I can still feel a bit of burning embarrassment from the conversation that happened nearly 12 years ago. My dad, a pastor and theologian, helped me pack up and move all of my belongings from Massachusetts down to Louisville, where I was about to begin seminary. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, we somehow got on the subject of hot button issues at seminaries, and he mentioned the use of gendered language for God.
Many students came from traditions that held firmly to male images and language for God. Some prayers always began, “Father God…” My seminary, along with others, encouraged a more expansive use of language for God, engaging images that were more traditionally masculine and feminine or gender-neutral. Students would be encouraged to recognize and draw from the rich and expansive store of such language in the Bible. And for some students, that bordered on blasphemous – or even crossed the line.
The sting of embarrassment came for me as I remembered the application essays I had so carefully written and edited. My internal debate wasn’t whether or not I could use “he” to refer to God; it was whether the “h” should be capitalized. I had come from more conservative theological traditions, and most of what I had seen was God as He. At the same time, that capital letter seemed to thrust a masculine God at me in a way that just didn’t seem right. If asked, I would have said in a heartbeat that I didn’t believe that God is male. And yet, there it was, burned in my memory – repeated references to God with male pronouns in my first introduction to my future professors.
The conversation on language for God was not a new one, just one to which I had not yet been exposed. Beyond seminary, many students who learned to exercise care in their language went right back to the familiar and comfortable pronouns upon graduation. Others of us were serving in church contexts where throwing in feminine pronouns might have gotten us run out of the pulpit, so we at least avoided using masculine language. Given my own commitments, and recognizing the constraints of my context, that was my practice, though I occasionally and intentionally used female imagery with some gentle education. Read more