Debating What Gender Reference to Use for the Deity

On July 7, the House of Delegates of the Episcopal church at its 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas, adopted a resolution that would set the stage of the revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The House of Delegates is comprised of lay and clergy delegates from churches within the 17 countries which have Episcopal churches. The resolution passed by substantial but not overwhelming margin. The resolution now goes to the House of Bishops for consideration.

The issue now before the Bishops concerns “inclusive language,” or to put in the vernacular: IS G-D MALE?

The advocates are not especially clear about what they want to “include” and none of them seems to have read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” This argument has been going on in the upper strata (economically) of Protestant churches for decades now. One of the theological schools I attended when I began my studies was Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, an old-line Presbyterian school. At the orientation for transfer students (I was transferring from a Methodist school), the professor, who had recently come to PTS from an Ivy League school, spent most of her hour on “inclusive language.”

Since this was not an issue with the Methodists at the time (they have since caught up with the times), I was the first to raise my hand at the call for questions: “I had expected to hear an argument for predestination,” I said, “so I was somewhat shocked at your subject. My question to you is whether this concern comes from a political or a theological agenda?” One would have thought that I had blasphemed against the Holy Ghost!

Not only did the professor castigate me but the students, most of whom were just a few years out of college, joined in. It was that morning that I first heard the phrase “male chauvinist.”

Recently, on an Anglican Internet site, this debate was raging in anticipation of the meeting of the House of Delegates. I posted that I thought the argument was “silly” and an Episcopalian woman from Wheeling shot back: “It’s not silly to me.” Since I have known this woman for a long time and respect her opinion very much, I thought I would take this opportunity to explain myself to her (and to those of her gender consider this matter important.)

First of all, I will concede nearly all the feminist arguments about “patriarchy.” During the Vietnam war, I listened to the arguments of the “patriarchs” of my generation, e.g. LBJ, Rusk, McNamara, and didn’t believe them. (Of course, nobody defends any of the wars that patriarchy brought onto my generation.) Why I said the argument is “silly” is because Christians (or most of them anyway) believe that G-d is a spirit and thus it seems silly to argue over whether G-d has male or female sex organs. The argument at bottom is about the Biblical languages and trying to impose 21st century concepts on vessels which are not able to contain them.

All of the words in Hebrew have gender, either (M) or (F). One of the prophets says that G-d loves us with “womb love” but I never found an “inclusive language” partisan to whom this mattered. When I would propose that we refer to the deity as “It” (impossible in Hebrew), I was told that this would deprive G-d of “personhood.” “Tell this to a mule,” I thought. One of the allusive words regularly used for the Deity is elohim, which is plural. The next time you see a rabbi ask her how this comports with the stern monotheism of Judaism.

It is perhaps relevant to this discussion that the great St. Thomas Aquinas said that we could only refer to G-d allusively, i.e., the Deity is “like unto” but not that the Deity “is.” This comports with modern day linguistics which holds that when we name something, we think we understand it. This is why I affect the practice of the Orthodox Jews by writing G-d, L-rd, etc. That great explicator of Calvinism Karl Barth said that the peculiar grace of ministers is that there is absolutely nothing that they can say about the Almighty with certainty but as preachers, they must say something.

My grandmother took great umbrage with St. Paul’s admonition that women should be obedient to their husbands. I told her, “Granny, St. Paul also said that husbands had to love their wives as Christ loved the church. That seems to be a pretty good trade off if you think about it.” That was a long time ago and I never saw any evidence that I changed her opinions about either St. Paul or Grandpa. I never heard her use the word “paternalism” but she certainly didn’t like the concept.

There is some hope for the advocates of “inclusive language” in the New Testament, which was written in a simple form of Greek. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, so the third person of the Trinity is clearly an “it.” To me, if we have to affix a gender on “the High Holy One that doth Inhabit Eternity,” it could only be androgyny. For those who ask WWJD (this doesn’t include many Episcopalians), Jesus called his spiritual progenitor “Daddy.” But that’s another can of theological worms.

Rogers lives in New Martinsville and is an Official Visitor on the Capital Unit at State Correctional Institute Greene in Waynesburg, Pa. He has an M.Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Sacred Theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in New York.

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