Thursday, November 18, 2010

Revealed in Us

God said, “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us. We will let them rule the fish, the birds, and all other living creatures.” (Genesis 1.26; Contemporary English Version)

Constantly Confounded

No one in our church could have been more delighted than I on discovering this Sunday bulletin insert several weeks back:


How does gender/class/race affect the way we think about our faith? This class will be an overview of the large body of writing that has examined, from a feminist perspective, the way we think about God, the interpretation of Scripture, the way we relate to others and practice just/right-relation.

This isn’t a class for women, but a class for anyone who is struggling to be liberated from the patriarchal world view of our Scriptures and tradition. We will also draw on wisdom from the Womanist and Liberation movements. We won’t bash our history, but evolve from it with new understandings that will be helpful for anyone who is trying to be faithful in 2010.

The topic and approach had my name written all over it, as I most definitely am “one who is struggling.” And over the past two-and-a-half years, Straight-Friendly has become the focal point of my struggle. I told my pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, “When writing the blog, I’m constantly confounded by God’s gender. Seeing ‘He’ and ‘Him’ peppered through the posts makes me crazy. Yet indiscriminately changing up genders is confusing and hybrids like ‘He-She’ and ‘S/He’ feel sterile and officious. So I’ve stuck with tradition, even though it nags me that some will misread this as insensitive and sexist—particularly since the blog’s core concerns are inclusion and equality!” Joy replied, “You’ll be challenged to figure that out.” Her smile practically shouted, “Hooray!”

Tuesday night’s discussion on language broke the code when Joy made a point about pronoun usage that rocked me to my foundations. It transcended epiphany. It was a prophetic word given directly to me, to this place. It forever changed how I think, speak, and write about God. And before I detail its impact on me and the Straight-Friendly “style,” I’d like to dash off a few thoughts that bubbled up during and since the study.

The Encompassing “We” and “Us”

We were exploring the competing Creation narratives, Genesis 1 vs. 2-3. Eve’s depiction was the main focus of our inquiry, using the writers’ choice of God’s name as an indicator of their regard for women. In the first version, neither Eve nor Adam is named. Male and female are created simultaneously by the genderless Elohim, Whose Self-references are singular (“I command”) and plural (“Now we will make humans”). The account ends on the sixth day, without the forbidden fruit episode or any intimation the woman is responsible for Original Sin, which the second narrative goes to great lengths to describe.

But the telltale sign of the second version’s masculine skew is evident before the blame-game begins. Its Creator is Yahweh (“LORD”), a male God Who creates a man first and then breaks with His precedent of creating life from inert ground by crafting a woman from the man’s rib. In other words, Eve (“the living one”) lives because Adam (“from the ground”) lives. Yahweh’s creating Eve in this manner exposes the writer’s intention to subjugate her gender to the man’s.

If the Yahweh narrative was our only version of creation, we would be hard-pressed to reconcile belief in an all-loving, accepting God with its image of One Who favors men. Thankfully, the Elohim version discredits this slant by giving us a God Who speaks and acts as the encompassing “We” and “Us.” “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us,” God says. (Genesis 1.26) In this version, male and female are equal, with Elohim’s gender neutrality as the equalizer.


With Advent around the corner, my mind turns to music. Reflecting on the encompassing “We” and “Us” keeps guiding me back a praise song I grew up with:

Emmanuel, Emmanuel

His name is called Emmanuel

God with us, revealed in us

His name is called Emmanuel

God with us, revealed in us. The relationship is one-to-one: “Us” and “us.” It’s gender-neutral. But more than that, without seeing women and men as equal facsimiles of our Creator, our image of God and perception of God’s presence in the world is incomplete. As a consequence, exclusively idealizing or referring to God as “He” and “Him” (or “She” and “Her”) diminishes God by erasing half of God’s likeness from our language. God is revealed in all of us.

Because we find aspects of God in both sexes, imagining God as a paternal and/or maternal Being can prove beneficial in forging our relationship with God and teaching us to emulate Godlike attributes. That said, however, we must take great caution not to become captivated by confining God to one gender at the expense or to the exclusion of the other. God is revealed in us. We are not revealed in God. Forcing gender on God usurps God’s role, shaping the Creator in our image. With that, we stray from inclusive worship to gender idolatry.

Choosing Not to Choose

So how do we puzzle our way out of this language labyrinth founded on ancient patriarchal attitudes? The answer depends on what we hope to accomplish in our conversations about God and whom we’re talking with. When people of faith unite to celebrate female equality in God, defying male stereotypes by embracing God as “She” is tremendously liberating and affirmative. It brings everyone—most importantly, women—closer to the realization “God is revealed in me.” The same might be said of occasions meant to validate men’s making by referring to God in the masculine. In situations like these, we honor God by transforming gender-prohibitive pronouns into proclamations of gender inclusion.

Yet what of a place like Straight-Friendly, where the mission broadens to include and celebrate all genders—male, female, and every variation in the identity spectrum—as vital to the human mosaic that reveals God? Now two- and three-letter pronouns explode into mountain-sized stumbling blocks. Adhering to precedents set in male-dominated texts is problematic at best, contradictory at worst. Deferring to grammatical conventions that default to the masculine when gender is non-specific only perpetuates confusion by trying to avoid it. As writer-in-residence here, I stand in shame for buckling to both rationalizations. I wasn’t at all happy doing it, but I knew of no better path through the pronoun maze. I’ve pondered and prayed about this for two-and-a-half years.

My prayers were answered Tuesday evening, as Joy said, “When speaking or writing about God, there’s no reason to use pronouns. God is God. ‘God’ and ‘God’s Self’ are all you need. If you’re more worried with your poetry than freeing God from sexist language, then I encourage you to reflect on what you’re trying to say about God. When we refer to God with pronouns, we compromise clarity and conviction of Who God is with language that says Who God isn’t.”

There it was. The solution to my pronoun quandary is choosing not to choose. Hereafter, Straight-Friendly will be pronoun-free when referencing God. This will also apply to Christ and the Holy Spirit. When discussing Jesus, the Man in Whom God is fully revealed, masculine pronouns seem appropriate; as has been the practice from the first, His divinity will be underscored by capitalization.

I fully anticipate the awkward-sentence quotient will increase with this. Yet it’s a miniscule price to pay for liberating the posts from their inadvertent gender bias.

As I close this overly lengthy post, I have to stress this change by no means should be taken as advocacy for adoption elsewhere. Many of us have wrestled with this issue and been led to different resolutions in our blogs and language. They are equally valid, equally just, and equally effective. The diversity of language we use to convey God’s presence among us is just one more way God is revealed in us.

We must take caution against confining God to one gender at the other’s expense. We are not revealed in God. God is revealed in us—all of us.


Philomena Ewing said...

Dear Tim, This is a brilliant post. Awesome and profoundly true.
I agree with everything in it including the acknowledgement of the painful and frustrating challenge and struggles of how to get over the problem.
I am not comfortable with Godde although I know Claire uses this and he/She doesn't encompass what I feel either. Your solution is right for me. God it is and God is revealed in all of us.I wish I could have gone to this class !
There is so much more I would like to say on this. Can I e.mail you ? Where is your e.mail ?!

Tim said...

Phil, when I heard Joy's statement it was one of those finally moments for me. A great weight fell from my shoulders. Now I'm focused on how I use this moment effectively and properly.

It is a very personal thing, I think, and I have long admired Claire's usage of "Godde" for its ingenious way of maintaining the Deity of God while restoring God's femininity. Just seeing the word in her posts and comments opens up all sorts of wondrous traits and trust that rarely get recognized. Most of all, I like its gentle grace. There's not an anxious or reactionary note to it, because its intention is not to emasculate God, but to emphasize Godde-like beauty that often goes missing in the masculinized ideal.

Claire's "Godde" was top of mind in the final paragraph, along with several other writers and teachers who've embraced similarly effective solutions. The coinage is perfect for her place, its spirit and purpose, and the readers who gather there.

Because S-F's readership represents a wide variety of faith backgrounds and experiences, genders, and outlooks, adopting Godde--which I seriously considered--might be slightly confusing to some. Here, I believe, absence of gender altogether is the appropriate choice and I had no idea how that might work before Joy's remark.

All things work together for the good of them who love the Lord, Paul says. Seeing God sans pronouns here, Godde at chez Claire, "He" in other places, "She" elsewhere, and all the other hyphenates and coinages that believers whom I admire use is that "working together" for our common good. One could say God has broke out of the gender box to bless us all as God wills!

Re the class: I'll string together a quick list of the readings we've been working with and get it to you. It's tough stuff, but immensely rewarding. And I've already sent my email address your way.

Blessings, dear friend--and thanks so much for your comment. Coming so soon after posting, it soothes my concerns about how it might be perceived!


Sherry Peyton said...

Oh thanks for this! I've struggled and found no good answer. I shall see how this plays out, but it seems a perfect solution. I must confess that I do my "thing" in the Nicene creed every Sunday, omitting for us "men" and for our salvation, and inserting a she for the "she is worshipped and glorified" and "she has spoken through the prophets."

but the She/He or God/dess seemed so frankly contrived and devoted to shock that I have stopped.

I'll give this a try. Thanks!

Tim said...

Sherry, I too was amazed by how apparent the solution became when it was laid out. It was one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" examples that I love for their humbling simplicity.

I must say our church has done a very nice, non-annoying way of gradually ridding itself of gender specificity. (Being a 150-year-old congregation that's been on the forefront of social change from the first no doubt has given it time to work this out.) At present, the only artifact of patriarchal reference that remains is in The Lord's Prayer, ("Our Father"). But in the absence of other arbitrary male pronouns, it actually acquires a kind of majesty that puts the Parent-Child relationship front and center.

Let me know how the solution works for you! And, of course, thanks for chiming!

Peace and joy,

kkryno said...

Sorry that I didn't see this earlier! Gosh, what have I been up to?

I'm totally on-board for this. I think just useing God's name is the best way to include all.

Our God, Who art in Heaven...It works--just extend it a bit for the hymn, and all is well!


Tim said...

Vikki, the simplicity of the solution astounds me. And having practiced it now for several weeks, I can't tell you how liberating it is. What I didn't foresee when I began down this path was how much bigger God becomes once the gender boundaries are completely removed. I've never been more convinced of God's majesty and power!

I'm so glad you caught this. I trust you'll find it as freeing as I have.