Settling into God during the Demise of Gender Neutral Language by Dirk von der Horst

DirkAs my life ambles along, some things change, some things are surprisingly persistent.  As a young person, the last thing I would have predicted about my future would have been developing even a mild interest in sports, but now I have a mild interest in sports.  Mild, but there.  So, that’s a surprise element in my life story.  But while developments arise, I’ve found that in the growth of my faith, the word “God” has settled into all the movements of my being, taken root in my bones, provides many well-worn neural pathways that make the day go on.  It sometimes seems like it would be easier to let the word go for the sake of communicating with a culture that turns more and more to science for cultural coherence, but the word “God” is as there in my psyche the laptop is there beneath my fingers.

While the word God has settled and made itself at home, I’m less and less sure – and it becomes less and less important – what the word means.  I look across history and the word becomes muddled.  Is what the author of Judges meant by “God” what Aquinas meant by “God?”  I’m hard-pressed to find a common referent behind the word when I encounter it in those very different perspectives.  I’ve come on a minimal definition – “the appropriate object of worship” – that lets the theological critique of idolatry work its relativizing acid on various God images and God concepts.

For a time, I added Goddess and God/ess to my vocabulary of the divine.  I have no problem with those terms, but they don’t spring to my mind as readily as they used to.  In part, this is because my experience of God has gotten less and less anthropomorphic, less and less personal as time goes on.  If you asked me what I think God is, I’d give you an answer something like a synapse, a spark of relation between beings, an electric circuit, and I’d tell you to read Martin Buber and Carter Heyward to make sense of it.  When I sit down to write theology, that’s the starting point.

But in prayer and worship, what I find more than anything is a vast expanse, empty, stretching out infinite nothing.  I encountered this image of God most radically at the outset of the Iraq War, when I returned to prayer in a sense of helplessness.  In that prayer I encountered that great stretching out of emptiness – something completely disinterested in existence, but oddly the precondition of any kind of love.  Now, this image does not blend easily with the synapse, the movement from one to another that I described above.  I have experienced God as pure relationality on more than one occasion, but now, what I name as God comes closer to what the Kabbalists call Ein Sof or Buddhists call sunyata.  And that emptiness is not personal enough to have a gender of any sort.  So pressed for a pronoun for God, it’s “It.”

But here’s where the ambivalence arises.  I know that if I say God, most people will still hear an inaudible “He,” a rational designer, a benevolent father, a terrible tyrant lurking behind the sound.  A man writ large.  I was reminded of The Big Man God recently, when I attended an Episcopal mass and was deeply shocked by the litany of “Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Father Son, Holy Ghost.”  It had been so long since I’d been in a worship service that used male language so baldly – the Methodist congregation I attended in college always used inclusive language (and had female preachers); in the Quaker meetings I’ve attended for the last decade, God language is present, but not obtrusive.  I’d forgotten what “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” felt like – and I recoiled.  But in my everyday speech, that recoil isn’t visible.  People will, perhaps without knowing that they’re doing so, plug those two men and a bird into the empty space I’m taking for granted.

The extent to which the patriarchal language made me shut down also reminded me of a gap between myself and my students, for whom questions of inclusive language seem silly, beside the point, even inane.  The generic “you guys” has crept back into everyday speech and my students don’t bat an eye.  I came of age in the late 80s and 90s, when feminists were making headway in changing the assumptions about generic language – in college, it was as integral to the basic writing skills our teachers expected as proper comma usage.

But it makes a difference.  In seminary, I studied Methodist doctrine with Joanne Carlson Brown, a student of Mary Daly’s and a pioneer in Christian feminist critique of the atonement.  She described how she would simply avoid male language for God in worship.  The Methodist hymnal had plenty of hymns without male God imagery; she could just avoid the ones that had it.  She reported that women would come up to her after worship and say, “I don’t know what it was, but church felt different today, more like home.”

So, I need to make a point to reintroduce Goddess imagery into my religious vocabulary, no matter how clunky Her anthropomorphism feels.  And of course, Goddess need be no more nor no less anthropomorphic than God, though She still feels more personal to me than God – the simple emptiness – does.  And it’s time to revisit the arguments I heard, absorbed, and forgot about the importance of inclusive language.

I got my first lessons in the importance of language for understanding gender from my mother as she went through consciousness raising and graduate school.  She worked on semiotics, the study of signs, which asks not what things mean, but how they mean.  Semiotics offers a flexible approach to the relation of language to reality with its insistence on the arbitrary relationship of the signifier to the signified, but it works well to show how important language and context are for making sense of the world.  It reminds us that all meaning is not simply a reflection of a higher truth, but a production that can be pursued in various ways.  From this period, I particularly remember the voices of Julia Kristeva and Teresa de Lauretis, who related semiotics to feminism in radically different ways.

In college, I started going to church, and I kept a curious parallel consciousness.  I would use gender-inclusive language in all my papers, but at that time I just took it for granted that I would hear male imagery in church.  My God-concept was thoroughly panentheistic – though I didn’t know the word – but I didn’t really flinch at all-male language about the divine, although I’d been sensitized to how the generic male was damaging to gender equality in other spheres.

The real shift came when I picked up Mary Daly’s Pure Lust.  Daly played with language like no one I’d ever seen before.  The opening of Pure Lust contains a dizzying chain of associations, defining women from every angle imaginable.  I’ll give a small sampling:

“As the crowd increases, the diversity intensifies… This can be understood as a few of these Lusty spirits introduce our Selves and Name our be-ing:

Weirds:  One meaning of Weird is ‘FATE, NORN.’  It also means ‘SOOTHSAYER.’  As the Fates, Weirds are ‘the three goddesses supposed to determine the course of human life.’  As an adjective, weird can mean ‘MYSTERIOUS.’  There is also the adverb weirdward, meaning ‘bordering on the supernatural.’

Women who have heard the Call of the Wild hear the Word of the Weird, which summons us weirdward – which means to the borders of the very natural, the supremely natural.  As we venture into this homeland we conjure webs of Weird words and thus become….


Daly continues this play with definitions and keeps jumping across such ellipses into unexpected words.  This play with words and language was deeply compelling and seductive.  I found myself entranced by her ludic cerebration and Spinning.  But as I delved further and further into her text, I felt an increasing split between my identity as a male reader and the female-identified world into which I was voyaging.  Was there a place for me in this world, or not?  I wanted in, but Daly’s separatism often was pushing me out.

But that sense of being invited into a rich, symbolic world on terms that excluded my gender made it very easy to understand the arguments that Daly, Carol Christ, and Rosemary Ruether were making about the need for female imagery of the divine.  Indeed all of them described the problem of treating “God” as gender-neutral – generic male language makes it all too easy for the bearded old man of childhood imagination and medieval iconography to crowd out the diversity of images that should be cancelling each other out as the imagination tries to grasp a limitless source of life and wonder.

So no matter how far I’ve moved away from making a quick connection to the Old Man Upstairs when I hear the word “God,” I’m not done with the work of pushing Him out of the way so that all facets of experience can illuminate our quest for the Eternal Thou, our Ultimate Concern, the Highest Excellence, the Fragile Detail, or the Great Emptiness.


Dirk von der Horst is an adjunct lecturer of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles.  He earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University and is currently revising his dissertation for publication with Wipf and Stock as Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference.  He juggles a spiritual commitment to life with despair over ecological disaster and a world of injustice on a daily basis. 

7 thoughts on “Settling into God during the Demise of Gender Neutral Language by Dirk von der Horst”

  1. God is such a mystery that, of course, to even venture a gender label is ludicrous. I like to use the word Creator. But in the end the words God, Creator, Lord, Father, Mother, etc. are jut human labels and meaningless.


    1. To venture a gender label is actually not at all ludicrous. A masculine label conjures up different meanings for the ineffable, while a feminine label conjures up others. And unfortunately, a supposedly gender-neutral label conjures us the earlier mentioned masculine connotations, because in our culture anything neutral — e.g. Creator — is assumed to be masculine unless specifically defined as feminine (of course, with a few exceptions, like nurse, muse, etc.) .We live in a patriarchy where the two genders are the main division that is ingrained into our understandings of the world from the moment of birth. Fortunately/unfortunately, men have less reason to think about how labels affect us, since the language within which we live is patriarchal as well. Men have to make an effort to hear how women experience this language, this society, and the ineffable. It’s not automatically part of masculine experience. If this is difficult for you to understand just think of how much you don’t know about African-Americans in our white culture, unless you’ve made an effort to understand their experience.


  2. A rose is a rose is a rose.

    We think of “God(s)” as the center of all religions, but there are some very fine, atheistic spiritual paths. One of the most inspiring is Taoism, where Tao is understood simply as the way of nature, that is, the way nature does things as teacher, but not as a godhead. Or in Zen Buddhism, there is a meditative practice called zazen at the heart of it, but no deity hovering above, and in fact no hierarchy of being whatever. In Zen all that is celebrated is the here and now — this delightful presence of you, me and the lamppost.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. WOW! This was amazing. I found myself reaching for my dictionary and savoring every word. Once again it seems to come down to a constant reaching for the divine, a seeking that is life long and continuously uncovers something new or something forgotten. Thank you so much for this reminder that not all of us wanderers are lost.

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  4. Excellent piece. Thank you. “God,” the word, it seems to me is a symbol. All meaning, as you note, is a “production that can be pursued in various ways.” It’s the perusal that opens up possibilities!


  5. Thank you so much for sharing this with the FAR community.

    Yesterday was the Muslim Eid Al-Adha, a celebration in memory of Abraham who did not have to sacrifice his son. The problem that comes about every year is that in the large, communal group prayer the ritual prayer (bowing, prostrating, words from Quran recited) comes first, followed by a sermon and even though the sermon is part of the ‘prayer’, the women (who always pray in the back behind the men) are talking nonstop through the sermon. This year the khatib (preacher) even stopped his sermon at one point and said, “Ladies, I can hear you from up here”. Everyone complains about the women talking.

    But, after reading your post here, and remembering what was said during the sermon, there is always first and foremost a discussion of Abraham, fatherhood, obedience to God (who also comes across as a male tyrant), sacrifice (does a Mother ask you to sacrifice your children?). Yes, sometimes there is a mention of Hajar and how the whole hajj ritual at Mecca is a recreation of her abandonment (abandoned by a male) in the desert, but in total, the ceremony is overwhelmingly male in focus. Perhaps that is why the women don’t bother to listen and talk about things that interest them.


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