Gender-Inclusive Language; Gender-Inclusive God (Part 2)
From the archives: originally posted January 18th and 19th, 2012
Now to come to the point. After all this journey toward freedom from gender-specific language about people and about God, I still don’t have all the answers. I still don’t have it all worked out. I’m not sure anyone does. We live in a time where change happens so quickly. We try to define the era we live in while we’re living in it, an impossible task. So instead of being prescriptive and laying out a neat outline of what must be done as an advocate of gender-inclusive language, I choose to be descriptive and share what works for me and why I’ve made the choices I’ve made.
I think any effort to be gender-inclusive, even if it’s done imperfectly, should be commended for the effort itself.
So if you like to “he/she” and “himself/herself” your way through the world, that’s wonderful.
If you prefer to “he” your way through one paragraph and “she” your way through the next, that’s excellent, too.
If you’re a “oneself” kind of person, which some people consider a little stilted and impersonal, I will still appreciate you.
And if you’re like me, you might prefer simply “we”-ing through the whole thing and when “we”-ing doesn’t fit well, bringing back the singular “they” which had fallen out of use for a century or two and is steadily gaining new life again.
Then of course, let’s not forget to transform those “mans” and “mankinds” into “humans,” “peoples,” “humanitys,” “human races” and even “humankinds.”
So “we” have now established that effort toward a mindfulness of gender-inclusive language is preferable when talking about ourselves and each other. But what about when we talk about God?
Remember when Madeleine L’Engle was writing about her perspective on gendered language? She referred to Genesis 1:27 as the basis for “man” being inclusive of both male and female. Here’s how the TNIV translates the verse:
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
If it takes both a man and a woman together to represent the image of God, then why is it that we often only use male language when referring to God? One common argument is that God is described in male language in the Bible; therefore, Bible-believing Christians must follow God’s example and continue to use male language to describe God.
Let me be clear. I do not think there is anything wrong with using male language or masculine imagery for God. In fact, God as the Father is one of my most precious expressions for God in my personal spiritual journey.
What I think is unhelpful is referring to God using male language at the exclusion of female language and feminine imagery. Christian mothers like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena helped bridge the gap by describing God using male language and at the same time feminine imagery. For example, Julian of Norwich wrote of Jesus nursing us at his breasts and described Jesus as “our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
In today’s Christian culture, many people are too quick to settle on God as Him and dismiss the movement of the Mother-Father-God-ers as radical and perhaps even heretical. For me, I strive for a more moderate stance. That’s why I avoid gender-specific pronouns when I talk about God. That’s why I still refer to Jesus as male (because he was a man, even if he isn’t still). That’s why I like to refer to the Holy Spirit as female, because so much of my experience of the divine feminine has come through encounters with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit-inspired.
Even when I must use gender-specific pronouns so as not to write myself into ridiculously awkward sentence structures, I try to use “he” and “him” or “she” and “her.” That way I know I am not saying God is “He” as in God-the-All-Masculine or “She” as in God-the-All-Feminine. Instead, I say God is “he” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-masculine or God is “she” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-feminine. In this way, I am able to balance the masculine and the feminine aspects of the Trinity, which is very biblical. At least for right now, this is what works for me.
(Does the idea of God as “she” rock your world? Ask yourself what it would be like if the situation were reversed and God as “he” was revolutionary. Watch out for double standards and try to be mindful of the way language may affect others, even if it doesn’t affect you that way.)
We all know that when the pendulum swings away from one extreme, it inevitably swings right past the middle and reaches the other extreme before it can gradually settle more and more toward the balance the middle brings. My journey with gender-inclusive language has swung from one side where “man” includes both men and women to the other side where God as “He” and “Him” makes me feel like I, as “she” and “her,” am not part of the image of God after all.
Maybe my reaction is too extreme. Maybe as the pendulum of my journey continues to swing back and forth, I will come closer and closer to the perfect balance of the middle ground.
But I’m not there yet.
So for now, oh ye readers, you will see me still swinging. Let’s approach both ourselves and each other with grace, and give each other room to swing out as far as we need to, safe in the knowledge that we will also have room to swing back.