About once a year I do a Question Box service, when in lieu of the sermon I answer as many questions as I can from among those people have written down earlier in the service. It being impossible to get to all of them in the space of 20 minutes, I promised this year to take them up gradually in such forums as newsletter columns and blogs. This one is in reference to the benediction our choir sings most weeks,

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his/her hand. (The choir alternates, one week singing “her,” the next singing “his.”)

The questioner asked: “Does God have a gender?” Here’s my response, which I also published in the forthcoming edition of our newsletter.

I love this question! In fact, I’ve given this a lot of thought for years. In a Feminist Theology class at Syracuse, we read pieces arguing that in imagining God as male, men—who had shaped most of Jewish and Christian tradition—were creating God in their own image and then worshiping themselves. In other words, committing idolatry.

I agreed with these theo/alogians (if God might be female, then the area of study might better be called thealogy) but thought they needed to go further. I didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic god at all (as you’ll hear in today’s sermon), and I wrote a paper called something like “Anthropomorphism and Idolatry” arguing that describing the divine exclusively in human images was as idolatrous as describing it exclusively in male images. After all, if God created everything, surely it would be a wild coincidence for us to be the one and only creature who resembles the Creator. It’s self-serving and arrogant to assume that’s true.

So, no, God does not have a gender. As feminist theology points out, does God have genitals? Chromosomes? A beard? Of course the answer must be no. It’s a metaphor, and when we start to take it literally, we end up worshiping maleness, and we’ve seen where that leads: misogyny.

And no, God is not a human being. As I pointed out in my long-ago essay, does God have blood? a brain? two arms, two legs? Of course the answer must be no. When we take this metaphor literally, we end up worshiping humanness, and that leads to our despising the rest of nature and destroying the environment.

This doesn’t mean that these images should be tossed aside. The fact is, we humans think in images and metaphors, especially when it comes to great abstractions such as love, peace, and God. Whatever the holy is—power, goodness, creativity—it is beyond simple understanding and beyond anything to which it might be likened. And yet, metaphors help us express what we mean. When people imagine the holy as something that creates life, they may imagine a sculptor working in clay (as in one of the Genesis stories, and many other religions’ creation stories) or a woman giving birth (as in Babylonian religion and others). Neither makes sense literally, but they’re good metaphors for the power of creation. When the choir sings, “May God hold you in the palm of her [or his] hand,” what they are saying doesn’t make sense literally, but it is a good metaphor for this wish: as you move through a life that is often hazardous, we hope that some of the great forces of the universe will carry you safely through.

Because I think metaphors are a necessary aspect of human thought (if I wasn’t convinced already, one of George Lakoff’s early books, Metaphors We Live By, with Mark Johnson,sealed it), I think the remedy to their limitations is not to shun them but to use a wide variety of them. This helps prevent us from taking any of them literally, or limiting our understanding to just a couple of characteristics of, in this case, God, or as I prefer to say, the holy. Maybe the holy is like water; this is a frequent image for the Tao, flexible and ever-changing and powerful. And/or, maybe it’s like a crucible, in which the unimportant aspects of our lives are burned away. And/or, maybe it’s like a healer, curing the illnesses of the soul, the body, even the planet. And/or, maybe it’s like a flower, growing where we tend it and needing our care to flourish. If we have enough of these different metaphors in the mix, then we can safely throw in some human ones too: male, female, and neither.

What metaphors express what you believe is holy?