Saturday, October 4, 2008

The use of masculine language in worship: All language is political

A recurrent topic that has been debated in a theological community to which I belong concerns the language that is used on corporate worship. Some of us have been substituting the word "God" for masculine pronouns when chanting the Psalms and canticles during the daily office. Some other members of the community felt that the lack of everyone using the same words at the same time was distracting and wanted everyone to pray using the words in the prayer book verbatim. We had a meeting over this issue to discuss the topic openly. Those who did not support the use of inclusive language stated, variously, that when we pray together we are as a choir, and thus a choir should use the same words; and that masculine words are of course understood to be inclusive of both male and female.

I will admit that I am one who feels excluded and diminished by the very masculine concept of God that is put forth in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. As a historian, I understand the definition and rights of fatherhood that was in effect at the time and place of the Holy Land in the biblical era to be those that I really do not apply to my understanding of God. In biblical/Middle Eastern societies, the father was given the right at birth to either take the child that was newborn into his arms or not. To accept the child was not only to welcome it as his acknowledged offspring but to allow it to live; a newborn that was not accepted by the father was often then abandoned or exposed to the elements to die. As a mother who has given birth, I know what it feels to have a child grow beneath one’s heart and to have thoughts and hopes and dreams of that child constantly on one’s mind for the better portion of a year as it is part of you. In the societal systems in place in the biblical era, the parent who had no actual point of physical contact had the power of life or death over the child; the parent who had already nurtured and loved that child was at the mercy of the other parent’s whim, but it was a whim with lasting repercussions. To use this model, then, as a way to name the Divine brings to mind, for me, a vengeful, unloving deity who holds absolute power over humans and wields it in a capricious manner. But this discussion really goes beyond the use of "Father."

Beyond this objection, however, I simply do not believe that God has a gender, and I grow frustrated with the repetitive masculine pronouns that are used especially in the canticles and the psalms. This is just not who I understand God to be. Since all language is metaphor, of course no way of speaking about God is really going to be precise, but it would help if the language didn’t set out to be exclusionary as a deliberate choice. Let me be clear: I do not believe that God is female either. I believe that God has placed in both male and female persons qualities and characteristics than in our experience and acculturation have become categorized as male and female, and that these same characteristics may well be of divine origin. It is human nature to try to use conceptions of God based upon human experience and understanding, and of course a personal God is often envisioned “in our image” if only for the sake of satisfying our limited understanding—we see only dimly in a mirror now, but someday we shall see face to face, as St. Paul reminded us.

However, the very least we can try to do in the meantime is to be as precise as we can in our language (since it then influences and shapes our thinking and understanding). This doesn’t mean that claiming that masculine words and images really stand for both male and female will simply make it so. Masculine words and the images that they call forth from both the conscious and unconscious mind can not be merely default terms utilized for convenience but are instead culturally preferred because of the image of power and privilege that is subsumed within their meanings (If this were not the case, why else would many men insult one another by calling each other “girls” and “ladies?”).

It would be ideal if we could all use the same words when we pray to God and that those words would have the same meanings for everyone. (At this point I could ask, then why the objection to the use of the word "God" by all?)

But when we pray to God, we pray using our own native tongues. Therefore, I believe that the never-ending hymns of praise and petition that ascend to God in a heavenly and earthly chorus already are not using common words or common tongues. I merely seek to pray to God in as honest and fluid a way as possible from the depths of my being and my admittedly limited understanding. As I struggled with my preparation for this discussion, I was surprised at how deeply I really felt about this issue, since I consider myself not to be a radical feminist. This conversation within myself was difficult but precious, and would not have happened if I had not been a member of this community and if I had not felt valued enough to have our opinions sought and for them to be shared openly.

In the end, the decision was made that we would occasionally use material from Enriching Our Worship (an Episcopal alternative service manual), but that most of the time those of who were bothered by the masculine language would perhaps just say "God" quietly to ourselves instead of aloud while community prayer is ongoing. A comment was made about not making "political" statements during corporate worship. Even though this observation was made by someone whom I greatly admire and love in Christ, it rankles nonetheless.

I believe the connotation of the word "political" as it is used in this comment is comdemnatory, and implies that my concern is a petty political concern. As I have been at pains to explain, there are three things to keep in mind here. First, language shapes thought. Second, language is by its nature metaphorical and imprecise. Third, words have historical meanings, emotional meanings, and literal meanings.

For instance, take the word "political." This word's etymology comes from the Greek word "polis" which refers to the city-state or community in which one lived. Thus things that are political are things that affect the community. Turning back to our immediate problem of gender-exclusionary language, the insistence on using masculine language is not seen as "political," but using gender-neutral language is. Yet both usages affect the community. Therefore, this entire debate has been political. Asking me to pray part of the time quietly to myself during common worship time is a political request as well.

All language about the community is political language.

My use of the word "God" in place of "he" was not meant to distract from others' worship, but I can see how it does, even though I have been trying to just say it quietly. The problem is, since there are several women in the group who do avoid the use of the masculine, I guess it ends up that those who are praying the office as written are surrounded by people praying otherwise. And we are being asked to be quiet--even at times-- during corporate worship. THAT is certainly a political request.

I am beginning to think that the only solution is for me to not pray aloud at all, which certainly, if we continue the metaphor of the "choir," diminishes the choir. Perhaps I should not even show up for choir practice, since my voice distracts. I am certain that this is not the intent. But to expect me to pray contrary to my understanding of God is certainly a political choice, and by that I do mean to use the condemnatory sense of the word.

Further, these words are not just ways of speaking about God-- these are ways of anthropomorphizing God-- something which I think is a grave mistake. That is why I do not say "she" when I speak of God, either. God has qualities of male and female, and we humans have been given those qualities each to each according to our function and our needs. There are also qualities that God has that we as finite beings do not have. But the insistence, nonetheless, is to use "he." If God is "he," and I am not "he," then I am not created in God's image. I think I've heard this before from Tertullian.

And if we continue in this vein, no doubt the next charge that could be levelled against those who say "God" is that we are being argumentative, which is always a favorite response when someone tires of a discussion rather than finishing it. It comes right before "Because I said so" in rank of utility.

I am not making these points in bitterness but in honesty, not just to make a point but to try to pray authentically to God as I understand God. To use a light-hearted example: if I was in an actual choir, and the choir chose to sing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, I would not be able to hit that high note when the word "me" is sung at minute 4:04, and probably not the "let me go's" that precede before that either, since I am somewhere between an alto and a mezzo soprano in my singing voice. But wait, not everyone sings the same notes in this song, nor do they actually all sing the same words at the same time.... All well and good. I don't mind dropping out from time to time. Perhaps some of my fellows ARE praying their understanding of God as "he." But do I want to belong to that choir? If the choir to which I belong insists on picking music that I can't sing, what good am I doing in that choir?

Or perhaps both sides are a bit tone deaf to the effect our words have. There's another extension of the metaphor for you.