He Is Lord, He Is God!
Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism
The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God
by Leon J. Podles
Both of these books of essays address the problem of what is called “inclusive language.” It is said by feminists that referring to God as He and using he, man, men, mankind and similar words to refer to human persons of both sexes excludes women, and that the language of the church must be changed to include women. The first question, of the proper gender of words that refer to God, is that of vertical inclusive language; the second, the gender of language referring to human persons, is that of horizontal inclusive language. Speaking the Christian God addresses itself to the first issue; The Politics of Prayer also considers the second.
Alvin Kimel claims in his introduction to Speaking the Christian God that the attack on the Trinitarian names is an attempt to alter “the face and constitution of Christian life.” Elizabeth Achtemaier concurs in her essay, “Exchanging Gods for No Gods: A Discussion of Female Language for God” and concludes that the use of feminine names for God leads to the worship of a deified Cosmos, the same worship that was condemned by the prophets of Israel. Garrett Green in “The Gender of God and the Theology of Metaphor” traces the source of the demand to use feminine names for God to Feuerbach’s concept that the idea of God is simply a projection of an idealized humanity. The Dominican Justin DiNoia in “Knowing and Naming the Triune God: The Grammar of Trinitarian Confession” offers the clearest and most precise essay (but then, I was taught by the Dominicans)—on the distinction between metaphorical and analogical language about God, and why the triad Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is not a substitute for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other contributors, especially Fr. Thomas Hopko in “Apophatic Theology and the Naming of God in Eastern Orthodox Tradition” and Alvin Kimel in “The God Who Likes His Name: Holy Trinity, Feminism, and the Language of Faith,” discuss the question of apophatic theology (that God is beyond all human description) and the revealed names of the Trinity. Other essayists describe the feminist reconstruction of theology and of the liturgy.
The essays in The Politics of Prayer cover a broader range of topics. Kenneth Whitehead in “The Serious Business of Translation (Including Religious Translation)” explains what translation should be and why the use of inclusive language produces bad translations. In “Old Testament Iconology and the Nature of God” Fr. Paul Mankowski gives a scholarly refutation of those who claim that the Hebrew Scriptures support use of feminine language about God. “Generic Man Revisited” by Ralph Wright shows that man has been used generically from Anglo-Saxon documents up to The New Yorker of the late 1980s. Peter and Brigette Berger have the best essay on how proponents of inclusive language politicize the language: “Femspeak and the Battle of Language.” They compare inclusive, feminist language to an imaginary movement, the Intimists. Intimists decide that the use of y ou rather than the intimate thou is a sign of depersonalization, and that thou must be revived. Using thou instead of the standard English you becomes a sign of loyalty to the Intimist movement, much as when Mussolini decreed that true Fascists would use the manly voi instead of the “degenerate” form lei. The feminists have now created a similar situation in the churches, where use of standard English is considered provocative and use of inclusive language is a sign of loyalty to feminism. In “Feminism, Freedom, and Language” Michael Levin refutes the Whorf hypothesis, influential among feminists, that language tends to shape our perception of reality. The evidence is that it doesn’t.
The theological essays in both books, unfortunately, are often weakened by a variety of fideism. That is, they acknowledge that in God’s self-revelation in Scripture he does indeed refer to himself as masculine, but they are somewhat agnostic about what this means. As Kimel says, “perhaps Jesus could have addressed God as his mother.” At most, the essayists show that referring to God as feminine leads to a departure from biblical religion, but they seem unable to establish what God could have meant when he referred to himself as masculine. If it is important that God is masculine we should be able to discern something of what it means. God, after all, reveals himself as Trinit y; this is a mystery, but one that we can partly comprehend in the light of human interrelationship and love. Similarly, the masculinity of God, if it is central and important, should be at least partly understandable. Some feminists have even conceded, for example, that the masculine names of God may be valid, but they also can fade into disuse, much as the metaphor of Christians as God’s slaves has been largely consigned to oblivion because of the disappearance of slavery. If those who argue in favor of the traditional names of God and of the persons in the Trinity cannot establish the meaning of those names, it would not seem to matter—at least according to one line of thought—whether they are used or ignored.
I think that it is important that they are used, and I think that their meaning can be established. Masculinity is, after all, a universal phenomenon. Many of the essayists do not make even the elementary distinction between the male (physical and bodily sexuality) and the masculine (a quality or pattern which is not necessarily dependent on the body). Even the essayists in these volumes who note the distinction often seem to have accepted the feminist critique of masculinity as patriarchal and oppressive. None of them seem to have an acquaintance with either the popular or scholarly literature that is not hostile to masculinity.
Two books which would elucidate what is meant by masculinity and therefore what the Scriptures may mean when they refer to God as masculine are David Gilmore’s Manhood in t he Making and Walter Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power. Both point out the sacrificial nature of masculinity. Elsewhere (“Men and Religion: An Unhappy Marriage,” Touchstone, Spring 1993) I have discussed the curious absence of men from church life, and I think this absence stems from, or at least is made worse by, a failure to develop a sound theological anthropology of masculinity and femininity. In a book upon which I am working I will present my arguments in detail, but briefly they are as follows:
Masculinity is a pattern. The boy must leave, indeed must reject, the safe feminine world of his mother, and go out to confront the dangers that imperil his society so that he may protect its women and children, that is, those who represent the very possibility of the continued existence of a society. Only after being separated from his childhood participation in the feminine world of his mother can the boy attain to a fruitful union with the feminine in his wife. In confronting danger, in suffering, and in death he attains the possibility of sympathy, of the compassion that a woman has by reason of her motherhood, which connects her to the whole creation which suffers and dies. Femininity is a maintenance of unity; it is not passivity or even primarily receptivity. It has its roots in the unity of mother and child, and through the child the woman is united with all of creation. This physical unity is the basis for the compassion a woman feels. A man can attain this compassion only by first leaving it, by suffering and then returning to the world of the feminine, but no longer primarily as a recipient, but as a giver of compassionate love.
God, on the other hand, creates by separating: light from darkness, woman from man, Israel from the nations. His love is elective and free; it is not like a mother’s love which is based in the natural, physical facts of child-bearing. God is indeed as compassionate as a mother, but it is a compassion that is based upon his willingness to create separation and to bear the consequences of that separation. This pattern is fulfilled in the life of Christ, the Son who is eternally not the Father. The Son is holy, separated from sinners, yet he also bears the separateness of sin within himself, carrying it within the Trinity. Into the space between the Father and Son, the Son inserts the gulf that man’s sinfulness has created between God and man.
But in the return of the Spirit to the Father all creation returns to the Father. The final unity of God and creation is the result of prior separations, of Father from Son, of cosmos from chaos, of man from God. As unity is associated with the feminine, therefore the Church (restoring the unity of mankind as at Pentecost) and the Virgin Mary (the means by which divinity was united with humanity) are closely linked in the creeds and in patristic commentary, and especially in the liturgy of the Eastern Church. But this movement toward unity which might be called feminine is not simply feminine, but rather is a part of the pattern of masculinity, which includes both separation and reunion. Similarly all believers, insofar as they are conformed to the Son, are sons of God, and share in his masculinity.
Although this terse explanation needs to be considerably expanded, I think that it shows that masculine imagery for God is neither an accident of the Bible’s origin in a patriarchal culture nor an impenetrable mystery. Rather God’s masculinity is so intimately bound up with the essence of his self-revelation that attempts to deny or even de-emphasize it will, as various essayists in both books correctly sense, lead to a different religion. Indeed, even before the feminist movement, the absence of men from Western church life, both Catholic and Protestant, may be a sign that something has gone seriously wrong with the spiritual life of Western Christianity, and that a recourse to biblical, patristic, and Eastern patterns of church life is urgent lest all the churches of the West lose any convincing claim to be Christian. Whatever the malady that afflicts our churches, it will only be exacerbated by contemporary efforts to neuter and feminize the language of our worship.
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“He Is Lord, He Is God!” first appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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