Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Sign of Hope

While I am a Methodist, I went to a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) seminary, and hope to return there in the fall of 2007 to pursue a Masters of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy. So, especially considering my discomfort with exclusively masculine images of God (they deny women participation in the imago dei, image of God) and non-literal approach to Trinitarian theology (the Trinity as a metaphor used to describe God rather than a literally true description of God), I was delighted when I read this article by the AP's Richard N. Ostling:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The divine Trinity -- "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" -- could also be known as "Mother, Child and Womb" or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend" at some Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) services under an action yesterday by the church's national assembly.

Delegates to the meeting voted to "receive" a policy paper on gender-inclusive language for the Trinity, a step short of approving it.

That means officials with the Louisville-based denomination can propose experimental liturgies with alternative phrasings for the Trinity, but congregations won't be required to use them.

"This does not alter the church's theological position but provides an educational resource to enhance the spiritual life of our membership," legislative committee chair Nancy Olthoff, an Iowa laywoman, said during yesterday's debate on the Trinity.

The assembly narrowly defeated a conservative bid to refer the paper back for further study.

A panel that has worked on the idea since 2000 said the classical language for the Trinity should still be used, but Presbyterians also should seek "fresh ways to speak of the mystery of the triune God" to "expand the church's vocabulary of praise and wonder."

One reason is that language limited to the Father and Son "has been used to support the idea that God is male and that men are superior to women," the panel said.

Conservatives responded that the church should stick close to the way God is named in the Bible and noted that Jesus' most famous prayer was addressed to "Our Father."

Besides "Mother, Child and Womb" and "Rock, Redeemer, Friend," proposed Trinity options drawn from biblical material include:

• "Lover, Beloved, Love"

• "Creator, Savior, Sanctifier"

• "King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love."

Early in yesterday's business session, the Presbyterian assembly sang a revised version of a familiar doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," that avoided male nouns and pronouns for God.

Youth delegate Dorothy Hill, a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, was uncomfortable with changing the Trinity wording.

The paper "suggests viewpoints that seem to be in tension with what our church has always held to be true about our Trinitarian God," she said.

Hill reminded delegates that the Ten Commandments say "the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."

The Rev. Deborah Funke of Montana warned that the paper would be "theologically confusing and divisive" at a time when the denomination of 2.3 million members faces other troublesome issues.

On Tuesday, the assembly will vote on a proposal to give local congregations and regional presbyteries some leeway on ordaining clergy and lay officers living in gay relationships.

Ten conservative Presbyterian groups have warned jointly that approval of what they call "local option" would "promote schism by permitting the disregard of clear standards of Scripture."

Perhaps my friend Amy, a Masters of Divinity student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who was at the General Assembly in question could leave some comments explaining this more. In the meantime, I am very encouraged that a mainline denomination is exploring this. I wish that the United Methodist Church would look at this, as well, because I'm tired of secretly changing the liturgy and doxology myself, confusing the people in the pews around me.


Brian Cubbage said...

My UCC congregation in Pennsylvania, and my current Disciples of Christ congregation here in Louisville, both use this gender-neutral version of the doxology:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God all creatures here below;
Praise God above, ye heavenly host;
Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.

It isn't gender-inclusive, but it's neutral. Do any Presbyterian or Methodist churches use this version of the doxology?

Liam said...

We Catholics can't even say, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you" anymore... I personally don't mind a gender-specific doxology for the sake of tradition, but it must be understood that it is only a convention, not a description of God (unless you really want to anthromorphisize God the way the Mormons do). Still, a local church should have the ability to adapt to its local needs. Things get very bad in the Catholic Church, which is still adapting to an earth-shaking change in the liturgy, and which has to deal with tremendous centralization and the weight of a very venerable tradition (which can be either a very good or a very bad thing, depending how it is approached).

Still, if you go from parish to parish, it is reassuring to see how many priests are willing to be more open-minded.

Brian Beech said...

I personally find this ridiculous, much like many of the politically correct motivated speech/lifestyles. It has come so far beyond what good it could have made in the beginning to become a thorn in the side of everyone that speaks or writes. Exclusivity is being over-dramatized. God is a ‘he’. This does not make me any closer to Him than my wife is. She is not offended by God being a ‘He’. She is secure in her relationship with Him and His love for her. Insecurity really gets in the way doesn’t it?!

Liam said...

Brian B., could you explain what you mean by "God is a he"? You mean that God is limited by gender? God has a body (apart from the human body of Christ) that is specifically male? What makes God a he?

Sandalstraps said...

Brian Beech,

Welcome back! I missed you (and I sincerely mean that).

Like Liam, I wonder exactly what you mean when you say "God is a he." I don't take you to mean that God literally has a penis, which very few people mean by rendering God in the masculine. So what exactly do you mean?

If you mean that the Biblical tradition renders God in the masculine, then in most cases (especially in English translations) you are right. But what are we to make of this? Is this the product of the patriarchal nature of ancient Israel, or does this reveal some literal or metaphorical truth about God?

I suspect that you are in ther second camp, so then the follow-up question is: is this a literal or metaphorical truth? If it is literal, then exactly how is it literal? Pushing aside for a moment the incarnation, because that creates problems of its own, what does it mean to say that God is literally masculine, and not at all feminine?

These are serioius questions which serious theologians are asking, and they are perhaps worth asking. But they do allow us to anthropomorphize God - that is, shape God in our image rather than be shaped in God's image.

And that notion of participation in the divine image is worth looking at. If God is literally masculine and not at all feminine, or, as you put it, a "he," then what are we to make of the (very scriptural) notion that both men and women are made in the image of God? Because that, rather than political correctness or the language police, is the issue here.

If God is entirely male, and not at all female, then females cannot in their femininity participate in the image of God. They must first become male. This is what happens when we become too attached to God being literally male. The female participation in the divine image, no matter how your wonderful wife feels about it, is lost. The only part of women that participates inthe divine image is the part that resembles men.

This isn't about political correctness, this is about having a liturgy that allows women to participate in the divine image. It is about saying to women that they are fully human. And, of course, I know that you think that your wife is fully human, and that she participates in the divine image (that is, she was made - like all of us - in the image of God); but your theology and your liturgy do not know that. They do not reflect that.

This causes some serious tension within the church, because there are many people like you for whom the traditional way of speaking about God still works. But many of us have a very serious problem with a litugy and a theology (that is a concept of God) which denies full humanity to women. We are not trying to deny the power of the traditional laguage, nor are we trying to call into question the value of your experience of God. We are merely trying to say that this is not the only way in which God is experienced, and that Christians should be free to worship God in a variety of ways.

Personally I see all ways of talking about God as metaphors. Not that God is a metaphor, but that God can only be spoken about in metaphorical terms, because of the mysterious nature of the divine. And, while metaphors matter - that is, some of them speak and others don't, and you have to go with the ones that speak rather than just picking any old metaphor and running with it - you can't cling to your metaphors so tightly that you think that they are the only ones that work.

Incidentally, I'm not sure where you get off saying something so flippant as "Insecurity really gets in the way, doesn't it?!" The same accusation can be leveled at those who are so insecure that they refuse to consider other ways of speaking about God. But one side reducing the other sides position to some deep seated and unconfessed insecurity certainly doesn't help us get anywhere.

But I'm happy to see that, at least for the moment, you're back! How are things?

Brian Cubbage said...

Sandalstraps, I second your remarks. I would also add that anyone who isn't even the least bit insecure in the face of the Almighty really needs to reexamine his or her faith.

Brian Beech said...

Yes, I do mean that the Bible references God in the masculine.

I think the incarnation shows us a picture of God. I believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man (I say man here as in human, not gender specific; although he was a man literally). What is to be said of Jesus being a man instead of a woman? Is there some literal or metaphorical truth about God that is shown by Him being referred to as masculine? Possibly both, but I am not smart enough nor learned enough to answer such questions. I do know the Bible says the man is the head of the household and I think that God being referred to as a man may be a picture that He is the head of all things.

“then females cannot in their femininity participate in the image of God” I am curious what you mean by “participate in the image of God”. If you could explain what you mean a little more that would be great.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness - I take this to mean what it says, ‘our likeness’. Two things can be ‘alike’ without being the same. Men and women are very much alike. So, I think that ‘man’ here may be used as humanity and not just the masculine sense.

My point for putting out the jolt about insecurity was to show how flippant I believe all of this is. This whole ‘inclusive language’ push has been taken to the point of absurdity. Sure, it may have started out with good intentions, but now it is like every other good thing; it has been ruined by the extremists. I don’t think I’m insecure to not consider other ways to speak of God, I think that I’m holding to Biblical truth. When we turn from the Bible to add our own ‘revelations’ I think we begin heading down a road that will lead to confusion.

Even if people are beginning to have differing ideas about what they want to believe and how they want to do things, to try to implement these ‘new’ beliefs on a denomination that was/is not accepting of those is not only unethical, but plain destructive. If a certain ‘sect’ of people don’t believe what their denomination does then they need to either find one that does or create their own denomination. Otherwise it is like me coming into your house and telling you how to raise your son, which, I’m sure, would be very ill received at best.

Brian, I don’t think any of us need to be insecure with God. His word is full of promises of His love for us. I think if we are born again we need not be insecure. Although we still need to fear God as the Bible says.

Forgive my scatterbrained post, I’m swamped at work and have jumped back and forth and really haven’t had time to edit what I’ve written. And, I’ve been absolutely great, thanks for asking!!! I see you’re still doing well. I’ve been reading the blog, so I never left, but time hasn’t permitted me to write. I’ll try to keep up with this post and see where we head.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian Beech,

What does it mean to participate in the image of God? That's a great question, and I'm glad that you asked. I can't comprehensively answer the question, because the phrase "participate in the image of God" is a very mystical one. But I can try to describe what I mean.

In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, women cannot serve as priests because they do not fully participate in the image of God. The Catholic priest is (unlike in most Protestant traditions) to serve as a bridge between the secular and the sacred. He (always a he, here) stands between God and humanity, representing humanity to God, and more importantly, representing God to humanity.

The priest serves as an image of God in the world. As such, the priest can only be a man, not a woman, for God is masculine rather than feminine.

This same sort of thinking, though phrased somewhat differently, lies behind the refusal of many fundamentalist Protestant groups to accept women pastors. The pastor is seen as the somewhat prophetic mouthpiece of God, someone who orally represents the will of God on earth. Because God is a man (that is, maculine, or as you say, a "he") the mouthpiece of God must be a man.

The notion that God is masculine has been used for a very, very long time to make women feel less than fully human. If God is a man, then to be like God is to be a man, which is, of course, impossible for women to do. But this language has been swimming around in our collective subconscious for so long that to lose it is to lose a part of ourselves. We feel threatened.

At first we try to keep the language while changing the meaning. My ministry mentor, for instance, once told me that when you use the masculine pronoun to refer to God, despite the fact that you are using the masculine "He," you are really making a gender-inclusive statement, since you don't literally mean that God has a penis.

But that sort of argument doesn't hold up, for a reason which you yourself ought to notice. Think of the accidental confusion this statement in your last comment created - confusion which you yourself noticed and tried to correct):

I think the incarnation shows us a picture of God. I believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man (I say man here as in human, not gender specific; although he was a man literally).

Your parenthetical notation notes the way in which we confuse the inclusive masculine (man as humanity) with the exclusive masculine (man as a male person). This confusion linguistically denies full humanity to women. Or, as a female seminary professor once told me (while discussing the need to use gender inclusive language on a paper):

The words "man" and "mankind" do not refer to me! I am a human, and I am a woman, not a man.

Rather than coming from insecurity, these words came from a deep sense of security - affirming that she is fully human and should be treated as such in language. While my error on that paper came from the rote repetition of language I had grown up with rather than a conscious attempt to deny the humanity of women, I was still unconsciously participating in a way of using language which denies full humanity to women.

Using exclusively masculine terms for God does exactly the same thing. While we can state that what we mean by the word "man" in some cases includes women, the word itself, whatever we mean by it, does not include women, and is the linguistic product of a culture which for so long denied equal rights to women, and as such denied that they were fully human. In the same way, when we use only the masculine pronoun "He" to describe God, whether or not we, like my ministry mentor, mean that women are equally made in the image of God, the language we use denies that.

To say that the image of God is an exclusively male image is to say that only males are made in that image. You cannot be consistent and say both:

1. God is male and only male, and

2. Women and men are made equally in the image of God.

If the image we have of God is a man, then men are simply more like God than women. If we affirm that women are as much like God as men, then our image of God simply needs to be more inclusive.

Maybe later I'll write about more inclusive images of God found in scripture.

Amy said...

For the last line, we state... "Praise Triune God whom we Adore," instead - My congregation home in Olympia has been singing that version since I was at least 11 and 12. It seems old hat to me - I guess that's why I'm astounded anyone can be AGAINST it. Anyway, I just returned from Birmingham tonight, and will write more later.

Amy said...

Hey all!

The PC(USA) has had a policy encouraging and incorporating inclusive and expansive language for close to two decades now, so this Trinity report didn't really say anything new. (FYI, language is referred to as "inclusive" when it refers to people, and "expansive" when it refers to God.) Also, the Assembly chose to "recieve" it instead "endorse" it, which means that they commended it for study and will develop aids to assist congregations in examining and contemplating it, but wouldn't go so far as to endorse it.

In addition, it includes a plethora of beautiful images expressing the Trinity in imaginative ways, yet continues to lift up "Father, Son, And Holy Spirit," a formula that was described as an "anchor" and lifted up higher than other images used, while the descriptions that are lifted up throughout the news reporting are described as "supplementary" language. We are told that we can use these images in addition to the typical Trinitarian formula, but they are on a lower level. This is seen specifically in the prohibition added on by the commissioners that disallows the use of any terms other than "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" in the act of baptism.

I sat in and observed the committee that discussed this paper, and heard all the arguments of those opposed to expansive language. There were the typical false accusations of modalism, and grave diatribes of how we were abandoning the Biblical distinctions between names and images or metaphors when we went down this path.

It still astounds me; I do not understand how or why people can be opposed to incorporating the beautiful diversity of the Biblical narrative in our discussions of God. They seem to think that by reclaiming new language into our vocabulary, langauge that has continued through the Biblical witness but been ignored by our liturgists and theologians, then we are diminishing the traditional terminology. How can increasing our working vocabulary diminish anything?

I'm glad you picked up on this, and that a good discussion is going already. Let me know if you have any questions about how it all went down. I'm sure I'll chime in again later!

Amy said...

BTW, meant to write in but didn't... I don't think the report went far enough. However, it's a great step towards education of our congregations on this issue.

Liam said...


I'd like to make a small correction to the Catholic idea of the male priesthood (a part of my Church that I am completely in diagreement with, by the way). The priest is specifically a representative of Christ, not generally a representative of God (the Trinity or God the Father). I personally feel the idea that a woman cannot represent Christ just because Jesus was male is absurd, but it's part of the baggage that such an old tradition carries around with it and I have great faith that it's something the Holy Spirit will eventually change, although it will probably take awhile.

Be that as it may, the role of the priest does not, I believe, imply that God, the Trinity, is essentially male. I think even responsible but conservative Catholic theologians would be uncomfortable with circumscribing God with an idea of biological gender (I may be wrong here). An uncomfortableness with inclusive language in the conservative wing of the Church probably has more to do with an idea of traditionalism in liturgy than with any kind of anthropomorphic view of God.