I have been doing a lot of thinking about gendered imagery and language for God over the past few months. Honestly, a lot of this reflection was provoked by hostile comments I got from my college students at the end of the fall semester because I require gender-neutral language for God and gender-inclusive language when referring to people. The policy in my syllabus is this:
For academic discourse, spoken and written, students are expected to use gender-inclusive language for human beings, and gender-neutral language for God. (e.g. “God” instead of “He;” “God’s” instead of “His;” etc.) This is to prepare students to communicate to the world beyond the Christian university setting. I want to equip you to succeed in graduate school, in the corporate world, and in public communication, all settings in which gender inclusive language for is increasingly expected.
I provide links to websites that discuss the issue, and we talk about it more when we discuss 20th century feminist issues in my course on the Christian Heritage and when we discuss prejudice and sexism in my ethics class. Some students have thanked me for the policy. But many students are perplexed by it, and I’m perplexed by their confusion. It shocks my system when I hear people refer to “man” for all people; I first became aware of the issue when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and the Girl Scouts changed their pledge because it referred to “mankind.” That was over 30 years ago!
While I’m confused as to why replacing “man” with “people” is such a difficult task, I am more empathetic to the reorientation required to replace “He” with “God.” (And I also acknowledge that the term “God” is not completely genderless either.) I recognize that for many of my students, I might be the first one to challenge their gendered conceptions of God. So I am empathetic, but insistent.
The way discussions about the “gender” of God and Savior are often dismissed as irrelevant, unimportant, silly, or the remote concern of “those feminists” bothers me. Traditional Christian theology asserts that God is a different kind of being than humans are. Therefore, God (the first person of the Trinity) and the Holy Spirit do not have a sex or gender, as sex is a characteristic associated with physical creature-ness and gender is (to simplify) a social construction related to sex. The second person of the Trinity, Jesus, is thought to be male. In the Incarnation, the eternal God became human while also divine, and therefore has a sex and gender in the person of Jesus. But the Trinity as a whole is without sex and has characteristics that we would associate with femininity, masculinity, and genders in between. According to this logic, references to the maleness of God should only be understood metaphoricall,y not literally, and therefore replacing that language with genderless/sexless language should not be inherently problematic.
I’m not saying that the use of any language in reference to God is appropriate or acceptable within the bounds of traditional theology. We (traditionals and non-traditionals alike) should be concerned with how we refer to God, because as Sallie McFague and others remind us, these metaphors/models of God have consequences in the world beyond language. Maleness becomes deified or closer to godliness than femaleness, maleness becomes the model for the priesthood, maleness is the true form of authority, etc. I believe that many of the concerns about feminine imagery for God are based in this same concern: that by associating God with one sex or gender, we claim God’s preference for that sex or gender. In a patriarchal system, this correlation between God and the feminine simply will not do. Feminists who assert feminine qualities of God are merely making projections of themselves, critics claim.
How we conceptualize the being we worship matters. It matters to me, at least. While I acknowledge that there is a danger of simply projecting an image of myself as a deity that I worship, I also think there is great harm in loving and worshiping the divine imaged as those who are at times hostile to me, and historically have been so to my ancestors and kin. So although I know and have good relationships with older, white males, I see no reason why I should image and worship God “the Father” who looks like an old white man. How would that benefit my spiritual practice?
Thank you Carol Christ, for asking me to state my views about this in the comments to my last post. I look forward to more discussions with you and the members of this community. When I read your work years ago, I was convinced about the validity and rightness of affirming feminine forms of divinity. Although the Christian (patriarchal) tradition does not have much room for Goddess language, I am comfortable with it, at least for the first and third persons of the Trinity. In my next post, I’ll talk more about the ways I am considering the gender of the Christ.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.