Looking to the Mystics

May 29, 2024

Today we have a special edition Wednesday blog post to share by one of our presenters, Carl McColman. Carl will be leading a day retreat, Saturday, June 8 about Christian Spirituality and Gender Diversity. Today’s blog will give us some insights into what the retreat will dive into! Find out more about Joan of Arc to Pauli Murray: A Day of Reflection on Christian Spirituality & Gender Diversity by clicking here. 

What Pronouns Would God Prefer?

The wisdom of a medieval mystic helps us to rethink the spirituality of gender for our time

In the middle ages — 1373, to be exact — an obscure English woman got sick, and while she was ill, experienced visions of God, Christ, Mary, and heaven. We know about her because she described her mystical visions in what became the first book written in the English language by a woman. We don’t know her name, but she was affiliated with the Church of St. Julian in the village of Norwich, so we refer to her as Julian of Norwich. Today, Julian is considered one of the greatest of the medieval Christian mystics; there are numerous editions of her book in print, and her message — that God loves all of humanity deeply and delightfully, and therefore “all shall be well” — resonates strongly with our age.

But Julian is also famous for a message that would have been deeply controversial in her time, and even today is problematic for some Christians: Julian proclaimed “As truly as God is our father, so too is God our mother.”

Ours is the age of feminist theology and popular books like The Shack that depict God very much as a maternal figure. God-the-mother may not be a universally accepted image, but more and more people find it helpful all the time. Any spiritual director will tell you that God as a father-figure simply doesn’t work for many people, often because their relationship with their earthly father was so troubled. We can accept God-the-Mother as an alternative to God-the-Father because we intuitively recognize that God is bigger than our human categories of gender.

This leads me to ask a question that some people might think is impertinent or even scandalous, but I think is vitally important for our day and age: If God is bigger than human gender, doesn’t it make sense that God is non-binary?

If you’re not familiar with that term, it is an increasingly common description of people who do not identify their gender as exclusively male or female. This in itself is nothing new: when I was a youth, celebrities like Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics were renowned for being “androgynous.” But non-binary refers to something deeper than dress or appearance. A non-binary person experiences their identity as a human being as something other than just “male” or “female” (regardless of their biological sex). Some non-binary people see themselves as a blend of both genders, or as a third gender beyond male and female, or even as someone without a gender identity at all (agender). Actress Emma Corrin and singers Demi Lovato, Janelle Monáe and Sam Smith are among today’s celebrities who have publicly identified themselves as non-binary.

Non-binary identity is an internal experience: this is how the person perceives themselves from the inside. So a non-binary person can present as androgynous, or can have an appearance that might seem more conventionally masculine or feminine. If this is a new concept for you, you may wonder, “so how can we tell if someone is non-binary?”

One way we can recognize a non-binary person is by the pronouns they use. While it’s not universal by any sense, many non-binary persons prefer to use the pronouns they, them and their when referring to themselves, and they ask others to use those pronouns when referring to them as well.

And while some people might quibble that they is a plural pronoun and should not be used to refer to a single individual, the English language is far more flexible than that. Take the pronoun you — historically it was a plural pronoun (“thou” was the singular form), but nowadays we only use “thou” when reading Shakespeare or old translations of the Bible. If we can accept you as a singular pronoun, we can accept they and them as singular as well.

So if we believe (as many Christians do), that God is beyond the human gender categories of male and female, wouldn’t it be common sense to refer to God using the pronouns they, them and their?

It’s logical, but it also represents a change; and in the world of spirituality and faith, many people resist change mightily. I just alluded to how many Christians still like to use centuries-old versions of the Bible, even though they are not as accurate as more modern translations: but many Christians, especially older adults, say they feel more comfortable, and therefore more “reverent” or “holy.” Likewise, even after sixty years, a surprising number  of Catholics still say they love Mass in Latin, even if they don’t speak Latin themselves. There’s a sense of nostalgia for what used to be familiar and comfortable. And because of that nostalgia, change can be quite difficult.

So I understand why many Christians aren’t rushing to embrace God’s pronouns as the non-binary they and them. But as I said, I don’t think this is an impertinent question — because the question of God’s “gender” points us back to the mystery and challenge of gender on a human level.

St. Paul once proclaimed that in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). I don’t believe he was suggesting that Jesus himself was non-binary (although who knows?), but rather was making a powerful statement about the spiritual freedom that can be experienced in the Christian life. In the same verse, Paul also says “there is neither Jew nor Greek” and “there is neither slave nor free.” We could interpret this verse for our age this way: in Christ, we are not limited by our racial or ethnic identity, by our economic or political status, or even by our gender.

Gender diversity — the reality that about 1-2% of the population is either transgender or experiences some type of non-binary gender identity — is a simple fact of life, just like some people are born left-handed even though most people are right-handed. A few generations ago, educators would try to force left-handed people to write with their right-hands; we now understand that was misguided. In fact, nowadays left-handed people are thought to be more naturally creative (for example, two of the four Beatles are left-handed!).

In a similar way, psychologists even just a few decades ago thought that the best way to “treat” gender differences was by insisting that children conform with their “assigned” gender. But today nearly all mental health professionals recognize that the best plan of care for transgender and non-binary people is to support them in living according to their own experience of gender.

Religion is often slow to catch up with science (it took centuries for the Catholic Church to admit that Galileo was right!), and so today many Christians continue to oppose social and legal accommodations for transgender and non-binary people. I personally believe this is as scandalous as the way that churches often were slow to oppose slavery or segregation. But the Holy Spirit is continually at work in the churches, seeking to transform our hearts and our lives to bring us more in alignment — the Christ in whom there is “neither male nor female.”

I understand that this can represent a new way of thinking for many Christians, but it also represents a meaningful way to affirm and include the 1-2% of people who simply don’t “fit in” with ideas about gender as a binary. Perhaps all of us, regardless of our gender identity, can prayerfully consider how the mystery of gender does not have to be a source of division among the human family but that in God all gender identities are welcome in the circle of divine mercy and love.

About the author: Carl McColman is a spiritual director, retreat leader, contemplative blogger, and author of books like Eternal Heart and The New Big Book of Christian Mysticism. Carl will lead a program at Bon Secours on June 8:Joan of Arc to Pauli Murray: A Day of Reflection on Christian Spirituality & Gender Diversity