Monday, February 27, 2012

Pronouns and Perceptions of God

Language influences our perception of the world. While not dictating how we perceive things, it certainly exerts a significant shaping force. Recent statements by certain prominent figures have emphasized the supposed “masculine” nature of Christianity, pointing to various references in the Bible for support. None of those who reject this “masculine” claim argue that the Bible doesn't use male language to refer to God at times. However, the Bible uses a much wider range than simply masculine terms and male pronouns. This range is often overlooked or ignored by the mainstream evangelical community, whether out of ignorance or deliberate neglect. This article byLauren F. Winner raises our awareness of the richer language available to us in the Scriptures and often sorely lacking in our personal and communal religious practice. I affirm her statement that:

To my mind, the church today has impoverished itself by praying with and singing with and thinking with such a small set of the many images for God found in the Bible.”

Winner speaks of her frustration in not having a suitable pronoun for God, having recognized that using the male pronoun set (he, him), fails to capture the fullness of God and, unfortunately, leads most worshipers to perceive of God in strictly masculine terms. Other languages are more fortunate in that they lack gender-specific third-person pronouns. In these languages a third-person reference need not carry any notion of gender. In fact without clear antecedents, the reader or listener cannot determine whether the subject of reference is male, female or otherwise. In English we don't have this option, so when confronted with choosing to refer to God as “he” or “she” most of us fall back on the default “he.” For many it is disturbing, even unacceptable, to adopt the female pronoun “she” in reference to God, although the Bible doesn't present any specific obstacle or objection to this.

Like Winner I am trying to figure out how to speak of God without always saying “God” or using other specific names and nouns. More often than not I still revert to the standard “he” but occasionally in my own prayers I will boldly(?) use a “she.” I admit, however, that I would be uncomfortable doing so in a public worship setting, in part because I can foresee that such a usage would meet with general disapproval and rejection, which I am sensitive to, and in part because my conditioning leads me to find this usage strange and awkward. I would like to hear what experience others have with this and what their current practice is.

How do you speak of God and how does your worship community speak of him/her? (You see the problem here.)

Would you and your worship community find it uncomfortable or unacceptable to refer to God in feminine terms?

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