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Is God Sexist?

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Pieter de Grebber, God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand (1645)

1,245 words

I was at one of my Twelve Step meetings the other day, and as happens to all such groups sooner or later, they are going through their “God is sexist” moment.

In case you don’t know, all the Twelve Step groups – Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and a host of others – are “God-based” programs. This means that the recovering person is asked to accept some sort of “God,” “Higher Power,” or “Something Greater than You” into their life and then surrender their addiction and related difficulties to that higher force.

The Twelve Step community has always been careful to never specify what “God” is. That is a purely private and personal choice. If you’re Catholic and want to go for the old school, traditional, Catholic God, go ahead. If you’re a vegan, cat-identifying, gender weirdo and want to worship a Space Goddess, you can do that. Atheist newcomers to AA who don’t want to acknowledge any sort of God are often told, “Think of your AA group as your Higher Power . . . or the Moon . . . or the doorknob in your bedroom. It can literally be anything you want as long as it’s not you.” This never-defined God strategy has been a key to AA’s success and longevity.

However, Twelve Step groups are still subject to the various social movements that pass through the mainstream culture. Thus, one of the recurring issues in recent decades has been the question, “Is God sexist?” Or to be more specific, “Is the use of masculine pronouns when referring to God oppressing our female members?”

Here’s an example of the use of “Him” and “His” pronouns to which some women object, from Alcoholics Anonymous’ (AA) eleventh step, which reads:

We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Since AA was formed in the 1930s by two Christian-Americans, there’s a lot of language like this, much of it within the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization’s foundational text.

As one can imagine, contemporary females see a God described as “He” as a problem. Believing they must always be strong and independent, they do not want to submit to masculinity in any context. Never mind that the whole point of AA is to encourage alcoholics to forgo some of that strength and independence, to give up some of their self-will, and instead trust in God and the cumulative wisdom of their fellow alcoholics to overcome their addiction. Submitting yourself to a higher authority is the secret ingredient of AA. Your plan for how to stay sober obviously didn’t work. That’s why you ended up in AA.

But nobody brings that up. When the AA feminists ask to amend the eleventh step (and many other texts), AA’s men typically shrug and give in. “Okay,” they say, “if you want to rearrange a few words to make God gender-free, we can live with that.”

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Girolamo dai Libri, God the Father with His Right Hand Raised in Blessing

In AA groups, the most common solution to the gendered pronoun predicament has been to remove the pronoun entirely and replace it with the word “God.” This leads to some repetitive sentence structure, but it generally does the job. Using this strategy, the eleventh step then reads:

We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

In the past, during my blue-pilled days, I considered this slight alteration to be a reasonable compromise. I have been in many meetings in which such changes were suggested, voted on, and passed unanimously.

Now, though, I find myself looking more closely at such disputes. It occurs to me that to remove the masculine association from a cultural figure (God) who is believed to represent strength, authority, and wisdom is to separate those qualities from men. It’s not a blatant separation in this instance. It’s barely noticeable. But as I am learning, if feminists think something is worth fighting for, it is probably worth fighting against.

I would also raise another point: Who says God isn’t a “he”? If God is – in an anthropological view – a mythic entity who exists primarily as a manifestation of the billions of people who believe in him, and if, over the course of history, the vast majority of those believers assumed God was a “he,” then isn’t he one?

When I first arrived at AA, I was an atheist. I didn’t care what God was. I listened skeptically as the other people talked about prayer and faith. I rolled my eyes. But almost everyone around me found this stuff to be beneficial, even the other atheists.

And so one night, before bed, I decided to try it. I knelt down, next to my futon, adjusting my bare knees on the hard floor. I put my hands together, did one last eye-roll, cleared my throat, and commenced speaking to God.

It wasn’t a long conversation. But I did notice a certain calm come over me as I whispered in the dark. Also, it clarified in my mind what was really important in my life at that moment. That I stay sober. That I support my family and friends. That I be a good person to whatever degree I could.

I felt a sense of completion and satisfaction when I was done. Who, specifically, I was talking to when I did this, I could not determine then, and have never bothered to figure out since. My “God” is neither an old man on a cloud or the supernatural father of Jesus. He remains the same formless presence that appeared across from me that first night.

But if I actually stop and think about it, I would have to admit that this invisible entity definitely feels more male than female. To me, God is like a wise older man . . . a father, or a coach. But he isn’t always older. At times he’s like a close friend, a person who knows me better than I know myself, and whose perspective is larger than my own. In that sense, my personal God probably is male. To be totally honest, I cannot picture God as a female.

I can only imagine the response I’d get if I said this at my AA meeting. “But what if God actually is a guy?” It would be fun to watch the heads explode. But I can’t realistically do that, as I have to go back to that meeting every week.

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Fourteenth-century Georgian fresco, The Ancient of Days

But I do plan to fight the de-gendering. I’ll use the classic excuse of, “We shouldn’t be messing around with these historic texts. This is how the founders wrote it. If you want to engage in gender politics with your God, go ahead, but leave the original texts alone.”

We’ll see how that goes. I noticed that this time, when the sexist pronoun question came up, there was a slight hesitation among the usually compliant men in the room. Could this be a turning point? If I suddenly feel compelled to push back against these encroachments, maybe other people are feeling that way, too. It might be time to retake some lost ground.