Thursday, 25 October 2007
Our language goes a long way to constructing the world we inhabit in our heads. If our talk is dominated by the masculine, our worldview becomes definitively male. This is the norm, the mainstream, the proper, and by implication the feminine is secondary, derivative, deviant. If this logic holds good for the way we speak about people, why not apply it also to the way we speak about God?
True, some attempts to address this issue don't quite work. Many prefer to use gender-neutral language, 'Creator, redeemer, sustainer' for example, or the increasingly common, 'loving God' or 'gracious God' and other variants.
Trouble is, if we become too thoroughly gender-neutral we will end up neutering God. While God is neither a man nor a woman God is personal and indeed more than personal - but certainly not less.
Also, while using such descriptive forms of address certainly allows for a rich and varied focus on different aspects of God's character, they are less intimate, more distant and formal. Family language has a lot going for it when it comes to expressing relationship.
So I'm not entirely comfortable with going too far down the gender-neutral road. It makes more sense to call God 'Mother'. However, such a proposal causes strong feelings. Why is that?
Some are suspicious that others are merely being trendy, following the latest fashion in an unthinking way. I have to say that talking to those who use such language more readily than I do, the last thing they are is unthinking.
For others the issue is different. Because it has tended to be the less orthodox among us who have been quickest to adopt feminine language for the divine, the practice is seen as tainted. This is silly. I've never been a big fan of guilt by association.
Some believe that we are only allowed to do, think and say that which the Bible explicitly sanctions. And of course while there is some feminine imagery for God in the scriptures, nowhere is God addressed as 'Mother'. But this is far too restrictive a way to use the Bible. Surely we are meant to be consistent with God's Word rather than slavishly copying the details of its speech forms?
Other reservations include a reluctance to abandon classic language that has become a part of who we are. Formulations such as 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' and 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' help tie us to other Christians in other places and other times. But there is absolutely no reason such language shouldn't be enriched by also using feminine forms.
A significant part of my own hesitation has been a matter of instinct rather than theology. It just feels odd. It's unusual. I'm uncomfortable. Mind you, I used to feel that way about women preachers, drums in church and, if I'm honest, meeting black people. In other words, discomfort is no reason for not doing the right thing.
A final reason for this being such a hot potato is the fear of offending others. This ought not to be ignored, but neither should we keep silent for fear of causing upset. What we need is an open, charitable conversation. Aren't we Baptists supposed to be good at that kind of thing?
So while I think I understand people's reasons for being opposed to calling God 'Mother' I'm not convinced those reasons stack up.
I reckon we ought to include feminine forms of address in our God-talk as part of a varied language to help us speak more effectively of our wonderful and fascinating God. Time, I think, for some of us to get over our discomfort.
[My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here
The weekly poll will continue as usual.]