God Beyond Gender

An iconic interpretation of the concept of the triune God

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center advocates gender inclusive and expansive language as part of its mission. For us, then, this month’s decision by the United Churches of Christ to substitute “triune God” for “Heavenly Father” as part of a constitutional change was encouraging, despite the discouraging controversy it engendered. (See Peter Smith’s 7/16 Courier-Journal article.) We agree with Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw’s comment on the matter, that “there has to be real pastoral sensitivity around this issue” of language for God. As she notes, our language for God is the language of prayer, which is the language through which people intelligibly relate themselves to God. These God-words are theo-logy of the most fundamental kind.

That theology, or language, says much more about us than it says about God. What it says about us may not be easy or pleasant to recognize or accept. One of the functions of that needed pastoral sensitivity is to help people come face to face with the pervasive, unarticulated gender bias that is one of the deep wellsprings of resistance to expansive language for God, and to realize that it is permissible and desirable to challenge it.

Despite our determination not to make graven images of God, we tend to fall back on familiar clusters of meaning in our heads and hearts in our public and private rituals. While these meaning clusters are supported by Biblical language, their content comes largely from the world around us. It includes everything we know about various kinds of people — fathers, mothers, children, servants and so on — and their various relationships. It includes everything we know about which kinds of people can say or do what, to whom, when and where, and what all of that means — what conveys strength, e.g., or kindness, and whether the quality conveyed is positive or negative, good, bad, or indifferent.

Those clusters of meaning are awash with gender. It is commonplace for discussions about gendered language for God to appeal to God’s Spiritual genderlessness: God is famously “beyond gender.” But the human beings who make this claim are not. Whenever English-speaking people think of a personal, as opposed to an impersonal, reality, they are always already thinking of a gendered reality: him, or her. Thus, while we can honestly claim to believe in a God who is beyond gender, our ritual practice — particularly to the extent it invokes God as a personalistic reality — cannot support that belief articulately. We are driven over and over again to use gendered language, because it is the language we have available to us.

Because we do use gendered language, and have for millennia, we find that the challenge facing a person of faith in using new terms of reference for God is sharpened by the way gender plays a part in their clusters of meaning. To what extent can the new terms articulate or support the familiar understanding of God, the “same God,” that has been worshipped until now in other words? Or, if these new terms promote a change in the understanding of God, to what extent is that change experienced as a positive expansion of the possibilities attributable to God, or to what extent is it experienced as a denial or diminution in God’s positive attributes? It is at this point that we are liable to come face to face with one or more widespread, pervasive, normally unarticulated strands in our web of beliefs that have to do with gender.

Anyone can try this thought experiment:
First think of a familiar prayer that uses masculine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .) Then, try praying that prayer using feminine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Mother, who art in Heaven . . .) Pay attention to how this address to God feels. If it feels comfortable, try to put words to that comfort; “it feels good, because . . .” If it feels uncomfortable, try to put words to that discomfort; “it doesn’t feel right because . . . ” Finally: what does the feeling have to do with everything you know about the difference in meaning between the masculine term and the feminine term? That is: what does this experiment reveal about your own background assumptions about gender?

Very often, reasons for discomfort with this exercise take one or both of these forms: (1) I don’t feel I am addressing the same God when I use feminine language; or (2) I feel I am addressing God improperly — the word I am using doesn’t fit the God I am addressing, in a way that seems to take something away from God. Those feelings, in turn, give us clues about our understandings of these gendered terms. If I feel I am addressing a different God altogether, I may begin to realize the extent to which the image of God I cherish is, in fact, a distinctly masculine or patriarchal one, which cannot be supported by feminine language. If I find that I feel a feminine term is improper for God, that it takes something away from God, I may have to face the extent to which my own background assumptions about women include some form of inferiority, that makes those terms feel less than fully adequate to figure the divine. Either way, an exercise like this can face us with the extent to which we continue to hold a patriarchal understanding of God, which is held in place by our continued use of patriarchal language. As long as we never question our language practices, we can make statements like “My God is beyond gender,” fully believing them, while in practice worshipping and relating to a God we understand in distinctly masculine ways. Only when we begin to pay attention to our practices around language for God does this subtle form of idolatry come to awareness, and with it the limitation that imposes on our openness to encounter with the living God.

Once again, it is important to recognize that this exercise doesn’t pretend to tell us much about God, but about our own, usually implicit and unthinking, accepted and taken for granted, assumptions about gender. We can get at those assumptions by paying attention to the way we use and respond to language — its denotations and connotations, its emotional resonances — because language is our tool for communicating meaning. That’s also why the words we use for God shape and contain what we mean about God and what God means to us and for us.

For some, the problem with changed language for God is that the new language will not support an understanding of God that supports arrangements of power and privilege from which those people benefit. But for most, the even more profound challenge is that it opens up an avenue for fresh encounter with God, beyond accustomed and comfortable language and understanding. That opening is profoundly uncomfortable, and the intimation of an imminent uncomfort it announces ultimately has little to do with gender. It is rather the unsettling, frightening and yet fascinating awareness that the God we might really encounter is One who exceeds our categories and transcends our settled understandings so radically that no knowledge we already possess or imagine to be satisfactory is going to withstand that revelation.

Bracing the community of faith for that transformative encounter will really call for pastoral sensitivity.

updated 07/26/11

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Revealing Language

Image of portrait of Henrietta Maria and Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

Daddy, mommy, bubby

The adult class I attend is reading a book (The Good and Beautiful God, by James Bryan Smith) together, so I have been doing my homework, dutifully reading the chapters and doing the exercises. The text is designed to encourage us to adopt the narratives Jesus tells about God, in preference to the ones we might have in our heads from who knows where, on the premise that Jesus’ narratives are the ones to go by. In general I have been appreciating this book, albeit critically, and thinking it has good things to say and is worth studying. But this week, the issue of language for addressing God has come up, and I have a bone to pick with the author. Not so much with Jesus, I don’t think — although I am confident Jesus would not mind having this conversation one bit.

The issue is about calling God “Father.” Smith in essence repeats Karl Barth’s argument about revealed language. We ought to call God “Father,” because Jesus did. And we ought to let what Jesus says about God the Father define what “Father” means when we use the word. So “Father” doesn’t essentially mean “the male person who contributed 50% of my DNA” or “the male person, whether or not married to my mother, who was one of my adult role models while I was growing up” or whatever positive or negative personal meaning that word has. “Father” means a familiar, personal entity who is present, pure, powerful, provident, pardoning, and protective. A good “father” (in the ordinary sense) would be all of these things, and so would a good “mother” for that matter. “Father” language isn’t really about gender, according to this author. It is about whatever God has in mind when God chooses a word to use to reveal Godself.

This is an interesting argument, but it seems incomplete to me, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that, when we hear the word “father,” it does not fail to have a “literal” meaning for us, and the literal meaning of “father” — at least in our culture, as in Jesus’ culture — includes the dimension of human gender, and all of the social connotations of that dimension. It includes all the collateral knowledge we have about what fathers do and mothers don’t, what fathers like and dislike and how that is different from what mothers like and dislike, how fathers look and sound and dress and how that is different from how mothers look and sound and dress, and so on and on. In fact, if the word did not carry any such freight, we might have a difficult time saying what the word means. Because for all the sophisticated theories of meaning that have been developed, meaning, at least in the case of nouns, like “father,” still keeps coming back around to what people think a word stands for or points to, and we generally learn that from the way the word is used by the people around us. So to say that “father” shouldn’t make us think of our own fathers seems something like saying “apple” shouldn’t make us think of the red or green fruit we see in the stores about this time of year, and “sun” shouldn’t make us think of the bright light we see in the sky most days. Whether or not it should, it does, and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to talk to our brothers and sisters.

So, that argument ignores, or suppresses, the revelation about us that Biblical language incorporates. Calvin took the view that Biblical language was hugely accommodated to limited human understanding — something like the way baby talk is accommodated to the limitations of babies and young children. One consequence of that position is that, while all human language is inadequate to full revelation of truth about God, some language “for” revelation might work better “as” revelation for us, whoever “we” are, and other language less well, because of the way people use and understand that language. Which means that the language used in the Bible says something about its readers, and how we use the language, and what we are capable of understanding those words to mean, along with whatever it communicates to us about God.

Since we know (people tell me all the time that we know this) that God does not have gender, then theoretically it shouldn’t make an iota of difference whether we call God Father or Mother or Parent. If a good Parent is present, pure, powerful, provident, pardoning, and protective; if that is what “Father” means in the context of Jesus’ prayer; if a good Mother is equally those things; then we should be able to say “Our Mother who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name” etc. with the same ease we have in saying the “Our Father.”

If we can’t (and the persistent resistance to that practice, active and passive, strongly suggests that some of us at least cannot), the question of “why can’t we call God Mother” seems to have much less to do with God than it does with us: why can’t we call God “Mother?” What is it about addressing someone as “Mother” that seems (to some of us, anyway) incompatible with what we think we need to say about God, or have been told to say about God, or have learned to think about God? What is it about the way people use the word “mother” that makes that word seem (to some of us, evidently) inadequate to contain the revelation of God?

More importantly, what revelation about God are we missing out on because of the many limitations imposed by chronic masculine language for God, and by the human reality it reflects? To what human reality is non-inclusive, patriarchal language an accommodation? And what will it take to move past that reality, to one that would be more receptive to something a little less like baby-talk?

In the Mail

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer

In our mail and email this week:

News of a recent NPR story about language and gender. According to some recent research by Lera Boroditsky of Stanford, grammatical gender absorbs images from social gender. (That is, “die Brucke” seems different than “el puente”.) Surprising? Maybe — or maybe not. There’s more on the research, and some of its implications, at “Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong”. Thanks, Carolyn Cardwell, for sharing this with us!

This invitation to an upcoming discussion on parenting (links added):

Good afternoon;

I’m writing to invite you to an important conversation regarding “the
Right to Parent (or not)”. This conversation is being co-sponsored by
the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, MensWork, and the Women’s
Studies Department at Jefferson Community and Technical College.

Wday, April 22, 4:15 – 5:30 at the Hartford Building (corner of 1st
and Gray) on the JCTC Campus, room 204.

Parking available on the street (1st street, Gray, or Brook).

Panelists include;
Khalilah Collins of Women in Transition
Chris Hartman of the Fairness Campaign
Derek Selznik of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

This lively and timely conversation will explore the various issues
surrounding the right to parent, and the right not to parent, and how
parenting is connected to a wide range of reproductive justice issues.

Hope to see you there!

Rus Ervin Funk
Executive Director
MensWork: elimating violence against women, inc.
PO Box 4878
Louisville, KY 40204

The April 2009 Newsletter of Fairness, Louisville.

We also received a comment, which ended up being flagged as spam, possibly because it included a link to another site, from a blogger telling her story about domestic violence. It’s troubling, to say the least, along several dimensions.

We are also dispatching some comments, via Faculty Liaison Johanna Bos, to the upcoming consultation on Globalization and Cultural Diversity convening April 19 at St. Andrews Presbyterian College. We look forward to what the consultation will produce.

Worship in the Words of the Tradition II

The tradition has many words. As we noted here yesterday, and in Caldwell Chapel on Thursday, February 12, some of those words are beloved of many, sanctified by long use in the church, and at the same time words that make Christian worship damaging.

This is about language. Language that is, perhaps, easy to use. Language that, perhaps, most of us barely even notice, barely even think about. Language that, if we do think about it — if it is, for instance, brought to our attention by someone’s complaint or lament — we might barely be able to take seriously. (“Oh, that? But that’s just . . .” or “Seriously, it’s no big deal!”) Language that comes to our minds and mouths quickly, almost without having to think about it, because we have used this language so long, and have thought the thoughts that travel with this language so long.

Words (and thoughts) like:

Kyrie eleison

    (“Oh, come on! It’s just THE KYRIE, for Jesus Christ’s — or Pete’s — sake. You can’t seriously have a problem with that. Try not to think of it as “Lord,” as if it had all kinds of hierarchical, kyriarchical, patriarchal baggage, just think of it as “God”. Don’t make a big deal out of this.)

. . . All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
in His presence daily live.

    (It’s just a song. Lots of people love this song. It’s about surrender — what, you don’t want to surrender everything to Jesus? Nobody means self-esteem, desire for freedom, the dignity owing to a human being that someone in an abusive relationship might be trying to convince you to deny you even have a right to. Surrender bad things, selfish things . . . bad selfish things . . . OK, it says “Him”, but it doesn’t mean your husband or your father, it means Jesus, just try not think of Jesus in the same way as that husbandfatherpastor . . . Jesus is different, Jesus is better than that . . . you can do it! Don’t make a big deal out of this!)

. . . our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

    (Yes, “Lord” is male language, master of slaves, leader of armies, “husband” — in olden days — but look, here it’s just a formula, it doesn’t mean that, no one means anything by it, it’s just language, you have to call Jesus something, come on, don’t make a big deal out of this!)

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise . . .

    (Down, girl! Whoever put this liturgy together probably couldn’t find a copy of the current Presbyterian Hymnal, where this allegedly ‘generic’ use of ‘man’ to designate ‘humanity’, obscuring or perhaps even denying the presence of women in that humanity, has been changed to the inclusive “vain, empty praise”. Why can’t you just cut him — or her! — some slack? What ever happened to forgiveness? Grace? This is such a little thing — don’t make a big deal out of it . . .)

. . . my sister death . . .
how not hear her wise advice?

    (See, there’s some feminine language in here, too. Yes, “death,” but in context this is positive, see, wise . . . plus, it’s from a traditional prayer. By St. Francis. Saint Francis. You don’t seriously have a problem with Saint Francis, do you? It’s not really linking women with death, deadliness, bringing death into the world . . . Eve . . . cut it out, don’t make a big deal out of this.)

“Turn to the Lord your God again.” . . .
Turn to us, Lord God, . . .

    (Almost done now. You know the drill. Swallow, suck it up, say “amen,” just, you know, what were you thinking, you know, you did basically ask for it, coming to church, and on Ash Wednesday, of all days, what were you expecting . . . you can’t really make a big deal out of this, you know that, right? Because you are SO missing the big picture, the main point, and all the GOOD PARTS of the service, why don’t you pay attention to that, why do you have to be so negative, why do you have to get so angry, what is wrong with you?)

So how many “no big deals” does it take to make a big deal?

Using inclusive language for humanity is an official policy of Caldwell Chapel worship for a reason.

We have the conversations we’ve had with people about avoiding “Lord Lord” language for a reason, too. Some of those we’ve even had here. (Here’s one. Here’s another.)

Yes, this is about language. This is about language because, protestations to the contrary, language means something. And if it really doesn’t mean anything, then why use it in the first place?

During this Lent, maybe we could all actually surrender the practice of calling Jesus Lord, as if the very best, the greatest, the most honorific and the only thing we can think of to call Jesus is Master of slaves, Owner of property, Leader of feudal armies, Husband, Sir, Big Man.

Jesus. The Word and Wisdom and Lamb of God, the Bread of Heaven, the Living Water, the Christ, Savior, Redeemer, Teacher, Mediator, Alpha and Omega, Lily of the Valley, Rose of Sharon, Morning Star, Author and Finisher of our faith, . . .

Even though all of that, too, is only, you know, language.

[The Order of Service for Caldwell Chapel Worship, Wednesday, February 25, 2009]

Why the V-Word??

In talking yesterday with a potential audience member for the upcoming Women’s Center-sponsored performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, this objection came up: “It’s fine to be against violence against women, and to raise consciousness, and money, and all that. But why do we have to be so in your face with the word . . . ?” [VAGINA, that is.]

Good question, and there’s a good answer, too.

If we can’t name a part of our body, we also can’t talk about what happens to it. If it’s injured, violated, destroyed, we can’t tell the story of that. Maybe — since we can’t name it, aren’t supposed to mention it — it wasn’t really that important in the first place. Not worth mentioning. Since we can’t talk about it, maybe what happens to it isn’t even anything. Maybe there can’t even be “violence” against something that was nothing worth mentioning in the first place, barely even there . . .

So it’s important to say the word VAGINA, to name it, to insist that the VAGINA is worth mentioning, is valued and valuable rather than nothing much, is protected space in the same way that the face or the hand or the heart is protected space, that it’s better for it to be happy than hurt, and that its stories need to be told.

Because if we can’t say VAGINA, we can’t tell the vagina’s stories, and if we can’t tell the vagina’s stories then we will only have silence with which to call for an end to violence against women and girls. When we need SPEECH.

Read more about “V is for Venite — Come Days without violence!