Throughout this series on feminine language for God, I’ve been shocked at how incredibly passionate people have been about all of this. I promise I don’t try to write for controversy’s sake; I genuinely want to serve and help the people of God, not divide them.
But perhaps I was naive not to anticipate it. A friend of mine put it well on Facebook (edited for clarity):
In Postmodern thought, language always encodes how we see reality. One can only perceive reality with words because people always think in words. This…is probably a big reason why the fight over gendered pronouns is so fierce. Mess with the language and you mess with people’s narrative-making apparatus.
It’s true: language is reality. I don’t want to imply that language doesn’t matter, that people are making too big of a deal about it and should just lighten up, or that there should be a free-for-all in our language about God. Rather, my desire to broaden our words for God is precisely because I see the power of our language to shape how we see reality.
But I understand that people aren’t simply bothered because I’m “challenging their view of reality”. People have also been expressing their concerns that I am using culture to dictate how we talk about God; that I’m simply accommodating to selfish contemporary preferences and am willing to toss out or twist the Bible to fit “the world”.
As honestly as possible, I want to say this isn’t my intention. I am attempting to be more faithful to the Scriptures and the Church–not less. The Bible is our rule of faith. It is what shapes us and forms us as a people who then go out on mission into the world. I am simply offering some thoughts as someone trying to recapture and re-emphasize the very things as Scripture (and its earliest readers).
“Women are created in God’s image, and women’s experience can be used to speak of God. God is not offended or degraded by being described in feminine imagery. Feminist theologians are not creating God in their own image, but recovering feminine images of God from Scripture and tradition and developing new images. Discovering the feminine face of God has empowered women to discover their own value and strength and the worth of female experience.” (Lynn Japinga)
Much Ado About Nothing?
I’ve also heard from/about many women who haven’t felt stifled by masculine language for God. Yes, women throughout history have been incredibly resilient and have formed their self-worth, strength, and identity while still conceiving of God in masculine terms. Praise God. But there have been many women that have felt a profound disconnect with those limited pictures of God and their desire to root their identity in the Divine.
I’m a big believer that the Holy Spirit still moves, works, and builds her Church (see what I did there?) in spite of how dumb humanity is sometimes. Language is powerful. But the Spirit and Image of God within us are stronger even still. Christ is faithful; the Church still moves forward on mission to bring salvation to the world.
So let’s use gendered, personal words for God, because he is a personal God and genders give us insight into his nature and character. But let’s not forget what Augustine was getting at when commenting on John 1: “Perhaps not even John spoke the reality as it was, but as he could; for he, a human being, was speaking of God.” We can never forget that our language is always an approximation and grasping after that which we’ll never know completely.
So for those women that flourish as things are now? Great! Keep doing it. I don’t think it is a “sin” to only use masculine language for God. My hope, though, is that it wouldn’t be seen as “sacrilegious”, “offensives”, or “idolatrous” for others to employ other, less-common images and language in order to connect to our God. We should allow our brothers and sisters this freedom, lest we fall into our own errors.
“The proscription of idolatry must also be extended to verbal pictures. When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous.” (Rosemary Ruether)
So what now?
As my friend quoted above has said repeatedly, this language discussion is all well and fine, but it’s not the problem: our hearts are the problem. You can change all the language you want and women will still be demeaned; or, you could not change the language and love your sisters better. Though I do lean towards thinking we can make real, long-term, good change in the Church by expanding our language, I get his overall point.
So how do we change our hearts? For men especially, I have found it incredibly powerful to refer to God in the feminine in my personal devotional life. Doing this means it’s not a show. It’s not me just trying too hard to be progressive, cool, or edgy. This is me connecting with our God in ways I never have before.
And I invite you to do the same. Even if you feel terrified at getting your language about God “wrong”, know that our Lord is gracious and knows when you simply want to commune with the Spirit. Theologian T.F. Torrance says it well:
The basic problem … is that language about God has become detached from the Reality of God, and a conceptuality arising out of our own consciousness has been substituted for a conceptuality forced upon us from the side of God Himself.
These battles are not over what kind of God we will take hold of through our language, but the kind of God that we will let, through language, take hold of us. The fight is not for how we will think of God, but how we will let God meet us. And hopefully, these posts have shown that God meets us and seizes us in far more ways than simply masculine ones.
So no matter where you stand on this, give it a try. Pray to God our Mother, God our Midwife, God our Sister. Even if you get it “wrong”, there is mercy and grace. Maybe you can start by praying this ancient prayer that was part of my church’s prayerbook liturgy for yesterday this Holy Week; and may it strengthen us all as we press forward to our God and His Glory–and Her’s.
Faithful Midwife, as you delivered the Hebrews safely out of the long labor of slavery, so, morning by morning, you draw us forth into the new day. Surround us with a cloud of witnesses, and sustain us by your powerful word, that, in the night of loneliness and fear, we, being weary, may not lost heart but push toward the joy that is to come, laboring with Christ to give birth to your promised kingdom. Amen.
[image credit: Mark Rothko, “Orange, Red, Yellow”]