Well, they warned me.
It was my first year at my first seminary. I had the honor of being chosen for an “Inter-Seminary Seminar” course in which people from five very different seminaries got together, were given a topic they all disagreed about, and then spent a semester writings papers to and debating with one another.
One of those seminaries was a liberal Lutheran one. I was told ahead of time that the students (usually women) from this school, every year, always made a big, emotional deal about masculine language being used in the papers. And indeed, at the beginning of every single paper discussion, the first comment was always a tear-filled lament over the use of masculine pronouns throughout the paper.
And so, when it was my turn to write a paper, I tried to be sensitive to this. I changed “mankind” to “humanity”, “brothers” to “brothers and sisters”, etc. And yet, when my paper came up for discussion, they opened up once more with an impassioned complaint against the male-centered language. I told them that I had tried to be sensitive to that. They said, “no, the problem was in your use of the masculine pronouns for God!“
I was stunned. I didn’t think they were serious. On the drive home, I myself went on an impassioned lament to my professor over this. I get the issue with “mankind” vs. “humanity”, but we have a responsibility to talk about God the way that God talks God, don’t we? When God’s Image was revealed to the world it did so as a male. We should not presume the right to exceed the boundaries that Scripture has laid for us, right?
I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to approach this post in our Lenten series on Christian Male-Feminism. Even when my mind changed on women’s full participation the church and its leadership, the idea that my language about God should change was far from me. A little later, I tried to use as few pronouns for God as possible, but the idea of using feminine pronouns for God was still a bit much.
For many, this can feel like a step too far; it belongs in the category of “wacko” liberalism, that doesn’t simply want to reclaim truths lost to the Church’s institutional history, but redefine it in the image of their own preferences and cultural standards.
I get that. I do. I understand that those that feel this way do not hate women. There are many egalitarians and women pastors that still use masculine pronouns for God.
And yet, especially recently, I have seen the power, importance, and (most importantly) faithfulness of using the fullest range of images and pronouns for God–male and female–in our devotional, interpersonal, and institutional life. Further, I think this is especially true for those men that want to embrace the increased place of women in the church and stand in solidarity with them. Allow me a few moments to make my case.
Our Theology of Language; Our Language of Theology
Most people would agree that God does not have sexual “parts” that define him as male or female. They simply think we should use the language provided by the Bible to talk about God (the Scriptures do have an abundant of feminine imagery for God). They might further think that it’s really not that big of a deal as to what words we use to describe God. It’s up to each individual to shape their own sense of their own gender identity, not to base it off pronouns for God. Yet, as Elizabeth Johnson, in her remarkable article “Naming God “She’” says:
The symbol of God functions. It is never neutral in its effects but expresses and molds a community’s bedrock convictions and actions….Names are limited, metaphorical, and only grasp after God. Therefore, we need an abundance of names for God.
The language we use for God inevitably shapes us and forms us. How we talk about God will–in a million ways, both conscious and unconscious–shape how we think about God. ow many of us imagine God more as a man than a woman, even while we say he is technically neither. As Lynn Japinga says in Feminism & Christianity:
Some Christians believe that Father is not simply a metaphor, but an actual name or title for God, revealed in Scripture as the appropriate way to address God. Many feminists would agree that father language can be an appropriate and meaningful way to speak of God, but insist that it cannot be the only way. The model of God as Father may be profound and true; but it is not the only model, and it does not render other models less true or profound.
The language we use for God is inevitably an approximation. Most of us, if we really thought about it, would admit that our language does not actually express the fullness of who God is. Therefore, our main stress needs to be what we’re trying to communicate about God, more than fighting for the specific words we use. We need to be flexible and extremely diverse in our language in order to really capture the communicable parts of who God is, while still holding onto the mystery that our language cannot contain God. Johnson again:
Using male images of God to the exclusion of female and cosmic ones almost inevitably makes God-talk become rigid and indeed literal. The result in theological terms is nothing short of an idol, a graven image. Indeed, the conflicts that break out over female naming indicate that, however subliminally, maleness is intended when we say God. Consequently, the absolute mystery of the infinitely loving God is reduced to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man….If women are created in the image of God, without qualification, then their human reality offers suitable, even excellent metaphor for speaking about divine mystery who remains always ever greater.
As pointed out earlier, this desire to use diverse, even feminine language for God, is not because anyone is trying to demean language or say it doesn’t matter. It’s precisely because of the power of words to shape us and communicate something. It’s a desire to be more faithful to the Divine in our language–not less so. It’s wanting to add facets to the diamond of our God-talk through which to see God, so his glory, nature, and character can be that much more adored. I’ll end with these words by Johanna Bos in her book Reimagining God:
“no matter what our position–feminist, traditionalist, or in between–in speaking about about God we are going to have it wrong….[Human words about God are a] stammering approximation of the reality that is God…What counts is not our proficiency in God-talk but our need, our thirst and hunger for the divine presence. For that need, God has abundant response.”
This is not a matter of being faithful versus being loose in how we view and talk about God. It’s about our worship of God and conceiving him in the fullness of her complexity, mystery, and glory.
In the next few posts, not only will I be using feminine language for God (so we can try it on a bit), but we’ll explore how a theology of gender contributes to this discussion, as well as see how this has played out through history. Lastly, we’ll go through the biblical evidence for using feminine language for God, as well as talk about how this can be profoundly good news for the whole of God’s people–male and female.
[image credit: “Vessel”, by Meinrad Graighead]