Does God Have Any Traditionally-Feminine Traits?

This post is by Dr. Charles Hackney. Enjoy!

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In response to John Piper’s recent comments about God as a supremely masculine figure, cialis Rachel Held Evans asked for “the guys” to provide some possible responses focusing on women in the Church or feminine images of God in the Bible.

I have commented before on my semi-sorta-quasi-egalmentarian stance on gender differences, informed by my training as a social/personality psychologist. My approach here will continue in that vein, focusing on personality and social psychological research into masculinity and femininity.* (One major approach that I will avoid here is Jungian depth psychology. Although Jung had plenty to say about the psychology of maleness and femaleness, I am not well versed enough in Jungian thought to speak with any kind of competence in that area.)

1. God Speaks From His Heart
Many studies have examined gender differences in communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Women tend to outperform men on tests of verbal creativity and fluency. Women tend toward greater emotional expressivity (with the exception of expressing anger, at which men tend to excell), more accurate perception of others’ emotions, and better performance at nonverbally expressing emotion. Compared to men, women’s overall approaches to communication tends to be about the establishment and strengthening of relational bonds. Men’s approaches to communication tend to be more instrumental: communication is about conveying information from my brain to your brain, preferably with an eye toward completing tasks.

So how does God communicate? While we do see God conveying information, in parts of scripture God is pouring out his heart. He grieves over the sins of the people, going so far as to ‘regret’ his previous actions of love and hospitality to them. We see God establishing relational bonds over and over again in God’s initiation of covenants with Israel – “I will be your God and you will be my people”. All of this is done because, as Trinity, God is relational.

2. God’s Moral Reasoning
The most well-known researcher in the area of moral psychology is Lawrence Kohlberg. He examined the thought processes behind people’s moral decisions, developing a theory in which people are seen to grow from more primitive forms of morality to higher and more sophisticated forms. The highest form of morality in Kohlberg’s theory is reasoning in terms of abstract principles of justice. His research revealed a curious gender difference; women typically scored lower in moral reasoning than men did. Kohlberg interpreted this as society retarding women’s moral development. This interpretation (and his basic theory) was challenged by the research of Carol Gilligan, who found that women were not less sophisticated or advanced in their moral thinking, but tended to approach moral decisions from a perspective that has been called “the ethic of care,” with a greater emphasis on compassion and relationships.

So how does God reason about morality? It is commonplace in theology to describe God’s character as both just and loving. Yes, the Bible is filled with exhortations to justice, praise for just actions, condemnation of unjust actions, and praise of God’s justice. But God also employs love, compassion, care, and other such “feminine” forms of morality as important moral principles. He exhorts us to love our neighbours, care for the widows and orphans, and show compassion, for He has shown us compassion.

3. When God “Roleplays”
Much of the literature on psychological gender differences has been summarized in terms of “agency” and “communion.” Agentic characteristics involve forceful action, assertiveness, competition, dominance and mastery. Communal characteristics involve friendliness, unselfishness, emotional expressiveness, and unity with others.

One interesting take on these themes in the personality literature comes from the mind of Dan McAdams. McAdams’ approach to personality is narrative in structure. Your life story (as you see it) is what shapes your self-concept, influences how you respond in different situations, and guides how you go about selecting and pursuing your life goals. So, is your life story an epic tale of struggle to overcome the odds? Is it a sad story of loss and pain? Is it a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? In addition, what is your role in the drama? Loveable loser? No-account boozer? Honkeytonk hero? In his study of the stories that people live by, and the character types in which they cast themselves, McAdams found the themes of agency and communion in people’s life-story-characters. Some roles were high on agency and low on communion (e.g., The Warrior), some were high on communion and low on agency (e.g., The Caregiver), some had high levels of both (e.g.. The Teacher), and some had low levels of both (e.g., The Survivor). Men were more likely to see themselves in agentic terms, while women were more likely to see themselves in communal terms. The four most common highly-communal roles McAdams found were The Lover, The Caregiver, The Friend, and The Ritualist.

Let’s see if God fits these “feminine” communal character types.
The Lover is a character who seeks intimacy with others, who delights in relationships. Romantic themes are prominent in this person’s life. Examples of God as The Lover include the extended portrayal of God in Hosea 1-3 as a betrayed husband seeking to redeem his wife and renew their intimacy.

The Caregiver sacrifices herself for the sake of others. This person is often found acting in a parental role. Examples of God as The Caregiver include Psalm 61:3, Psalm 103:13, and Matthew 23:37.

The Friend, rather than showing the passion of The Lover, is loyal, cooperative, and steadfast. This is the kind of person who is always there for you, whether you need a sympathetic ear or a strong pair of arms to help you move. Examples of God as The Friend include Nahum 1:7 and John 15:15.

The Ritualist believes strongly in tradition, family, home, and community. Examples of God as The Ritualist include Exodus 20:12 and Proverbs 1:8-9.

Here are just three approaches to psychological gender differences, and three ways in which God displays traditionally-feminine characteristics. This does not mean that we should uplift feminine characteristics over the masculine, or vice versa. Rather, Amanda’s quote of Miroslav Volf serves as a good conclusion:
“We uses masculine or feminine metaphors for God not because God is male or/and female, but because God is ‘personal’…Whether we use masculine or feminine metaphors for God, God models our common humanity, not our gender specificity…Men and women share maleness and femaleness not with God but with animals. They image God in their common humanity…” Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 170-173

*Contact me if you want references to specific studies.

  • Thanks for posting this. I especially liked the section on God’s moral reasoning.

  • Excellent post!

    I just have a hard time seeing these traits mentioned as exclusively feminine.

  • What are exclusively feminine traits that people have? Aren’t most (all?) of the personality traits we consider to be masculine or feminine a matter of degree? And, they are culturally conditioned at that! I really didn’t understand RodTRDH’s remark.

    In the Myers-Briggs types, for example, there is a tendency for males to be “T” and females to be “F.” But, that is certainly not absolute! Plenty of males test our F and plenty of females test out T.

    I really question whether there is such a thing as and “exclusively” male or female personality trait!

  • God is a spirit. John 4:24 He is also our Creator and Father.
    With that being said, men (God’s sons) and women (God’s daughters) both inherited specific traits from him.

    God is Ezer. The word Ezer appears in the OT twenty-one times—twice for the woman in Genesis 2:18 and 20, three times for nations Israel turned to for military assistance when they were under attack, and sixteen times for God. In other words, the same word used to describe God as helper is the very same word used to DEFINE woman as helper.

    God is metaphorically maternal. Woman is maternal.
    Deu 32:18, Is 49:15, Is 66:13, Hos 13:8, Luke 13:34

    Christ was submissive to the Father. Christ modeled submission for us. He submitted to the father. Wives are to be submissive to their husbands.

    There are at least three feminine traits – being Ezer, maternal and submissive – that women inherited specifically from the Father.

  • Thanks, for sharing. I found you while looking around for posts on women in ministry (something I wrote about recently in a post entitled Philemon). I had seen this post briefly I believe while going through the volume of posts on Rachel’s blog, but did not have the chance to read it. So, glad I found it again! Keep up the good work!
    Shalom,
    Jonathan