In writing papers for school, I continually find myself confronted with questions about language and gender. Like most of the academic world, I pretty much take it for granted that saying “man” and “he” simply isn’t going to cut it if I’m talking about the entire human race. The lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular is awkward at times– my own preference is usually to alternate between “she” and “he”– but I’m very much a believer in the importance of not writing as if all humans were male.
The place where I admit that I’ve found myself a bit less certain is in discussion of God. Like most Mormons, in casual speech I nearly always refer to God as “he,” and that was initially how I wrote my papers. Yet the more I’ve thought about the issue, especially as I’ve encountered feminist theology, the more uneasy I’ve become with that choice. I’m quite sympathetic to the argument made by feminist Christian theologians that if God transcends gender, which is how mainstream Christians (a term I’m using in contrast to “LDS Christians”) view deity, then there is no reason to limit our metaphors for God to masculine ones (like “father), or to use exclusively male pronouns when referring to the divine. (I’d recommend Elizabeth Johnon’s She Who Is for a good discussion of this.) I also share Mary Daly’s oft-quoted concern that “if God is male, then male is God.”
The problem takes on different contours, of course, when one comes at it from an LDS perspective– our belief in an embodied God means that we aren’t merely being metaphorical when we use the pronoun “he.” Yes, we have a vague and very underdeveloped notion that there is a Heavenly Mother out there, too. But the God who acts in scripture, the God of official church discourse, is always male. And unlike mainstream Christians, I find that I can’t dismiss such references as simply the language convention which the speakers are opting to use as they struggle to describe a being who is in reality neither male nor female.
I don’t know where exactly I am right now on the question of how to refer God. At the moment, at least in my academic writing, I usually go for the strategy of avoiding gendered references altogether in my discussion of the divine. I don’t entirely like that, though, as I think it comes across as making God sound more distant, more abstract, more impersonal.
When I go to church, however, these questions seem far away, because we’re still back on the question of whether gender-inclusive language is even needed when we’re discussing human beings. I do think this is an area where things have improved greatly over the last few decades, but I still find it jarring to hear talks about “man” and “brotherly love” given to audiences of both sexes. For years, I’ve changed the words of the hymns when singing them. (I remember one entertaining incident when I was sitting with several of my sisters and we all substituted “sister” for “brother,” causing the people in front of us to turn around and laugh.)
I realize that the God-language question raises some real theological issues. But it strikes me as a fairly straightforward matter to at least note that women as well as men are members of the Church, and to acknowledge that reality in the way we talk. I’m a bit puzzled by the fact that those who resist the practice are so often the same people who are emphatic about the reality of gender differences; it seems to me that they would in fact be highly motivated to ensure that women weren’t inadvertently being referred to as “men.”
What are other people’s thoughts on this?
- 23 January 2006