Saturday, May 26, 2012

Speaking about God

The almost exclusively female congregation had just finished singing, “Let there be peace”, when a friend turned to me and remarked that the Catholics had gone for gender-neutral language. The original words of the song, “with God as our Father, brothers are all are we/Let me walk with my brother” had been rewritten, “with God our creator, children all are we/Let me walk with my neighbour”.  “In my dreams,” was my first thought, but I responded with, “We prefer the term inclusive language.”

This exchange took place at the conclusion of this year’s World Day of Prayer, an ecumenical event that celebrates the determination and achievements of women around the world in overcoming poverty, oppression, and human rights abuses.  It was the turn of the Catholic women in my hometown to host the event, and they had opted for an inclusive language version of the closing song.

Their choice seemed appropriate to me for what has traditionally been a women’s event that gives voice to the many women worldwide who live with the unjust systems of patriarchy.  Male dominance and violence consistently figure in the lives of women everywhere.  The image of God as a benevolent male is contrary to the lived experience of many people, female and male alike.

Language shapes and reflects values
I was recently reminded of this encounter at the World Day of Prayer service while listening to a discussion on gender neutrality in Sweden. The discussion centered on language, and the use of one little word, “hen”.  The most recent edition of the Swedish online “National Encyclopedia” proposes replacing “han” (he) and “hon” (she) with the gender neutral pronoun “hen”.  Sweden, the most gender equal country in the world, would like to eliminate traditional gender stereotyping and roles, and views language as an effective tool to accomplish that goal.

The Swedish example and the example from the World Day of Prayer illustrate the ability of language to both shape and reflect the values of a society or a community. The power of language to express a specific worldview underlies the feminist push for gender-neutral or inclusive language when referring to God.

Androcentric language for God remains the norm
Since the 1980’s, the application of gender-neutral language to God has been a common practice in many seminaries, Bible colleges, and theological schools.  This practice is clearly not catching on very quickly; three decades later, most churches persist in referencing God as male in their worship and official documents.

Christianity has inherited centuries of androcentric language, language that is centered on and around men to the exclusion of women, to describe the ineffable God. While theologically God is spirit, possessing neither a male nor female form, linguistically God is typically described, and visually depicted, as male.

"Creation of Adam" Michaelangelo
The almost exclusive use of androcentric language to describe God, particularly in public worship, perpetuates the stereotype of male superiority, implies that women are subordinate, and that male dominance is divinely ordained. The persistent metaphor of God as a ruling (usually white) male legitimizes social systems that glorify men, exclude women, exploit the marginalized, contribute to racism, and justify environmental degradation.  These are the very same social systems that many churches recognize as sinful, and seek to transform through acts of social justice.

Balance androcentric language with feminine images of God
The language of public worship, if it cannot be gender-neutral, should at least aim to be more inclusive.  Specifically masculine language can be balanced with Biblical images of God as mother, wisdom, and spirit.

"Sophia, Godess of Wisdom" by Pamela Matthews

A priest visiting my parish on Mother’s Day provided a good example of this.  He opened his homily with a description of God as a mother’s love.  He used an image from the Hebrew bible to speak of the unconditional, everlasting love that God, like a mother, has for each one of us.  For me, his homily functioned as a counterpoint to all the prayers that followed which referenced God as “he”.

There are many images of God as female, and as part of the natural world, that can be incorporated into worship. Incorporating some of these images more systematically into our speaking about God might just change the way we think. And therein lies the rub. Long held beliefs about the very structures of society, both religious and secular, will come under scrutiny and may be found wanting. 

Two sides of the same coin
As the Swedish drive for gender-neutral language indicates, linguistic change and structural change are two sides of the same coin.  Religions that speak about transforming unjust systems need to take a hard look at their language for God. In my view, it is time to stop making God into the image of men. 

Recommended post on "Biblical Maternal Images for God"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Today's culture a challenge to faith

A student's probing question
I gave the group of students in my religion class the following instructions, “Read the next two pages, and underline the ideas that you think are important.”  The exercise was a subtle way for me to evaluate the students’ mastery of concepts covered earlier in the year. Had they grasped the key elements of the catechism?

As we went around the table, each student read out one statement that they had underlined, and we briefly discussed them. I was satisfied with the students’ knowledge and understanding. They were on track with the religious education portion of their preparation for Confirmation.

One student, though, underlined a statement that had nothing to do with doctrines. It was a simple statement that readers could easily overlook as unimportant. “Ah,” I thought, “we are onto something here.”

The student had highlighted a section that talked about difficult choices and decision-making.  He read aloud, “The steady stream of difficult choices can be very confusing. This confusion can lead you to question how God is involved in your life or whether he’s involved at all.”

"Faith in the Church" by a454
The student’s selection demonstrated something deeper than the mastery of the catechism. He was probing the depths of his relationship with God. Poised between childhood and adulthood, he is considering the religious beliefs he has grown up with, and the role those beliefs have or will have in his life. The child, who readily accepts the faith of his parents, is giving way to the young man, who is preparing to make his own personal act of faith.

The culture no longer supports religious practice
In the past, many of us were simply carried along on the stream of the prevailing attitudes and practices of the community around us. When I was the same age as the students in my class, everyone went to church. It was what people did on Sundays. People sometimes regarded those who did not attend church with a degree of suspicion. Religious practice was part of the culture of the time, and it was not limited to the church building. 

Public schools opened the day with a Bible reading (which most of us rarely understood) and with the Lord’s Prayer (which we rattled off inattentively). Banquets opened with grace. Civic meetings began with prayers. There was no such thing as Sunday shopping. The culture was friendlier towards religious belief, and religious practice, even if it was merely a habit, was the norm.

Today’s culture is obviously much different in its attitude towards religion. Sunday no longer holds a special place in the week.  For many, attending church ranks low on the to-do list, if it ranks at all.  Our secular culture neither fosters the practice of religion, nor helps the individual sustain the spark of belief. The individual has to make a decision about faith and practice, without support from the culture.  This decision confronts everyone, not only the students in a religious education class.

Even if we decide that God will be part of our life, the culture frequently tests our commitment to that relationship. The values of our secular culture are often in direct contradiction to the values of the religious tradition that nurtured us as children.

Where the Gospel demands that we serve others, the culture advocates looking out for number one. Where the Gospel emphasizes respect for others, the culture bombards us with sexualized images that denigrate the human person. Where the Gospel challenges us to turn the other cheek, the culture advises us to fight back, to get even. Where the Gospel encourages generosity towards others, especially the poor and marginalized, the culture entices us towards rampant consumerism. Where the Gospel values humility, the culture fans the arrogance of the ego.

An objective for my lesson that day was to evaluate the students’ mastery of concepts; did they know the catechism?  I was pleased that they did, but even more delighted with the probing heart of that one student. 

Community supports faith decision
While knowing the teachings of your religious tradition is important, and helpful when faced with confusing moral dilemmas, entering into a personal relationship with God, and participating in a community of believers is critical for sustaining a life of faith.  This is particularly important in today’s world, where religious belief is often regarded with suspicion and hostility, and cultural practices are no longer conducive to the practice of religion, which helps to keep faith alive.

The student’s question is one worth asking of our self from time to time.  What place, if any, does God have in my life?

Photo Credit: "Faith in the Church" by a454, courtesy of