God as Thelarrhenic

by Carl S. Keener

Carl S. Keener, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 26-27, Vol. 12, Number 1, Spring, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author illuminates problems generated by the appropriation of the terms “androgynous” and “gynandrous” in process theology.

Recent papers on process thought and feminism have used the term "androgynous to depict the range of maleness/femaleness expressed in both humans and God.1 In a similar sense, "gynandrous" has been proposed.2 To be sure, the aim is to capture, by means of an appropriate term, the rich texture of human differences, that one is neither strictly "female" or "male" but a creative combination of the qualities historically assigned to both. The aim of this note is to illuminate certain problems generated by the appropriation of the terms "androgynous" and "gynandrous" in process theology.

Botanists have used these terms for many years. Androgynous and gynandrous have precise meanings with neither term being the obverse of the other. Strictly, androgynous refers to an inflorescence (group of flowers on a stalk or in a head) with the staminate (male) flowers located above or inside and the pistillate (female) flowers located below or outside. Gynecandrous (not gynandrous) is precisely opposite: an inflorescence with the pistillate flowers above, the staminate flowers below. Both terms imply a spatial arrangement of female/male flowers. Moreover, in human physiology, androgyny and gynandry refer to abnormal human sexual development in which an admixture of male/female sexual organs is present in one human. In plant taxonomy gynandrous refers to a fusion of male flowers (stamens, actually) on a style (part of the pistil or female reproductive structure) such as in orchids and milkweeds. Again, the term implies a spatial organization, and in Greek it means "of doubtful sex, an appropriate term for the physically abnormal intersexed humans referred to above.

The term called for, I think, is one which means that, in the case of flowers or animals, both female and male parts are present (and functional!) within one flower or one organism. Two terms could be used (from systematic botany): (a) hermaphrodite (from Lat., hermaphroditus, having the characteristics of both male and female), i.e., an individual biologically with both sex organs (unfortunately, the term is applied also to humans who possess both female and male sex organs); (b) monoclinous (Gk.,monos, one + kline, a bed), i.e., a plant having flowers with both stamens and pistils -- without regard to their spatial arrangement (such flowers are said to be perfect). One must not forget that, in systematic botany, androgynous means the male flowers are above (superior to, as botanists say) the female flowers, which is hardly the image intended by the appropriation of the term by process theologians. Certainly the terms could be invested with new meanings, but I prefer using a term which does not imply either spatial positioning or abnormality. Possibly the best term from systematic botany would be monoecy (Gk., one house) which refers to plants possessing both male and female flowers (i.e., the flowers themselves are unisexual or imperfect, as contrasted to bisexual or perfect), as, for example, in maize or oak trees.

Perhaps a new term might be coined, one which would not carry all the technical freight of the terms discussed above. By combining two Greek words for feminine and masculine traits, viz., thelis (female, fruitful, prolific, nourishing, tender, delicate) and arrhen (male, masculine, manly, strong), the word "thelarrheny" can be invented.3 Thelarrheny expresses the view that humans combine the traits (but not physical sex organs) of both female and male. Hence, one could talk of God and ourselves as thelarrhenic. Note that the root "thel-" should come first (at least for euphonic reasons), a shift which should please everyone.

This note is a pitch from a botanist. Perhaps psychologists might invent a better word!



1John B. Cobb, Jr., "Feminism and process thought: a two-way relationship," pp. 32-61 in Feminism and Process Thought, ed. S. G. Davaney, (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1981). V. C. Saiving, "Androgynous life: a feminist appropriation of process thought," pp.11-31 in that same volume.

2John B. Cobb, Jr., op. cit.

3 The meanings of the Greek words are from Liddel & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, 25th edition (Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1938).