GUEST POST: Is God a “He”? And Why This Question Really Does Matter by Meagan Manas

Meagan_ManusThis is a guest post by Rev. Meagan Manas

“Words are things, I am convinced…
I think they get on the walls, they get in your wallpaper
In your upholstery, in your clothes and finally…
Into you”  - Maya Angelou              

Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.  How many of us have mouthed this phrase to ourselves like a mantra in hard times, or given them as advice to a youngster? We use the phrase specifically because we know it isn’t true. Because we know that actually, words are powerful.

Yet we consistently throw them around as if they were meaningless.  What if we took our words seriously?  Would we be able to keep pretending, for instance, that using exclusively male language for God was not also communicating that something about maleness was inherently God-like?

“In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was with God and the Word was God…through [the logos] all things came into being…”    – John 1:1, 3

Remember learning about the Inuit language in which there are about twelve different words for snow—and thus an increased capacity to understand, to see, twelve different kinds of snow?  From my Cleveland upbringing and a slough of NYC winters, I could point out maybe three different kinds.  If I had twelve different words, would I be able to see more?

I imagine myself, a little girl growing up in a church full of exclusively male leadership and male language for God.  Can she see the divine in herself—or is that possible reality closed off to her because she has no language for it?  And when this little girl, 20+ years later, finds herself to be an ordained clergy person, will she be able to understand that as a part of her identity?  Or on some level will a lack of language hide it from her?

“Dear God, are boys really better than girls?  I know you are a boy.  But try to be fair.(signed) Sylvia.”   – Taken from a child’s letter to God

About three years ago around this time of year, I was lucky to get involved in a conversation between many wise women who work in denominations and their women’s organizations, in seminaries and churches, who were concerned about the way words were being used.  Most of them had been active in the “original” inclusive language battles in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  They had worked hard to write articles opposing male-only language for God, they had passed through denominational and seminary policies that required use of gender-neutral words for God and for people: chairperson instead of chairman, brothers and sisters instead of simply brothers, and the repeated use of the word God instead of any pronouns at all (For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only…etc.)

Each of these women, about 20 of us on a conference call, were deeply troubled at the state of the usage of inclusive language in churches and seminaries today, after all these policies and regulations were in place.  Instead of an improvement, they had seen a decline. Students brushed off the concern for inclusive language as the pet project of one professor, not a central justice issue for people who would become leaders of faith communities.  Pastors and people in charge of denominations used inclusive language when they felt like it, or remembered to do so—which was not often.

That was the problem identified on our phone call; when folks were just handed a rule or a policy, they were not apt to understand why it was important to follow.  We needed a way to not just tell people what kinds of words to use, but to help individuals understand how much was at stake in the language they chose—how the words we use can reinforce the very systems of injustice we say we want to dismantle: patriarchy, racism, ablism, heterosexism, and on and on.

The other problem we saw was the problem of neutral language.  When pastors talked about God and Godself, we all found ourselves continuing to picture a male, often white, God.  The neutral language did nothing to equalize or change; it only masked the systems of power rampant in Christianity.  Instead of neutral language, we determined, what we needed was more language.  More words, images and pictures of God.  A greater diversity.  Instead of simply “inclusive” language, we needed something expansive.

Out of this conversation sprang Words Matter, a project based in storytelling and conversation with awareness and awakening as its goal.  Words Matter gathers a group together and then asks each person to tell the group a short (3 minutes or less) story about a time when they noticed the power or importance of words.  Every time I lead this process, I am surprised again that everyone has a story.  When we give the prompt, we are careful to specify that these can be stories of hurt or of healing, but the vast majority of stories I hear are those of pain.  They are stories of not belonging, of being unworthy, being left out, being discriminated against.

The hope of Words Matter is that once we understand our own stories and can truly hear others’ stories, we might understand in a real way how words matter, and we might change the way we do things as a result.  Words Matter imagines our communities of faith not as neutral, politically correct gatherings striving to be inoffensive, but as wildly dynamic and vibrant places where we use more words, more images, and more stories in an effort to speak to the hearts of so many different kinds of people who gather with us.  Places that spark our imaginations and allow us to see more, different realities, like learning new words for different kinds of snow.

But I caution you.  Once you start to open yourself to how words impact people’s lives, their physical, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing, living in the world can become deeply troubling, and it is quite difficult to un-see.  Perhaps you will start to see these connections and get excited, and try to tell someone about it!  Here I caution you again.  It is so easy—so easy—to put together a pamphlet telling people which words they should or should not use and then to distribute it.  But getting people to understand in their core how words they hear and words they choose themselves are participating in systems of injustice, and how these words could potentially be words of life and healing—that is a difficult task.  As far as I can see, our only choice is to try.

It is with this caution that I invite you to join me on this journey.  Words are powerful.  Words are things.  Words shape the way we understand the world.  Let’s use them together, to build a reality with more, more access, more possibility, more belonging, more welcome, more acceptance, more affirmation.  More. Can we do it together?

Learn more about Words Matter by visiting www.wordsmatter.org.

Rev. Meagan Manas is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  She currently serves in a validated ministry as Justice and Peace Staff Specialist for Presbyterian Women, and is Program Coordinator for the World Day of Prayer USA Committee.  Meagan lives in Brooklyn with her husband Dan, and cats Marge and Arthur, and is interested in eating food, communities, and thinking about how to make religion good for people.

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27 Responses to GUEST POST: Is God a “He”? And Why This Question Really Does Matter by Meagan Manas

  1. Rev. Ann Tiemeyer says:

    Thank you to Meagan for her powerful words that lay out the complexities and the live giving ablity we have to heal as individuals and as community when we expand out language and understanding of God — God who want healthy abundant life for all.

    Words Matter — because God Matters to us and she will continually offer us new life in the face of death killing words!

    Rev. Ann Tiemeyer
    Program Director Women’s Minstries
    National Council of Churches, USA

  2. Barbara Shuck says:

    I had thought the language barrier was past until I suffered through two male dominated services recently. When I was involved with the YWCA domestic violence work, it was amazing how many women were told to submit to their husband’s beatings by their church. I remember how my mother always thought men were better because they were made in the image of God. It is such a narrow way to picture God. My most common thought of God is creative energy.

    • Meagan says:

      Barbara, thanks for this. The connections between images of God as male and domestic/intimate partner violence are very real. Glad you were able to come to a new place of understanding.

  3. margaret morency says:

    Hi, I have always thought this would be better if we translated more accurately… in Hebrew spirit is a feminine word.

    • Meagan says:

      Margaret–I have a degree in Hebrew and always loved this little-known fact! Thanks for bringing it into the light here :)

  4. me says:

    I take Jesus as my example, and he called God, “Father.”

    • Meagan says:

      You’re right, he did. Jesus also used female images to describe God–like a woman who has lost a coin, for example. Let’s try to broaden our understanding to include all those elements!

  5. Hello,

    While I broadly agree with your point, at least when it comes to the inappropriateness of exclusively using male images and words to denote God, a few things:

    1) This whole business of the Inuit having 12, or 50, or 100 (the number seems to change all the time) words for snow is simply *not true*. This idea has spread through the English-speaking world, at least, with remarkable speed, and it is known as a “snow clone”. There is a database of snow clones at http://snowclones.org/
    Geoff Pullum discusses the details of the historical development of this idea in this paper: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/EskimoHoax.pdf
    Language Log also has a huge number of articles on this phenomenon and other linguistic memes: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

    Furthermore, I think the idea presented above (in your post) that having additional words for a given item would somehow allow us to see new differences probably reverses the causality; it seems more likely to me that perceived differences lead to new terms, words, and phrases–not the other way around. Of course, it’s probably more complicated than either arrangement, each probably affects one another in a feedback loop. I’m certainly not qualified to get into any academic details on this…

    2) I nonetheless agree that continuing to exclusively use male terms for God is problematic both from a feminist perspective as well as from a concern for what we might call theological accuracy. But, I’m not sure I agree that the solution is “more words.” In the mainline Protestant tradition at least, I actually think we already have far too many words. Our services are extremely wordy; there’s no time to just think or be present. While I do think extra images for God (my personal favorite is the mother hen gathering her chicks) are very valuable, I don’t know that we need to interject them into Sunday morning services (or other weekly meetings). Perhaps you weren’t even suggesting this, but I feel like that was the uptake of the discussion: what we say in our community meetings/services is of the greatest importance in how religious communities come to see and understand God (please correct me if I’ve misunderstood your intention here)?

    My own personal preference for how to deal with the pronoun issue is to simply refer to God as “You” at all times when a pronoun is needed. This not only obliterates any gendered-ness to the language (well, at least in English….) but also turns all discussion *about* God into an address *to* God; in other words, all theological discourse, to an extent, becomes a prayer, a petition, a lament, a challenge, rather than just an abstract discussion. This may also help us to avoid the error of thinking of God as an object like other objects. This builds on the work of folks like Martin Buber (cf. “I and Thou”) and I think offers a lot of advantages–though of course I admit that there may be lots of problems with this approach too. I think, though, that it may offer the best way forward in developing language that is at once equitable while also vital and authentic.

    Anyway, I absolutely agree that this is an interesting and important theological and ecclesiastical issue; and despite my slight differences of opinion, I’m glad to see this talked about. Thanks for the post!

    • Meagan says:

      @Scott– Wow, thanks for these comments! about your uneasiness in 1, I share it and thank you for bringing up the complexities of the conversation more than I could in a blog post. It seems important to me to get folks and communities thinking about the questions you’re raising. Re: your point 2, Yes! absolutely! I think what I meant to advocate was for a broader diversity of words used when words are used. There is a whole other blog post we could do on images and silence and what they communicate…again, thanks for raising the issue, and I like your personal solution.

  6. Curious says:

    While it is true that non-inclusive language perpetuates many hierarchical structures that we may find offensive (patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, etc.), it seems rather dishonest for a religious community to “solve” those distasteful qualities by simply modifying the language of their discourses. Should you not, instead, recognize the inherently offensive nature of your core texts? Why pretend that the Bible is morally “better” than any honest translation/reading will show it to be? Why not instead revolutionize your “spiritual” life in a more full manner that FINALLY abandons these archaic texts and practices? If the Bible’s language no longer fits your spiritual mode, why not change your religious practice instead of trying to change–in an academically dishonest manner–the text and your practices concerning that text?

    • Meagan says:

      Curious, these are really good questions and not taken lightly. They are questions I and many others have wrestled with and continue to. I think for me, and for some others, there is something inherent in the Bible that is about turning over hierarchies and valuing social solidarity over personal power…that sometimes is lost on us because of the context in which it was written and the contexts in which it has been interpreted. Is it dishonest to impose my core belief in this liberative thread on the way I read the Bible as a whole? Where do I get the authority to do that? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I’ve found these religious texts to be lifegiving in many ways, and that’s what keeps me coming back to them. Do you have a spiritual practice of a personal history of moving away from the Bible? I’d love to hear more of your story!

  7. John Thompson says:

    If as you say words matter then it would seem that the words, concepts, that were used to reveal God should then matter. If God is revealed in a male tyoe nature does that make Him any less God?
    It would appear that not caring for the way that revelation has come we are attempting to make God in our own image. Should not the search be to discover God in the way He is and not in the way we wish? God’s maleness, for He does reveal Himself as Father and Jesus was a male (though not white) their essence of maleness makes everyone else feminine. This is but His way of showing how dfferent He is from us.
    Words do matter and we should take them seriously if we are to truley understand the naure of God.

    • Meagan says:

      John, I once had a wonderful teacher who taught us about the dangers of using metaphors for God. We explored the idea of a metaphor: “God is a rock.” What do we mean by this? Well, God is my rock when things in my life feel unstable, God is solid like a rock, etc. etc. But then she asked us, Is God a rock? as she held up a stone in her hand. Well no, of course we didn’t think God actually was a rock or that the rock she held up was the entirety of who God is. The thing that makes metaphors work is that the tension between is and is not. God is a rock and God is not a rock. When this breaks down, however, and we loose the is/is not quality, the metaphor loses its power. That’s what I believe has happened with our male language for God. Is God male? Yes, sure, absolutely. But can God also be not-male? if we lose that, the metaphor breaks down and God is stuck in a box–a male box, that we made.

      At base here is my belief that we can never fully describe or understand God. So we have to continue to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, exploring scripture and traditions to try to get a more full understanding of who God might be. Are there other ways God has been revealed that you find particularly powerful or important?

  8. Robin Pratt says:

    This struck such a nerve! I was brought up by my grandmother and mother to be very “religious” (my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, retired) I asked why women weren’t ministers and was told, in effect, men are given relegious experiences and called to serve. Women can’t comprehend God. I sometimes wonder if that is what sparked my eventual spiritual quest outside of “mainstream” Christianity. Because in my personal experience, the people who spoke to me of God and Jesus and demonstrated those teachings in their everyday life were female. Most men I knew were at best indifferent to Spiritual matters. Praise God that I have lived to see that beginning to change!

  9. Bill Daley says:

    Jesus called God “father.” What am I to do?

    • david crane says:

      I remember visiting a facility donated to the Catholic church, and used as a R & R facility for a group doing work primarily in Africa. They had a black Virgin Mary statue in the garden. Wow. Later in like, I saw a picture of Jesus wearing dredlocks while in the Bahamas at Easter. Words evoke mental images,but the mental image can change.

    • Meagan says:

      By all means, call God “father.” But don’t miss out on the myriad other names and images of God throughout scripture and tradition!

  10. Cindy says:

    Interesting take. Makes me sad when women are told that they are less than men. Perhaps that is from where much of the need for inclusive language comes. I am a cradle Episcopalian. I was young when the first female Bishop was ordained. It never really occurred to me that I could be held back by being female. I understood that some of society held that belief as I got older. I didn’t believe it because I grew up not seeing it. I was allowed to be an altar girl. Women were allowed to do anything. I didn’t have a female priest until this November, but I knew they were there. I’ve never felt the need to change the language to be included. I don’t get upset when people are referred to as “man”. In my head, I know that it refers to all hu”man”s. Also in my head, the word “he” is generic. It’s used more than “she” for non-specific cases. I think that makes us more special.

    Instead of worrying about the language, let’s make sure our girls know that they *can* be almost anything, that they are valuable, and that their value does not come from their husband. I’m my 7 year old’s Girl Scout leader. I’ve emphasized that they can do anything they want to do. They argued with me the first time I brought it up. It made me sad. Now if I ask if they can be anything, they say no. I ask what they can’t be & they say “boys and dads”. Amen, little girls, amen. (We’re not discussing that they could be boys with medical alterations… not sure where science is on them being dads).

    • Meagan says:

      I’m so glad you had a different experience than me, Cindy! One thing that we have found is so important while working on Words Matter is the lost art of listening to one another. It’s only when we truly put ourselves aside to be present in open listening to the story of another human being that we can begin to understand the effects our words have on others. I thank you for your story and hope you can be thankful for mine as well.

  11. Lisa Page says:

    Thank you for this article.

    Regarding comments that reference the way in which Jesus addressed God as “father.” Is it not important to consider the context of the ancient Near East? Their languages and cultures were patriarchal. Therefore scribes who documented the life of Jesus would written from a patriarchal mindset. It seems that an argument that cites ancient patriarchal attitudes for maintaining patriarchy makes this authors point rather well.

    • Meagan says:

      You’re right Lisa–context is incredibly important. I’ve found that admitting that the cultures in which the Bible was written down might have affected the way it was written down can be very difficult for people. Have you found a good way to discuss this with theological lay folks?

  12. Rev. Amy Crump says:

    As I read this, I was reminded of my first years as an ordained pastor when it seemed that the issue of inclusiveness was a major topic whenever women clergy met together. I’m sorry to see this this topic rearing its head again. There arr many topics of more importance today.

    • Meagan says:

      Rev. Amy–It’s our sincere belief that the issue of the words we use is intricately related to those topics of more importance…and that we can’t deal with one independently from the other. This isn’t about a women’s issue, but about a just world for all people.

  13. Linda says:

    I am delighted by this conversation. Thank you everyone for your open and honest comments as we struggle through these big questions together. And thank you, Meagan, for so thoughtfully responding.

    Keep those comments coming!

  14. Linda says:

    Meagan, I was at a women’s circle yesterday and heard a woman who self identified as a “church alum” (meaning someone who had left the church, in her case because of the way in which it handled gender issues) say something interesting about the ramifications of a deified patriarchy that made me think of this post: “If God is male, then male is God.”

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