We generally are not given a choice in thinking in more abstract, less literal terms -- at least two of the three "persons" (hypostases, if you will) of the Trinity are conceived in terms of two males in a parental-child relationship. The intimacy of that kind of relationship, and the humanity that attaches to the whole, not just the Son, does not readily or easily imply that all are welcome through adoption, at least not without first going through the Son, the "firstborn of all creation." So it is no wonder that feminist scholars and theologians have sought ways to not only bring back the women who were part of the history and tradition from the beginning, but also to use more "inclusive language" that literally includes women, mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, and all females.
While there certainly is no need to have every other word in the liturgy or elsewhere refer to God in terms of masculine pronouns, the Christian religion, like Judaism, is based on an understanding and experience of a God acting at specific times and places in history, which is handed down from generation to generation in the form of written accounts of the experience, some deemed sacred and integral to the understanding. One can be open to change, new experiences and new understandings, which build upon and sometimes supersede the past. But, well, the Story is the story -- as it began and it lives on -- and the rich literature (and to some extent the liturgy) that expresses it cannot be entirely shorn of its time and place without losing some of its essential meaning.
Of course people can seldom agree on what is "essential," especially with regard to religion. That is why it may be good to keep as much messiness as one can, or, to put it another way, language that is rich in metaphor and not wrenched from its historical and cultural context. That does not mean that new words and images cannot be added, but it seems that we lose something important if we seek only that with which we can mostly closely identify.
Carla Pratt Keyes makes this point in a sermon, reflecting on the the writings of Kathleen Norris:
[R]ecently I read some of Kathleen Norris’ reflections on “God Talk.” She suggests that too often (and despite our best intentions) our conceptions of God – like our language for God – can become a kind of idolatry, a way of making God small and manageable, safely confined to our comfort zones. So often, she says, one hears people say, ‘I just can’t handle it,’ when they reject a biblical image of God as Father, as Mother, as Lord or Judge; God as lover, as angry or jealous, God on a cross. I find this choice of words revealing, [Norris says, no matter how real the pain they reflect]: if we seek a God we can “handle,” that will be exactly what we get. A God we can manipulate, suspiciously like ourselves, the wideness of whose mercy [we also have] cut down to size.”1Carla Pratt Keyes, "The God We Know" (sermon preached at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA, June 7, 2009). [n. 1 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Riverhead Books, NY, 1998) 214.]
This led me back to Kathleen Norris, whose writings have affected me deeply over the years, beginning with Dakota: A Spiritual Biography. Her struggle with the language of the Christian tradition -- the Bible, hymns, liturgies, and prayers, in general, and all that is Christological in particular -- sounded much the same as my own. I read Rosemary Radford Ruether and other feminist theologians, but simply could not swim the tide, even as much of it informed and enlightened me.
Norris wrote about this at some length in Amazing Grace. In a chapter entitled "The Feminist Impasse," she recalls a Benedictine nun, who translated Hebrew texts, who once said to her, "Does it ever surprise you that God chooses to reveal in such a fallible fashion?" Whereupon Norris expands:
And this is the key, I think. In a religion based on human incarnation of the divine, when ideology battles experience, it is fallible, ordinary experience that must win. My initial appropriation of the Christian religion, which in its early stages often felt like a storming heaven's gates, had been based on a fallacy, on the notion that religious faith could provide me with a coherent philosophical system. Feminist theology especially had seemed a safe place in which all my stances could be argued and defended, as in an impregnable fortress. But I found I could not breathe there; I found no mystery. I am surely not the first Christian or last Christian to seek to forsake the fallibility inherent in Jesus' incarnation as a sure thing.Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) pp. 135-136.
It was the false purity of ideology that I had to reject, in order to move to the more realistic give-and-take of community. Not a community of those who would share my presuppositions about feminism, but an ordinary small-town church congregation, where no one would much care for the heavy-duty theology in which I had been immersing myself. I could still employ it, as a useful guide for navigating Christian seas. But I could also learn to look to the strong women of the congregation, who often seemed to incarnate a central paradox of the Christian faith: that while the religion has often been used as an instrument of women's oppression, it also has had a remarkable ability to set women free.
It took me a long time to shed my feminist anger so that I could see that the women of Hope and Presbyterian were faithful Christians precisely because they knew liberation when they saw it. As rural women in a remote part of the Great Plains, they had not received much assurance from the outside world that their lives were worthwhile. The second wave of American feminism had largely passed them by; it seemed to belong more to city and college life than anything they knew. But Jesus had told them that they were worth a great deal, and it was as Christians they embraced their human dignity.
And they found their sufferings had been sanctified not because they were doormats or duped by a male conspiracy but because Jesus, too, had suffered and now gave them strength.
This to me is at the heart of what I think should guide not only liturgical revisions but all those in leadership positions in the church -- a deep understanding and appreciation of the admittedly "fallible, ordinary experience" of Christian women and men, children and mothers and grandmothers, throughout the ages. For all those who have distorted and exploited it, there are so, so many more who have found hope and faith and courage from both the language and rituals given by the church and from their own prayers and devotion.
Ordinary experience is often deemed not good enough, not capable of inspiring Great Awakenings or, for some, even the Great Emergence (at least as seen from the lofty heights from which Phyllis Tickle observed that Christianity requires literacy and social stability, which is apparently why she felt there were no real Christians other than those in the monasteries during the Middle Ages). And ordinary Christian language may be seen as oppressive, mindlessly clung to by those who have not immersed themselves in liberation and feminist theologies. So the elderly man or woman who has recited the King James version of the Lord's Prayer since childhood must be the first to be discomfited, to be told that their religious experiences and beliefs are of a bygone era, and the new and improved religion is about to finally emerge, far better than anything seen or known before -- which would not be so bad if there were any truth to it, instead often nothing more than an expensive marketing campaign, fueled by a cottage industry of self-styled experts and consultants, who have little more to offer than a fervent belief in the New Coke or Windows 7 editions of mainstream Christianity and secret hopes that young people will come in droves, like ants to... well, Coca Cola.
Norris addresses this, as well, in Cloister Walk, where she confesses that "if you're looking for a belief in the power of words to change things, to come alive and make a path for you to walk on, you're better off with poets these days than with Christians." Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997)p. 154. She notes,
It's ironic, because the scriptures of the Christian canon are full of strange metaphors that create their own reality -- "the blood of the Lamb," the "throne of grace," the "sword of the Spirit" -- and among the names for Jesus himself are "the Word" and "the Way." (p. 155).She explains the difference between poets (and those who would read like them) and church professionals as follows:
Poets believe in metaphor, and that alone sets them apart from many Christians, particularly those educated to be pastors and church workers…. One difficulty that people seeking to modernize hymnals and the language of worship inevitably run into is that contemporaries are never the best judges of what works and what doesn't. This is something all poets know; that language is a living thing, beyond our control, and it simply takes time for the trendy to reveal itself, to become so obviously dated that it falls by the way, and for the truly innovative to take hold.(pp. 155-56). As an example of what not to do, she cites
the drearily abstract version of the Lord's Prayer that liturgical scholar Gail Ramshaw has dredged up from the 1960's: "Our Father, who is our deepest reality." God is merciful, and most of us can now grasp how vapid these prayers are. (p. 156)and contrasts this with the language of metaphor:
Metaphor is valuable to us precisely because it is not vapid, not a blank word such as “reality” that has no grounding in the five senses. Metaphor draws on images from the natural world, from our senses, and from the world of human social structures, and yokes them to psychological and spiritual realities in such a way that we're often left gasping; we have no way to fully explain a metaphor's power, it simply is."Ibid.
Finally, as a poet she must embrace language that some would like to eradicate:
I refuse to give up on such metaphors like "bride" and "kingdom" just because they have been so ill-served by Christian tradition -- the Vatican especially demonstrates a consistent ability to literalize metaphors within an inch of their life. And I reserve my right to a love of literature, even when it is John Donne saying "no man is an island."Amazing Grace, p. 137-38.
Where the ideologues on both the liberal and conservative sides of the inclusive language issue seem to fall short is in humility, accepting the fact that language is far more than a tool for transmitting ideas, and even the most well-intentioned people cannot control a living tongue.
I find that my religious perspective helps me here. In a religion centered on what in Christian convention is termed the "living Word," even our ridiculously fallible language becomes a lesson in how God's grace works despite and even through our human frailty. We will never get the words exactly right. There will always be room for imperfection, for struggle, for growth and change. And this is as it should be.
As both Kathleen Norris and Rev. Keyes point out, humility is required on all sides. We have to listen to one another and not be so convinced that there is only one, good way to read a text. Norris gives a wonderful example in the following:
One of the most remarkable passages in Bill Moyers's book Genesis is an exchange between two feminists, Karen Armstrong and Carol Gilligan, and a black theologian, Samuel Proctor. The women do their best to convince Proctor that God is murderous, angry, vindictive -- and they imply, immature -- a God who in a fit of pique brought on the great flood that is described in Genesis. But he keeps asserting the black experience:"Black people identified themselves with Daniel in the lion's den," he says, "the Hebrew boys in the furnace, the Israelites coming out of the Flood. They saw the Bible in the context of their own experience, and they kept it alive... They took ... the Hebrew Bible saga, and made it their own story." Where the women see nothing but a false assurance in the sign of the rainbow as the flood ends, Proctor insists that "it's not just a rainbow" but a sign of hope for oppressed people. "Black people could have put God on trial, he says, but instead we put white supremacy on trial... People had gunpowder and ships, and they used their freedom [to go out] and enslave others. But... in time, we can correct these things. I'm living with that bow in the cloud right now. And if I'm the last optimist left, I don't mind that at all."Amazing Grace, pp. 319-320.
Of course, one can just as easily find other passages that provoke the opposite response: anger and pain and frustration in reading stories of people exploited, treated in dehumanizing ways, sometimes tortured or killed, in circumstances where there seems to be nothing in the narrative that recognizes any kind of wrong being done or even suggests that one should sympathize or empathize with those being ill-treated. These cannot and should not go unnoticed, but can or should they be banned or excised or should they be there if for no other purpose to demonstrate the fallibility of the writers and the fallacy of taking it all as sacred, unerring text?
No doubt it is one thing to tamper with translations or otherwise bowdlerize the text of the Bible and another to judiciously excise passages for use in Psalters, lectionaries, or liturgies. The more difficult questions lie when what is being proposed (if it ever is) is a fairly thorough expungement of words like "Lord" "Father" and "Son," "kingdom," "reign," "rules" or phrases like "blood of the Lamb" as archaic and replacement with abstractions cleansed of all problematic connotations or disturbing images -- or in the realm of gestures and "holy hardware," prohibiting kneeling, genuflecting, reverencing the altar or a cross, use of crucifixes, candles, vestments or altar linens, triumphal music, anointment with oil, sprinkling "holy" water, or maybe even baptism itself (marking those who are Christ's "own" as distinguished from all who are not).
Whatever happens and when -- and certainly some changes, perhaps many -- are inevitable, I would hope that there will always be room for "fallible, ordinary experience." Christianity certainly has had and probably will continue to have very dark moments, as there seems to be no way to insulate its adherents or its institutions from those who would seek power and exploit others. But no amount of tinkering with the language is going to keep people from finding ways to distort and misconstrue the Gospel message -- new language being just as capable of being twisted and misused as the old. We need clergy and lay people to help forge the bonds of Christian community, to help one another through times of hardship and pain, to celebrate times of blessing and joy, to work hand in hand, to take time to pause and listen to one another, and learn all we can from each other's encounters with God and struggles through life, both that which has been recorded in the past and that we can share from the present.
In the meantime, there may be many of us who will continue to struggle with so much he-manness in the language, the difficulty of relating to any god clothed in the trappings of a king, emperor, lord, or husband, or standing aside while all the Prodigal Sons get the favors, and the women sweep the hearth or gather up the crumbs from beneath the table. But for others perhaps we can share how we have explored amd shaped the words and gestures and rituals in ways that free rather than enslave us, that bring humility rather than humiliation, and strength and courage, rather than weakness and submission, in the face of those who seek to assert power over us, so we can turn our hearts and souls to the one who is indeed greater than us all.