I was delighted to hear from an old student of mine from 35 years ago. He writes,
In your writings, you often refer to God in pronouns bearing gender. Does such language result in God’s anthropomorphism?
I would reformulate the question as follows:
In your writings, whenever you refer to God using a third-person pronoun, you use the masculine pronoun 'he.' Does this use of 'he' promote an anthropomorphic conception of God?
I would say No. It is true that the pronoun I use in reference to God is 'he.' And because I write almost always as a philosopher, I do not write upper-case 'He' in reference to God except at the beginning of a sentence. This is not a sign of disrespect; it arises from a desire not to mix the strictly philosophical with the pious.
Does a use of 'he' in reference to God imply that God is of the male sex? Not at all. Otherwise one would have to say that a use of 'she' in reference to a ships and airplanes implies that these things are of the female sex. But ships and airplances, being inanimate material objects, are of no sex.*
God too is of no sex, but for a different reason: he is wholly immaterial. (I will suggest a qualification below.) Still, we need to be able to refer to God. Assuming we don't want to keep repeating 'God,' we need pronouns. 'It' is out. 'He or she' makes no sense. Why not then use 'he'? Note that any argument against 'he' would also work against 'she.'
As a conservative, I of course oppose silly and unnecessary innovations; so I use 'he' to refer to God. For a conservative, there is a defeasible presumption in favor of traditional practices: the burden of proof is on the innovator.
One must distinguish between grammatical gender, which is a property of words, and sex which is a property of some referents of words. As already noted, if one uses 'she' to refer to something it doesn't follow that the thing referred to is female. That shows that grammatical gender and sex come apart. One ought to bear in mind that gender is first and foremost a grammatical category. Sex is a biological category. I have no objection to talk of gender roles as (in part) socio-cultural constructs, which involves an extended use of 'gender.'
That grammatical gender and sex come apart is also the case with nouns. In English, the nouns 'table' and 'boat' have no gender, but in Italian (and other languages such as German) their counterparts do: tavolo is masculine while barca is feminine. This is reflected in the difference between the appropriate definite articles, il and la, where in English we have the gender-neutral 'the.' But while tavolo and barca are masculine and feminine respectively, their referents are sexless. So again grammatical gender and sex come apart.
So when I use 'he' in reference to God there is no implication that God is of the male sex.
It is also worth pointing out that an anthropomorphic conception of God is not a concept of God as a male, but as a human being. So if I use 'he' in reference to God am I implying that God is a human being? No. But he is more like a human being than he is like any other type of animal or any inanimate object. So 'he' is an appropriate pronoun to use.
But why 'he' rather than 'she'?
Recall that when his disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he taught them the "Our Father." Was Jesus suggesting that we are all the biological offspring of God? Of course not. Still, he used 'Father' or the equivalent in Aramaic.
Is there a hint of sexism here? If there is, it would seem to be mitigated By God's having a mother, the Virgin Mary: Sancte Maria, mater dei . . . . Mary is not merely the mother of Jesus, but the mother of God:
According to St. John (1:15) Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word Who assumed human nature in the womb of Mary. As Mary was truly the mother of Jesus, and as Jesus was truly God from the first moment of His conception, Mary is truly the mother of God. (here)
This divine motherhood does not elevate Mary above God, for she remains a creature, even after her Assumption into heaven. She is not worshipped or adored (latria) but she is due a special sort of veneration called hyperdulia, dulia being the name for the veneration appropriate to saints. Or at least that is the Catholic doctrine.
Is God Immaterial?
There is another curious theological wrinkle. Christ is supposed to have ascended into heaven body and soul. The Ascension was therefore not a process of de-materialization or disembodiment. Christ returned to the Godhead body and soul. The Ascension did not undo the Incarnation: returning to the Godhead, Christ did not become disincarnate. After the Word (Logos, Second Person of the Trinity) became flesh and dwelt among us it remained flesh even after it ceased to dwell among us.
This seems to imply that after the Ascension matter was imported into the Godhead, perhaps not the gross matter of the sublunary plane, but matter nonetheless. But not only that: the matter imported into the Godhead, even if appropriately transfigured or spiritualized, was the matter of a male animal. For Jesus was male.
So while we tend to think of God and the Persons of the Trinity as wholly immaterial and sexless when we prescind from the Incarnation and Ascension, God after these events includes a material and indeed sexually male element. This is a further reason to think that 'he' is an appropriate pronoun to apply to God.
But what if God is Being Itself?
According to Aquinas, Deus est ipsum esse subsistens. God is self-subsistent Being. He is not an ens among entia but esse itself. He is Being itself in its primary instance.
Is it appropriate to refer to such a metaphysical absolute as 'he'? Not entirely, but 'he' is better than any other pronoun I can think of. Of course, one could coin a pronoun for use only in reference to God, say 'de.' But as I said, conservatives are chary of innovations, especially when they are unnecessary. Just use 'he' but realize what you are doing.
* Is 'he' ever used to refer to what is not a male animal? I should think so. Suppose a man gives his primary male characteristic the name 'Max.' He may go on to say: 'Old Max ain't what he used to be.' This use of 'he' refers to the penis of a human being which is a proper part of a male human being. But I should think that no proper part of a human being is a human being.