God’s Pronouns? Displacing Hegemonic Masculinity within Theological Scholarship through a Diversity of Language, Imagery, and Symbols


Each morning, as I sip my coffee and look out at the small Innenhof from my apartment in Vienna, I listen to the news from my home country—the United States—and I am both grieved and relieved to be geographically removed from that context. I am grieved because the U.S. seems to be on a drastic backslide, with many of the hard-won rights that were gained during the Civil Rights Era (beginning in the 1960s) being overturned by conservative courts. Among the misconstrued and intentionally inflamed debates about abortion, critical race theory, and access to gender affirming care, the topics of diversity—specifically its place in universities—and pronouns continue to be easy targets for politicians on the right seeking to energize their base.

At my previous university, I experienced how the intensity of these debates in the U.S. created a need for seminaries and theological schools to equip students with equally valid, faith-based responses to counter the loud voices of white Christian nationalists. While I am relieved to be removed from the “fire” of that context, which demands constant attention and critique, I have begun to witness how a similar exclusive ideology quietly slithers through public discourse here in Austria (which the first case study in this brief paper will show), though less intensely than in the U.S. to be sure. Because of the quieter nature of these debates here, it would seem that the importance of a liberal theological response has been equally quiet. This is not a condemnation but rather a recognition that different contexts make different demands on us as theologians and researchers on religion. Therefore, this article is an attempt to bring some the critical social engagement that is required of theology in parts of the U.S. into greater awareness here, specifically for my thoughtful and welcoming colleagues here at the University of Vienna.

This article aims to help each of us recognize that in our research we are, at every moment, either complicit with the harmful theological undertones of these debates or engaged in a critical analysis and subversion—and how we might go about participating in the latter. This is accomplished through the use of two case studies, which illustrate a correlation between gender and diversity in which hegemonic masculinity (that is, the dominance of white, heterosexual men) actively works against women and anyone who does not conform to its heterosexual, binary ideal. Finally, I use the work of the Catholic feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, to demonstrate how hegemonic masculinity undermines the very nature of theology itself (understood within the apophatic tradition). I bring to attention the “three ground-rules” that Johnson identifies for theology and her identification of how the use of exclusively masculine language, images, and symbols for God transgresses these rules. I then use this work to illustrate how the masculine God that saturates much of our theological imaginings shapes and perpetuates a disregard for diversity, which is on display today in political and theological debates in the U.S. Finally, I offer a few practical steps that each of us can take to move from complicity and can displace hegemonic masculinity in our work.

Case Study I: A Facebook Post on Diversity

As I was scrolling through Facebook late one evening, a certain post from the University of Vienna caught my eye. It was an advertisement for a new certificate in “Diversity Competence.” As in my home country, diversity is a topic of both increasing importance and debate for Austria, especially since foreign citizens residing in Austria numbered 1,587,251, which is 17.1 % of the total population of 8,979,894.[1] As of May 10th, the university’s public post about diversity competence had 110 total reactions. Of these reactions, 81 were “likes” while 27 were “laughs.” So, I decided to look deeper and to investigate whether there was a trend in who responded in what way to this post: Was one group of people more likely to laugh than another? What characteristics are shared among those who clicked the laugh reaction, and what characteristics are shared among those who chose to like the post?

😂 Of the 27 accounts that responded with the laugh react, 22 self-identify on Facebook as men, while 4 self-identify as women, and 1 did not specify a gender publicly.

👍🏼 Of the 81 accounts that responded with the like react, 59 self-identify publicly on Facebook as women, while 18 self-identify as men, and 4 did not specify a gender publicly.[2]

While broad conclusions about the regard for diversity within Austria cannot and should not be made from this small case study, here is what can be said about this post from the University of Vienna:

  • Male respondents were 5.5 times more likely to laugh than female respondents.
  • More male respondents chose to laugh react at the post (22) than male respondents who chose to like the post (18).
  • Female respondents were 14.8 times more likely to like the post than they were to laugh react.
  • Female engagement with the post overall was 1.6 times more than male engagement.

Within this case study, there would appear to be a correlation between the gender of the respondents and an affirmation of the importance of diversity (with “likes” being regarded as an expression of affirmation). Specifically, there is a correlation between femininity and an affirmation of the importance of diversity. Now, as someone who is a practitioner and researcher at the intersection of theology and gender studies/queer theory, I felt compelled to comment on the post about these trends and the need that they demonstrate for a Diversity Competence certificate. In response to my comment, an Austrian man responded that: “The majority of people reject gender ideology and diversity. This is Austria.”

I share all this to show that there is a connection, at least in the case of this Facebook post about diversity, between gender and diversity, and specifically, that hegemonic masculinity comes to the fore, as demonstrated by the responder to my comment, as a force that works against diversity in its efforts—conscious or unconscious—to maintain the dominant status of a particular type of masculinity: the white, heterosexual male.[3] Feminists have written about this for decades, which is why this paper will, in due course, use Elizabeth Johnson’s article in order to call theologians and researchers on religion into deeper reflection on the language, imagery, and symbols that we use and center within our own research.

Case Study II: Gender in Art

The notion that hegemonic masculinity, as evidenced above in the Facebook post, seeks to maintain the central and powerful position of the white, heterosexual male body has had profound and deleterious effects on theology and research on religion. Think for a moment of the 16th century painting “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo. This famous fresco has looked down upon millions of visitors to the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City over the last 500 years, and it has been foundational within the Western theological imagination. This image has become so engrained in Western theology and popular culture that it is almost difficult to regard it as one interpretation among many, rather than as the authoritative depiction of God.

In an effort to displace this image within our theological imaginings, I have not included it here. Instead, I chose to center another interpretation—one that critically engages and subverts the hegemonic masculinity that is at work within and propelled by “The Creation of Adam.” (Please return to the image at the beginning of this article before continuing.) This image, “The Creation of God,” was created by an Afro-Cuban American, whose “artistic concern has focused on Black female empowerment in Western culture, depicting and honoring the African diaspora.”[4] Before even engaging the artwork itself, the title reminds us that it is the artist and their social location (the socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, sex/gender identity, and sexual orientation of the artist) that affects and creates the artistic representations of God that are available to us. The artist, from their social location, creates a God that reflects their own social location.

So, if our theological imaginations are saturated with images of God that are shaped by and reflect hegemonic masculinity, then what is our role within this imagining as theologians and researchers on religion? How can we methodologically move from complicity in our perpetuation of this system through the use of exclusively masculine pronouns, images, and symbols for God in our research, to a critical engagement that moves us into a more expansive and, as we shall see in the next section, more theologically-sound engagement?

A Path Forward: Elizabeth Johnson and the Apophatic Tradition[5]

While the image of God offered by Harmonia Rosales might seem like an intentional and exact opposite of Michelangelo’s, rather than categorizing these two simply as contrasts, we can hold both in a creative tension—a tension which itself points us toward some deeper activity and concept about interpreting God. This creative tension informs our theological imagining by asserting that there is no single “correct” image of God and, as Elizabeth Johnson’s article will show us, the use and deployment of multiple different images and names when referring to God is necessary. Johnson “argues that using female symbols for God, not exclusively but in combination with male, animal, and cosmic images, is both legitimate and necessary for the healthy life of the church” (p. 40, emphasis added). To be clear, Johnson is not advocating for the exclusive use of feminine pronouns and imagery for God. The goal is not to replace an exclusively male-centric image with an equally exclusive female-centric one. Such a move is not only counter to Johnson’s apophatic aim, but it would also continue to ignore the reality that the male-female binary does not reflect the lived experiences of nonbinary persons and the many people for whom these traditional categories have policed and censured their bodies. The goal is neither an exclusively female nor an exclusively male God; the goal is something more expansive.

What Johnson does is draw our attention to the formative relationship between symbols and the communities that engage with them. “The image of God,” she writes, “shapes a community’s corporate identity and behavior as well as the individual behavior of its members” (p. 41). The symbol of God shapes the community’s collective identity and behavior as well as the identity and behavior of the individuals who participate in the community. Perhaps Johnson’s most famous statement on this topic is:

The symbol of God functions. Beyond verbal or visual references, it focuses a whole complex of conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, emotions, and associations, very deep and tenacious. It is never neutral in its effects, but expresses and molds a community’s bedrock convictions and actions.

p. 41, author’s emphasis

The symbol of God functions. Beyond verbal or visual references, it focuses a whole complex of conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, emotions, and associations, very deep and tenacious. It is never neutral in its effects, but expresses and molds a community’s bedrock convictions and actions” (p. 41, author’s emphasis).

The symbol of God that we each engage with, which is informed by the (male) images that flood our theological imagination, not only expresses the values of community, but it also, and reciprocally, molds these same convictions. Johnson has called our attention to the functioning of the perilous theological loop in which images of God like Michelangelo’s both a) express the hegemonic masculinity of his community, and b) molds, shapes, and perpetuates this hegemonic masculinity. Within this circle the creation of God takes place and perpetuates itself.

Johnson goes on to say women’s scholarship has “made it piercingly clear that naming God almost exclusively in the image of a powerful ruling man has at least three pernicious effects:

1) By literalizing this image, it reduces the living God to something much less, indeed, to an idol.

2) It legitimates structures of male authority in civil and ecclesial communities: in the name of the Father God who rules over all, men have the duty to command and control, on earth as it is in heaven.

3) It robs women of their dignity by distancing their human nature made in the image and likeness of God from their own concrete, bodily identity” (p. 42).

Juxtaposed with these three pernicious effects, Johnson outlines three “ground-rules” for talking about the divine that have protected the Holy Triune God:

  1. “The first and most basic is this: the reality of God is a mystery beyond all imagining” (p. 43).
  2. “Consequently, there is a second ground rule: no expression for God can be taken literally” (p. 44).
  3. “From this,’ Thomas Aquinas argues, articulating the third ground rule, ‘we see the necessity of giving to God many names’” (p. 44).

This juxtaposition, made by the contribution of women—and I would add by scholars who do not conform to heterosexual norms—poignantly illustrates how referring to God with exclusively masculine pronouns, images, and symbols undermines the very discipline of theology itself by transgressing its own ground-rules. If God is always pictured as a physically exaggerated, white heterosexual male, then God is reduced to an image and becomes an idol—no longer beyond all imagining. The repetition of this hegemonic masculine image of God then transgresses the second ground-rule: it becomes a literal referent for the identity of God rather than a contextually bound interpretation. It must be said that this exaggerated image also harms the men who perpetuate it by elevating one ideal of manliness that few—if any—men can actually achieve. Finally, using exclusively masculine language transgresses the third ground-rule because, in its assertion of the image of God, it dismisses the necessity of other names and images. God is no longer beyond all imagining, therefore this image of a masculine God is the literal image of God and, furthermore, there is no need to use other names for the divine. The circular logic of hegemonic masculinity neuters theology; theology transgresses its own apophatic ground-rules and defeats its own purposes.

Conclusion: From Scholastic Complicity to Critical Re-Imagining

For theology and communities of faith, the exclusive use of masculine language, images, and symbols for God harms everyone who does not adhere to the ideal of heterosexual hegemonic masculinity and forces theology into a self-defeating exercise. To reiterate: It is not just “woke” or “politically correct” to use other images for God; it is essential to theology itself and to the critical method that we employ in our research. Diversity is necessary for theology and the health of our communities. Specifically, for us as theologians and researchers on religion, a diversity in the pronouns and images of God that we use and refer to displaces hegemonic masculinity and its transgression of the three ground-rules established by the apophatic tradition. We saw in our first case study how masculinity was at work: these men laughed at a post about diversity while most women liked it. By perpetuating a masculine God, we perpetuate, to a certain degree, a disregard for diversity—because this disregard is necessary for hegemonic masculinity to retain its power.

As Johnson notes, the symbol of God shapes our behavior, and as we have seen, that symbol can either lead to a rejection of diversity or to its embrace. I have, therefore, tried to demonstrate in this article how we, as theologians and researchers, can move from complicity to a critical re-imagining of God through an embrace of diversity. I began with a Black female image of God to dislodge the one that has become literalized and idolized in its constant use. I described the effects of Michelangelo’s image without perpetuating the use of that image here. In this paper I have not used any pronouns for God, and I have sought to center the theology and work of women and those who do not conform to hegemonic masculinity and its compulsory heterosexuality. Perhaps this was self-evident, but as we wade into a greater diversity of images it is necessary for us to not only be clear in our methodology but equally clear in our rationale. All of this has been in an effort to move from complacency to a critical re-imagining, which Johnson and Rosales have already begun and are evidence of.


[1] This data from 2021 comes from the Austrian government’s website: https://www.migration.gv.at/en/living-and-working-in-austria/austria-at-a-glance/geography-and-population/.

[2] No one who interacted with this post publicly disclosed a gender identity that falls beyond the male-female binary.

[3] See the works of feminist political scholar Judith Butler for more on the relationship between the gender binary and the corresponding “compulsory heterosexuality.” Cf. specifically, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York; Abingdon: Routledge, 1990).

[4] This information was gathered from that artist’s website: https://www.harmoniarosales.art/theartist.

[5] This portion of the paper examines the following article: Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Female Symbols for God: The Apophatic Tradition and Social Justice,” in International Journal of Orthodox Theology, 1:2 (2010), pp. 40-57.

This article is based on a workshop I led at the Open Research Day for the Vienna Doctoral School of Theology and Research on Religion on the 22nd of May, 2023 under the title “God’s Pronouns? An Interdisciplinary Discussion on the Role of Gender in Theology and Research on Religion,” which is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bfLGNKY4xo.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

RaT-Blog Nr. 08/2023

  • J.J. Warren (he/him) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Systematic Theology at the University of Vienna, and he is the author of Reclaiming Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020), a book that seeks to aid the church in becoming LGBTQ+ inclusive and affirming.