Thursday, February 16, 2012

God is Not a Boy's Name

This is not all there is to say (or all I have to say) about inclusive language... but this is what I'm saying to my congregation in a newsletter article this month.

While I was in seminary, I heard this true story: a woman went to the Sunday school classroom after church one day to pick up her daughter. That day, the children had drawn “images of God.” One child had drawn Jesus, another a beautiful butterfly, another a shining sun. The daughter had drawn a very old man with a beard, sitting on a cloud. “That is beautiful!” said the mother. “I like his big beard. He looks so wise. Why did you decide to show God as a man?” “Because we were supposed to draw God,” the daughter replied. “Do you think you could draw God as a woman someday?” the mother asked. “Don’t be silly, mom,” the daughter laughed, “God is a boy’s name.”

For many centuries, the Christian tradition used exclusively male language for God. Most theologians would have acknowledged that God is neither male nor female. But churches referred to God as male, consistently, exclusively, and daily, and one of the unintentional results is that many girls and women could not see themselves as created in God’s own image (Gen. 1:27) because they had been taught – albeit unintentionally – that “God is a boy’s name.” Perhaps some of us grew up thinking that God was, at least a little bit, a boy’s name.

In the past several decades, the church has been led to do a new thing: to change the ways we talk about God and people. The Eleventh UCC General Synod in 1973 called upon churches to use “inclusive language” when talking about people, using words like “humanity” instead of “mankind,” and making other linguistic changes to reflect our wide diversity of age, race, ability, ethnicity, and more. They also called on churches to use “expansive language” for God – using a wide variety of images, God not just as “father,” but as “mother bear,” “light,” “Word,” “potter,” “eagle,” “midwife,” and the many other beautiful images of God from our scripture and tradition.

The congregation I serve is committed both to inclusive/expansive language and to honoring the tradition of our “great cloud of witnesses.” We try to balance beautiful new God-language (ending every benediction with the declaration that the trinity is “one God, mother of us all”) with the richness of the traditions of the historic church (a rollicking Gloria in the style of spirituals including the words “Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you.”) We try to preserve the poetic integrity of texts, while updating the language when possible, and also to strike out into new territory, with bold new hymns that lift up lesser-known images of God.

But I admit that in my own sermons, prayers, and classes, I too often choose between male images and gender-neutral images, male pronouns and no pronouns. Too often, I shy away from feminine God-language because it might be too edgy, too awkward, too distracting. This Lent, I am recommitting myself to exploring new ways to use inclusive and expansive language, delving into the rich imagery of scripture, leaning into the strangeness of choosing feminine pronouns at least as often as I choose masculine ones. I hope it will challenge me – and all of us – to expand our images of God, and to remember the vast, unlimited mystery of God’s being.

The inclusive/expansive language movement is young yet, and we are certainly seeing its growing pains. Some revisions of dear old hymns sound clumsy or clunky to our ears; often it is hard to know how to talk about God without relying on the traditional pronouns of “he,” “him,” and “his,” let alone masculine images like “Lord,” “King,” and “Father.” Like every new thing the church has ever done, we are feeling our way along, through unfamiliar territory and awkward pronoun situations. But with the help of God, we are being led toward a world where little girls like [names of girls in my congregation] – and little boys like [names of boys in my congregation] –grow up knowing that God is not exclusively a boy’s name.

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