(3rd in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)
Much has been written in recent years about the negative effects of using masculine imagery and pronouns when referring to God.
The Scriptures tell us that God is neither male nor female, that God's nature encompasses both male and female characteristics. God is Spirit, indescribable.
Yet when it comes to choosing words that speak of God, we are deeply rooted in patriarchal tradition. World-wide language for God has for centuries been overwhelmingly masculine in biblical translations, liturgies, sermons, hymns/songs and everyday speech.
It has never occurred to some people that the pervasive use of masculine terminology and metaphors to speak of God might result in a skewed conceptualization of God as "masculine."
Author and hymnist Brian Wren (What Language Shall I Borrow?) writes: “To say that language choice is ‘mere metaphor’ or ‘only a matter of words’ is, however, unconvincing if the usage in question is persistent and widespread.
It is a fair assumption that persistent and systematic uses of language express what the speakers really think and match how they behave…[and] that the way we speak of God shapes and slants our understanding of God.”
Our basic concept of God is formed at a very early age. There is some evidence that very young children may be more aware of God's presence than adults, though they are less able to articulate what they experience.
As an adult, I intentionally try to conceptualize God in broader, non-gender-related terms. But despite my best efforts, I still cannot entirely shake my childhood visualization of God as a blurry, light-skinned, grandfatherly figure with an inviting demeanor, a very large lap and long arms that reach out to embrace me as a child, along with lots of other children.
This imagery probably says as much about my psyche as it does my faith, but I am convinced that my religious upbringing--through books and Bible stories, worship language and song--had a lot to do with my early visioning of a masculine God.
Divinity professor Sheri Adams, ("God and Gender: Is God Male or Female? Both or Neither?"*) writes: “This powerful conditioning starts early and is very pervasive... I have asked many, many people what image they had of God when they were children. Almost to a person, people have responded that they thought of God in male terms.
...Most of the people…have sat through countless worship services in which every reference to God…was in male terms: he, him, his, Father, King, Lord. Every statement we make about God, every picture we produce of God, is an interpretation of God... From our interpretations come our theology and from our theology comes our guidelines for the Christian life.”
We think of God as having human-like qualities because that's what we know best. That's how we relate to others, and we want to have a close, personal relationship with God.
But we must remember that both males and females are "created in God's image." When we use only masculine imagery and pronouns to refer to God, we omit the balance of God's feminine nature.
We're so conditioned to speaking of God in masculine terms, it is often jarring to hear someone use "Mother God" or "She" to speak of God.
[If feminine imagery/pronouns were employed as frequently as masculine imagery/pronouns, there would not be as much activism against gender-exclusive language. But patriarchy reigns supreme, so we press on against the status quo.]
Several years ago I read Wm. Paul Young's wonderful religious novel, The Shack. Young has been criticized for imaging the Trinity as three completely separate human characters. But my favorite part was when he introduced the God-figure, an African-American female cook named Papa. (Talk about scrambling stereotypes!)
Actually, we have a bigger problem than using masculine references for God, or even substituting feminine references. When we think of God only in terms of human-like qualities, we limit our understanding of God's complex nature. God's character encompasses so much more than personhood.
To broaden our understanding of God, we might intentionally lay aside for a while any human-like references:
· He, Him, His, Himself, Father, Lord, Master, King,
or even She, Her, Mother, Parent, Ruler
[Note: Laying aside masculine pronouns will be the most difficult part of this exercise. With practice it gets easier. I've been able to avoid referring to God as "He" or "Him" when writing articles, litanies, lyrics, & prayers now for years--it's become second nature.]
Instead, we might speak of God using terms that highlight other aspects of God's character:
· Names: God, Yahweh, Jehovah, I AM,
Divine Spirit, Maker, Godself
· Adjectives: Holy, Creator, Loving, Heavenly,
Mighty, Good, Great, Worthy,
Defending, Deliverer, Redeeming,
Perfect, All-Wise, All-Knowing, Cosmic
Ultimately, changing our verbiage will change our thinking and living. Remember, there are "a thousand names for God," and we need to use them all.
*from Putting Women in Their Place: Moving Beyond Gender Stereotypes in Church and Home, Joe & Audra Trull, authors