What Am I Supposed To Call God?

When I was a student at Earlham School of Religion, school policy was that in our written and oral contributions to our classes, worship and community life, we should do our best to use gender-inclusive language for God. In practical terms, this meant avoiding the personal pronoun he, usually simply replacing it with the word God. This language switch could get a little bit tricky, since standard English has some serious limitations when it comes to expressing a non-gendered personal entity. I remember that quite frequently I ended up writing and saying godself - as in, “God is gathering a people to godself.” Not exactly the most accessible language!

Don’t get me wrong; I am clear in my own mind that God is neither exclusively male nor female, and I have no desire to promote a worldview in which God’s feminine qualities are denigrated or ignored. While I was a student at ESR, and for years afterwards, I embraced gender-inclusive language wholeheartedly. In fact, hearing other Christians refer to God as he really bothered me.

Over time, however, I have begun to encounter serious problems with some of the attempts to make my language around God gender-neutral. The most obvious, of course, is the simple dilemma of using the English language in a way that sounds deeply unnatural to most folks. The word godself is a seminary invention if there ever was one, and there seems little likelihood that this well-intentioned stopgap is going to catch on any time soon.

But the fact that gender-inclusive language is often inaccessible, and sometimes even off-putting, is overshadowed by another problem that I have noticed in recent years. In my own experience, the use of gender-inclusive language has the overall effect of steering me away from talking about God in personal terms. When I avoid gendered terms for God Creator or the Holy Spirit, I find that my language often veers into the non-personal. I have even found myself referring to the Holy Spirit as it sometimes, even though the Spirit is a deeply personal presence in my life.

I do not experience God as an it, but rather as a living personality with whom I am in loving relationship. This experience, combined with my commitment to use gender-inclusive language, has often led me to emphasize Jesus far more strongly than I do God Creator and the Holy Spirit, because at least with Jesus I can use the personal pronoun he.

This seems ironic, since gender-inclusive language is intended to liberate us from bondage to limited and potentially oppressive ways of understanding God. Yet my attempts to be faithfully gender-inclusive have often felt constrictive, possibly even damaging to my relationship with God.

I am not yet sure what the solution is, but the type of gender-inclusive language that I learned in seminary is not working for me. I want to call God he - not because I believe that God Creator has a penis, but because I experience God as a creative, loving, unpredictable being who acts in ways I can only describe as personal.

What is your experience with this? Are you a proponent (like I am) of a gender-inclusive understanding of God? Have you encountered any of the difficulties that I have just described? Have you encountered any good solutions? How can we talk faithfully about God, neither marginalizing the feminine experience of God, nor denying God’s amazing, personal presence in our lives?

 

  • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com maco

    Due to my interactions with folks all over the gender manifold, I’m actually pretty accustomed to “ze” as a gender-neutral pronoun. If I don’t know someone’s gender or if they are intentionally androgynous, I’ll fall back to ze/hir/hirs. But that probably still gets the inaccessible problem if you’re wanting to talk to people who aren’t already part of the genderfuck advocacy collective.

    • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com maco

      Oh, and singular-they goes back hundreds of years. Shakespeare used it. So, ya know, ignoring people whose grammar-panties are in a twist, there’s always that. And of course the plural-they works fine when you’re referring to God *and* the Holy Spirit together.

      • Victoria Pearson

        i totally use they all the time. glad for the historical confirmation!

  • Victoria Pearson

    this is near and dear to me, as i am sure for many. i use language that invites a pluralism of understandings of God. i sometimes write God(ess), i sometimes use she, i sometimes use the language of Lord, i sometimes use he. for me, i think using only one pronoun, even with best intentions, can lead to old patterns of stuckness where we associate God solely with masculine attributes. i also sometimes like to use masculine pronouns in traditionally feminine prayer– prayer for nurture or fertility, and feminine pronouns in traditionally masculine prayer– prayer for strength or righteous justice. this helps me to unhinge my stuck places around gender and power, and also helps me to see(k) god in unfamiliar places and experiences. i also experience God in all of these ways, and am always looking for language that will help to name my experience.

    i also think, really, you get to call God whatever you want, the difficulty is when we expect others to use the same language we use, and when we are not brave enough to ask questions of others about their beliefs, if they appear different from our own. i studies and thought a lot about this in seminary, too, and think it’s so important to not stop talking about it. it feels a bit like being willing to continually come out with our faiths, being willing to listen to the names for God and hold them, and inquire after them, with love and curiosity.

    and also, gender is really a tool for us, and sometimes a cage. so i think exploring a sense of God in relationship to gender is not so much about the right answer about what to call God, but an opportunity to ask ourselves– why is gender so important to assign to God? why is it important to me that i call God he? or she? what feelings do i have toward he’s and she’s that are connected with a sense of God and my relationship to him/her?

    i could go on and on. thanks for posting, great to think about this again and again and again! peace

  • http://somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    you’ve captured the tension perfectly. it wasn’t until i read She Who Is in college that i ever considered any of this (or even realized that my professors were right, “mankind” is NOT an inclusive term!)

    i will use the masculine for God, because, as you say, it feels more personal and less awkward, but then i do keep trying to consciously push back against the ancillary assumptions (and bad theology) that fall into place with that sort of gendered language.

    there doesn’t seem to be a perfectly clean or easy answer, but i think as long as we keep having these conversations and reminding each other that God is not bound by our language, we’re on the right track.

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Thanks for this comment, Susannah! I think each of us deals with this tension in their own way. It does make me wish we spoke a language that had a solid, gender-neutral 3rd-person-singular, though.

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    Not all languages have this problem, but English certainly does. I have certainly run into a number of instances where I think the attempt to rewrite a text to be gender-inclusive has resulted in a change of meaning, like a change from a personal God to an impersonal one. Nothing stands by itself. Where the language is inadequate to express what we want (in some senses it always is when talking about spiritual matters), there can be a tension in terms of what we prioritize in trying to be faithful to what we want to say.

    Maybe someday non-gendered personal pronouns will become generally accepted, but today using the terms Maco does will just confuse most people. To me, using they as both a plural and a singular personal pronoun will work in many instances when referencing humans (and has become pretty widely accepted), but I think it raises confusion in reference to God because it may sound like you’re polytheistic.

    The option of using both masculine and feminine for God avoids the problem of using an impersonal term, but also to me sounds somewhat jarring. This is not generally done in any other contexts, which is why I think it sounds jarring. One of the issues in some of these options is whether you wind up with the hearer getting distracted from your main message in trying to navigate your use of language in ways that are unfamiliar to them.

    I have generally taken to using inclusive language by avoiding pronouns in talking about God. This is easier in written use than extemporaneous oral use, because you have the opportunity to rework the way you’re saying something to limit the awkwardness. I have occasionally used Godself, but it does seem to me to be a manufactured and awkward term that I don’t like.

    I would question a school policy which dictates to students how they can express their own understanding of the divine. That doesn’t seem right to me.

    I think this is something with which need to continue to struggle. I think we shouldn’t just give up or reject changes because they are difficult, but I think we need to be gentle with one another as we try different approaches to dealing with the dilemmas involved.

  • Christine Greenland

    Recently, I’ve returned to a practice of using Thou… My mother (who was in on the end of women’s suffrage (and went to seminary at Bethany when it was still in Chicago) rarely used pronouns when she referred to God. She was a worship leader in the Church of the Brethren until the mid-1950s. I did not hear pronouns used for God until I attended more liturgical churches. But it is in the Hebrew … and sometimes in Hebrew, the feminine comes through.

    The philosophical thought of Martin Buber and Eugene Levinas often refers to the Divine as “Other.” This is at once personal and intimate, because it unites all others, for and to whom we are each responsible… Do we have the Other as an intimate conversation partner? What might that sound like? Pronouns do not seem particularly endearing to me — particularly invented ones.

    Buber makes the distinction between “Thou” and “it”. The latter leads to being too “objective” in that we make an object of what should be the subject of our lives.

    Pronouns are simply replacements for nouns, anyway… So, to quote E.B. Browning…
    “How do I love Thee, let me count the ways…”

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

    Great post. This indeed is a difficult problem. Let’s all get back to speaking Latin (or not). I have a friend who always refers to the Spirit as she, while using he for father/son. I attempt to use “God” as much as possible when referring to the Trinity (without any pronoun if possible), but for the reasons you mention feel the need to speak of individual persons in Trinity in a more personal way. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Adrian Nelson

    I never liked the image it induced in me to use the pronoun “he” for god – sort of a white spectacled businessman sitting in the clouds. I figured (as “godself”) some years ago and thought that I invented it! For me it’s never seemed impersonal, but that may also be because I love the sufis’ tradition of addressing god as a lover, the beloved, so that, no matter what pronoun I use, seems intimate. (Hey! Beloved! I am a fiery volcano of love for you! You had better start kissing me – or else!

  • magnummysterium

    I think it’s important to remember that God is not male or female, but I have heard a decent argument for the “why” of God-as-male/Father imagery, and why we shouldn’t be so quick to judge/abandon it fully. Richard Rohr’s suggestion is that perhaps God is rendered in this language because at a fundamental level, the father-child relationship is often perhaps the most difficult, most pained. Many people would say this. So, perhaps, Rohr says, the use of this imagery is a way of dealing with people’s fundamental father issues in a redeeming way. God is the loving, embracing father. Again, it’s important to remember that God isn’t inherently male or female, but the relationships people have with their mothers often is not as tumultuous as with fathers.

  • http://twitter.com/GodisNotaGuy GodisNotaGuy

    Hi Micah, thanks for the thoughtful post, and I enjoyed reading the comments as well. I recently started a blog that is not only promoting the use of inclusive language, but, I also hope we can explore just such such thoughts and emotions. Also on the site is a link to a Q and A about inclusive language that I have found helpful. My transition to cease using gendered references to God was long and gradual. Now I’m quite comfortable with it, because my theology has evolved, as well. My main desire, at this point, is to use the MOST accurate language I can when talking about the Sacred which is beyond language… especially when conversing or teaching. (The words of Paul when talking about eating the meat sacrificed to idols comes to mind. Hmmm… i think I’ll put that in a post!)

    I want to invite you and all your readers to join the discussion at http://www.godisnotaguy.com. Make comments, sign up for updates, maybe submit something to post!

    Peace, David

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Thanks for sharing this resource, David. I hope folks will check it out! :)