Here in Atlanta, it’s Pride weekend, where LGBTIQ (and imagine A as well in a few cases) people and their allies celebrate the freedom to define themselves and their identity. While walking in Midtown this Friday, I passed St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. They had an electronic sign in the front posting messages about services as well as affirming messages such as “you are a child of God and you are welcome here.” One message gave me pause, and it was this:
My personal theology is evolving, but is fairly liberal. I am pretty comfortable with “live and let live” with respect to people’s personal identities, and am staunchly in favor of civil liberties for all people regardless of orientation or identity. However, this made me angry to read in a way that I didn’t expect. Intuitively, it felt like a willful misinterpretation of Christian beliefs as stated in the Bible. Since I consider myself fairly liberally-minded, having what I viewed as a conservative reaction bothered me. I decided to do some research and reflection rather than assuming that the statement was wrong or accepting it on its face.
First, we should define the term “genderqueer”. Wikipedia defines it as:
“a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.”
For those just joining the bleeding edge of identity concepts, cisnormativity refers to the bias toward a understanding of the world where men identify only as men and women identify only as women.
Given this definition, at first, the statement sounds a little less crazy. God is not defined as male or female and does not conform to the gender binary. We refer to God as male because we grew up in (and the books of the Bible were all written in the context of) a patriarchal society. I actually would rather refer to God using the pronoun “it”, but that word is loaded with problematic nuance that doesn’t work in English. Does this mean that we can refer to God, then, as “genderqueer” and have that be as accurate as saying “God is not male or female”? I’ll get to that in a minute.
The verse referred to in the image, is Deuteronomy 4:16, which reads:
“beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female”
I’m not sure what this verse has to do with the assertion that God is genderqueer. As far as I can tell, this is a restatement of “don’t make graven images”, which is part of God’s drawing of a distinction between the Hebrews and the other people of the area, who worshipped multiple gods and viewed idols as focal points for worship. I get that it’s asserting that God’s likeness can’t be captured as male or female, but it goes on in the next verse to say you can’t use animals either. So let’s look at a verse that has some more relevance; Genesis 1:27:
“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
So if man and woman are both created in the image of God, this would mean that the image of God encompasses both masculinity and femininity. More evidence that God does not conform to the gender binary. So we ask again, does this make God “genderqueer”?
I’m not a minister, and not even particularly well read on theology and religion, so I welcome thoughtful insight and counterpoints from pastors and ministers out there on this. However, one key theological tenet that I have taken to heart is that one cannot submit the Creator of the entire universe to the Creation that was made. When we define God as an old white man (or even just as a man), we are reducing God to conform to the rules of that creation. However, by the same token, if we try to box God into any characteristic of human identity, we’re doing the same thing; conforming God to the creation made by God.
God does not have a gender; God created gender, and created each person that subscribes to a particular gender identity as well. The irony of using that part of Deuteronomy to justify the assertion that God has a particular gender identity that is affirming to the non-standard binary is that in making that assertion, we are creating a different kind of “graven image”. We are trying to fit God into our understanding of how things should be so that we can comprehend, and be more comfortable, and have God accept us.
This is where the beauty of the Christian understanding of grace comes in. Those who believe in this believe that God created each of us the way we are, complete with our strengths and weaknesses. We don’t need to reduce God to make God accept us where we are today. Now, once we take God’s proverbially outstretched hand, Christians differ on what outworkings there may be on that based on your gender identity and sexual orientation. Some believe that having a non-standard identity or orientation means that you must live with it without changing it or acting on it. Others believe that there are paths for everyone to experience the fullness of earthly love, partnership, and self-definition in a way that is not offensive to God and in line with each person’s identity and orientation. Picking a side there is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Ultimately, though, if our affirmation is in an acceptance of the grace outlined in the Gospel, we don’t need a God that looks like us and behaves like us to be validated and affirmed.