Progressive Christian Channel
We Need the Full Vocabulary of God
Note: In this Religion Roundtable, we've asked the authors of three prominent faith memoirs to write about their views on—and experience of—female spirituality. Check back here every few days to hear Jana Riess, Lauren Winner, and Sarah Sentilles discuss the unique religious questions facing women today.
Dear Jana and Sarah,
I think Sarah's question about gendered God language is a great one. I wrestle with this a lot. I do not believe that masculine language captures God any more than any other language captures God.
(Of course, there is more to the problem of masculine language than its generic limitation: as Judith Plaskow put it in Standing Again at Sinai: "Obvious and innocuous as male God-language has come to seen, metaphors matter—on both an individual and social level. . . . Religious symbols give resonance and authority to a community's self-understanding and sustain its conception of the world. . . . The ways in which male God-language continues to legitimate male authority are difficult to demonstrate. . . . [Yet] the symbol of the father God . . . is rendered plausible by patriarchy and, in turn, authorizes make-dominated social structures by making women's oppression appear right and fitting.")
At the same time, masculine language for God is a part of the Christian tradition that I don't want to lose or wholly set aside. Rather, I want to expand our vocabulary for God and use masculine imagery in concert with other language that Scripture and the church tradition have offered for God. I have 3 decades of practice in speaking of God as "He" and am still in the process of training myself to use other language. Sometimes, I feel irked—at a literary level—by the inability to use a pronoun to refer to God. Last Saturday, I read the sermon I would preach the next morning to a friend. "You sure do say 'God' a lot," she noted. My practice is to not refer to God with a masculine pronoun (or a feminine pronoun) in the pulpit, so I do indeed wind up saying "God" a lot, and sometimes, this simply irritates my ear. I have not aurally adjusted to the word "Godself," which I use occasionally, but hear as awkward.
In Still, I was actually quite intentional about gender and God language. In my previous books, I consistently used masculine God language. In Still, I did so only rarely—for example, when quoting or referring to someone else's description of God (Augustine: "God is He who gives God"). The narrator—the "I" of the book—tends primarily to use "he" language for God when referring to the God she once knew but thinks she has lost, or can't find anymore—("Should God return, you are almost certain he will seem different than however he seemed before"). In the chapter where the narrator most expressly discusses becoming reacquainted with Jesus, that reacquaintance turns precisely on the discovery, or recollection, or lots of ways of hymning and limning Jesus—"mother, bread of life, author of my salvation, the bright morning star."
To my mind, the church today has impoverished itself by praying with and singing with and thinking with such a small set of the many images for God found in the Bible. One of the most powerful sermons I have ever encountered is Maggie Wenig's "God is a Woman, and She is Growing Older," in which Rabbi Wenig describes God as an old woman, a grandmother. (She's not just making this imagery up—she's drawing on Lamentations, Jeremiah, 20th-century poetry, medieval Jewish liturgy, and numerous other biblical and rabbinic sources.) When my church's liturgy names God as Father, I joyfully join in. But I yearn for liturgical expression of the many other images for God found both in Scripture and in 2,000 years of Christian reflection on life with God. I yearn for Anselm's "Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you"; I yearn for Clement's image of Christ as the milky breast of God ("the breast that is the Word, who . . . can bestow on us the milk of love"). And it is not just "feminine" imagery I yearn to express in corporate liturgy. It is also Paul and Job's image of God as clothing; and Genesis' image of God as a gardener; and 1 Chronicles' image of God as a house-builder; and Russbroec's image of God as abyss.
Sometimes, I try to pray with these words for God—God the house-builder or God the abyss—and sometimes it feels a little strained, so deeply am I trained in a much narrower range of God-language. But I want to press through the strained, hokey feelings because I believe there is something on the other side there about God, something, some lots of things, I don't yet know.
Well, I have not managed to address Jana's question about writing about one's own vulnerable stories. I await whatever wise things Sarah has to say about that!
P.S. It occurs to me that I actually feel way more vulnerable writing publicly about God-language than I do writing about my divorce or my anxiety attacks.