Neutering God

God reveals Godself…

My ears pricked up during a recent sermon at a local Presbyterian church. I’ve heard “Godself” used by mainline ministers with some regularity since I went to seminary some dozen years ago, but I’m not used to it.

I’ve long been fascinated by the liberal Protestant quest to neuter God. I sat among students in seminary who would render male Greek words into gender-neutral alternatives. In my mind, this simply led to mistranslation, because the language of scripture is patriarchal. May as well translate it properly, and then think about how to use it in liturgy and preaching.

Liberal Protestants make, in my view, a good argument that male language for God sacralizes patriarchy. If human beings think of God as male, it lends a certain amount of credence to patriarchal structures of human relations. This is probably true even if Christians add disclaimers that male language about God does not mean that God is male. Thus, by this logic, it is good that Christians have been seeking ways to rhetorically distance themselves from patriarchy.

Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Trinity, 1511

I’ve just finished reading Ed Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ, an account of how Americans have imagined Jesus’s appearance since the seventeenth century. Toward the end of the book, Blum and Harvey note that most evangelical churches have removed pictures of Jesus from their sanctuary because of the inevitable problems raised by choosing a skin color for Jesus. Churches no longer wanted to sacralize whiteness by hanging pictures of a white Jesus, and there wasn’t an easy substitute. Similarly, churches should want to take steps to avoid sacralizing patriarchy by using rhetoric that presents a male God. However, one simply cannot banish male language for God. One needs substitute words and phrases.

Easier said than done, of course. Mainline Protestant language about God and human beings has changed dramatically over the past several decades. New hymnals (the Presbyterians are bringing out a new hymnal this year, replacing what I still think of as the “new hymnal” which replaced the “red hymnal” of my youth) edit out male language for human beings and decrease the use of male language for God. In the 1968 hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” the new hymnal changes “we’ll guard each man’s dignity / And save each man’s pride” to “we’ll guard human dignity and save human pride.” Such changes seem pretty reasonable. I now regularly use “humankind” in my own rhetoric rather than “mankind.”

It’s a much harder task for Christians to revise the final verse of that hymn: “All praise to the Father / From whom all things come / And all praise to Christ Jesus His only son / And all praise to the Spirit / Who makes us one.” Father language for the first member of the Trinity is nearly inescapable for Christians because of the language that Jesus used. Switching from “God the Father” to “God the Creator” does not work for Christians because of our belief in the role of God’s Word in creation. Nor can Christians easily discard the title of “Lord” for both the Father and Son. Tricky stuff, human language.

When sitting in church recently, I started wondering when ministers began using the term “Godself.” It seemed, at best, uncommon prior to 1980. I found an interesting article in the June 9, 1980 issue of Christianity and Crisis, penned by James F. White (then a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology) about liturgical renewal. White had this to say about “Godself” and related terms:

The only serious problem in this area is the reflexive pronoun. In my own writing, I have come to use regularly “Godself,” which after one year of use becomes perfectly normal. But in liturgical texts we simply avoid the reflexive. There is some loss since pronouns can make a text more personal. Any attempt to balance “he” with “she” makes the reference highly confusing to the worshiper. So we have decided to avoid third-person pronouns except for Jesus Christ.

It occurs to me that even should Christian liturgists follow White’s advice, they will still be sacralizing the maleness of God because of Jesus, so strictly speaking, it’s only a partial solution. White’s point, however, is good. If one finds male pronouns for God offensive, one should not use pronouns and should certainly not use the reflexive pronoun. Time to get creative.

Regardless, though, I can’t get used to “Godself.” It doesn’t seem “perfectly normal” to me. It seems so abstract and impersonal. And yes, a personal and intimate Jesus might make up for a distant and abstract God, and to some extent, American Christians could stand to be a bit less chummy with God. Still, when I read the Bible, I read about at least moments in which God draws very close to human beings, speaks to them, cultivates a loving if sometimes perplexing relationship with them. In my mind, there is a danger in making God an impersonal abstraction. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son…” just doesn’t quite work.

Some Christians turn these struggles over language into battles that permit no compromise, either never using any language for God or fighting every reasonable change (and loudly singing out the “old” words to favorite hymns). This seems a violation of Christian charity. One of my seminary professors in his translations of the Psalms substituted “Who” for “He Who” at the beginning of many lines. It in no way diminished the eloquence of the text. Another of my seminary mentors made a point of using a male pronoun for God exactly one time in the course of her presbytery sermon.

One lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is that human language is necessarily confused and corrupt. We do not speak the pure language of heaven. We have to do the best we can within our limitations. This, of course, is just my view from the pew, not a serious attempt to grapple with matters of language and justice.

  • http://www.colorofchrist.com Edward Blum

    My mother rarely shared Bible verses with me when I was young, but one day during my high school years she asked if I had read Numbers. I had (but not closely) and she opened it up to chapter 23 (we had King James Bibles). “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent.” She did not explain why this mattered to her, but even then I wondered if it was because of her very sad and traumatic relationships with men (her father and then my father were not kind to her). I wondered if distancing God from manhood mattered to her in that way. Your post reminds me both about the troubling problems of language (and how it changes over time and is imperfect) and about the difficulties of right words. Really thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

    • johnturner

      Thanks, Ed. I like that verse (roughly the same in my NIV).

  • Mark Sadler

    Mr. Turner, when I was writing my dissertation on the nature of God I struggled for a long time about just this issue. I am NOT proposing that my position is THE proper one; but, I did come to decide to use Godself when referring to God exclusive of the 3 persons of God. However, when referring to God the Father and God the Son (who also was fully human and male) I use the male pronoun or some cognate. My motives were not motivated as much by political and social concerns of sensitivity as trying to be both Biblically and theologically fair-minded: that God, qua God, is not limited by gender. However, taking that next step to a full neuter understanding seems to be more than necessary or a proper handling of God’s word. Thank you for a stimulating post.

  • johnturner

    Seems like a good and wise solution in your case, Mark.

  • Sven

    I do not have the skills to determine this myself, but I’ve been told that the original words used for “Holy Spirit” in scripture were neuter or feminine, but never masculine. Can anyone confirm or deny this?

    • Kruppe

      From what I can recall of my Hebrew, its feminine there. It’s neuter in the Greek.

  • http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/tribal-church Carol Howard Merritt

    I use Godself in liturgy and sermons. Hearing “himself” may feel as awkward on my ears as Godself feels on yours. But then, I’m a Presbyterian minister. I spend hours crafting words, trying to preserve the beauty and poetry of the language, while avoiding masculine pronouns. My goal is not to neuter God (it feels a bit offensive to hear “neuter” as a verb here–do you mean it in the sense that we’re trying to castrate God? Or render God less powerful by avoiding male pronouns?).

    Usually, other parts of the liturgy remain unaltered–we pray “Our Father,” read the NRSV, and proclaim the Apostles’ Creed. So God remains quite masculine, reflecting most of our history, culture and Bible.

    I’m concerned about patriarchal language, but I also hope to reflect a more biblical perspective. One of the central metaphors of salvation is being born again, yet many people (even in liberal churches) would look askance if we pray to the Spirit our Mother. Why is that?

    Also, I use words like Godself to prick the ears and provoke thoughtful discussions like this one–just as reading Color of Christ has led me to meaningful reflection on images of Jesus. It is faithful for us to be examining what we portray and say in light of the sexism or racism.

    • johnturner

      Carol,
      Thanks for joining the conversation here. The title, probably not a good idea, I meant in a purely grammatical sense. [I have German on my brain at the moment, and it had occurred to me that God is "neuter" rather than "masculine" or "feminine." It also occurred to me that provocative titles increase blog viewership, but admittedly at some cost.]
      I also wonder about the reasons for the amount of offense some people take to Spirit as Mother, Sophia, or even images such as a mother hen gathering her children under her wing. For those uncomfortable with any deviation from traditional masculine imagery for God, I actually think it makes them feel as if another God is being introduced into the church, from which they recoil. Perhaps there are other things as play, but that’s my hunch.

    • Bill Burge

      Our understanding of our Abrahamic deity developed during centuries in which the worship of competing gods, such as Baal (also meaning “husband”) and Asherah (definitely a female deity), manifested by such practices as public sexual intercourse and child sacrifice. While I suspect we’d all agree that Mother Earth and Mother Spirit are wonderful manifestations of the All-Powerful, I’m sure few of us would think society may benefit from those earlier methods of worship – many of which centered on female deities. (Another fascinating association comes from the Hebrew for Great Mother, Eema Gadola. In latin, the word became amygdala, a.k.a. almond. Ancient worship of the almond tree may have been where Judaism got its six-candle menorah.)

      Fortunately, our language has evolved to having some neutral terms, such as Parent, Spirit, and Offspring. Are we to the point that we can refer to the Almighty as It? Would such a pronoun make It less powerful, or more? Less personable, or more?

  • http://fletcherlawandgrace.com Fletcher Law

    When I attended seminary in the 1990′s we were to use gender neutral references when referring to God unless we were quoting directly from scripture that used masculine references.
    We were steered to the proper NRSV or other acceptable translations. This had to be honored. You could attack the Bible, Virgin Birth, Diety of Christ, traditional marriage but this area was strangely untouchable as we were of the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”. This kind of weird decree made me suspicious of any position as it said to me – we did the thinking for you on this. The open minded inclusive people had hard battle lines of this subject. Any objective worthwhile advancement in discussion was then nonexistent . They had done the thinking for you. The seminary told us they had an open mind. If the church is afraid of historic language and hymns we cannot wonder why the unsaved are confused by the church message today.

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    I prefer ‘Godsmack’.

  • http://fromhearttotable.blogspot.com Magdalen

    I use male language to describe God the Father, because that is what Jesus chose to use. He refers to God always as the Father, and He even instructs his disciples to pray “Our FATHER, who art in heaven.” So, for whatever reason (possibly a result of the cultural impressions of male dominance, possibly for reasons we don’t know), God chose to refer to Himself as male and instruct us to address Him as so. I think it unnecessary to second-guess that in light of political correctness–and this is coming from someone who doesn’t mind changing “mankind” to humankind, “his” to “his or her”, etc. As long as no one gets all raging feminist about it or starts inserting things into hymns, etc., that make the grammar incorrect, I don’t care. But God is another issue, an issue that we have divine prerogative for, and that can’t be ignored.

  • JADobson

    When I was an undergraduate studying medieval history I wrote a term paper on the monastic habit of using maternal imagery to represent Christ. Relying on verses like Luke 13:34 motherly language became popular in the works of men like Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm of Canterbury. Anyway, the point is that the church hasn’t always been obsessed with patriarchal language (though the medieval church may have practised patriarchy to a greater degree). I think that neutering God takes away the chance to use maternal and paternal images to describe God. We have to use human language to describe him and we should take full advantage of the language to do so. Male and female language is appropriate.

    As an aside, I dislike the term humanity as a supposedly more inclusive word than mankind. The root of humanity is ‘homo’ (Latin for ‘man’). Essentially it is the exact same word as mankind but in a different language.


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