Why Language for God Matters (July-Aug 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Naomi Walters
July – August, 2010

82 - What Really MattersChristians should not use gendered pronouns to refer to God. More to the point, God is not a “he.” Whether you agree or disagree with the previous statements, you likely do so passionately. This passion reveals the fact that you feel it matters what we say about God. It matters how we speak about God; on this all Christians agree. In fact, there is no subject more important than God.

Unfortunately, neither is there any subject more difficult, because God is beyond our understanding, comprehension, and description. God is wholly other. This “other-ness” of God helps us cultivate humility by reminding us of our limitations. We cannot speak about God; God is beyond the limits of our language. But we must speak about God; language is one way that we encounter God. So, we use metaphors, images, and comparisons to speak about God in terms of things that we can understand.

If you can bear with me for a moment, I would like to say a few words about how metaphors work (communicate). Metaphors include both similarity and dissimilarity. If there were no similarity, the metaphor would not communicate anything. If there were no dissimilarity, then you would not need a metaphor. In other words, the dissimilarity makes it a metaphor; the similarity makes it work.

Take, for example, “Amy is a machine.” This sentence intends to communicate the reality that Amy is hard-working and efficient, like a machine. This is the similarity. The dissimilarity is that Amy is not actually a machine. If you were to say, “Amy is hard-working and efficient,” you would not be speaking metaphorically. The power of the “machine” metaphor is that it communicates a number of things about Amy to someone who may not know her, and also that it leaves room for creative interpretation on the part of the listener.

Now, back to the language we use for God. I proposed above that we rely on metaphors to understand God because God is wholly other. We use images with which we are familiar in order to describe attributes that we ascribe to God. For instance, when we say “God is a rock,” we mean “God is strong, dependable, lasting, etc.” When we say “The Lord is my shepherd,” we mean “The Lord is caring, compassionate, protective, gives guidance, etc.” As with Amy-the-Machine, if there were no dissimilarity, then you would not need a metaphor, because God would actually be the thing to which you are comparing God. God is certainly strong, dependable, caring, and compassionate, but God is not actually a rock or a shepherd.

This reflection on the metaphorical nature of our language for God is not only interesting; it is also vital for a healthy and holistic spirituality. If we forget that our language is metaphorical, we run the risk of taking these metaphors literally. I agree with William P. Brown when he says, “When metaphors become literalized to the point that they exclude other metaphors for the same subject or target domain, particularly in the case of God, they function as idols” (Seeing the Psalms, 10).

In other words, when we make any one metaphor for God stand for the whole, this is a form of idolatry. Moses warns the Israelite people against such idolatry in Deuteronomy 4:15-24. Since God did not appear to them in any earthly form on Mount Horeb, they ought not make a graven image of God in the form of anything on the earth. Now, we may not struggle with graven images much today, but this only makes the images we make with our words all the more important. Idolatry means to worship any god other than the true God, and that includes a god that we fashion in our own image. If we define God in terms of a particular metaphor and worship that image of God exclusively, then we are not worshipping God in God’s fullness, but rather a god more suitable to our concept of who or what God should be.

This happens most often with metaphors that are anthropomorphic – that is, they describe God with human characteristics – because it is important to Christians that God is personal. There is little danger of anyone using the “God as rock” metaphor exclusively, claiming that God actually is a rock. However, there is one metaphor that Christians use to the (near) exclusion of all others: “God as father.” If asked to draw God, I am sure that most Christians would draw an older, gray-bearded, white man in the vein of Michelangelo’s paintings. Perhaps, if they were feeling controversial or had recently watched either Bruce Almighty or Evan Almighty, they might draw an older, gray-bearded, black man. For many Christians today, God actually is male.

It is likely true that, if pressed, we would admit that God is not male; God is not gendered at all. However, regardless of what we may believe in our theoretical reflection, in practical application, God is male in virtually all of our churches. We almost exclusively use masculine pronouns when referring to God in our prayers, in our singing, in our preaching, and in our casual conversation. By doing so, we limit the identity of God to one metaphor, worship the image of God we have created, and thereby commit idolatry.

We go to great lengths to maintain this concept. Over that past year and a half, I have had the great privilege of teaching a few undergraduate, general education courses at a Christian university. One of the most difficult and conflict-filled days of class each semester is the day we discuss this very subject. Each semester, I give the students a number of different verses with various metaphors for God, one of which is Isaiah 66:12b-13 – “And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” In every section of the course I have taught, the students who are assigned this verse paraphrase it saying “God is loving. He nurses his children at his breast.” His breast? This did not even strike them as strange. No one noticed. His breast? It is certainly a problem that, when discussing God as a nursing mother, we still cannot bring ourselves to call God “she.”

While there are specific metaphors that describe God in masculine ways (father, king, etc.) the Bible also describes God in ways that are distinctly feminine. For instance: Numbers 11:11-12; Deuteronomy 32:18b; Job 38:29-30; Isaiah 42:14; 45:10-15; 66:12b-13; Hosea 13:8; Matthew 23:37/Luke 13:34; Luke 15:8-10. In fact, the majority of the metaphors used for God in the Bible are neuter, that is, not inherently masculine or feminine (rock, light, etc).

It is troubling that, despite the presence of feminine metaphors in the Bible, many Christians are uncomfortable with referring to God as “she.” When we ignore the copious biblical witness (we have allowed slavery, silenced women, and prohibited divorce on less scriptural evidence) describing God with feminine images simply because they make us uncomfortable, we commit idolatry. Now, I am not saying that I think God is female. This, also, would be idolatry! Since God is not physical, God cannot possibly be either male or female (Jesus, on the other hand, was actually – in his being – male).

So what should we do? The language we use in our churches has raised and will continue to raise generations of Christians who believe that God truly is, in God’s being, male. We should not continue (nearly) exclusively referring to God as “he.” Neither should we replace all masculine pronouns with feminine and call God “she.” We can use gendered pronouns when necessary—that is, when we are talking about God as father, we say “he,” and when we talk about God as mother we say “she.” But most importantly, and perhaps controversially, we should not use gendered language to talk about God when we are not using a gendered metaphor.

The problem with English is that our gender-neutral pronoun (“it”) is not personal, and we want our God to be personal. This need for intimacy in speaking and thinking of God certainly reflects something true: Our God cares about us in similar ways to human caring (though perfected). However, God is also a very impersonal being: a roaring and all-consuming fire. We cannot deny this aspect of who God is. So, my solution has been to simply refer to God as “God.” This can certainly become cumbersome. For instance: “God is working to reconcile God’s people to Godself.” However, in our hectic and distracting world, perhaps we need this awkward phrasing to help us slow down and pay attention to what we are saying.

The metaphor of “God as father” has ceased to capture our attention; it no longer surprises us. And our language for God should capture our attention; metaphors exist to shock us into realizing something new about the thing being described. Many religious people during the time of our Old and New Testaments viewed gods as distant, capricious, and vindictive forces. For these people, when Jesus prayed to God as father, it was truly good news. The Israelite god is intimate, reliable, and compassionate; he cares about us as a father cares for his children!

Perhaps if we used it less often, this metaphor could surprise us, could once again be good news.

Aside from these lofty theological and linguistic reasons for not using gendered pronouns to refer to God, there are a few practical reasons as well. We do not know who we have alienated from our churches by referring to God in this way. There are those for whom the image “father” has profoundly painful connotations; those who have been beaten, raped, or otherwise abused by the men in their life. It may take all the effort they can muster to go to a worship service, and this is not the time to redeem “fathers” for them. A worship service that uses this language exclusively is both offensive and alienating.

Also, who your God is directly affects how you treat others. We are all made in the image of God: male and female. But if God is functionally considered to be male (as God has been in much of Christian theological tradition) then only males are able to reflect God’s image; women are inherently less godly than men. In this way, the belief that God actually is male has been used to justify the oppression of women (by which I am not primarily referring to women’s role in the church, but physical, emotional, and sexual oppression, including death) for hundreds of years and is still being used that way in many cultures.

If something as simple as changing the language we use to talk about God can even potentially prevent the brutal oppression of women, then we are obligated to change. This is part of what it means to love our neighbors; to imagine what implications our language for God might have. These practical reasons are theological after all.

Many dismiss this particular subject (language for God) as unimportant or nitpicky. But we assumed from the outset of this article that the language we use for God is of utmost importance. It matters because women are made in God’s image too, because we are alienating people from our churches, and because the exclusive use of one metaphor is idolatry. It is true that, specifically, we need to examine our reliance on “God as father” and recover the feminine imagery in the Bible for use in our churches and homes. But more generally, we need to be more intentional in the way we talk about our God.

There is no subject either more important, or more difficult, than God. It matters what we say about our God. As my generation discerns how best to take the faith we have been given and present it in a way that is compelling and meaningful in our current context, what better place to start than God? It is absolutely vital for us to use a variety of images and names to refer to God in order to reflect the fullness of who God is. If we are all made in the image of God, as our text says, then we are all made to be creative beings (like God). What better place to exercise our creativity than in our language about God? What could matter more?New Wineskins

Naomi WaltersNaomi Walters and her husband, Jamey, recently moved to Princeton, New Jersey from Abilene, Texas. Up until the move, she taught adjunct religion courses at Abilene Christian University. She grew up in Syracuse, New York and holds degrees from Abilene Christian University and Rochester College. She enjoys drinking coffee and, now that she lives in a cooler climate again, running.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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