What is inclusive language for God?
Inclusive language for God is that which attempts to utilize and include the experiences of other folks and groups. Usually these groups are those which have been oppressed or otherwise ignored by the often patriarchal theological and church traditions. Inclusive language for God can include the work done by feminist theologians attempting to normalize the use of feminine God-talk in liturgy and theology. Another example is work done by queer theologians who attempt to open up the options for how we can talk of God even more to allow for the experiences of queer folks.
What is expansive language for God?
Simply stated, expansive language for God is language for the Divine which goes beyond the tradition of He and His – strictly male gendered language. Expansive talk of God attempts to find ways to speak of God which is wider in its scope and understanding. Examples of expansive language for God may include nature based God-talk as found in some eco-theologies or the push to have feminine or non-male language used for God as is often found in feminist theology. However, it is important to note that, while inclusive talk of God is inherently expansive, expansive language is not inherently inclusive. This is an important distinction to understand between the two – although oftentimes they do coincide they are not necessary of one another.
Why do these ways of speaking of God matter?
This language matters for many reasons:
1. It allows people to be part of their own theology. This is especially important for people who have been historically underrepresented, as well as historically mistreated, by the church and its traditional theology. When language used for God is expanded to include the lived experiences of these folks, they then become part of their theology. Being able to see oneself in God or the character of the Christ is a very powerful element to theology and being able to feel welcome in a church.
2. There are many people for whom male language of God does not evoke feelings of awe or devotion. For some people, the idea of a Father God can even harken back to painful childhood memories of abusive or absent father figures. When the language for God risks getting in the way of someone experiencing communion with God or other believers, many theologians believe we should reconsider the sternness with which the church tradition holds to such language.
3. It is important to many people for talk of God to be consistent with the language which is used in the Bible. There are feminine and masculine and non-gendered or otherwise gendered images of God used in the Bible. For many people, the theology presented from the pulpit should honestly reflect the words of the Bible that is being preached. To actively omit non-expansive language for God may be to not honestly present Scripture.
How is God spoken of in the Bible and the Church tradition?
Throughout the Bible God is referred to as a man or a father, so in many instances the tradition of calling God He or Father is biblically grounded. We find this in the Psalms (68:5, 24:10), Proverbs (3:12), and even the parables of Jesus (Luke 15:11-32). However, this tradition of androcentric theology often overshadows other language for God that is also seen throughout Scripture. For example, we read of God depicted as a mother (Deuteronomy 32:18, Isaiah 42:14), a hen protecting her chick (Matthew 23:37), and as a woman who searches fervently for her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). There are also instances of non-gendered or queer language for God, along with non-human images, such as the androgynous God some theologians have discussed in the creation story (Genesis 1:27-28) or God as a pillar of fire or smoke in the account of the Exodus (Exodus 13:21). The fact that we can find a mix of male and female language for the Divine in scripture is plenty of evidence to suggest that to reduce the language which is available for use about God to male is not a biblically based notion.
What is often found in church tradition is an emphasis placed on the male language for God found in biblical texts. A very clear example of this emphasis is found in the use of the Nicene Creed. The first four lines of the Creed lay out the church’s beliefs about God, asserting that the church believes in “one God, the Father, the Almighty” (Book of Common Prayer, 529-530). Within the first two lines is the gender of God which is allowable within the Creed, and thus within the theology of the tradition which recites said creed. Church tradition has made a point to emphasize the male language for God over the more expansive language also offered in the Christian Scriptures. There may be good reason for this such as attempting to have one way to talk of God to avoid confusion or controversy, or to make the message they are attempting to deliver more powerful because it is being delivered in a world of patriarchy. However, the theological landscape we find ourselves in now does not need such reasons. People are leaving the church because God as God stands does not speak to them and their experiences. In light of Biblical theology and the needs of folks in the church, many have questioned tradition.
What did Christian mystics have to add about images of God?
The mystics of the church’s history offer insight to thinking of God outside of an exclusively male image. Two mystics who present very clearly expanded language for the Divine in their writings are Julian of Norwich of England (1342-1416) and St. John of the Cross of Spain (1542-1591).
While recovering from a particularly debilitating illness, Julian of Norwich experienced sixteen visions of God, which she recorded in her book Revelations of Divine Love. The revelations revealed to Julian truths of God and how God interacts with and cares for creation. One of these revelations showed her Jesus’ care for humankind. Julian demonstrates a rather radical action for Christian theology by referring to Jesus as our mother, equating the pain and suffering of the Cross which delivered us in Life with the pains of a mother in labor delivering her child into life (Revelations of Divine Love, The Long Text, Section 59). Further on in the same section of the text she claims that to see God as only our Father is to see God incompletely, that the Motherly understanding of God is also necessary for us to truly know God. She states the following:
“God is our mother and truly as he is our father; and he showed this in everything, and especially in the sweet words where he says, ‘It is I’, that is to say, ‘It is I: the power and goodness of fatherhood. It is I: the wisdom of motherhood. It is I: the light and grace which is all blessed love.’” (Revelations of Divine Love, The Long Text, Section 59)
St. John of the Cross also uses the image of a mother to present God to his readers. For St. John one can equate God delivering grace to humans as a mother suckling her young child (Dark Night of the Soul, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 2). He presents an image of God giving his all the nourishment we need from her breast. However, at a certain point our mother will have to put us down and allow us to experience and learn for ourselves. But even when we are let go the grace of this mother continues to be by our side, guiding us in our lives and ambitions and taking pleasure in Her children’s joys and sharing in their sorrows. St. John of the Cross emphasized traits he found in God which are typically associated with women, femininity, and motherhood.Julian understands that God is in all things, including womanhood. Furthermore, throughout the work Julian continues to refer to God as “He” while also using the word “Mother” to describe God, presenting unique ways to consider God and God’s relationship to humanity.
What have contemporary theologians added to the expansive and inclusive language conversation?
Many theologians have attempted to offer talk of God which expands beyond the tradition of He/Him/His and male gendered terminology. During the 20th century, many female theologians some of whom called themselves “thealogians” opting for a feminine form of the noun) emerged onto the landscape of theological discussions. Many of these women attempted to find ways to speak of God that were not limited to male understandings of the Divine. For instance, Rosemary Radford Reuther offered up the distinction of “God/ess” – presenting a way to talk of God which includes male and female understandings. This option was never taken into common use by lay persons. Other feminist thinkers such as Mary Daly held more radical positions. In her classic text Beyond God the Father, Daly lays out her position that the church and God-talk itself is beyond redemption, even comparing women demanding equality in the organized church to a person of color demanding equality with the Ku Klux Klan. In this text, she calls on women to leave the church and this God-talk behind in droves and to begin to consider all of these things for themselves– to leave organized religion altogether. This thought was very much along the lines of the feminist philosophical spirit of the times, Third Wave Feminism being a time where many women began to demand woman only spaces to develop thought removed from patriarchy that so often colors society’s ideas. Daly did not leave her faith or an understanding of God, but called for a radical revisioning of “God” for all women.
Building on the work presented by feminist theologians, queer theologians have also offered options for how those who are on the outside of heteronormative or cisexist theology may speak of God. In his book Radical Love, one of the first books to condense queer theological ideas into one text, Rev. Patrick Cheng offers up several ways which queer folk may speak of God. For example, he explains that the act of revelation found throughout Scripture from the account of God declaring “I will be what I will be” from the burning bush to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ can be seen as God coming out, much like what is done by a queer person. Because God is shrouded in mystery and tradition in many times, queer folk may see God as closeted. When God reveals Godself to us, Cheng compares it to the act of coming out, saying “here are all of the things which were previously said of me, but here I actually am. I am God.” Because of this queer people can see God as one with them, as someone who is misunderstood and mislabeled and needing to reveal themselves properly. Queer people are welcome to speak of God as one of their own, a queer God.
Other queer theologians have offered ways to speak of God which are outside of the gender binary. Virginia Mollenkott discusses this in her book Omnigender where she argues that due to the diverse expression of gender in creation one cannot simply claim that God is either male or female. Rather, in line with the title of her book, she argues that we must see God as omnigender, as a being who holds within Godself all gender identities and expressions. Because of this we must abandon God-talk which is strictly limited to one gender. Rather we should welcome, as Mollenkott states, “God Herself, who is also God Himself and God Itself”.
Lauren Winner, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (2016)
Mark Sameth, New York Times, “Is God Transgender?” (2016)
Jann Aldredge-Clanton, “Why Inclusive Language Is Still Important,” Christian Feminism Today (2013)
Nancy Hardesty, “Why Inclusive Language Is Important,” Christian Feminism Today
Lexington Theological Seminary, “Language Issues” appendix to student handbook
Carolyn Jane Bohler, God the What?: What Our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefs in God (2008)
Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (2003)
Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (2002)
Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (1993)
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (14th century)
Saint John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul (16th century)
Gregg Drinkwater and Joshua Lesser, Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (2012)
Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (2011)
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach (2007)
Robert Goss and Morna West, Take Back The Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (2000)
Watching & Listening
The Liturgists, God Our Mother (album) (2014)
Gungor, God is Not A White Man (single) (2009)