Seven years ago I went through a an interview with the the Board of Ordained Ministry for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Though it was a cakewalk compared to ordination or commissioning interviews (this was for licensure), it was the hardest interview of my life. I walked away uncertain as ever as to what was happening, and the church to which the Bishop intended to appoint me as Associate Pastor depended on a positive outcome. About a week later my District Superintendent Called me to let me know that I had been approved and all was well to move forward with the appointment. Except for one important note. He said that it would be important for me to make an aggressive and intentional effort at using “Inclusive Language”.
There was one problem: I didn’t know what exactly that meant. I thought it meant not preaching “turn or burn in eternal hell-fire” kinds of theology, so I thought I was good. I asked if he could clarify for me, and he said, “Well, you speak and write about God as a male exclusively. You’ll want to learn to be more inclusive with your language.”
“Ohhhhh. Well, that makes more sense.”
Side note: There are a whole host of people entering into ministry who have never even heard the phrase “inclusive language”. There are many well intended people getting dinged in board of ordained ministry and district committee interviews for not being inclusive, while they are simply have never had anyone even introduce the idea. Often they need to be taught, not shamed. But that’s not what I want to get to here.
What I want to get to is the wild, spinning, uncertain, clunky, hard, wonderful, and beautiful journey I entered as I began to embrace this. You see, though my language did indeed describe God as exclusively male (104 male pronouns for God in a three page paper- yeah, I went back and counted), in no way did I actually believe that God is exclusively male. But you wouldn’t know it from my language. So I began this journey of having to learn a new language. It was difficult. Physically difficult. I had to restructure the way I formed sentences, I found myself using the passive voice a lot (which I didn’t like), and public speaking (something which had always been easy for me) became much more labored.
But something beautiful also happened. God got bigger. A lot bigger. Now that I was intentional about my language, I was also growing intentional about my imagination. I began to imagine God not only as Father, but also as Mother. I had no idea what I had been missing. God and the world began to break wide open for me, as did gender. I grew more intentional about finding women and girls to lead in various contexts, my views of sexuality both broadened and sharpened, my views on maleness and male privilege birthed, and even the scriptures began to become more alive for me. Within about a year (maybe less) I became not only a practitioner, but an advocate of inclusive language.
Except there’s one problem. Seven years later I find myself in a deep internal struggle with how inclusive language has been practiced (both by me and many in my context) and pushed. I believe what we call “gender inclusive language” is not we practice. What we’ve actually been practicing is gender exclusive language. We are not actually including gender when talking about God, but we are stripping gender from away God. The common theological sentiment is that “God has no gender”. While there is a way in which this is true, there is also a way in which this is false, and what I’ve come to realize is that the ramifications of this stripping away of gender are not merely theological and academic; they are also spiritual. I’ve begun to lose something deeply important in my spirituality- in the way I relate to God.
I had a minor crises of faith over the last week realizing that I’ve lost a sense of intimacy with God over the last seven years. A huge part of that has little to nothing to do with “inclusive language”, but there is also a big part of it that is directly connected to adopting what I will from here on out call “gender exclusive language”. God has indeed gotten bigger for me, and that is a good and beautiful thing, but as God has gotten bigger, God has also gotten unsmaller (yeah, spellcheck doesn’t like that one but I do). God has become distant, amorphous, intangible, even to a certain degree scary- not scary like “Imma squash you like a bug” scary, but scary like “first day of college with an intimidating prof” scary. There is a real sense of intimacy I’ve lost in my relationship with God.
Before I continue, let me clear about two things: When God was functionally and linguistically exclusively male for me, though I did have a certain intimacy, there was an deeper intimacy I was missing, by never imagining the feminine face of God. In no way do I want to go back to that. Not at all. Also, let me also recognize this: As a man who has never had any real physical, sexual, or emotional issues with a man- specifically a father- I hear why male imagery, and especially the father image, are ones to which some simply cannot move. I want to be sensitive to those cases, and confess that it’s something about which I simply know little to nothing.
But I do think we need to find a way to be truly gender inclusive. First of all, for those of us who have been actually practicing gender exclusive language, I think we need to think more seriously about releasing the gender-less God, and begin embracing what I once heard a pastor describe as a gender-full God. And this is a pretty simple theological move, really. Genesis 1:27 tells us that the very image of God is male and female: “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them; male and female [God] created them.” The first and direct description that we get in the Bible of the image of God- of God’s likeness- is gendered. And for many this has been easy for centuries: “God has gender, so God’s a dude.” No. It says “male and female” not “male or female” (more on this in a minute). So let’s embrace the gender-full God.
Next we need to begin to get more active and bold about recognizing and naming the feminine face of God. This can’t be merely theological. It needs to be practical. Long before there is ever an image of God as father in the Scriptures there is one of a mother. I would argue that this image comes as early as in the Bible’s second verse: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). It is out of the waters of God’s womb that the universe is birthed. Later in the Scriptures (much later) Jesus is talking with a religious leader called Nicodemus and talks about the need for us to be “born from above” (or “born again”, if you like) and “born of the Spirit”. Beloved, God gives birth to things. I think it’s okay for us to call her our Mother. Let’s do this. Let’s do it a lot. God our Mother is far too buried in the depths of our linguistic practices. Let’s get her out.
So… for those of you who, like me, have had God as “he” and “father” engrained into you and in it you find great intimacy and connection to God (I get that, I really do), stop freaking out when we paraphrase Genesis 1 with things like “Male and female she created them” (more on this in a minute… wait for it.). And stop freaking out if I decide to shift the doxology to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise God all creatures here below/ Praise God above ye heavenly host/ Praise Mother/Parent, Son and Holy Ghost”. Open up your mind, open up your heart, and open up your ears to a God who is not like a mother, but God is our Mother. She gave birth to the universe, in her you were born from above, and it is from her breast that we are nursed to life and strength and vitality and a whole lot more.
But here’s the thing. Though we need to be sensitive to the ways in which intimacy with a male is a justifiably terrifying image for many, we need to find a way to also embrace the maleness of God. This is where it gets less theological and more personal for me, and where this all ties in to my minor crisis this week. There were a lot problems with my initial conversion to Christianity, but there was also a lot of beauty in it, not the least of which is that it was real and it stuck. Something real happened to me that I’ve tried throwing away and I can’t. A big part of my initial intimacy with this crazy God in whom I believe and have given my life and livelihood is the image of God as “Father”.
At my church we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount, and this week we started chapter six. This is the part where three times in an 18 verse span Jesus says “your father who sees in secret” (Mathew 6:4, 6 & 18). These verses haunted me this week. There is a lot at work here, but part of it is that these verses took me back to my early Christian days when God’s presence in my life was as close, as intimate, and as clear as the air I breathe. Maybe some of it was having a literal father who lived 1,000+ away most of life, but my birthing years as a Christian (though very motherly in that sense and many more) were also of me spending deeply intimate moment with the Father.
Oh sure, it’s all very “Field of Dreams”, but there’s a reason so many of us cry at that movie. Since I’ve practiced gender exclusive language I feel today like I walked away from my Father. I didn’t realize it until this week, but as these verses from the Sermon on the Mount haunted me, I realized that part of the lack of intimacy with God in my life these days (can a pastor say that?) is due to stepping away from the image of God as Father. And, quite honestly, more than anything right now, I just wanna have a catch. I miss it. While there is a part of me that has grown in beautiful ways in my relationship with God since become more aware of the ways I gender God, there is also a vital piece of my spirituality that is dying because of the practice that has come out of this awareness.
In all of this I realized that while we need to be careful and sensitive with gendered images for God, we also need to be careful not to abandon them all together, and, perhaps more importantly, not demand that others do. God is, in a very real way, gendered, and when we strip God of gender, I think we take something essential from God. There is a way in which God surpasses gender- that God is something wholly other- but there is also a way in which God is right here giving us birth, nurturing us, feeding us, and having a catch with us. And in this God functions with us in whatever tangible, intimate, and human ways give each of us life. To lose this is to lose a necessary intimacy with God that gives our faith a certain and essential honesty.
The problem I find we run into is this issue with those darn pronouns, isn’t it? Our English pronouns are limited to be either specifically gendered or gender neutral. So the tendency to be inclusive is to go neutral (which we can only do in the plural), but this brings us right back to functionally (if not intentionally) stripping us of a gender-full God.
I want to offer two solutions. One, why can’t we just mix up the pronouns? Let’s not go maniacal and start doing word counts on our sermon manuscripts to make sure there’s perfect equity, but let’s mix it up. I’ll be honest, after sever years of avoiding pronouns, I’m starving for one; not just because it offers more linguistic opportunity, but I find pronouns (though admittedly limiting) are more intimate than saying “God” 18 million times and using terms I’ve never been able to embrace like “Godself” (I know it works for some, but I’ve tried it on and it just doesn’t fit for me). But we have to actually mix it up. We must embrace a gender-full, and not a gender-specific nor genderless God.
My other solution I’ve only come to since my views on sexuality and gender identity have broadened. God is gender-full, and I am beginning to wonder if God is in this sense genderqueer. “Female and male” God created us to reflect the likeness and image of God. God is not exclusively male, nor is God exclusively female. God is gender-full perhaps in the most full and beautiful way possible. We are born out her womb and also nestle up into his breast (John 1:18). What if we embraced a genderqueer God? That is, a God who is not genderless but truly full of gender? This is, after all, a bigger and broader God than one entirely stripped of Gender.
And what if the pronoun is, as many genderqueer people prefer, “they”. What does Genesis even say but “let US make humankind in OUR image”. Why, then didn’t the writers of Genesis follow this with “So God created humankind in their image, in the image of God they created them; male and female they created them.” Yes, it may sound polytheistic, but it does so no more than “let us make humankind in our image” and I haven’t seen anyone challenge that. “They” is admittedly gender neutral in some senses, but in a genderqueer context, it seems to me that it is more gender-full than neutral.
All of this is to say this: Let’s not rob ourselves of a certain kind of intimacy with God by stripping Them of gender. Let’s also be graceful and generous with one another in our language about God, but also let’s allow ourselves to push each other by broadening and stretching, not restricting, our language about, to, and with God. Let’s break the mold wide open and give this wild, crazy, beautiful God the kind of intimate moments that we have with one another: Moments of laughter, and tears, and anger, and fear, and comfort, and struggle, and love, and peace, and home.
I love God my Father. And I love God my Mother. And I want them both. I need them both. As someone who grew up in a home where mom and dad did not get along and could no longer stay together, I guess maybe I need a God where male and female are inseparably held together in a beautifully queer and life-giving way.
Help me out with this one. I think we need to talk about it more. I think we all need some pushing and stretching in this. Let’s not lock ourselves in. Let’s ride the crazy ride of exploring this endless, beautiful God.
What a thoughtful and well-written piece! I too have struggled with going genderless for God, and agree that saying “God” everywhere a pronoun would fit is not only difficult, but offensive to most people’s ears. I have struggled with a person in my community of friends who identifies as gender-fluid. This person has gone from preferring each of the pronouns, and at one time even requested being referred to as “they.” I REALLY struggled with this, as I could hear every English teacher I ever had saying that “they” can’t be used when referring to a single entity. So what’s my point? I think “They” would be perfectly acceptable when referring to God, what with the whole Trinity thing. This too would take some getting used to, but since we’re mixing things up anyway, why not?
Thanks for the kind words. It’s tricky stuff, but as my world has been blown wide open over the last decade or so, I’m finding great freedom and beauty the many ways people finding language to identify themselves. Language should be a fluid thing. It should evolve and grow just as our faith should. The two feed each other. The bottom line for me, however, is that when it comes to people, I’m gonna call them what they are asking to be called. It takes breaking some old habits, and it can be awkward and clunky at first, but there is a great beauty in it. Thanks for reading.
good writing paul.
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