02 February 2007

God's Balls

The other day LutheranChick wondered why there is so much resistance to inclusive language references to God in the Church. "Inclusive language" means either avoiding the masculine pronoun or using both masculine and femine pronouns for God. She offered her hypothesis that the resistance is grounded in fear, specifically the anxiety that God is out to get us if we don't act the way God wants.

That may indeed be the case for many. For me, it's different. I'm comfortable with someone beginning The Lord's Prayer with, "Father-Mother God," instead of "Our Father." I might even do it myself, if I were praying with people the majority of whom would find the traditional reference off-putting. But generally, I stick with "Our Father." I do it out of respect for those who have gone before me, who made extraordinary sacrifices that Christianity might be a living faith to my generation, who learned to say it that way. I do it out of respect, even awe, for the tradition goes all the way back to a wandering Jewish woodworker, healer, and lay preacher named Yesu (Jesus) who called God, "Abba," which is Aramaic for something like, "Daddy."

Now we could use the original Aramaic and say "Abba," instead of "Our Father." "Abba" doesn't mean anything in English, and therefore is not automatically associated with gender by English speakers. But for English speakers that would come at the cost of losing the emotional and spiritual impact of addressing God in terms of an intimate parental relationship. In the same vein, we could start the Lord's Prayer with the word, "God," but again we would miss the impact of what something like "Our Father," says about God.

I'm not afraid, just respectful. I can let the tradition bend. And yet, I get my back up when someone insists that I must use inclusive language. I know that the idea of God being masculine is God's sop to the patriarchal tribal society of Hebrews in which God first planted ethical monotheism. And I know that many of us no longer need that sop. But must we wrench things the other way, cutting off God's balls, as it were, in order to make God into an icon of gender-equality? Must God be treated like some kind of intellectual property, to be stretched in a tug-of-war between Fundamentalists and Feminists?

Yes, I know. God transcends gender. Balls are not God's problem. But the historical Jesus, recognized by his followers after his glorious Resurrection as the unique Incarnation of God, had them. Let's be honest about that while we are working to include each other, however we are gendered (male, female, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered only begin to describe the possibilities).

Finally, our concern over inclusive language must seem extremely parochial to non-English speakers. What about speakers of German, French, and Italian whose nouns have gender and for whom the word "God" itself is masculine? I think we have it relatively easy.


Anonymous said...

My own workaround on this is to see all local metaphors (including gender) for God as shards of greater truth. We don't have the words to describe God. The gender problem highlights that.

Biblical examples: There is the God who is like a mother hen guarding her chicks, there is the ferocious war God, there is the God of Love, there are the multiple Elohim.

For me, it's helpful to dwell with different kinds of imagery from time to time. We don't know what is meant by the statement that we were created in God's "image," but we do know that idolatry was frowned upon.

Not everyone has enough religious flexibility to do this, but I see God in Kuan Yin and in Jesus, in the sky and the ocean, in the quiet thoughts of solitude, and in the ecstacies and negations of the mystics. Since all of our words and images of God fall short by definition, there is perhaps insight to be absorbed in the practice of switching out the metaphors. Any fixation on one, such as the old man on the cloud, runs the danger of becoming fixed as a claim to Truth.

Some have no trouble with the claim to Truth, but wise and insightful people throughout the ages have tried to warn us against hubris. What is have are methods that point toward truths of different kinds - we don't own or possess the Truth. That way lies fanaticism.

Language can make us aware of all this. Traditions of language are always more comfortable - they exist to create a comfort zone for community stability. Nothing wrong with that, but the "traditions of men" (and women) have their limits.

Scooper said...


Right on. We don't have the Truth. The Truth has us. Your words remind me of the Orthodox Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote:

"Religious thinking is in perpetual danger of giving primacy to concepts and dogmas and to forfeit the immediacy of insights, to forget that the known is but a reminder of God, that the dogma is a token of His will, the expression of the inexpressible at its minimum. Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows."

Anonymous said...

That's a fantastic quotation - thanks.

I think sometimes of my former cat, who I could never teach to look where I was pointing. She looked at the pointing finger every time.

To me, that's what words about God are like. They point, but we look at their fingers.

(Are you picturing words with fingers? I am. There's a book title in there somewhere.)