Tuesday, May 10, 2005

About "Mother God" and inclusive language

Make sure you get a cup of coffee first - this is a long one.

Karen over at Raw Faith is talking about the mother image of God, and I'm glad of it.

Just for the lurkers who think this female-image-of-God stuff is 21st-century political-correctness nonsense, my extended stint at seminary taught me that this idea is as old as the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), or Julian of Norwich, or hundreds of medieval Christian mystics. It's shot through the Bible (which is where all those wacky mystics found it, by the way).

I bring this up because there's a whole bunch of wrasslin' goin' on with the use of inclusive language. People get really, really emotional about this in two of my worlds - in church, and in the community of recovery.

Bill W., the primary author of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote largely to men - because, in 1935, that was the primary clientele of AA. Men were drunks, and women had to deal with them. There are now two forces at work, however - the AA purists, (who, justifiably, would preserve unsullied-by-time the original text of recovery) and legions of women alcoholics (many of whom have been physically and sexually abused by male alcoholics), who get a little frosty at the idea of God as a loving father, and lines like, "That one is God; may you find Him now."

Church folk get irked about this topic for the same reasons - the Bible being the Bible, and also the interpretation and translation of God's word by a male-dominated organization. Gay Christians - especially gay men who have been rejected by earthly fathers - often find this "loving Father" image an unfathomable concept. For them too, the idea of a Mother God is a powerfully comforting one.

And then there was the woman a friend of mine encountered in an AA meeting. He'd spoken of an abusive father, and how his image of God was that of a mother who would hold him in her arms and comfort him. After the meeting, an older woman encountered him and said, "I dunno what kind o' God YOU know, but I'm a Cat'lic, and we teach God the FATHER and God the SON and we won't have any of this God-as-a-woman stuff!!" (He gently reminded her that in AA, it's "God as you understand God," and left it at that.)

I've been all over the map on this topic. For that reason, I'd like to share with you what is perhaps the best statement about inclusive language I've ever read. Once again, I am indebted to a mentor I never met - Bill Williams, author of Naked Before God - The Return of a Broken Disciple. This is a direct quote from his forward, A Word About Inclusive Language, and these are words I wish I had written, but did not:

The issue of male/female God-talk has evolved to the point of agony. No matter what a writer does, someone will get angry or hurt.

Picture, if you will, two prospective readers...

Claudia had a dysfunctional, abusive father, and whenever God is referred to as "Father," she finds the word so filled with bad meanings that she can no longer relate to God in a positive way. When too many male images clutter up church talk, she has to rush out. She resents having to do that...she
needs God.

Doris experienced a loving father, loves the liturgy of the church, and is pained by all the furor over the issue. She takes the Hebrew prophets seriously, and whenever she hears phrases like "Mother God" she feels like she has stepped into a pagan cult that will threaten her salvation. She rushes out of the church. She resents having to do that...she
needs God.

Both of these people are real, many times over. I love them both. I've sat with them for many hours in lounges, living rooms and cafeterias. They have real claims on my life; they have held me up when many other supports dropped away. I not only want to share my story with them, I
must speak to them.

I have this crazy notion that if I master the rules to this obscure game, both of them might be able to read this book. But I've been playing this game for a while now, and I've figured out something that makes me want to scream. The game for a writer, has only one rule to it:
You lose.

What to do?

Some folks try to avoid the issue by avoiding all pronouns. In small doses this can work, but I've seen some atrocious trombone solos, too:
God will do this by God's self, because God must be sure God's creatures do not compromise God's freedom to act in God's own best interests...

After reading an entire paper like that, the reader does, at least, discover why pronouns were invented! It is barely decipherable in an academic paper, and in a book written in colloquial style it stands out like a cyborg among farmers. Furthermore, in our increasingly polarized atmosphere, it is becoming a red flag in itself: a gang handshake indicating whether or not the author is going to stand with "us" or "them." Those who would walk among both Jews and Samaritans are likely to get shot on certain streets.

There are other possibilities: "It," which depersonalizes what Jesus was trying to personalize; "s/he, he/she" and all the other eye-breaking textual speed bumps; alternating genders; the creation of new words shuch as "isth"; only speaking to God in the second person; or complete, helpless silence.

I've considered them all.
Sometimes silence sounds the most attractive.

Even if you pull the teeth on pronouns, you still have to deal with "Father" language, or "Son of Man" language, both of which are ever-present in Jesus' dialogues. (Note, too, that "Son of HuMANity" simply buries the distinction in syllables - please, laugh with me, I think I'm about to cry - and if in desperation I go to "Son of Earthlings," will you follow that with "take me to your Leader" in your best robotic voice?)

The ironic thing about all of this is that very few people are convinced that God has a sexual organ at all. Let's all pause for a minute and contemplate that.

To those of you who hate Political Correctness: I know you wish I'd just be a man and stop whining. But this book contains a cry about things I've found hurtful. Shall I squash others, just because their hurt differs from mine? That would be the height of arrogance.

To Claudia and Doris: I don't want to hurt either of you. I will do my best. I will try to write things so that they are readable and responsible.

But you know what? I will fail. I am human, and I can't win a game with only one rule such as this.

Forgive me for being human; understand that it makes me hurt, too; and approach this text with compassion. Only your grace can keep this writer from falling silent.

Your weary friend,

I'll take my stand with Bill on this one. I've grown to appreciate - if not be entirely successful using - inclusive or female language about God. (I'm forty-eight, for cryin' out loud - change comes slow.)

But I also want to say, to the political-correctness haters, that my God (as I misunderstand God) is an awful lot bigger than this. Of all the sins we commit on a daily basis, is this such a big deal?

Karen, this is a whole lotta words about this topic. I'm glad you roused me to dump 'em all out of my head, because they've been rattling up there for a while.

My mother and father, I trust, are both with God. That means that God - with the help of a lot of loving folks here on earth - is standing in for both my parents, now. If God is Three-in-One, then I'll trust that God is Two-in-One - Father and Mother - and leave it for that list of questions which I keep thinking I'll ask once I'm in the presence of The One who is Love.


Poor Mad Peter said...

Even in our supposedly front-line liberal denomination, there is lingering tension over inclusive language. Problem is only partly our mindset: the English language itself, which doesn't have inclusive singular 3rd person pronouns, is the real problem.

I'm told that Hebrew pronouns are gender neutral, as are Greek, and could mean either, depending on context.

So, in the spirit of Barb over at Going Jesus, I ask WTFWJD and be as gentle and inclusive as I can, and laugh at myself while doing so.

Trust in God, said suffragette Emiline Pankhurst, She will provide.

Poor Mad Peter said...

Excuse me: that should be Sara over at Goingjesus.

Gotta cold--it'll do as an excuse...

Jared said...

...it stands out like a cyborg among farmers

I rolled on the floor laughing at that line. Steve, that was a great entry. I have wondered how it is that we can be expected to think of God only in fatherly terms when we are naturally accustomed receive parental care from a father and mother (generally speaking). I think the inclusive language is there for a reason.

TK said...

My faith journey started and has taken me down mostly very traditional avenues.
As such, the "Mother God" concept is somewhat off the beaten path for me.
That said as I read this post the first thing that popped into my head was Genesis 1:27

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

So God created man (hebrew word for mankind or humnanity) in his own image (hebrew word for likeness) in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

The word 'man' is a general term for humanity not a gender specific term. God created humanity in his(???)likeness. To me, that means there is a part of God that contains the feminine nature.

At the very least we do ourselves, not to mention God, a disservice when we think of him/her(???) in exclusively masculine terms. Yet another way we try to put God into small understandable box. But that's another post....

Keith Brenton said...

I'm just going to link to a post about my discovery of the "motherly" aspect of God.

Herb Ely said...

We can start with this scriptural image:
Matthew 23:37
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

More to come. It's late and I'm tired

Herb Ely said...

then there's Is 49:15 'Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you."

Nick said...

God is the initiator of the Gift. Is one sense we are all feminine in that we have to receive the Gift. God is a lover not a rapist. When it comes to modes of love as they relate to our sexuality I think of St Paul's injunction "Husbands loved you wives as Christ loved his Church." There are various modes of love proper to our sex. Sex is more about who we are than something that we do. Sexual love is an icon that conveys more about the inner life of the Trinity than than anything else in the universe. It is meant to be freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully engaged in, modelling the love that Christ has for his Church.