Friday, July 30, 2010

Losing interest in an inclusive God

There has been a lively discussion on the pretty good lutheran blog about a topic I first encountered in seminary over 25 years ago: inclusive God language. The conversation has been in response to a post reporting concern that the use of inclusive language is on the decline. A group sponsored by the National Council of Churches is meeting in Chicago in August to discuss ways of addressing the problem.

Despite the passage of a quarter-century, the ideas expressed in this conversation have been about the same as those I heard in my seminary student days. I think the perception is correct, however: after years of general acceptance, the use of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language for God is on the wane. In many mainline churches, God is gradually becoming male once again.

About half-way through the responses (it seems they are now coming to an end), I posted a feeble attempt to put the topic in a different perspective. It landed with a thud. There hasn’t been one response to it. It was, as they say, “off topic” and so it wasn’t heard.

Basically what I tried to say is that the inclusive language debate is now largely irrelevant and that explains why people are reverting back to traditional male terminology for God. The question the church has been struggling with is whether God can be re-interpreted and re-imagined for the contemporary world. There have been many attempts to do this over the past several decades but the reality is they have all failed. Unwilling and unable to abandon God altogether, the church is gradually reverting back to the only God it knows: the God of the Bible, the God of the creeds—God almighty, God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.

The attempts to expand our imagery of God, including the use of feminine and gender-neutral language, have only made us aware what a problem God has become for us. To say “God the Father” makes us think of the God of the Bible and of liturgical tradition. To say “God our Mother” only leaves us confused: who or what are we talking about? It succeeds in pulling God into the present but only to make us uncomfortably aware of God’s impossibility or irrationality. Who, what or where is this God in 2010?

The inclusive language debate has, unfortunately, always been an attempt at an easy out. It takes a legitimate concern for gender inclusiveness and attempts to paste it over the unsolvable conundrum of God in the modern world. The biblical writers knew God had no gender but for cultural and theological reasons chose to use male terminology in describing God. (The occasional feminine exceptions were reminders of the inadequacy of any gender-based concepts of God.) The problem today is not the failure of gender-specific language in talking of God but whether any contemporary language or imagery can make sense of God.

Inclusive God language doesn’t solve our God problem but only makes us more aware of it. Using the traditional language of the Bible and the creeds enables us to ignore the problem, and keeps the church rolling along, just a little bit longer. It recognizes that this is what most of the people want who are still left in the pews and that most of the people who are gone don't really care.


Barb D-P said...

Hi Doug - I think you are absolutely right about inclusive language being largely irrelevant. My take is that orginally we were trying to change our church language to rethink and reshape God. And that was good. It was also uncomfortable - both because it jarred people out of the box...but also because Engish is so darn hard to get gender neutral without becoming cumbersome. Now, there are more spiritual and organizational options for people to rethink God and reshape God. There's not the stigma of changing denminations or faiths, or designing one's own "spirituality," and using whatever language you want. Language of hymns and scripture and liturgy isn't the primary arena anymore, and instead becomes cumbersome and probably more of a stumbling block than real challenge. I know I'm not as adamant for inclusive language as I was 20 years ago! I use it, but I don't stress over trying to change every old hymn or letting a few "Him"s and "He"s slip through in talking about God.

Doug said...

Thanks for commenting Barb. I think your point about there now being more options and vehicles for re-thinking God is right on the money.

Michael_SC said...

The problem I had with it in the PCUSA 20 years ago is that it was so clunky and unaesthetic when they would literally white-out occurrence of "He" in printed hymns and type in "God" or "the One" or something. Only the most committed would like this; for the average worshipper it was somewhat jarring.