Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inclusive Language and our Churches

It's not just me--a report from the National Council of Churches reports that gender inclusive language is on the decline (go here to read more).

I've always been sensitive to inclusive language when it comes to talking about groups of humans. I've wrestled with languages that give objects a gender; I'm sure there are French teachers out there who still remember my explosive reaction to the whole idea and the observation that the cool objects got to be masculine while the problematic objects were always feminine.

It took some time before I became sensitized to the use of the male gender when it came to how we talk about God. I went to college in the 1980's, back in the days when we weren't afraid to call ourselves feminists. Some of my friends gave themselves to Goddess religions, some of us became atheists, and others of us decided to stay in the churches of our childhoods and work for transformation from within.

We found sympathy from some of our elders, along with the rolled eyes and raised eyebrows. I remember my wonderful mom, who always returned home from Synod Assembly or from her graduate studies with great books for me. And in time, while we didn't often hear about the feminine aspect of God, at least we moved away from the masculine aspect.

In retrospect, I find myself wishing we'd moved towards embracing the idea that God can be female: God as mother, God as womb, God as fierce protector of the brood. My childfree self also balks at those depictions. What are some other female aspects that don't include childbearing? My goddess worshiping friends would remind us of the wise old crone image that we've spent so much time avoiding with our excessive exercising and surgery to help keep us from looking our age.

I remember the first church I attended down here in South Florida and the complete lack of attention to the gendered way the church referred to God. God was definitely masculine in that church. I blamed it on the age of the pastor. He was an aging baby boomer--not his fault that he hadn't been sensitized.

But lately, I've noticed it in younger pastors too, that complete lack of trying NOT to refer to God with male pronouns. I've noticed it in the music chosen for anthems. I'm weary of this fight, but I'm not willing to give up.

I can be subversive too. One day I was a substitute teacher in our intergenerational Sunday School. It was Mother's Day, and I decided what better day to initiate a conversation about God and gender. We talked about images of God as mother that we find in the Bible, but rarely stumble across in church. It was a great conversation, and I don't know that I changed any minds--but all I really request is that we do things mindfully. If we're going to refer to God as male exclusively, I'd like us to think that through.

Happily, I'm part of a religious tradition that's always changing. If we can ordain, openly ordain homosexual men and women now, what other kinds of change might be coming in the way we see God? I tend not to think of God as sexual, but what if God does have a sexuality? How would that inform my own sexuality? What would happen if we thought of God as disabled, instead of all powerful? Might we be more willing to help God create a just world, if we knew how much God needed our help? What happens if we think of God as female? Not both male and female, but female only--would we ordain more women?

I like to think that the Church is always arcing towards justice, towards inclusivity, towards sensitivity. But I also know that the Church only arcs that direction when people demand it, when people pay attention, when people call the Church on its problematic behavior.

And we might argue that the Church has far more to worry about than its non-inclusive language. But I'm an English Ph.D., so don't start that argument with me. I can make a compelling case that all the other problems stem from the way that language orders our thoughts and behaviors. Language is the root. Ponder that possibility in your own worship services in the coming weeks.

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