When I was a student at Earlham School of Religion, school policy was that in our written and oral contributions to our classes, worship and community life, we should do our best to use gender-inclusive language for God. In practical terms, this meant avoiding the personal pronoun he, usually simply replacing it with the word God. This language switch could get a little bit tricky, since standard English has some serious limitations when it comes to expressing a non-gendered personal entity. I remember that quite frequently I ended up writing and saying godself – as in, “God is gathering a people to godself.” Not exactly the most accessible language!
Don’t get me wrong; I am clear in my own mind that God is neither exclusively male nor female, and I have no desire to promote a worldview in which God’s feminine qualities are denigrated or ignored. While I was a student at ESR, and for years afterwards, I embraced gender-inclusive language wholeheartedly. In fact, hearing other Christians refer to God as he really bothered me.
Over time, however, I have begun to encounter serious problems with some of the attempts to make my language around God gender-neutral. The most obvious, of course, is the simple dilemma of using the English language in a way that sounds deeply unnatural to most folks. The word godself is a seminary invention if there ever was one, and there seems little likelihood that this well-intentioned stopgap is going to catch on any time soon.
But the fact that gender-inclusive language is often inaccessible, and sometimes even off-putting, is overshadowed by another problem that I have noticed in recent years. In my own experience, the use of gender-inclusive language has the overall effect of steering me away from talking about God in personal terms. When I avoid gendered terms for God Creator or the Holy Spirit, I find that my language often veers into the non-personal. I have even found myself referring to the Holy Spirit as it sometimes, even though the Spirit is a deeply personal presence in my life.
I do not experience God as an it, but rather as a living personality with whom I am in loving relationship. This experience, combined with my commitment to use gender-inclusive language, has often led me to emphasize Jesus far more strongly than I do God Creator and the Holy Spirit, because at least with Jesus I can use the personal pronoun he.
This seems ironic, since gender-inclusive language is intended to liberate us from bondage to limited and potentially oppressive ways of understanding God. Yet my attempts to be faithfully gender-inclusive have often felt constrictive, possibly even damaging to my relationship with God.
I am not yet sure what the solution is, but the type of gender-inclusive language that I learned in seminary is not working for me. I want to call God he – not because I believe that God Creator has a penis, but because I experience God as a creative, loving, unpredictable being who acts in ways I can only describe as personal.
What is your experience with this? Are you a proponent (like I am) of a gender-inclusive understanding of God? Have you encountered any of the difficulties that I have just described? Have you encountered any good solutions? How can we talk faithfully about God, neither marginalizing the feminine experience of God, nor denying God’s amazing, personal presence in our lives?