“I don’t doubt God. I know that God is . . . well, I can’t say it here, but God is my father, and wants what’s best for me.”
I was happy for that person, and his faith. But I was sad, too.
I assume the reason this person, a person I haven’t met, thought he couldn’t call God Father here, at the seminary, is that the masculine identification of God as father doesn’t fit the seminary’s inclusive language guidelines. We don’t use “he/him/his” language for God, supposedly, at LPTS. We practice thinking of God more broadly, reflecting usages that separate our understanding of God from our conventional understanding of gender in our world.
It made me sad for several reasons.
For one, because I am one of “those” people, someone who supports inclusive language. I suppose I must be a kind of villain in the eyes of this seminarian, whom I’ve never met. One of those radical minutiae-ists, whose focus on “politically correct” language keeps people from simply confessing their love and trust in God their Father.
But more, because that rueful sentence seems to me a sign of bafflement, as to what this inclusive language thing is all about. And if people don’t understand what the inclusive language thing is all about, what does it teach? Does it teach anything besides “whoever has power in a place can force people to use whatever language they choose?”
(Not that a lesson like that would be entirely wrong. Throughout history, this has in fact been true. The people who have had the power have used the language for God that spoke most clearly to them. That has been language that reflected God in the image of those who had power in the world: Lords; Kings; Husbands; Fathers.)
Surely that isn’t the main lesson inclusive language is meant to teach. Surely the idea is to branch out beyond the rigid, often unthinking use of stereotyped language for God. We are all too prone to call the God whose self-given name is “I will be being whoever or whatever I will be being” by the same one or two names, over and over, when that God needs more names than are even in our language to do justice to that God’s reality and identity.
And then, there is our addiction to picking, as that name to use over and over, a single name that reinforces some meanness in the world that chooses it. The problem with non-inclusive language — patriarchal language, language in which God is always “he/him/his” — is not that it is, understandably, a way for many people to relate to God as powerful and protective. It is the way it has worked, and still works, to hide the fact that God really wants the best for all God’s people.
We live in a world in which God created humanity male and female; we live in a world in which women have been endowed by God with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We also live in a world in which women have been told, and in some sectors of The Church are still actively being told, that they cannot use their God-given gifts in the church to the fullest because women are not as fully in the image of God as men are. Because God — Our Father — says in His God-Breathed Book that women are to keep silent in the churches.
That is not a picture of a God who loves and wants the best for women.
The problem with that non-inclusive language is that it hides the God who wants the best for God’s inclusive people.
It is the God that seminarian means by Father — the one each of us can fully love and trust — that we need to proclaim in the church. And that is precisely why we need to practice using many names, besides Father, for that proclamation.