Why I'm Not Using Masculine Pronouns To Talk About God
Some of you may have noticed that I don't refer to God using masculine language very much anymore.
If you look at my pieces of writing from the past year, you'll notice that most of the time, I refer to God as God. I often avoid pronouns altogether.
You may not have noticed this at all. Still, I wanted to bring it to your attention and briefly explain why I made this shift. I believe it is important, especially if we want to begin thinking of God in healthier ways.
First, the word "God" contains a lot of baggage in and of itself. It's a rather broad and sometimes clumsy word that contains an infinite number of meanings and connotations. No two people mean the exact same thing when they use the word "God" because each of our understandings of the divine is different on some level.
It has been said that a person's understanding of God says a lot more about the person than it does about God. I would agree with this statement.
The past few years has consisted of me wrestling long and hard with my presuppositions and biases about God and realizing that the concept of God seen in much of western Christianity is rooted in patriarchy, hierarchy, whiteness, heterosexuality, capitalism, post-enlightenment thinking, and colonization.
I've been learning how my understanding of God contained a lot of things I was completely unaware of. Things that hinder my growth and the growth of others.
Which is why the following mystical statement found within the Bible is so powerful to me:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
Many Christians, when they read this proverb, think of it as an appeal to trust in God rather than in their understandings. That is what it is, but that's not how many Christians end up applying it. Unfortunately, many Christians overlook the fact that they have an understanding of God upon which they end up leaning on in the pursuit of not leaning on an understanding.
It's a little confusing, I know, but please bear with me.
To not lean on our own understanding requires us to not even lean on our understanding of the divine.
To truly follow this Proverb leads us into a place of unknowing, or at least into a place of openness.
Christianity in the west has little say about this territory because it has almost completely abandoned it (I suspect this is due to the fact that unknowing is inherently dangerous to the power structures of western Christianity, but that's another story).
So, what does all of this have to do with gender pronouns and God?
Well, it led me to let go of the belief that God is masculine.
"But, the Bible refers to God in the masculine! Even that proverb you cited uses masculine pronouns."
Yes, yes it does. The Bible's backdrop is patriarchy. It's not surprising that they would use masculine language to speak of the divine. People within the Bible, much like you and I, were shaped and influenced heavily by their culture and experience.
This is also why it's not surprising to me that the understanding of God we see within the Old Testament is so tribal and violent at times. It's not surprising to me that Abraham thought God wanted him to perform a child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was common among ancient understandings of the divine.
Still, the Bible offers glimpses of progress. Within the Bible we see humanity's understanding of the divine grow. Abraham didn't end up performing a child sacrifice. Jesus, a heretic, disobeyed cultural and religious norms and taught new ways of understanding God.
"You have heard it said... but I tell you..."
To be on the Way is to be against the oppressive and destructive patterns of the world.
I no longer think of God solely in the masculine because I believe such a practice is part of a long-standing tradition of sexism and patriarchy.
So, you'll probably hear me speak of God without gender language most of the time. You might also hear me refer to God using feminine language. This is part of my personal attempt to rid myself of the notion that God is a man. It's not an attempt to start thinking that God is a woman, but it's a conscious reminder to me that language reduces and limits God.
Do I think it's wrong to use gendered language to speak of the divine? Do I think everyone who uses masculine language is sexist? Of course not. I do think it's important for us to ask ourselves "why?" we speak of God in such terms though.
I want to answer a question from the person in the back who is about to raise their hand. I know this question is coming.
"Aren't you just swapping one understanding of God for another? How is that any better?"
On some level, you're right. However, there are a couple important distinctions to note.
First, in my change of understandings, I am trying to let the direction of change be pointed towards understandings that help humanity. To the best of my ability, I am trying to let my understanding of God become an understanding that is good news to the world.
Not just good news to western, white, heterosexual, Christian men, but good news to all.
This requires me to let patriarchy die within myself, and then to participate in its societal and cultural decline. Patriarchy is not good news to all. In fact, I don't believe it's even good news to some. A system of oppression is not good news to either the oppressed or the oppressor (though the oppressed are the ones suffering the most).
Furthermore, in my change of understandings, I'm trying to stay grounded in the contemplative traditions. I am trying to follow the mystical statement found in Proverbs that encourages us to not lean on our own understandings. (Yes, writing this blog post is one giant exercise in communicating an understanding about understandings. I get it. There's more going on here, though. Check out this tweet and the tweets before and after it for a bit more insight.)
As I said earlier, following the truth contained within Proverbs requires moving into a different way of being. I've been learning about the eastern tradition of Zen quite a bit lately which has helped me in this area immensely.
In a nutshell, I would hope that any change in my understanding of God would only lead towards the flourishing of life. For me and my neighbor. Can I guarantee that I'll be right? Nope. I cannot.
However, I can see where human life is being oppressed and where it is flourishing and use that to give me some clues as to whether what I'm doing and thinking is good.
There is a Zen saying that talks about how a Professor once visited a Zen Master to learn from him. The Zen Master served the Professor a cup of tea. The Master began pouring the tea into the Professor's cup, and the cup began to spill over, but the Master continued to pour.
The Professor got upset and said, "stop pouring; no more will fit in the cup." The Zen Master replied by saying that the professor was just like the cup—full of preconceived ideas, beliefs, and knowledge that will keep new ones from entering.
As the biblical tradition teaches, true life can only come from death. And so, better understandings of God can only come to life when we let the bad ones die. I have a feeling this will be a life long journey.
To conclude, a prayer:
May we all be willing to empty our cups and enter into the place of being (or becoming) where we no longer lean on our own understandings of the divine.
And may this practice lead us to act in the world in ways that bring about the flourishing of ourselves and of our neighbors.
P.S. If you're thinking, "shouldn't we lean on the Bible instead of our understanding?" I recommend reading this post I wrote awhile back on how you can't just read the Bible and do what it says. Inherent in the act of reading the Bible is the construction of understandings.
P.S.S. This post has nothing to do with The Shack. I've never read the book, and I didn't even realize the movie was coming out until after I wrote this and began seeing discussions online. Just a coincidence.
Citation: The Zen story contained at the end of this post is a paraphrase of the story found within the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.