As an author and speaker, I have the privilege of joining many different types of faith communities for worship, conferences, and other faith-based gatherings. Sometimes the places I visit and the groups I get to know give me that feeling of coming home, that comfortable sense that I easily fit within this community. At other times, I join groups who worship and speak in ways that are different than my instincts and my preferences—and while I may feel uncomfortable at times, these groups always stretch me toward growth in faith and open me to ways of knowing and experiencing God that I wouldn’t normally explore on my own.
Lately my travels, experiences, and conversations have led me to reflect on the important issue of the language we use to talk about God. In the past couple of months, I’ve worshipped with people who refer to God as “Lord,” “Father,” and other male-based terms, people who speak of God as “Mother,” and folks who are careful to use terms that don’t place any sort of gender markers on God.
While the terms they use for God differ in significant ways, there seems to be a trend in the way our faith communities speak of God—their language preferences can become exclusive. Even in churches that say they use “inclusive” language for the Divine, I’ve noticed that the embrace of inclusivity is sometimes only offered to those who use the same terminology.
Now, this is something that I’ve noticed in my own life and practices as well. Ironically, in my effort to be “inclusive” by adamantly avoiding referring to God as “He” and “Father,” I actually become exclusive when I distance myself from those who prefer to use masculine pronouns and nomenclature for God. While I may feel uncomfortable when someone says God did such-as-such to “Himself,” I overlook the fact that when I use the term “Godself” as a way of actively avoiding male-based language (however awkward it may make my sentences sound), I may be making others just as uncomfortable as I am when I hear people use words like “He” or “Himself.”
Even in my best efforts to become inclusive in my language, I still end up being exclusive, for in using a particular way of speaking about God, I unintentionally tell others that their ways are incorrect.
As a person whose faith life has been formed by Catholics and Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Mennonites, I value ecumenism in my work and in my faith experiences. One of the things I like to say in ecumenical settings is that, as in any context of diversity, we’re all going to be uncomfortable at times. And most recently, my discomfort has been the result of God language that is not from the camp in which I prefer to pitch my tent.
But while male-based language for God makes me uncomfortable, it calls me to evaluate why this is so. And as I dig into my life and my beliefs in order to understand my aversion to using so-called “exclusive” God language, I realize that may claim to be inclusive is a fallacy. By believing that one person’s language for God is fundamentally incorrect or inaccurate, I am telling people how to worship, how to have faith, and how to know God. And I am stifling myself and others from seeing the multitude of ways in which God may break into our lives.
At the end of the day, all our language for God—inclusive, exclusive, masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral—is all metaphorical. Problems arise when we fool ourselves into thinking that our language for God is somehow an accurate representation of the whole of who and what God may be. Yet Got is beyond our language. God is beyond any of our imaginations. This is something my Pentecostal friends have taught me, for when they speak in tongues, they acknowledge that God is beyond the finitude of human language. So if all our language is imagery, if it’s all fragments of a Sacred Presence that is beyond anything we can image, then it doesn’t matter whether we refer to God as Father, Mother, or Parent, for they all represent what God is to us and how we encounter God in our lives. Our language for God tells us less about who God is and more about who we are and how we see the work of God in our lives.
So I now know that using inclusive language to refer to God does not mean I rid myself of any gender-based metaphors or imagery. Quite the opposite, actually! Being truly inclusive means I open myself to the multitude of images that my fellow people of faith use to understand and encounter God. Mother, Father, Parent. Godself, Himself, Herself. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned.