July 18, 2008

Include Me In

In opposing the use of inclusive or expansive language to describe God, some have expressed themselves in ways which a cooler temper and more reflection might have prevented. For example, reference is made to our “understanding of God” and “language which changes the nature of God.”

The first is over-broad — few can claim to understand God. The second betrays a kind of platonic attitude towards language, one which is not uncommon in some circles. This attitude treats words as having, rather than conveying, meaning. It also imbues language with a kind of magic power. It is as if our describing a wall as blue made it blue. The wall, in fact, is what it is, however we perceive it or describe it.

Of course, those who say these things (with a few exceptions) do not really mean them literally. They mean something like, “If we change language about God people will come to have ideas about God that don’t fit the revealed knowledge we have.” And so far, so true. The question is, How useful is the revealed knowledge of God, and is such revelation — given the fact that God has depths we can never plumb — at an end?

A balanced picture

If we turn to the revelatory text (the Scripture) we find that things aren’t quite as monochromatic as the critics of expansive language suggest. In fact, as I examine the Psalms and the Prophets in particular, I find that the Hebraic use of parallelism — a multiplicity of metaphor and image — quite often pairs images about God: male and female, human and nonhuman. And this is exactly what the new inclusive or expansive language liturgies are designed to do: not to remove all male imagery, but to supplement it and enrich it with other language. For examples of such parallel passages, see Deut 32:18, Prov. 1:8, Isa 42:13-14.

I could also note that insistence on an all-male vocabulary for God is a departure from the will of God, who seems opposed to the use of images to represent divinity:

Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice... Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female... — Deut 4:12,14-16 (Emphasis mine)

Unnatural history

But what is the source of the tendency towards emphasizing the “maleness” of God, and the predominance of this image? My belief is that the attribution of maleness to God is a result of misapplied natural history concerning God as the source of life. This is an anthropological theory, based on human experience. In earliest times, Mother Nature (Mother Earth) seemed simply to bring forth life. Women likewise were simply fruitful, and the Goddess held sway. With the rise of agriculture and animal husbandry (why isn’t it animal wifery?) there was a general shift in analogizing how things came to be born, and the seed — the vital principle deriving from the male, was perceived (somewhat mistakenly analogized from agriculture) to be the source of life, with the female reduced to the passive level of good soil. This cultural passage into an agricultural world is recorded in Scripture as the expulsion from Eden. The Mother of all Living (Eve) comes to be treated just like the land — someone to be subdued and subordinated. And so, while the female was reduced to a role of nurturing — passive, nourishing, protecting, but not creative, the male came to be seen as the human source of creativity and life. It is during this period of human history our Scripture was given its form: and so God, as Creator, came to be seen (metaphorically, and predominantly) as Father. But that did not mean that God was male.

Of course, there were many corrective voices along the way, alerting people to the fact that this was metaphorical language: “I am God, not man” (Hosea 11:9); as well as the patristic warnings not to attribute such human qualities to God. Still, even today there are some who seem not to appreciate this distinction between what God is as God is, and what we call God. It is those who insist that God must always be described as male who are neglecting the wealth of the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, and the commandment to avoid placing our understanding of God in the place of God.

Tobias Haller BSG


R said...


Thank you for yet another illuminating piece. I particularly appreciate your outlining of the expansive metaphors for God as supplemental rather than substitutions. This distinction has been very helpful when responding to the assertion that the recovery of, say, female images for God constitute an attack of some kind on orthodoxy.

The ancient tradition of refusing to name God (and even placing a mortal consequence for doing so) seems to me to say all this in practice, the definitely patriarchal nature of ancient Israelite culture(s) notwithstanding.

The greater riches of imagery in this time is probably helped by the speed of communication, bringing into rapid contact a wide variety of perspectives. This, perhaps, is what is most threatening at the present time, for it challenges us to grow in our awareness of the vast and varied manifestations of God's grace. And, gee, wasn't it just for me just the way I thought it should be? :)

Love and peace to you, as always.

Anonymous said...

I just finished an article in ATR about theological education in Brazil. one of the silly points the article made (there were good points too) was about liberation theology, and about how orthopraxy was just such a better orientation than orthodoxy, and then it started blathering about how orthodoxy was this greek (bad), linear (bad), abstract (bad) thing.

amidst the many problems, one of the more serious for a theologian should be the way that this gets wrong the Biblical witness, which contains plenty of abstraction, Greek, and linearity--and concerns about doctrinal orthodoxy, to boot.

(aside: one of the joys of learning Hebrew has been to confirm that, as I suspected, the talk of Hebrew being more "concrete" and less "abstract" than Greek is just so much claptrap.)

language is supple and rich cultures are capable of expressing vast concepts. one might think, "ah, Hebrew, more concrete. after all, the word for power is just 'yad' meaning 'hand', where Greek has an abstract word, 'dynamis'."

but waaaaiiit a minute--the Hebrew word for power is "yad"; it's not a metaphor any more, it's just the word for power. and, like most words, it has more than one meaning. indeed, i'd bet that the dominant meaning, the most common meaning in the Bible, is, in fact "power".

and "dynamis" isn't some kind of little abstract, floating around, devoid of concrete source. it is of course just the inflected form of the verb meaning "to be able". (as, indeed, Latin's "potestas" comes from "possum".)

the difference, such as it is, in this respect, between Greek and Hebrew, is not about one being more concrete and the other being more abstract. it's rather that Greek prefers to make abstract nouns by inflecting verbs, and Hebrew prefers to press concrete nouns into purpose. and this in turn is not so much about cultural temperament or literary tradition, but just about the different grammatical features of the language.

so what about your post? well, i think in deciding, "ah, i see, male language came from an anthropological and cosmological mistake", you go too far the other way, as if the metaphor could somehow be distinguished from the referent.

the metaphorical character of all abstracts (Hebrew or Greek!) drops away; you can't distinguish neatly between metaphor and reality.

just this is the reason for the prohibition on idolatry. it might seem, "hey, don't the Hebrew's misundestand those other religions? they know that their gods are not the same as the statues!" but this misses the point. of course, they agree that the statues are not really gods, but you can't pull apart metaphor and reality so easily--whether visual or written.

which means, in turn--scandalous!--that there is something male about God; that the male language is not just some kind of mistake, but rather, something revelatory also.

oh, and i would hasten to add, female too. as you rightly point out, the revelation contains both, and i think both are correct.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I would put your conclusion the other way around: not that there is something male of female about God, but that there is something about God in both men and women. That, I think, is the meaning of us being made in God's image, and after God's likeness. This is why we can also see something of God in waterfalls, sunsets, etc. Not that God has aspects of a waterfall or a sunset, but that they do of God.

Erika Baker said...

I apologise if I'm being a little dim - language shapes how we think, but we create language and use it to express what we already believe to be true. It is not external to us but arising from within us.

The point about language is not so much that God is male and female, or that men and woman both have something of God in them, but that those who wrote about God could only conceive "him" from within their own culture. Someone who could create the Universe had to be "big and strong and powerful", and in observable nature, it's males who are big and strong and powerful, not females.

In that context, for someone to describe God as beyond male or female is an astonishing insight, but again, it says more abour our human perceptions and their translation into language, than about the nature of God.

In Christianity the problem is compounded by the fact that Jesus was male, and that the writers of the gospels tell only of male disciples. Those visible facts appear to confirm the earlier, entirely human and culturally based notion that maleness is somehow a defining and important characteristic of God.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, you are not being dim at all; you're tracking my thinking exactly. The cultures that produced our Scripture saw God as male because they thought "male" meant "source of life, power, majesty, etc." And you are also on the beam as to the effect of Jesus "manhood" sometimes skewing things in a "male" direction. The extent to which culture shapes both language and religion -- and vice versa -- is something we ignore to our loss of understanding the complexity of revelation / reception. These phenomena cannot be separated -- the word must be heard as well as spoken.
All of our human categories, as Colossians 3:11 reminds us, cease to be of significance in the new creation, where "Christ is all and in all." Or, as Ecclesiasticus puts it, "We may speak much and yet come short; let the last word be, He is all."

Anonymous said...

I remember some forty years ago, teaching a "short course" at a church youth camp on "The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man" (sic! it curls my toes to think I once spoke and thought that way!). My pitiful premise was that we could think of God as a "bigger" wiser, more loving Father.

I began by asking the young people what they thought of when they heard the word "Father" (expecting things about providing for, caring, teaching, leading, punishing, etc.) The first hand went up: "When I hear 'father' I think of a dirty rotten bastard!" And my entire premise (of course) evaporated -- as it should have!

Tobias, your premise that a VARIETY of metaphors is the best protection against single cultural, social, and personal biases is right on! On a practical basis, the more ways (and words) people find to try to express the ineffable, the better -- since none is truly adequate by itself.

[I've always had a prejudice against "Lord" - not because it is sexist, but because unlike the case in all earlier cultures, no one in our culture has ever experienced a "Lord" (i.e., someone who virtually "owns" me and has power of life and death over me).]

Speaking of God exclusively as "Mother" (as per so many of our great mystics) is no more valid (or invalid) than speaking of God exclusively as "Father" -- "Father/Mother" is better than either alone. And "Father/Mother/Nanny/Lord/Friend/King/etc." is better yet.

[I have often had this fantasy of Jesus thinking: "What human words in this Palestinian culture can I possibly find to describe the relationship between the first and second Persons of the Trinity? Husband/Wife? Brother/Sister? President/VP? Twins? Mates? Buddies? Best Friends? Loving Couple? (Sigh) I guess I'll just have to settle for the weak and inadequate 'Father/Son'!"]

The only other option it seems is a kind of extreme verbal agnotisicm in which nothing at all can be said about God -- because whatever is said about God cannot be exhaustively accurate (which, of course, is true). Better to honor metaphor with the caveat that it is inadequate, i.e., that it IS, after all, a metaphor, and so, the more metaphors in the mix the merrier!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Fr John-Julian. You didn't mention the "Neighborhood of Boston" which together with the other two used to be said to be the real Unitarian Trinity!

I think that sense of the many many ways we perceive the inexhaustible God is summed up in that phrase from Sirach: when we have said all that we can say, God has more -- as even John Donne came to realize when he had done his worst. If God truly is infinite, as the Jewish mystics used to say, "Ain Sof" ("Without End"), then all our epithets and images can only possibly reflect some few of the facets of the transcendent jewel. To reduce this majesty to a single image, form, or character, in short, to think God's revelation has been grasped by finitude, seems the height of hubris. It leads to the idolatry that settles on one image over another, and to the exclusion both of other images, and of the One imaged, who is so much more. So I agree fully that to overemphasize female images over male images is just as much of an error. (Much as I love Julian's and Basil's image of Christ as our loving mother who nourishes us, I would not want that to replace the Man of Sorrows, or Christus Rex, or the Good Shepherd (or the Careful Housewife!) or the Rock, or the Gate, or the Fortress, or the Mother Hen, or the Vine, or the Lamb, or... well, you get the idea!

rick allen said...

"no one in our culture has ever experienced a "Lord" (i.e., someone who virtually "owns" me and has power of life and death over me)."

John-Julien, I take it you've never worked in the private sector?

But seriously, most workers live from paycheck to paycheck, and can suffer considerably when hor or her employment "at will" is terminated, as the law allows, for any reason, or for no reason.

I think most of us have a fairly good experiential idea what a "lord" is.

rick allen said...

Toby, the following is plagarized from myself, and though I don't think it necessarily takes side, I think it makes some distinctions I have always found helpful:

I have always found helpful a distinction make by Anthony Burgess in an anthology I used to own. This distinction doesn't really fit current practice, but it helps me to keep two things distinct.

Gender, he said, is a quality of words. Sex is a quality of living bodies.

So that, of course, God the father has no sex, because he has no body. Neither has the Spirit. By virtue of the incarnation the Son has a body, and therefore has a sex, male.

But though God the father has no sex, the words for him have a gender, which is male. This is not so obvious in English, a largely non-gendered language, but, in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, the words for God in the scriptures are all of the male gender, and the tradition of the Church is to use such masculine-gendered words for God.

The Son, too, is of masculine gender. The Spirit becomes more complicated, since the Hebrew Ruach is feminine, the Greek pneuma is neuter, and the Latin Spiritus is masculine. That differentiation should suggest, of course, that gender--i.e. the sexual quality of nouns--can vary with the language.

(Back to live feed:) English has very few truly gendered nouns, and at first blush "god" is a word lacking grammatical gender--except for that very unusual "-ess" feminine ending in English.

It's usage is a little checkered. I think we'd normally call Aphrodite or Hera "goddesses" rather than "gods," though the feminine "priestess," which we use happily for pagans, has a rather bad sense when applied to women Christian priests. To call a woman a "poetess" today would probably be understood as an insult, but "actress" would not be so understood. And what little girl would want to be a "prince" for Halloween?

All language about God is analogous language. I think most of the orthodox understand that, those who have read their theologians, or thought about God-talk very much. But some analogies, we would still say, I think, are more apt than others. "Father" is one originating with Jesus himself. The feminine images are there as well, and remind us not to get too caught up in the masculine thing. But I don't think the designation "Father" was wholly arbitrary, and I don't know if I'd want to see it lose its position as the sort of default designation of the First Person--atleast without some better reasons than those hitherto brought forward.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I have encountered the "linguistic" argument before, but it is not terribly persuasive. The gender of words is only sometimes related to the sex of the object to which the words refer -- this is called "natural gender." Many titles or names of God in Hebrew have male gender, but some have female gender (two quick examples from the Psalms: m'tzudah = fortress; shuah = salvation). There are very few anthropomorphic names or titles for God -- even though we are made in God's image. And "the Name" of God, as revealed to Moses, is without gender as such -- referring as it does to the One who Is.

Moreover, some names or words for God have other interesting grammatical attributes such as number: Elohim (an important name for God in much of the Hebrew Scripture) is in the plural, and Adonai also has a plural form -- yet no one would suggest on this basis that God is anything other than One! Even in the Shema -- the great proclamation of God's oneness, the "plural of majesty" is used.

In addition, in practice the use of gendered words is looser than you suggest. For example, "Prince" is a word Elizabeth I used to refer to herself, when she famously rebuked Robert Cecil for telling her she must go to bed. I think the example of Ruach / Pneuma / Spiritus should really put all of this discussion to bed

Finally, the use of Father for God is not original to Jesus -- it dates back the the Deuteronomic reform (see Deu 32:6) and the prohpetic era (e.g., Isaiah 63:16, 64:8) It is true that Jesus' use of "Father" is characteristic -- however, as I tried to make clear, this is in no way an indication that God has either sex or gender -- and is based upon the fact that God the Father is the source of the Son. So while the word is not "arbitrary" it is barking up the wrong tree to emphasize either the gender of the word, or the sex of those to whom it is ordinarily applied here below. "For with the Father of Lights there is no variation or shade." (James 1:17)

As I think Luther once observed, just because Jesus wanted to gather the straying children of Jerusalem under his wings didn't mean he was a bird. Taking poetic language literally is really missing the point. And confusing gender (a linguistic phenomenon that doesn't even exist in some languages, such as Japanese) with sex is not at all helpful in the long run. God remains God -- beyond all categories and divisions and qualities, and in whom, all created differences cease to signify or obtain.

rick allen said...

"confusing gender...with sex is not at all helpful in the long run."

I thought that was my point. These kinds of discussions are often confused by the failure to make the distinction.

My point was only that, though the masculine language for God is not descriptive of God's sex, the use of masculinely gendered words, predominantly, though not exclusively, is part of the tradition that has come down to use, and, like many issues involving tradition, some would like to preserve them, and some can't get rid of them fast enough.

Poetic language certainly shouldn't always be taken literally. But neither should its non-literal application mean that any other term would do equally as well. Sometimes it's just le mot just.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, Rick, as far as that goes I was agreeing with you. (Ignite the fireworks!)

As I also note, I am not suggesting jettisoning use of Father, Lord, or even King (some suggest dropping the latter two more out of a sense of a shift in our sense of government; but even there I think they are fine.) The goal is to supplement and augment, not impoverish, our language.

Anonymous said...

I was taught that it is important, when considering the language of liturgy, to distinguish between the metaphors for God amenable to apophatic interpretation and those which are immutably cataphatic. (This was Fr. Thomas Hopko at St. Vladimir's) The names of God, he said, are not subject to apophatic re-interpretation. Metaphors are apophatic attempts to frame in language that which is beyond language but when the divine itself uses language in self-description, that language cannot be used apophatically. For example, the titles Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be understood as metaphors and treated apophatically. They are truly God naming God's self.

What do you think?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think Fr. Hopko is mistaken. If I recall correctly, the Fathers make a distinction between the name "Father" and what attributes of Fatherhood it connotes. Among them is definitely not any attribution of maleness.

Moreover, if we regard all of Scripture as "God's Word" then God is just as much self-portrayed with all those other myriad images. This sounds to me like Fr. Hopko is trying to defend an indefensible idea, in order to preserve something else. I recognize his name as someone who has written against a Christian accommodation of sexually responsible committed same sex relationships, and suspect this is part of his "agenda."