by Rev. Debra Jene Collum
When I entered seminary a quarter of a century ago, I was searching for a way to break out of a fundamentalist system of oppression and patriarchy that would never affirm the gifts and graces I was given for ministry. While I did a great deal of ministry, it was always ‘under the authority of the elders’ and subject to their scrutiny and control.
Announcing my plan to enter seminary and pursue full-time public pastoral ministry meant that I was excommunicated from a group of people I had been in fellowship with for over 15 years. My children lost playmates, I lost friends, and my Christmas card list was cut to almost nothing.
My first attempt at seminary admittance found me applying to a Baptist seminary that required their students to sign ‘lifestyle’ statements promising to refrain from all sorts of ‘un-Christian behaviors.’ I refused to sign and was not admitted to the seminary. My next attempt was the other end of the spectrum, the very liberal UCC seminary. I was readily accepted and assured that there were no written rules that I had to adhere to in order to be a participant in the student life of the seminary.
I was quite taken back when, at my orientation session, I was informed that if I didn’t write my papers in inclusive language, including language for God, I would fail my classes. So much for no rules…
Having come from a patriarchal system, you would think that I would embrace the idea of a genderless God. However, at the time, I didn’t know how else to refer to God. And it was God, ‘my heavenly Father’ who had stuck by me and continued to affirm my call to ministry when all others, including my family, shunned me. I wasn’t ready to talk about God or name God in any other way. Not yet…
So, I ended up at a Lutheran seminary where I flourished and grew and learned and became intimate with a God of many names, characteristics, moods, and purposes. And where I learned that what I needed for me, and for the people with whom I would one day journey with as their pastor, was a non-gendered God. A genderless God who was so much more affirming in God’s many ways of being and interacting with the Universe than any gendered, mythical god.
This naming of God without reference to gender has become so much a part of me that I cringe when I use the male pronoun to refer to God in moments when my mouth is going faster than my mind.
And singing the hymns of the church can be very uninspiring for me as I realize how much we perpetuate the myth of a gendered God through the words of our hymnody.
I continue to struggle with how to nurture the spiritual journey of my parishioners when so much of our language for God is gendered male.
I have not gone so far as to call God, ‘It’ as Shug does in ‘The Color Purple’. But I do affirm her reasoning, “Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It. But what do it look like? I ast. Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.
You see, to me, a genderless God is a bigger God. A God that is not limited by human failings and not subject to the human inability to love unconditionally. Not a mythical god who is only given power as we are able to imagine God’s power, but a God that overcomes our shortcomings to call us into the More that we are able to be. A genderless God is able to be both intimate and transcendent. A genderless God is able to journey with us and call us out of our limited understanding of ourselves so that we can be present to others. A genderless God can be powerful without the trappings of gendered expectations. This is the sort of God, I believe, we need in the time we are living now.
A time when human power seems more corrupted and more ambiguous and more capricious so that we long for the mythical gods of superpowers to come among us. We know they aren’t real, yet, we continue to hope that they will spring to life and save us. And when our Christian gendered God doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job at saving us in the way we expect gendered gods to save us, we are left with nothing at all.
Whereas, a non-gendered God who embraces all that God is in scripture, in the Universe, in Creation, in the best of the human spirit, in peace, in mercy, in justice, in whatever it is we need; a God who is not limited by any human design, capriciousness, ambition, or ambiguity; this is the God who can save us to the uttermost.
It is this God who can teach us, as we are being daily saved into our best selves, how to guide others into the pathway of God revealed through all humans, all the Universe and all Creation and more, who is already among us waiting to reveal the Kindom of God here and now.
We need a genderless God so that we don’t get in the way of all that God is and can be for the whole of the human race.
We need a genderless God because only then will all people be able to be drawn into the circle of God’s embrace.
 Walker, Alice. The Color Purple (pp. 202-203). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
Rev. Debra Jene Collum is an ordained elder in the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is appointed to the rural town of Chatfield serving Chatfield UMC. Pastor Collum is the co-chair of the MN Annual Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She has taught Lay Servant courses on expanded language in public dialogue and worship and will be teaching the workshop “Naming Our God—From Patriarchy to Radical Purpose” at the Women and Spirituality Conference this fall.