I’ll get back to the reflections on Laudato Si next week. This week, I want to answer a reader’s question. It’s been a while since we looked at a Q&A.
Ironic, since that’s the original purpose of the blog. . . .
Anyway, so Marcy asks, “Why would God decide to come to us as one particular gender? It seems like such limiting form for an omnipotent and infinite being. And why male? Assuming heavenly omnipotence, why would he/she/it do something that would make many of his human creations feel so left out, disconnected, disenfranchised, and second-class, especially if said being could know all things and see how such a choice would be used against women? (Or anyone who wasn’t a white male.) (And don’t tell me about virgins and mothers. It doesn’t help.)”
Above: The Sinless One helps the Sinner.
There’s a lot in this question, much of which neither I nor any other human being can answer, since it requires knowing the mind of God. But I have a feeling that Marcy doesn’t want me to just write “I have no idea” and leave it at that. So I’ll do my best.
Let’s first look at the gender of God. God is pure spirit, meaning He does not have a physical body. As such, He does not, properly speaking, have a gender, since one’s gender is linked to one’s physical body. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “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” (CCC 239). So God is beyond male and female.
So why did he reveal Himself as male? Why not female?
Remember something very crucial, something too many people who read the Bible forget: God did not give His Revelation to the modern world. I don’t mean, of course, that He does not speak to us, for He speaks to all ages through His inspired Word. What I mean is this: the Bible itself was written in a specific historical time by specific historical people. God spoke to/through these people, and He used images that they would understand. That does not make what they wrote wrong or anything like that, any more than a parent’s attempt to explain something complicated to a child makes the parent’s explanation wrong. We all do that, using metaphors to explain what we know, but others don’t understand.
We see this in the creation story. It wouldn’t have helped the Israelites understand God’s role in creating if the creation story began, “In the beginning, God formed hydrogen atoms and compressed them into a tiny bundle of atomic energy. Don’t worry about what atoms are; you won’t be able to detect them for another three thousand years. And thus the atomic cloud expanded, and the atoms mixed and crashed into each other to form other atoms” and so on and so forth. It’s hard to understand even today, and we HAVE the technology and science to understand. In fact, I’m pretty sure my explanation here is lacking in some crucial detail, but hopefully you, kind readers, will move past my poor understanding of astrophysics and see this crucial theological point: God teaches to our level of understanding. This includes when He teaches about Himself.
In the ancient world, it was understood that the male of an animal (people included) gave life through sexual intercourse. To use sort-of philosophical lingo, the woman was a passive receptor to the man’s active fertilization. Remember that mammalian eggs were not discovered until 1827, and human eggs were not discovered until a century afterwards. For the majority of human existence, people thought that the seed of the man gave life to the woman’s dormant womb. Hence the strange phrase “sprung from your loins,” referring to a child of a man. You see this ancient sexual image in the creation account. God injects life into the passive world through His Word. John Paul II draws out this point in one of his reflections which makes up his Theology of the Body (specifically the one on September 12, 1979), noting that Genesis 1 uses terms like “separated” or “placed” when speaking of inanimate objects, but uses the terms “created” and “blessed” when discussing the creation of animals and man. When God creates living things, He gives them life in a unique way, different from the rest of creation.
In the ancient world, that makes Him the Father, the source of all life. In fact, the ancient Israelites called God Father for that exact reason, since He was the source of all that is. It wasn’t until Christ came that we learned that God is Father in a completely different way: His divine paternity did not begin with His creating time, but rather is from all eternity as the Father of the Divine Son (see CCC 238-242 for a detailed discussion of this point).
So God revealed Himself as the source of all creation, as Father. However, He did not limit Himself to only masculine terminology. We see God compared to a mother several times in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 32:18 we read how Moses reprimanded the Israelites for rejecting God: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you / You forgot the God who gave you birth.” This quote shows the creative paternity of God (begetting is typically a paternal term in the Old Testament) and an interesting maternal aspect of God, one where God gives birth to the Israelites too; in a sense, it is a double reference to the Israelite’s dependence on God as a son would be dependent on his parents. The Old Testament prophets likewise draw out the image of God as a mother, usually in reference to animals (Hosea 13:8, in reference to those who embraced pagan worship, reads “I will attack them like a bear robbed of its young, and tear their hearts from their breast; I will devour them on the spot like a lion, as though a wild beast were to rend them”) or to mothers of newborns (Isaiah 49:15 has the important comparison between a neglectful mother and God, that even if mothers forget their babies, or the child in their wombs, God will not forget us, and Isaiah 66:13 sees God comparing Himself to a comforting mother).
Keep in mind, just as with the references to God’s paternity, we don’t have God saying, “I’m a woman” just as we don’t have Him saying, “I’m a man.” Also keep in mind that God isn’t saying to the Israelites, “I am a mother,” but is rather saying, “I’m like a mother.” These are metaphors and analogies. Analogies are not the same thing as equivocations. God isn’t equating Himself with a mother goddess, but He is comparing His love to a love which any human can understand, that of a loving mother.
The best example of Christ comparing Himself to a mother is in the famous passage in Luke 13:34 (the equivalent is found in Matthew 23:37):
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!
Above: Don’t mess with Mama Hen!
Again, we see the image of God as a caring mother who would do great things for the Israelites if they would only follow Him. But since they won’t, “Behold, your house will be abandoned” (Luke 13:34).
So God revealed Himself using primarily masculine terms and images, but He also used feminine metaphors to explain other aspects of His divine love.
So why did God choose to be incarnated as a man instead of a woman, or in a particular gender at all? The phrasing of Marcy’s question has two alternatives to Christ being incarnated as a man. On the one hand, Christ could have instead been incarnated as a woman, and such an incarnation could have allayed some of the sexism that has reappeared throughout human history, scandalously among Christians; on the other hand, Christ could have been incarnated as a hermaphrodite, a man-woman, and would theoretically have been “free” from gender roles, more indicative of God’s genderlessness, as discussed above. Wouldn’t either of those have been better ideas, in the long term?
Here’s where I stir the controversial gender pot. From what I can tell, Christ’s Incarnation as a male was not a divine coin flip (“Ok, heads I come as a man, tails as a woman; flip the coin, Gabriel”). God became a man, not just any human, as an essential aspect of the Incarnation. I will give three reasons.
The first reason involves creation. Remember the point we made about fatherhood in the ancient world seen as the cause of life, planting the seed in the fertile woman. Now, we know that you need a woman as much as a man to have a baby, but as pointed above, as far as the creation of the world is concerned, only one source was needed: God. God made everything out of nothing (hence the earlier biblical language of God as father and mother, even though God has no passiveness in Him), so He is the only source of creation.
We need to keep this in mind when discussing Christ. Christ’s coming is a new creation. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:3). These phrases are reminiscent of the creating Father from Genesis. In coming Christ does not create a new physical world. Rather, He gives us new spiritual life. He is the source of that life, just as God is the source of life in the original creation. To emphasize this connection, it was more appropriate for God to be incarnated as a man.
The second reason is the historical context of the Incarnation, “the fullness of time” in St. Paul’s words to the Galatians (Gal. 4:4). Christians reflecting on the historical context of the Incarnation, from earlier writers like St. Paul and St. Augustine, to modern writers like Warren H. Carroll and Brennan Pursell, note that the time of Christ’s Incarnation was really a great moment for God to become man. The known world was “at peace” in the Pax Romana of Caesar Augustus; Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had fertilized the intellectual world with discussions of existence, truth, and the immaterial world, ideas that had been spread through the conquests of Alexander the Great; Hebrew priests prayed and sought purification in preparation for the coming Messiah, understanding that soon the prophecies of Daniel and Malachi were coming true. These three cultures, the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, paved the way for the coming of Christ, and provided the historical context for the Incarnation.
This historical context provides a key to why God became incarnate as a man. Few would argue against the fact that the early Roman Empire was a man’s world. In fact, one of the reasons some Romans avoided Christianity was because Christians taught that men and women were to be treated with equal respect. For the Hebrews, the testimony of women was often dismissed in court. These two points are crucial for understanding why God came as a man. If He had come as a woman, both the Romans and the Hebrews would have rejected His (Her) preaching out of hand, simply based on gender. By coming as a man, Christ gives weight to his teaching, touching the hearts of those who otherwise would not listen. Crowds of thousands gather to listen to Him speak; they wouldn’t gather if He had been a She. In a similar way, Christ as a hermaphrodite might have done more harm than good, as such a figure would not command respect, perhaps less than a female Christ would.
Why did He come as a man? To get His Gospel spread throughout the world so that everyone could be saved, especially the marginalized women of antiquity. The love of Christ extends to all men and women.
The third reason involves the coming of the Messiah, as far as the Israelites were concerned. The Messiah was to come as a fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the Davidic kings of old. God promised David that his kingdom would last forever (see 2 Samuel 7); the Messiah would be the heir of David’s throne, a son of David. Likewise, the Messiah was expected, somehow, to right the wrongs of Israel. Christ did this in an extraordinary way, by taking on the role of the New Adam (see Romans 5), atoning for Original Sin just as Adam was responsible for causing Original Sin (if you ever come across someone who blames Eve for the Eden issue, tell them to read the WHOLE Bible. Even though Eve was partly to blame for disobeying God, Adam ALWAYS carries the most weight for the sin).
The masculine aspect of Christ’s Incarnation did not stop Christ from using women as his evangelists. One needs to look no further than Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well (John 4) and how she evangelized her entire village. We can see among Christ’s early followers a lot of women, albeit not among the Twelve Apostles, but certainly among those who helped with the early Church and who listened to Jesus (remember the story of Martha and Mary? I wrote more about that earlier. Of course, there is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who holds a place in the Church higher than any other saint.
The most basic answer to all of this, to why God came as a man, and why we refer to God in masculine pronouns and titles, is that God wanted it that way. Remember something so crucial, so neglected in our day: we are not God. While we can theorize what could have happened, or why something happened one way versus another way, we have to keep in mind that things happen for a reason. God came as a man for a reason. Perhaps His reasons were none of the ones listed above, and my entire post has been a poor attempt on the part of a finite man to rationalize the actions of the infinite God.
One final point. This whole question centers on the issue of God limiting Himself in the Incarnation to one gender. In a sense, this issue falls into a classic idiom, missing the forest for the trees. Yes, by coming as one gender or another, God limited the physical body of the Incarnate Word. However, we must remember that the Incarnation itself was God, in a sense, limiting Himself. As that early Christian hymn recorded in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians states, Jesus Christ,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
The Incarnation shows the deep humility of God, for in emptying Himself of His divine splendor, by coming as one of us, He allows us to come to Him in a way we could not before. Adam sinned by trying to make himself a god. God rectifies what he did by making Himself man, with all his physical limits.
I hope this long answer actually answers your question, Marcy. If not, feel free to refine your question in the comment box below. Actually, everyone else, be sure to comment on the post with questions and thoughts, to further the discussion.
For Further Reading:
Brumley, Mark “Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/Dess?” https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/jp2tb2.htm
John Paul II, “Biblical Account of Creation Analyzed” Delivered 12 September 1979. https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/jp2tb2.htm
I also go more into the nature of God in my second Reflection on the first part of the Creed.