The Feminist Case Against “Inclusive Language” Liturgy, Part 1
I was in college the first time I heard someone argue for eliminating male pronouns in reference to God. “Calling God ‘Father’ just doesn’t work for me,” my friend said, “I have a terrible relationship with my father, and I don’t want to think of God like that.” At the time, I found the argument persuasive. We know that God isn’t a man, so why do we address him like he is? I even went so far as to use a pencil to change my prayerbook so that it read “It is right to give God thanks and praise” instead of “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”
I am not the only person in the church to have tread this road. During my time at my progressive mainline protestant seminary, the calls for more “inclusive and expansive” language in the liturgy have become louder and more frequent. I am opposed to misogyny and am passionate about the role of women in the church, and I have seen firsthand the way that misogyny can slip unnoticed into our culture and conversation. In fact, it is precisely because of this that I now reject the impulse to make the liturgy “gender inclusive.” My reasons are both pastoral and theological. Let us begin, as always, with theology…
Human language, of course, can never fully describe the transcendent God, and so all descriptions of God operate through analogy. Every analogy, no matter how good, is limited. If we use an analogy to describe God, and assume that this analogy speaks exhaustively about God, then we are beginning to edge toward idolatry.
In order to check against the human impulse to think that we can grasp God, we speak about God with a balance between apophatic (negative) and cataphatic (positive) language. The apophatic describes what God is not: he is not finite, complex, mortal, or subject to the passions. And because, of course, God the Father does not have a body, he does not have a sex or gender.
A solid grounding in the apophatic allows us to speak more responsibly about God when we speak cataphatically; when we begin to describe what he is like. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite—that unknown saint of the apophatic—has for more than 1,500 years, reminded Christians that even statements like “God is love” are true only by analogy. When we say that God is love, we are saying something that is both true and limited. We should never assume that, because we know what it is like to love a pet, spouse, parent, or child, we know exhaustively what the love of God is like. God is more unlike the love we know and experience than he is like the love we know, and so even the statement “God is love” is limited. But a limitation is not the same thing as an error or inadequacy. My husband is incapable of carrying, birthing, or nursing babies, but this does not make his body inadequate, only limited.
Given this, you can see why my 20 year old self was keen to change the lyrics to worship music and to edit the rites in my prayerbook. If it is true that God does not have a sex, why not use feminine pronouns and names for God? Maybe the word “Father” is too limited to “work” after all.
The problem with this assumption is that it gets the order of flow precisely backwards. We make a grievous mistake if we look at our human fathers, no matter how good or bad they may be, and assume that they tell us everything we need to know about God. God is not defined by his proximity to our fathers; they are judged by their proximity to him. After all, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the one, “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:11). The analogy flows from the top down: God is the only true father. All other fathers are, at best, a shadow of God’s eternal, unchanging, and unbreakable fatherly love and at worst an insult to the very name.
Reversing the flow in this way has dangerous theological consequences. We cannot allow the standards of the world to define what power, justice, or even fatherhood are, and we certainly should not allow these worldly definitions to shape our understanding of God. If we start to believe, even implicitly, that our experience and encounter of the world defines our experience and encounter of God, we are well on the way to totalitarianism. God shows us what true power, might, justice and righteousness are. Our culture is judged by his standard, not the other way around.
Father, lord, king, and even the masculine pronouns we use for God in the liturgy are not only analogies for God, they are revealed analogies. The unknowable, eternal, and incomprehensible God has condescended to reveal himself to us in his word. This means that we can trust scriptural analogies for God; they are the ones God chose for himself. When we pray “The LORD is my shepherd” we know that God is not a shepherd like the shepherds we know. And yet, that analogy is revealed to us for a reason. There is something analogous between our earthly shadow-shepherds and the Good Shepherd.
Analogies are given to us by God for our benefit. The infinite, incorporeal, and eternal God sees us in our finitude, and refuses to abandon us to a life of ignorance. His love for us is shown in his desire that we know him. And in order that we might know him better, he offers us his Word. He gives us analogies and images that can never express his infinite fullness of being, and yet invite us into his divine life. Scripture is a great and wonderful gift.
We should trust the revealed analogies in scripture, even when they bump up against current cultural inclinations, and even when they don’t fully make sense to our contexts. It is true that many of the analogies in scripture highlight the distance between us and the time and place that they were written. Most of us do not live in agrarian economies. Even those of us who raise sheep do so in an environment that is vastly different than the one in which the Psalmist inhabited. The wealthy, white, and privileged Christians in the west (who are, by the way, the voices advocating that we update scripture and liturgy to make it more “inclusive”) have never lived in fear of imminent and existential threat. How can we understand what it means to pray “…thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy” (Psalm 61:3)? More than the role of women has changed in the last few thousand years.
If we wish to expand our language for God, in liturgy or in everyday discourse, we should dive deeper into the scriptural ocean and explore the full range of revealed analogies, not cast about aimlessly in a sea of culturally relevant metaphors until we find one that meets the needs of the world that is passing away. Praying to “Our Mother” or using “She” to refer to the Holy Spirit do not invite us more deeply into the mystery of the infinite God. Instead, they make it seem as though we know something that previous generations didn’t, as though we have finally been able to put God into culturally relevant box. It shows a disregard for both God’s word, and for our spiritual fathers and mothers.
Traditional Christian liturgy is full of divinely revealed analogies, drawn from Holy Scripture. The words of the liturgy are not chosen to be relevant to our context. They are the words that keep us connected to a world and a people who lived, struggled, died, sinned, and repented in the hope of life in the Living God. In liturgy, the real concrete past and the eternal horizon of the uncreated Being of God meet in our time. We do not need to update the liturgy to make it “relevant” to the present moment, because it is liturgy that shows us just how irrelevant the worries of the present moment are. It is liturgy that calls us to remember—in the deep, theological sense of that word—the men and women who prayed to the God who is a Tower of Strength. At the same time, liturgy looks ahead to eternity, to the God who can never be fully expressed in human words, and yet can be really, truly, and wonderfully known by his creation.