My friend Karin has embraced her freedom from writing papers by raising some thought provoking points about God-talk on my last post. Specifically, she raised the point that I had used male pronouns in describing God, which can be very problematic in today’s culture. Fair game, and a great point to be raised.
God-talk (that is, speaking about God) is notoriously difficult. God is somehow Other; he is so far beyond our ways of thinking and understanding that it is actually difficult to say anything intelligible at all about… Him? Her? It? You see, already my human language conventions provoke me to provide a pronoun in my God-talk. And every time that I tie God to one of my human conceptions, I shrink my ability to understand God. I make God somehow more like me; somehow more tame and easy to handle.
God is in fact so difficult to talk about intelligibly that many advocate something called apophatic theology in which we speak of God only in negation. For example, instead of saying “God is good,” we say that “God is not evil.” This solves many problems with nailing God down (no pun intended) to certain concepts that are insufficient, while embracing the mysterious and mystical nature of loving an invisible God.
At the same time, Jesus somehow made the invisible, ineffable, indescribable God real and near to us. The second person of the Trinity became a male human being and, amongst other things, revealed something of the invisible God to us in flesh and blood. So, in talking about Jesus it would seem to be perfectly normal to use masculine pronouns. Jesus also called God “Father,” something that must be recognized in dealing with issues of God and gender. (I won’t develop this any further here, but if someone wants to talk more about it, the comments are open and there’s always more posts to write.)
Then there’s the Holy Spirit. Or is that simply Holy Spirit? Here comes a little bit of exegesis and semantics. Most occurrences of pneumatos hagiou are lacking the definite article, so an excellent case can be made for a simple address to Holy Spirit. That being said, in context, the the is kind of implied. The biblical writers were familiar with many spirits, so when people saw spirit, they asked, “which one?” The Bible is saying “the holy one,” so the the here can also be understood as saying that the Holy Spirit is the (as in, the only) spirit that is holy. However, I think that this latter stuff is not as relevant for today, so I would definitely advocate dropping the the in referring to Holy Spirit. Now, as to Holy Spirit being feminine, I think that I’ll just refer interested people to the comment I made on the last post. And one last pet peeve: everyone stop using the pronoun it to refer to Holy Spirit!
In all this talk about gender in our discourse, there’s an underlying current of presentism; the notion that today is better than yesterday. In some ways this is true, but in all? Particularly when placing ourselves within the 2000 year history of Christianity, we see great men and women of faith consistently refer to God with the pronouns “he” and “him.” One thing that I’m worried about in eliminating this pronoun from our Christians discourse is that it will alienate us from great heroes of the faith who have so much to offer us. I find this myself as I read many Christian classics which are far from gender-inclusive. If we move towards gender-inclusive language ourselves, can we teach people at the same time to not be prejudiced against those in the past who did not? If we can’t, we’re losing out big time.
Finally, I am intrigued by Karin’s suggestion that we simply eliminate any pronouns in our God-talk and stick to the nouns. While this will seem stylistically awkward at first, I can’t help but think that it might have a humbling effect on our God-talk. To see my ruminations next to a meager pronoun gives me a dangerous casualness and flippancy, but seeing what I have to say about the God who is so wholly Other right next to God’s proper name (see, I wanted to put a pronoun there!) gives me a little dose of healthy fear and trembling. So, beyond the gender wars, I think there are excellent theological reasons to drop pronouns from our God-talk. We should come face to face with the name of God every time we speak about God. God is not someone to be approached lightly, and our talk about God should always be as humble as possible.
These thoughts are, like me, a work in progress. What do you think? I think that in this, as in all things, we are in desperate need of God’s help. So, God, help us.