Monday, January 23, 2012

Wrestling with inclusive God-talk

I struggle with inclusive God-talk.  The word ambivalence describes how I feel. It’s a good word, a word that includes the idea of a dual between values and the resulting confusion. That’s me.  I value knowing that God is not a male, and I value the theologians and seminaries that want to communicate this to the wider body of Christ.  But I also value beauty in language.  My editing hand slashes unmercifully at clunky constructions, in my own work and when I’m editing someone else’s article. As a poet, I know that form has to embrace and embody meaning if a good poem is to result. Both/and, not either/or.

It’s the form part that bothers me when I read something like, “God communicates God’s will in God’s own time to God’s people.”  When I complained that there was just a little too much God in that sentence, a theological friend piously replied, “Can one ever have too much of God?” 

Well, no….I guess not.  But that’s not the point.  It just sounds so awkward—almost ugly—to say it like that.

I remember well when I first became fanatical about applying inclusive language to people. I happened during the sermon one Sunday morning years ago. As usual, my restless spirit seemed to be putting up a block against the barrage of words, my definition of preaching at that time in my life. The pastor was urging us to be “mighty men of God.” I knew he was meaning all of us, men and women alike, and I was trying to mentally accommodate the language.

For some reason, I just stopped trying that morning and began paying attention to the images in my head. As we were encouraged to be men of prayer, the picture in my brain was of a group of white men, dressed in business suits, kneeling in prayer. All the mighty men of God were just that, white men in business suits.  I watched the images come and go through each point of the sermon, and every reference to men carried its corresponding male image.

Realizing that for our pastor, the word “men” was a collective plural noun that automatically included women, I tried putting women into the pictures in my head. It didn’t work. I simply could not force my brain to picture women under the covering label of men. I was nowhere in the images that Sunday morning.

I realized that this was part of my problem with church and sermons, that the intuitive sub-conscious center of my brain, the place where the pictures are born, was not cooperating with my efforts to apply the male words to myself. That’s why church made me so tired and restless (or at least that was one of the reasons; immaturity may also have had something to do with it).

So I applaud efforts to make language about people inclusive, although this becomes awkward at times. I also applaud efforts to be more accurate in our language about God. So why do I struggle so much with inclusive God-talk?

Since the books of the Bible were originally written in patriarchal contexts, it’s not surprising that so much of biblical language portrays God with male images, “Father” and “Son” being primary examples.  But the deeper revelation behind the stories and images whispers the mystery of God who is transcendent and Spirit and so far beyond language that words can only falter and trip.

The book of James marvelously illustrates the gender issues that surround our understanding of God.  In one of my favorite images, James calls God “the Father of lights,” the giver of all good gifts (1:17). A decidedly male image.  But James follows this with a description of what this Father of light does for us.  He gives us birth through the word of truth.  There you have it!  A Father who gives birth!  God our Father/Mother. Creator/birth-giver.  Source of all life.

This doesn’t settle my dis-ease with modern amorphous God-talk, but it does make me smile.  And it reminds me that this mystery runs deeper than words.


  1. Thank you, Nancy... especially for the James references. I was not aware of this wonderful juxtaposition. Also, I appreciate just the idea of thinking about images instead of just words when God is mentioned. See you this afternoon.

  2. ...thanks for speaking plainly with grace about this important matter.