertive and oriented to the public rather than the domestic realm, and thus more oriented toward leadership. Obviously there are exceptions, but for natural law theory it is the normal case that determines the content of morality.

Again, this is a large topic, and since the subject of the post is theology rather than ethics or feminism, I’m not going to pursue it further. The point for our purposes is that at least from the perspective of the moral theory associated with A-T, paternal and thus masculine imagery is naturally going to be regarded as the appropriate sort to use when characterizing God’s relationship to His creatures. For they are dependent on Him in a way comparable to a family’s dependence on a father; and He has authority over them comparable to the authority a father has over his family.

That is one consideration. A second has to do with the way God creates. From a classical theistic perspective, God creates the world ex nihilo rather that out of His own substance. Creation is thus in no way comparable to gestation and birth, imagery which, when applied to theology, suggests either pantheism or a pagan cosmogony. The divine creative act is more like the relatively “distant” role played by the father in procreation. Accordingly, paternal and thus masculine imagery better conveys God’s transcendence.

Again, these considerations derive entirely from what can be known about God through purely philosophical arguments. But there are also considerations deriving from divine revelation. Not the least of these is that when God took on human flesh, He did so precisely as a man rather than as a woman – which is exactly what we should expect given the considerations drawn from natural theology. Furthermore, the Incarnation involved God’s miraculously causing a woman to become pregnant, of its nature a masculine act. And the Holy Trinity of which Jesus Christ is the second Person is of course a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – masculine descriptions of this sort being, again, exactly what we would expect given what we know of God via the purely philosophical arguments.

Moreover, the entire Christian understanding of salvation presupposes a masculine conception of God. Individual human souls (whether those of men or women) have, given their dependence on God, always been conceived of in the Christian tradition in female terms, e.g. as virgins awaiting their Bridegroom (Matthew 25: 1-13). The faithful are also characterized as children of Holy Mother Church, who is the Bride of Christ. The point of this imagery is that the role of the Church relative to the faithful is comparable to that of a mother who nourishes her child in the womb in preparation for birth – the “birth” in the case of the faithful being their entry into eternal life. And God protects and provides for the Church and the faithful as a husband and father does his wife and children.

To suggest that God might be described as a mother or wife would make nonsense of all of this, and (given the outré sexual imagery it would suggest) add blasphemy into the bargain. And it can have no justification whatsoever in either reason or revelation. Feminists who pretend otherwise are worshipping a god of their own invention. There’s a name for that sort of thing.

(All of these considerations are, by the way, relevant to the question of why from a Catholic point of view women can never in principle be ordained priests. For the priest is an alter Christus, “another Christ,” who absolves us of our sins and transforms mere bread and wine into divine flesh and blood. He is the father of his flock. His role is God-like, and thus, given what has been said, essentially masculine. Even the greatest human being ever to have lived other than Christ Himself – His Blessed Mother – was not made by Him a “priestess.” Yet the honor in which she is held by the Church and the faithful – honor which the Church’s enemies typically claim is excessive – gives the lie to the calumny that the Church is “misogynist.” But I digress.)


  1. Obviously [the father as traditional family head] is a...controversial topic...

    The fact that, among some, it is (or even could be) controversial shows just how far from tradition we are. I don't know why, but when I read that, and only for just for a moment, I received a shock. Then I gained control, went back to sleep, and joined the rest of modern life on its way through the ruins.

  2. I'm not sure about God not being described as a mother or woman. Not only do statements of the last two popes appear to contradict this; it seems even philosophically that anything found in woman-as-person must also be found in God.

    Now I fully agree with you (and the Church) on naming God as a woman or mother, especially considering the divine names of Father and Son. And clearly biological gender differentiation has no place in the Godhead. But I think that's different than your claim toward the end about description.

  3. Terence M. StantonMay 14, 2010 at 10:33 AM


    I just wanted to say that this is my favorite blog. Thank you for all the wonderful work you do, Dr. Feser.

  4. Some things never change :)

    “St. Peter, I've literally been dying to meet you after all this time.”

    “Well, Mr. Feser: Did you live a life of wonder and humble awareness of our Lord's most awesome creation that transcends all mortal understanding?”

    “You know Pete, that really isn't the matter I intend to address...”

  5. Dr. Feser writes: the lie to the calumny that the Church is “misogynist.”

    Actually, the whiff of misogyny is fairly strong in your post, Dr. Feser. I would be happy to be contradicted by any female reader of your blog, of course.

  6. @Alan Fox: You stand contradicted by a female reader of this blog :)

    I've been using the soul-God relationship as an explanation for men-only priesthood, and am pleased to see that if this is a mistaken approach, I'm not alone in it :)

  7. Mind you I don't think there would be such a problem with paedophilia if there were women priests

  8. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church

    239 By calling God "Father", the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, (Isa 66:13; Ps 131:2) which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.

    42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God - "the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable" - with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

  9. Personally, I think teachers should be allowed to get married. There wouldn't be a problem with teachers molesting their students if such was allowed.

  10. Love it! I hate the marriage argument. I know far more fathers that molested their children than priest/Fathers who molested those in their care (dozen to zero)!

  11. @Alan Fox
    At least two of the cases of child molestation in the local school districts involved lesbian teachers having affairs with young girls.

    Most other cases in the schools, as I understand it, involve female teachers and young boys.

    The actual occurrence rate among priests is vanishingly small, comparable to the rate in the general population, but also much lower in the past six years or so.
    + + +

  12. The actual occurrence rate among priests is vanishingly small, comparable to the rate in the general population, but also much lower in the past six years or so.

    Vanishingly small! I am sure many in the Catholic hierarchy worked hard to make it appear so. Good grief!

  13. Dr. Feser,
    From a classical theistic perspective, God creates the world ex nihilo rather that out of His own substance. Creation is thus in no way comparable to gestation and birth, imagery which, when applied to theology, suggests either pantheism or a pagan cosmogony. The divine creative act is more like the relatively “distant” role played by the father in procreation.

    I understand the difference between an "artifact" and a "creation ex nihilo", (thank you) but do Thomists hold that every existing thing is created ex nihilo? (Including you and me?) How does that work?

    Thank you.

  14. Male and female are "accidental"; masculine and feminine are not. To leave these qualities out of the godhead leaves femininity with no ontological grounding. The theology of Hans Urs von Balthsar is helpful here. May I immodestly suggest my article on the question:

    An excerpt:
    In the theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, not merely the relational character of the Trinity is asserted, but that the specific relationships involved are gendered, by which Von Balthasar means generativity and receptivity, “letting go” and “letting be”, giving and receiving, qualities which he identifies with the (super-) masculine and the (super-) feminine. Von Balthasar does not shrink from the analogy with human love; on the contrary he asserts the Trinity as the transcendent origin of what we actually see! As such, he sees it as dynamic, reciprocal and fruitful.

    “Finally, the divine unity of action and consent – which, as we have seen, share equal dignity within love – is expressed in the world in the duality of the sexes. In Trinitarian terms, of course, the Father, who begets him who is without origin, appears primarily as (super-) masculine; the Son, in consenting, appears as (super-) feminine, but in the act (together with the Father) of breathing forth the Spirit, he is (super-) masculine. As for the Spirit, he is (super-) feminine. There is even something (super-) feminine about the Father too, since as we have shown, in the action of begetting and breathing forth he allows himself to be determined by the Persons who thus proceed from him; however, this does not affect his primacy in the order of the Trinity. The very fact of the Trinity forbids us to project any secular sexuality into the Godhead (as happens in many religions and in the gnostic syzygia). It must be enough for us to regard the ever-new reciprocity of acting and consenting, which in turn is a form of activity and fruitfulness, as the transcendent origin of what we see realized in the world of creation: in the form and actualization of love and its fruitfulness in sexuality.” (Von Balthasar 91)

    In presenting this view of the processions, Von Balthasar makes bold use of the analogies of human love. In doing so, he presents us with a series of paradoxes which shed new light on some ancient problems, problems such as generativity, receptivity, death and immutability. In doing so, he is able to enlighten us about the way in which we image God, and image him in the way we are: as gendered persons, as male and female. This represents, to a certain degree a radical departure from the Medieval tradition, which was reluctant to assign the feminine a place within the Godhead, a reluctance which centered around the supposed imperfection implied by receptivity.


    We can intuitively grasp the reason for this reluctance since to “receive” means to get something we lack, and a lack implies imperfection – impossible for God! Moreover,

    “The classical – Aristotelian – philosophical tradition anchors the meaning of the feminine in ‘matter,’ and thus in ‘potency’ rather than ‘act’; and Aquinas follows Aristotle in this.”(Schindler 203)

    Since potency lacks the perfection of act, the feminine principle is excluded a priori from the Godhead. It is certainly true that as ex nihilo creations, when we receive being, we receive something we lack. However, Von Balthasar asserts what is intuitively obvious, that “without this receptive letting be and all it involves – gratitude for the gift of oneself and a turning in love toward the Giver – the giving itself is impossible.” (Von Balthasar 86)

  15. @John Médaille:

    I thank you for this. I do think there is a much deeper business in this than meets the eye. The topic of masculine and feminine (not male and female) pervades so much of his work. I think also of Charles Williams.

  16. I'm surprised the fact that in English, being a genderless (more or less) language, we refer to the universal in the masculine gender --ie "mankind"-- was not mentioned.

  17. I'm surprised the fact that in English, being a genderless (more or less) language, we refer to the universal in the masculine gender --ie "mankind"-- was not mentioned.

    I actually added "and womankind" to my comment and then thought it looked a bit twee and deleted it. I guess if the feminists among the women readers here don't object, we shouldn't worry!

  18. @John Médaille:

    I thank you for this. I do think there is a much deeper business in this than meets the eye.

    I agree. Because this topic is by nature theological, and modern personalist theological speculation provides very fertile ground for such activity.

  19. @Alan Fox, re "women priests"


    OOO! verification word : sangreal!

  20. Well, if they would get busy and post the audio of Roger Scruton's final Gifford Lecture on 'The face of God', we could finally see who is right about God's sex.

    On another noye, it always puzzles me that talk about theology and religion inevitably leads to talk about sex.

  21. Ed (I meant to post this earlier)

    In response to your comment that, “what you should be asking is how God can appropriately be described in masculine terms given that He is incorporeal and thus has no bodily organs,” a trivial philosophical argument would be that God as a spirit has no body, but maleness requires certain bodily organs, hence God cannot be male.

    You also commented, “A-T arguments…are philosophical arguments,” and you said, “simplicity per se isn't really what is relevant here.“ But as it turns out this blog post on God’s sex is totally based upon your initial tacit accepting the theological speculation of divine simplicity as a given.

    Thus this was not a philosophic discussion of how existence (or pure being) can be personal – the question I raised. I am pretty sure you get this point I am making.

  22. Thus this was not a philosophic discussion of how existence (or pure being) can be personal – the question I raised.

    I'm a bit perplexed because this is not at all the question you raised; it was, and I quote, "how a concept of God that is simply being can be assigned a particular sex". This is a very different question than "how existence (or pure being) can be personal". The former was explicitly about God and divine simplicity; the latter leaves it unclear what's being talked about at all. The former is about attribution of sex or gender; the latter is about attribution of personality. But sex and personality are not at all the same thing.

  23. You are right, Brandon, I was grossly paraphrasing Ed and my earlier thoughts:

    The God of classical theism is, as you say, simply ‘Being itself.’ We could logically shift the emphasis from capitalized ‘Being’ to a capitalized ‘Itself,’ since being is neither male nor female, (which are essences or modes of being). So the well understood God of classical theism is not a ‘He,’ but an ‘It.’ Quite a shocker to many, I suppose.

    Here, I was thinking of subjective existence (he, or she, or person) vs objective.

    Ed said, “Maybe I'll write a post on why God is not appropriately referred to as "It" or "She."

    We were on the same page, I think.

    I then expressed concerns that “this is an ontological question in philosophy, and a matter of revelation in religion.” And raised the doubt “Can one do this within philosophy alone?”, exclusive of theology.

    What I think have been getting at is that the Hebrews, Spinoza, Aquinas, Phelan, and just about any philosophy deals w/ the nature of being, but philosophy cannot seem to settle the matter. And that is when some totally new and unique system of speculative theology is devised, and A-T is but one.

  24. This makes far too strong a set of metaphysical claims from far too little. Yes, it is not appropriate to refer to God-as-a-Person as 'It'. Since many languages (including English) require persons to be male or female (i.e. there is no general human pronoun), then a gender has to be assigned for ordinary language use. Since public/formal authority is generally male, and God is the Ultimate Authority, it is natural to assign God as being masculine.

    But the issue only arises due to a lack of non-gendered language. There is no metaphysical necessity in this.

    Furthermore, humans have in fact been quite varied in their family and authority structures. Since men have stronger upper body strength, are more expendable for reproduction do not have the vulnerability that pregnancy and nursing provides women, formal authority has typically (but hardly universally) been male.

    A perennial problem with the natural law approach is that it is very easy to read what one is used to as some general metaphysical quality or necessity, when it is not. This is another case of this

  25. @Alan Fox 4:09:

    You are dead wrong, mate. The facts show that the abusers are a small fraction of the priesthood, and that priests are no more likely to abuse than any other profession. Those papal apologists over at Newsweek, of all places, ran the story a couple of weeks ago.

    So will you modify your beliefs to fit the evidence? Or cling to the "celibacy causes paedophilia" meme?

  26. You are dead wrong, mate.

    Whilst I accept that Wikipedia is not free from bias, this article makes depressing reading. Nobody here feels like expressing any sympathy for the thousands of (often serially abused) victims, apparently.

  27. Since we are talking about symbolism and sex, it has always puzzled me why people intentionally overlook the obvious. What is bizarre and psychologically depraved is the notion that Christ – and so his earthly priest representatives – are married to Mother Church.

    But take a look at the patriarchal system that leads and represents the face of this woman – all celibate men (except the few nuns in subservient roles). You have, in effect, a universal community of celibate men married to one another.

    I know one can represent this in a different manner, but this is the way it has always appeared to me (I am Catholic).

  28. I think a summary gloss of many posts and comments of the past month or so:

    Natural philosophy tells us about what exists, and nothing more than that a supernatural being is or is not an existent. The most common argument about God in natural philosophy is that some creative agent started it all.

    Metaphysical speculation attempts to explain how all the existents of nature interact, or hang together, and what properties are associated with each one.

    It is the metaphysical specialty of theology that is employed whenever speaking of the supernatural nature of God.

    For example, in the ID debates, evidence for a necessary supernatural designer is being studied as the matter of natural philosophy that it is (science).

    How all of designed nature is interrelated (matter, energy, space, time, consciousness, etc.) is the subject of metaphysics. Many matters of metaphysics become matters of natural philosophy through findings of science, like with relativity, evolution, DNA…

    When describing the nature of the supernatural designer, one is doing theology.

    Should ID prove successful, there will remain still further speculation on remaining unclear interrelations of nature’s existents (metaphysics), and the nature of God (theology).

  29. Nobody wrote: You have, in effect, a universal community of celibate men married to one another.

    Um. Yeaaaah... and if you tell your daughter that she has her mother's eyes, then it's like saying that you're married to your daughter!

    Of course, when one reaches a bizarre conclusion, that's an excellent sign that one's interpretation has gone off the rails.

  30. Alan Fox: Nobody here feels like expressing any sympathy

    Why should they? Do you think that it isn't possible to have sympathy without expressing it? I mean, your post didn't express any sympathy for victims of Rwandan genocide or Nazi concentration camps; do you expect us to think that that's because you approve of them?! Nobody said, or even vaguely hinted, that the abuse itself isn't abhorent, so your statement comes across like an ad hominem attempt to change the subject.

  31. I might've said that priests cannot get married to women because they are already married to the church. A Holy Mother initialed on earth in Peter and claiming to have 'the truth' based on its all-male episcopacy formed by an unbroken chain ordination of males.

    I am not sure where to locate bizarre in all this symbolic stuff, David, though I am sure your sharp insight can do the trick.

  32. Great justification!

    Now please explain whether centaurs are more correctly referred to as "men with the bodies of horses" or "horses with the heads of men."

  33. [I]t is only those who know something about philosophy and its history, and who have grappled seriously with its questions, who have earned the right to pronounce on the rational credentials of theology and traditional morality. And that most definitely does not include those blinded by scientism.

    Whereas, judging by how you throw off what you presumably know about philosophy in order to persist in pronouncing so irrationally on this question of God as subjective being demonstrates just how blinded by narrowly held medieval Catholic dogma you are.

    Invariably, it appears clear that what in your mind is a matter of settled philosophy is what most people consider a matter of individual religious faith conviction.

  34. Now please explain whether centaurs are more correctly referred to as "men with the bodies of horses" or "horses with the heads of men."

    As Augustine said, if they are capable of reason they are men, no matter how monstrous their appearance.

  35. For the priest is an alter Christus, “another Christ,” ...

    The minister of every sacrament is an alter Christus. cf St Augustine: when someone baptizes, it is Christ Himself who baptizes.

    Women can be ministers of the sacrament of baptism. They are also necessary ministers of the sacrament of marriage (otherwise only male-male sacramental marriage would be possible!).

    There are at least two sacraments where females are 'alter Christus'.
    The alter Christus argument against female ordination is invalid.

    The bridegroom/bride metaphor is stretched too far to exclude female ordination. Because if the Priest/bridegroom/alter Christus must be literally male, then the bride/communicant must be literally female. Therefore only females may receive the Eucharist!

    Your statements about human maleness and femaleness are general not universal, the most that this argument can sustain is that generally (not universally) females cannot be ordained.

    At the Last Supper who cooked the Passover meal, laid the table and washed up? - Women. Did those women also 'take and eat' the Meal?

    The arguments against female ordination are counter-cultural, it is even more important that they are valid if they are to receive the assent of the faithful. I submit that they have not (yet?) received that assent.



  36. Assigning a sex to God is probably the most metaphysical stretch of the human brain. Everyone knows chauvinism.

    We will see women priests soon.

    It was very refreshing to see a female Rabbi in a TV show. Very natural. Probably makes her colleague, Jesus, really mad.

  37. The modern is nearly incapable of conceiving such things as anything other than a power-domination relationship.