Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Calling God "He"

So I'm having a conversation about using gender-neutral language in church, and an acquaintance - a woman - injects this comment:
God is a man. And if he's not a man, well he's sure not a woman.

Props to me: I didn't bite through my tongue.

I consoled myself with the thought that this isn't often an explicit theology: most conservative Christian churches probably hold that God is neither exclusively male nor exclusively female. The problem this presents is that the language most of these churches use to refer to God is exclusively male. And language matters. Because our language is currently at odds with our theology, we need to change one or the other.

One of the objections I hear for changing from masculine language is, "what are you going to use instead?" Specifically, the questioner usually wants to know what I am going to use as the singular pronoun when referring to God. So in a sentence like this:
God is good, and he wants us to be good.

they want to know, what am I going to use to replace "he?"

At first glance, this is a significant problem, because the English language has no gender-neutral singular personal pronoun.

"She" is not a good alternative, because it causes the same problems as "he". (Although one could argue for a sort of linguistic affirmative action, wherein we should call God "she" for the next several thousand years to make up for always having called God "he" before.)

Likewise, "it" is out of the question, because most of these people believe in a personal God, and calling a person "it" is degrading. (Although one could argue that calling a person "she" is also degrading.)

But the obvious answer, which sometimes gets overlooked, is: don't use a pronoun.
God is good, and God wants us to be good

Problem solved.

But won't this be cumbersome? Won't it sound really awkward?

Well, do the things said about God on this blog sound awkward? Because this is the language I already use, both in writing and speaking. It's what I've done for several years. And to my knowledge, nobody's noticed.

Sadly, this doesn't entirely solve our language problems, and here are two reasons:

1. Songs. It's hard to change them to be gender neutral, and not butcher them. (Gender-equal, maybe, but not gender neutral.) I'm sure you could come up with many more examples, but how would you reword these songs:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Forgive our foolish ways...

O worship the King
All glorious above
And gratefully sing
His wonderful love...

2. Gender-neutral language may not go far enough. Exploring God in the context of ideas that we have traditionally labeled "female" could be very powerful, but this is stymied somewhat by going to gender neutrality. In more conservative churches, though, going to even occasionally female language would be even harder than going to neutral language ... as you can see by the quote at the top of this post.


Connor said...

Not one to tell others how to do things, but I think this image would be better for this post.

Matthew said...

Connor, I'll mark you down as a vote for "gender equality" rather than "gender neutrality".

Brett Keller said...

You might enjoy the article here about gay-conversion programs run by conservative Christians- it's actually a book review too.

Matthew said...

That's kind of funny, I was thinking "Doug Muder ... why do I know that name"?

Turtles all the way down

How do I forget these things?

Jennifer said...

There's an interesting section in one of Fretheim's book's (the book in question is out on loan at the moment, or I'd grab some excerpts) where he uses male pronouns for God when God is acting in ways that we typically think of as masculine (for example, God as warrior gets masculine pronouns)and female pronouns when God is acting in ways we typically think of as feminine (so God as mother weeping over Israel gets female pronouns). Without having come to any real conclusion on gender-proper English pronouns, I've always thought that was an interesting way of doing it.

Matthew said...

@jennifer - "female pronouns when God is acting in ways we typically think of as feminine"

I think using "she" for God would be an absurdly powerful move ... by which I mean: the thwack it gives to our ideas about God would be wonderfully disproportionate to the effort it takes to change "he" to "she".

However, I do think it would be better to do this across the board rather than just for attributes that are traditionally masculine or feminine, because many people seem to think "Godness" is a masculine attribute.

scoots said...

You left out one of the more awkward (at least at first) angles of using "God" instead of gendered pronouns: the reflexive pronouns himself and herself.

You end up with Godself. So, for example, "There is nothing God does not know about Godself."

Thing is, I had to use these constructions in seminary, and I totally got used to it. I don't do it consistently now because I'm in biblical studies, where it's still customary to refer to God as a character in the story, where in biblical language God is typically still a "he". But anyway, once you switch for a few months, it stops being a big deal at all.

I'm torn on hymns. I love, "Father Love is reigning o'er us; brother love binds man to man," which gets replaced with, "Love divine is reigning o'er us; joining all in heaven's plan," which is ok but just isn't the same without the father/brother contrast and the repetition in "man to man". But that's getting beyond God language into gender inclusive language generally.

I should say also, I believe I have heard it suggested that if we just switch to neutral language, that most people will continue to think of God as a "he" anyway, so it really won't change our thought much. So we'd almost have to change to "she" so that the thwack would change our thinking.

jennifer said...

Then this would be my question:

If we're going to tinker with gender-pronouns for God as a form of social activism, an across-the-board "she" would do the trick. But if we're tinkering as a theological statement, to more realistically reflect the non-gendered/not-exclusively-male nature of God, wouldn't an across the board "she" be essentially no different from the current across the board "he"? Certainly, at first it would provide the desirable thwack in question, but is it really any more true to the nature of God? Linguistic affirmative action doesn't make for good theology, and I think if we're going to do anything it ought to be for theological rather than sociological reasons.

As far as songs go... what if we left them as they are (they really are beautiful and there is, as you mentioned, powerful symbolic language in God-as-Father)? Presumably, if at least some feminine pronouns began to be used of God, new songs might be written which address some of the feminine aspects and an eventual balance between the two (granted that it would probably be a good while before that could be achieved).

Matthew said...

@Jennifer - "I think if we're going to do anything it ought to be for theological rather than sociological reasons."

I'm inclined to reject the heavy line you draw between theology and sociology, but at the same time I agree that an across-the-board "she" doesn't seem right either. So I'm trying to think of a consistent, effective way to introduce the use of female language for God, and I think assigning God a gender based on what God is doing at the moment just seems a little too confusing. Instead, maybe churches could begin by introducing the occasional "Mother God" service?

Matthew said...

@Scoots - "You end up with Godself."

Yeah, I had originally written something about "Godself", but I cut it for some reason.

I'm thinking that "Godself" isn't so bad ... it's one of those tradeoffs where you rewrite to avoid using it unless rewriting actually makes the sentence *more* awkward.

connor said...

"introducing the occasional "Mother God" service?"

Go ahead, walk into your average evangelical church and throw out this idea.

jennifer said...

@Matthew: I've seen that done a couple of times, but only on Mother's Day... after which point the concept is forgotten for the rest of the year. It's an effective start, and one I applaud, but I've never seen it applied outside of that particular day... the rest of the year, even those who think of a Mother God on Mother's Day go back to the more familiar and comfortable (if slightly confining) language.

Cody said...

Oh worship the Monarch
All glorious above
And greatfully sing
The above mentioned Monarch's
Wonderful love

Matthew said...

Fly for th' Avenger is near thee
Call and the savior will hear thee
She on her bosom will bear thee
Oh thou who art weary of sin
Thou who art weary of sin

Coleman Yoakum said...

How then, do we get around the Biblical writers and even Jesus calling God "him" and words that are gender specific... such as "father"?


Matthew said...

@Cole -

I'm not sure what you mean by "get around". Do you think that these things mean God is male?

jennifer said...

Might it be an equally valid question to ask how we "get around" the feminine aspects of God in light of Shekinah and wisdom being clearly feminine, of a God who comforts his people "as a mother comforts," or a Christ who wants to gather Jerusalem like a mother hen... ?

ConcernedEngineer said...

One of the titles of God is "Everlasting Father." Jesus was a man. Jesus commissioned his disciples to make dsciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Also, Christ is the bridegroom, while is the church is the bride of Christ. And God clearly is not down with homosexual marriage.

So, while I know nothing about God's anatomy (whether or not He has all the "he" parts), I am very comfortable calling God He. Scripture does, and that's good enough.

It is interesting though that God has certain "feminine characteristics." But, in a sense, I think all men would do well to work on developing some "feminine characteristics." Characteristics like compassion and tenderness. In Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman. Jesus did express compassion on those who rejected him as Jennifer has pointed out. And the Holy Spirit is our comforter.

I think this goes deeper than semantics. This comes down to our fundamental view of God - and therefore our worldview. Understanding the Trinity - not merely on an intellectual level, but on a spiritual/revelation level - is crucial to having an accurate view of God. Having an accurate view of God is essential to seeing things clearly down here "under the Sun."

So, we can go back and forth on what we think, but bottom line is that it doesn't matter what we think. We need God to reveal Himself to us. Asking for this revelation should therefore be a high priority and focus.

Gary said...

Being of a rather unphilosophical bent and a short and sweet mentality, I like:

"God is good and wants us to be."

But then it doesn't address any of these other concerns.

Anonymous said...

Hey Matthew,

Personally I'm for expanding our references to contextually speak of Godde in masculine, feminine and gender inclusive senses (e.g. Godde rather than God or Goddess).

My post is http://timvictor.wordpress.com/2008/04/21/de-gendering-god-en-gendering-godde/.

I'd love to hear your thoughts?