On Liturgical Language and the Gender of God

Interesting thoughts from Metacatholic.

I agree with him. All gendered language about God is metaphor. “Father” and “Son” are important root metaphors that the Scriptures and tradition have returned to again and again but we lose a lot if we collapse the metaphors–or dispense with them.

As I’ve suggested in this trial shot on the Trinity,we should “[t]hink not, however, of two men and a breeze; think, rather, of the mystery that lies at the heart of life.”

5 thoughts on “On Liturgical Language and the Gender of God

  1. John-Julian, OJN

    Flower, trumpets, and incense for you, Derek, on this one. (And I speak as a devoted Julianite, replete with “Jesus our Mother” et al.)

    The silliest thing I can think of is replacing male titles and pronouns with female titles and pronouns or finding some bland non-generic titles. Julian was clear that she was NOT doing that when she always refers to “Jesus our Mother, he….”

    The problem lies in fundamental theological education, and I shock the seminarians when I say that God is NOT our “Father” or our “Mother” or our “Anything”. I exult in James Alison’s wonderful comment: “God is more like nothing than like something.” and God is definitely not like anyone else.

    The problem, of course, comes with the cultural death of poetry and metaphor in our day – perhaps because we’re just too used to the magesterial pronouncements of science and unwilling to live in the misty world of real Truth.

    If your simple (“trial shot”) statements about the Trinity could be universally recognized and owed up to, it would clear up a whole lot of problems with scripture, prayer, incarnation, resurrection, ecclesiology, morality, schism, etc.

  2. Mother Laura

    Hi Derek! You won’t be suprised to hear a contrasting opinion from your friendly local girl bishop and feminist theologian :-).

    I consistently use female God-language for God in general and for the First and Third Persons of the Blessed Trinity on my blog because it corresponds to my experience, has been so transforming for many people, and is so underused in most places. This is a balancing move though–IRL I frequently use traditional masculine or neutral language liturgically and in spiritual direction, as pastorally appropriate for the person or community I am serving. All the Christian feminist theologians I know have a similar goal of balancing, rather than replacing, masculine metaphors for God, and bringing into regular use some of the many other biblical and traditional metaphors–including natural and conceptual ones–for the Holy One who is purely spiritual and beyond all gender and other human conceptualizations.

    When metaphors are used constantly, as Father in particular is, the fact that they are metaphors and not literal truth is often forgotten. (The pre-existent Word and Wisdom of God was in no way male, but the fully human aspect of Jesus was of course a male and remains so–in a mysterious way we don’t fully comprehend of course–in his glorified body. Hence Son is not just a metaphor for the Second Person in the way Father is for the First or for God general. In my own personally preferred expansive Trinitarian formulation I recognize this connection with “Christ”, i.e. “Mother, Christ, Holy Spirit.” Again, I don’t advocate replacing Father, Son, Holy Spirit, but balancing and complementing them).

    Anyway, in her most recent book Sr. Elizabeth Johnson pointed out that overuse kills metaphors, and that dead metaphors make great idols. To constantly call God he and Father strongly gives people the impression that God is really or more male than female, and that men are more fully in God’s image than women, violating the core scriptural teaching in Genesis 1:27. People claim to know that God isn’t literally male, but on a visceral level the constant overuse of he and father produces this effect–otherwise calling God she would be seen as natural and not a blasphemy or a joke. And that has helped diminish our appreciation of the fullness of divine glory as well as leading to some pretty grave consequences for actual women in the church and in society.

    If we use both he and she for God, we will constantly be reminded that sex in God is metaphorical and not literal. (Jesus, even as our Mother, is he, of course, as in Julian of Norwich but God our Mother and the First Person of the Trinity are more appropriately she IMHO). Using she regularly, or at least frequently, for the Holy Spirit isn’t enough and still fosters subordination, since the HS is often seen esp. in western theology as last and least (as an excellent comment to the original post pointed out). But it is a simple and very traditionally grounded Semitic way to get at least some divine female language in play. I have seen the HS as she used with a high comfort level and good understanding in IC worshipping communities that are in other ways very traditional and use primarily Father and he for God/First Person. It needs to be done with respect for the community, sensitivity, and good catechesis, of course–badly implemented inclusive and expansive language is really dreadful, and contributes to many people dismissing it out of hand.

  3. bls

    My objection is that if we speak of the Spirit as feminine, whether primarily or exclusively, we are beginning to gender God’s being, and the implication is that Father and Son are masculine.

    Beginning to gender God’s being, eh? I’m afraid the horse is indeed long out of the barn on that one.

    And how can he argue this, and then turn around and say that “It is, arguably, also more of a piece with the feminine personification of Wisdom in the OT being identified with the creative Word who is the second person of the Trinity”?

    Can you say “contradiction”?

    I mean, we really have to look at what’s in front of us – what’s actually come down to us, IOW, in reality. If there was ever a widespread “tradition” such as what’s being described here, it’s vanished without a trace.

    In that case, how influential was it, really?

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