THE “G” WORD By Carol P. Christ


Recently, I saw the following line in a promotion for a book to which I contributed: “This volume includes voices from Christianity, Judaism, goddess religion, the Black church, and indigenous religions.” The editors of this book are to be strongly commended for expanding the dialogue in feminism and religion beyond the confines of the Christian hegemony in which it is still all too often framed.  Nonetheless, I felt hurt and offended.  I immediately wrote to the editors asking how they would feel if a book were promoted using the words:  “This volume includes voices from Goddess religion and god traditions such as judaism and christianity.”

I am well aware that the conventions of English grammar dictate that the word “God” is to be capitalized when referring to the deity of the Bible and the Koran and in some other cases where a monotheistic deity is intended.  I have been fighting this battle with editors of my work for years.  Usually they automatically change “Goddess” to “goddess.” When I gained the courage to question this, an exception would usually be made for me, but the grammatical convention remained in force for other works by the publisher.  

Feminists are well aware that the conventions of grammar are socially constructed.  This is why we said forty some years ago that “man” did not “include woman” and that “he” did not “include she.”  This is also the reason that many of us have argued that male language and imagery for God needs to be changed.  We must also insist that “Goddess” always be capitalized in our own work and in works under our editorial control.  Not to do so is to capitulate to conventions based in patriarchal, hegemonic, and colonial ideologies.

This brings me to the question of what to do about “Gods” and “Goddesses.” Here the issue is not simply the privileging of the Abrahamic traditions, but also a metaphysical preference for universalistic monotheism.  Recently, I have been reading a number of feminist books on Hinduism. The authors often do capitalize “Goddess” when referring to a deity that conforms to monotheistic expectations, but use lower case when referring to localized or plural female divinities. Here is an example: “…there is one supreme Goddess who has many forms or who is the unity underlying all discrete goddesses.” In other lines from the same book we find: “a particular goddess like Parvati’”; and “scholarly interest in Hindu goddesses and goddess traditions.”  As can be seen from these examples, lower case is used to refer to female divinities with particular names and to groups of female divinities.  In books following these conventions, lower case would also be used to refer to groups of male divinities, especially in the phrase “gods and goddesses,” but (inconsistently) not necessarily to named male divinities, such as the “God “ Krishna.

After the author of an essay I encouraged her to submit to the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion complained to me that the copy editor had lower cased both “Goddess” and “Goddesses” in her work, I spoke with the editors.  I proposed that the standard convention of the journal should be to capitalize “God,” “Goddess,” “Gods,” and “Goddesses” in all cases.  My argument was that to choose any other convention privileges male divinities and universalistic monotheism, following conventions that were established when grammarians believed that the Christian God was the only true God and extended grammatical privilege to the God of Judaism and the God of Islam.  The editors accepted my suggestion.

It could be argued that all references to deities, including those to the “god” of Abrahamic traditions, should be lower case so as not to privilege hierarchical and transcendent understandings of deity.  I do not disagree with this proposal in the abstract; the problem is that we cannot expect Christians, Jews, and Muslims to accept it.  Moreover, if “God is the name for God” as Tillich once said, then the “G” words should be capitalized when used as proper names.  But then do we say:  “Goddess is the name for goddess”?  And: “Goddess” in translations of invocations of Parvati, but “goddess Parvati” when the name is included and “goddess” in scholarly discussions of Parvati? Then do we also say “the god of the Hebrews” or “the Hebrew god Yahweh”?  I think the simpler and more inclusive solution is to capitalize all of the “G” words whenever they occur.  This seems to me to be the only practical way to put all Gods and Goddesses on the same grammatical, metaphysical, and postcolonial plane.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.



Categories: Feminism, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, God-talk, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion

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14 replies

  1. I am not sure whether I agree with you in theory (genuinely unsure). But your last two sentences make a very strong practical case, enough to outweigh any theoretical issues I might have.

    When I co-edited a little magazine (‘Wood and Water”, which was a feiminst-influenced Goddess-centered pagan magazine) I took the view that each author’s use (including ‘Pagan’ or ‘pagan’) was to be respected. But for something like JFSR an editorial decision seems needed, and I am glad to hear of this decision.

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  2. Thanks for this thoughtful and compelling discussion, Carol! As a graduate school professor, I have given my students the option of how to use upper and lower cases based on their own reasoning and preferences, simply asking for consistency within their writing. However, what you write here is causing me to rethink this. I will be directing students to this piece and include a discussion of case usage in my future courses.

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  3. “It could be argued that all references to deities, including those to the “god” of Abrahamic traditions, should be lower case so as not to privilege hierarchical and transcendent understandings of deity.”

    Sure men are unsure.

    Using “g” would bring tumbling down the so called spiritual traditions sustained by mega-ego personalities… the “g” would not make much difference to god if verily God, but it make a big difference to those who run the business of god religions and institutions.

    Carol, I applaud your courage defending the correct way to address Goddess, and appreciate how all women reap the benefits from the debates that you have won with publishers by asserting that we honor Goddess in the written form. I would also suggest that we write about Her with “H.”

    Why should Her sons be so infatuated with their few extra ounces and ignore their origins in the womb of creation? Didn´t all of them emerge from women? Even the male “God” is a construct of the sons of woman, and woman is created in Her image. Indian mystics agree that Goddess came before God.

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  4. Carol, Thank you for this important contribution on inclusive language. I’ll going to include your post as an example in my inclusive writing portion of my syllabus.

    So important and so difficult for an undergrad population to understand.

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  5. This is a fascinating point, Carol; thank you for writing about it. I’d previously simply used lower-case all the time, but agree with your suggestions and will be using upper-case now instead.

    I have always wondered, though: do you know why the neuter words ‘deity’ or ‘deities’ are not used more often?

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  6. Thank you Carol for making this proposal about general editorial conventions.

    I completely agree. It would be my preference to always use the lower case for all mentions of the terms god, goddess, gods, and goddesses, including the example you illustrated, “the Hebrew god Yahweh.” This is because capitalizing references to “male” and “female” deities also expresses a worldview in which deities are of a higher order than other numinous beings, for example, nature spirits. This may be a very common view; however, I think the bias inherent in this kind of distinction tends to channel our collective thinking in particular directions.

    That said, I acknowledge that that convention is unlikely to be adopted, so in my theoretical dissertation on post-traditional Goddess thealogy, I capitalize the terms Goddess, God, Goddesses, Gods, and Deities. I also agree with Vrinda: I also use the convention of capitalizing the term Her when referring to Goddess or Goddesses.

    For me, you sum it up very well in your concluding sentence, “This seems to me to be the only practical way to put all Gods and Goddesses on the same grammatical, metaphysical, and postcolonial plane.”

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  7. Capitalization gives credence and power to words, especially proper nouns. I would much rather destabilize all deity, thereby reducing its ‘power over’ and never capitalize god or goddess. I can sympathize with your offensive over your work seeming less important because of the double standard in capitalization, but to suggest that using capitalization in a certain way is a move toward inclusivity is something with which I do not agree. Gods and Goddesses do not need us to give them more power. Especially for those of us who are not religious, the idea that we must give them this ‘power over’ is difficult and untenable.

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  8. I guess for me capitalizing Goddess is not really different from capitalizing Leanne or Carol. In my thealogy, Goddess’s power is power with not ever power over, but Goddess is not finite and I am, so there is a difference in power, because she is a power with everything, and I am a power with only some things.

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    • I outlinine my metaphysical and thealogical view below to illustrate why I would ideally theoretically prefer to use lower case terms when referring to deities in general, including expressions, such as “the Hebrew god, Yahweh” and to capitalize these terms only when referring to particular deity by name. Although I usually capitalize all references to deities, I use the convention of using lower case below to more clearly show what I mean.

      In my ecological-postmodern feminist process goddess thealogy, Creativity becomes the infinite and god/goddess/gods/goddesses/deities, like other beings, are relatively finite instantiations of Creativity. Creativity might be conceived as the impersonal Sacred; however, Creativity in actuality is a great plurality of beings. Therefore, I believe in a consubstantiality of all beings, including deities, human beings, other animals, plants, and the earth.

      Therefore, while In my view, many deities appear to have a deeper wisdom and power than we generally have as embodied human beings, I do not see deities as being of a wholly different ontological order than other beings. Rather, I believe that god, goddess, goddesses, gods, and other deities may more fully embody and express this Sacred order.

      I see Creativity as our highest deep self and that this self is also the deep self of all beings. Therefore, I view all entities as being consubstantial with god, goddess, gods and goddesses, and so on. I see the spiritual journey as one of broadening our sense of self as persons to include this experience of consubstantiality and the ethics of mutual flourishing, which I believe arises from this sense of self and world.

      If we were to choose a style of capitalization based on how we conceive the infinite, then we would use capitalization differently, depending upon our worldview. I would be comfortable using the lower case even when referring to my conceptualization of the infinite.

      Still, given the widespread and deeply engrained convention of capitalizing all references to the God of Christianity and Judaism, I adopt the convention of using capital letters when referring to numinous beings who are considered sacred in any religious or spiritual tradition, as a way of showing respect for those traditions.

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  9. Thanks Lisa. I agree with you that in your metaphysic no caps would be preferable. As you know my metaphysic is different and I do see Goddess/God as personal unified and conscious. Yet the politics of living in a world defined by Christian colonial assumptions are the same for both of us. Siggghhhh

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  10. Carol, I really appreciate this post. I agree with you that in theory we should potential use a lower case “g” so as to not privilege hierarchical understandings of the deity. When you say, “I do not disagree with this proposal in the abstract; the problem is that we cannot expect Christians, Jews, and Muslims to accept it.” I would take the same position – though some religious subgroups would embrace this change, it seems that on the whole, it would be more realistic to use a capital “G” for all. For me, it’s similar to using the pronoun “she” as the norm when I write any academic or public paper, even though it might reproduce certain forms of hierarchy or power. At least it gets people thinking.

    During my passover seder that last few years, I have began changing all the pronouns “HE” to “SHE,” when I read the hebrew passages (in english) aloud at the table, and most people at my table followed suit. It was magnificent. Also, your discussion of the Goddess in Hindu traditions resonated with the work I did in South India on the Mother Goddess, Shakti. In my ethnography, I remember having to decide what to capitalize – Goddess? Mother? Shakti? Deity? In the end I capitalized them all, but my advisor questioned me heavily. When we’re writing against hegemonic and orientalist literature, I feel that it’s always better to go with counter-discourse and fight back with similar language than to reside in the abstract. So thanks again!

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  11. Thank you for this thoughtful post. As an atheist scholar of religion, I find the navigation of such issues tricky; my own preference is to only capitalize the word ‘god’ when it is used as a proper name. Similarly, I am not comfortable capitalizing ‘he.’ In this sense, I wouldn’t capitalize ‘goddess’ unless it was a proper name, or ‘she.’ However, in a context where ‘god’ is capitalized as a norm and ‘goddess’ is not, I agree that it very much prioritizes male deities over female deities.

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  12. Thanks for bringing up this topic. It just underscores to me how the religion scholars and theologians are still taking baby steps. I also like the variety of thoughtful comments and perspectives here, which tells me that people do think about these issues. It may seem trivial, but we must understand the power of words and meaning, especially in public “religion” discourses. So thanks. As for identifying “God” with the proper name, for me it is most inclusive and profound to speak of “We” or “One” instead of “God” or “Goddess”, or “I” or “I AM”, which is already conveniently capitalized! We probably have a long way to go before all of our voices are included in these kinds of academic texts.

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  13. Carol, hooray for you! I capitalize “Goddess” when I’m referring to the Great Goddess, who has numerous other names. I use “goddess” when I’m writing generically. Ditto for God and god or gods. My concern is more with the W-word, however. The word “witch” (“Witch”?) seems to be scarier than Goddess or goddess. As I publicize my new novel about old women who are witches, I’ve taken to calling them “grandmothers who do magic.” My target audience knows who they are; mainstream readers will hopefully learn. I understand your point about capitalization to make our Goddesses equal to their Gods. I just think it’s a bit too generalized. But I support your stand. Attagirl.

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