Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fiddling with God

It has been a long time coming, but a mainstream denomination in these islands has finally authorized the elimination from one of its liturgies gendered language referring to God.
The body in question is the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the changes, which affect its 1982 Eucharist liturgy, have been permitted by its College of Bishops, pending a complete revision currently in hand.
The list of alternatives is quite short:
“God is love and we are his children” may become, “God is love and we are God’s children”.
“We love because he loved us first” may become, “We love because God loved us first”.
“Heal and strengthen us by his Spirit” may become, “heal and strengthen us by the Holy Spirit”.
“Peace to his people on earth” may become, “peace to God’s people on earth”.
“It is right to give him thanks and praise” may become, “it is right to give God thanks and praise”.
“Give thanks to the Lord for he is gracious” may become, “Give thanks to our gracious God”.
“And his mercy endures for ever” may become, “whose mercy endures for ever.”
Moreover, references to the Father have been allowed to remain. Nevertheless, this covers every usage of gendered language for the godhead as a whole. And though the changes may seem small, we should be in no doubt as to their significance.
There will be those who would regard this as no more remarkable than the ‘de-gendering’ of language for humankind (which is also addressed by the same permissions). However, whilst undoubtedly arising for much the same reasons, the two issues ought not to be confused, for in the one case we are talking about ourselves, in the other we are talking about God.
And the differences between the two are not merely of scale, or even of theological importance. Rather, first and foremost, I would suggest they are differences of what may be known and how we may know it.
If we say something about anything we ought first to establish that we have a reason for doing so — that, in simple terms, we know what we are talking about. In this regard there is some justification for saying that we are more aware today of the equality of men and women than were previous generations, and that we seek to reflect this awareness in the language we use. (I happily concede there is room for debate, but I simply wish to establish the correlation between language and understanding.)
But on what grounds can we say that we know something about God in this regard that was not known, for example, by the compilers of Scottish liturgies way back in 1982?
Can we point to new knowledge? And if so, where, and from what source does it arise?
One of the first appeals in such cases tends to be to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is being credited today with many innovations in the church’s understanding and practice. (I am not saying that this is what drove the findings of the Scottish bishops. Actually they seem to have gone more on what was said by their clergy in response to a questionnaire.) Yet I am unaware of any means by which the Spirit may verify that these claims are true.
Surely we are entitled to know how we can know what the Spirit is saying to the churches, most especially if it seems to differ from what the Spirit formerly said.
There are others who will say that the difference between using “his” and “God’s” is trivial. Yet if that is the case we must ask why it would then be necessary. Still others will say it reflects our greater awareness of feminine imagery used for God in Scripture. To them I would say both that this imagery is rare and that Scripture nevertheless uses unrelentingly ‘masculine’ language about God, from which we can only deviate by consciously distancing ourselves from Scriptural usage.
Above all, we must recognize the fact that the masculine language Scripture uses about God does actually say something. Indeed, the fact that language says something is surely the whole point of this innovation. What the language currently says is no longer regarded as adequate. Instead, it is felt we must be saying something else.
The problem, which scarcely seems to be recognized by the Scottish College of Bishops is that if we say something else we are either saying something more than Scripture or making a contradistinction from Scripture.
Either way, we are into fundamentally serious theological territory, and therefore we may, once again, ask how this is justified.
The real danger is that God is being refashioned into something which we — or at least the clergy and bishops in Scotland — find more agreeable than God as previously made known. There is a word for this. It is ‘idolatry’.
John P Richardson
21 August 2010
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  1. C.S. Lewis himself had commented before on the links between taking the inspiration of gendered imagery and "priestess" in one of this papers which you can read here.

  2. There are certainly references in Scripture to the complementary nature of male and female, so you could argue that if God's gender aligns exclusively with the crude, meat-and-two-veg concept of male human beings, is He somehow incomplete without a "Mrs God"?

    It's hard to accept the idea that God is somehow incomplete, which leads us to ask whether God's masculinity is something that truly aligns with our understanding of masculinity as it pertains to human beings. And if it doesn't, does that give us cause to question whether words like "he" or even "father" do justice to the nature of God.

    Now, I don't suppose for one minute that you'll agree with that, John, but there's clearly a case for debate which goes beyond mere political correctness. The changes aren't intended to exclude a purely masculine view of God, they're intended to accommodate those who don't completely share that point of view. Is that really so wrong?

    Of course, you might be tempted to ask why it might have taken us thousands of years to stop and reassess the understanding of God's "gender"? Well, maybe we, as a species, are just very slow to understand. I'm sure that if I had been born 100 years ago, I wouldn't perceive the same message in Galatians 3.28 as I do now, and that's simply down to the prejudices that pervaded society back then.

    Maybe God is looking right now at those revisions in the liturgy, saying to himself, "At last, you're finally starting to understand."

  3. Obviously people who question God's gender are pretty illiterate of the Bible and it's explanation of of the gender of humans. God dosn't have a gender. Gender is something that is attributable to His creation, not the creator.

    Another thing, the opening statement to that creed reminds me that I have had to correct non-christians lately several times who say that "We are all God's children". We are NOT all God's children. The Bible is quite clear that the only people permitted to say "We are God's children" are those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. No other people may make that claim.

  4. James, you wrote, "if God's gender aligns exclusively with the crude, meat-and-two-veg concept of male human beings, is He somehow incomplete without a "Mrs God"?"

    Obviously starting with a crude concept is often not the best place. Nevertheless, the question has real merit.

    Throughout Scripture, and especially in the New Testament, we find 'bridal' language used of the people of God. Crucial to this (eg in 1 Cor 6:17; Eph 5:25-30) is a parallel between the relationship of Christ to the Church and the 'one flesh' union of Genesis 2:24.

    Moreover, we read of Christ in Ephesians 1:22-23, "God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way."

    The latter indeed contains a suggestion of incompleteness which depends on the bringing together of two complementary parties.

    I would also observe the end of Revelation, where we read of the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem:

    "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men ...'".

    Furthermore, we must allow that what is true of Christ represents a truth about the whole godhead. This is why I think the 'solution' the Scottish Bishops have proposed is very far from helpful.

  5. Hi John,
    Just to let you know, A Prayer Book for Australia (1995) adopted this gender-neutral terminology for both God and the congregation in its liturgies, and has been used in Australian Anglican churchs since that time.
    I understand your concerns about removing Biblical usage of masculine terms for God. Given it still includes many masculine terms like Son and Father, and maintains the masculine language in the Bible readings I haven't noticed it as a big deal. There are some services in APBA evangelicals won't use because of bigger theological concerns (e.g. "mother" language for God!). I guess the issue is how do we hold on to the human-like qualities of God (e.g. he speaks to us, reveals himself to us, cares for us, feels human emotions) while maintaining his divine separation from and Lordship over the creation.

  6. Charlie said:-'I have had to correct non-christians lately several times who say that "We are all God's children". We are NOT all God's children. The Bible is quite clear that the only people permitted to say "We are God's children" are those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. No other people may make that claim.'

    If you are right Charlie, then Paul in his address to the Athenians (Acts 17 v.v. 26 - 28) was using exclusive language. Including himself and his believing brethren and excluding those who did not believe. Surely 'in Adam' we are 'all God's children'? Under the Curse, yes! Need to be born again in Christ, yes! But let's not deny that human beings are 'made in the image of God' and in that respect we are ALL God's children.


  7. God did not cast His gaze around Creation, and say "I will analogize myself as a father to these poor primitive patriarchal, for that is all their simple minds can understand." He created the role of human father to teach us about Himself as Heavenly Father. We are to learn about the authority of God because we know about the authority of an earthly father. The gender language in Scripture is therefore intrinsically tied to the created order of male headship, and it is male headship that is being rejected by our radically egalitarian society. To drop the masculine language is to redefine God's own description of Himself in service to our own notions of equality. We forget that God is King and not President, Sovereign and not Prime Minister, Lord and not democrat. He doesn't have a legislature.

    carl jacobs
    united states

  8. Isn't this where Common Worship has been for quite sometime in the CofE??

  9. Give these changes a generation or so to work their majic, and perhaps then you might start seeing those "Mother God" references popping up.

  10. I struggle mostly with the fact that a lot of the liturgy 'quotes' scripture (and thereby by changing pronouns it paraphrases the original). I prefer to know what the scripture actually says, and in effect it alters the translation. I'm female with a reasonable biblical knowledge base and I am not worried about masculine pronouns for God.

    Mind you, I'm probably ultra-sensitive to this point as I currently regularly meet with Jehovah's Witnesses to discuss our differing beliefs - and I really need to know what the text actually says, and point it out in the Greek. If you substitute words too much, it becomes an imposed interpretation and can cause difficulties and confusion down the line.

    That's probably beside the point, but never mind!

  11. Hi Lucy, I don't think this is besides the point at all. On the contrary, I think that when we 'sanitize' the Bible it creates real problems with people who actually read it for themselves.

    Some people who have been given an 'easier' version may be quite shocked by what they read. Others may just as easily lose confidence in the people or organizations which have 'withheld' the truth from them.

    It seems to me a much safer option to let the text stand as it is and speak for itself.

  12. Let which text stand, exactly? Most people don't have the ability to read Ancient Hebrew or Koine Greek, so they need a translation into a language they can understand, and when you translate, you have to make choices. For example, when someone blushes, the French might describe them as becoming "rouge comme une tomate". Should that be translated as "red as a tomato" or as "red as a beetroot"? The former is a literal translation and entirely understandable, although it's not a familiar expression in the way the French version is. By contrast, the latter is not a literal translation, but it both conveys the intended meaning and is as familiar an expression to English ears as the French equivalent is to French. Which is the "correct" translation? It rather depends on what you consider important, I suppose, but it's a bit harsh to describe either as being actually wrong.

    To give a more Biblical example, how should we translate the word "adelphoi"? Literally, it means "brothers", and in King James it is rendered as "brethren" - the archaic plural of "brother". But in contemporary English, when addressing both men and women, we would say "brothers and sisters", much as we would say "ladies and gentlemen". This was not always the case. For example, in BCP, the congregation is referred to as "brethren", but there's clearly an intention to include women, unless we are to believe that women do not sin and are not intended to take Holy Communion.

    A consequence of this move to gender inclusiveness (both within and outside of ecclesiastical contexts) has resulted in the word "brothers" taking on a gender-exclusive meaning that neither the word "brethren" had back in 1662 nor "adelphoi" had back in the First Century. So if we translate "adelphoi" as "brothers", now, in the 21st Century, there's a strong case for saying that we are actually altering the meaning of the original text, giving the translation a gender-exclusive meaning it didn't originally have.

    Bringing this back to the central issue of gender-neutral references to God, it occurs to me that as society's view on the relationship between men and women changes, the perceived meaning of bridal imagery in the Bible also ends up changing. The image of the Church as the bride of God ends up being perceived as one of mutual love, respect and affection, rather than a woman's total submission to her husband. That being the case, is the imagery still useful as it stands? Is it actually becoming rather confusing?

    But of course, I don't doubt that you, John, perceive such things as sexual equality to be an ungodly product of a society that has turned its back on God. As for me, I stand implacably against that view. I simply cannot love my sisters in Christ as I love myself whilst telling them that my maleness gives me an innate superiority over them. And of course there's Galatians 3:28 - often referenced by me. I'm yet to read or hear an adequate explanation by a conservative Christian why those words could possibly mean something contrary to their plain interpretation.

    Oh, and one more quick point, in some languages, possessive adjectives agree with the thing possessed, rather than the possessor. For example, the phrases "God is love and we are his children" and "God is love and we are her children" translate identically in French. If expressing God's masculinity in such a phrase is so important, are French-speaking Christians losing out to their English-speaking counterparts?

  13. James, your first point, on translation, confronts the ‘scandal of particularity’ — that God chose a certain people (who had a certain language) and, at the ‘right’ time (Gal 4:4), the period of the Roman Empire. Along with these realities go certain conditions, including languages and cultures, and the unavoidable fact therefore is that we are constrained to start from Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic in comprehending the revelation of God.

    We may therefore ponder in theory the difficulties of translating French into English idiom, but we must wrestle in practice with the actual meaning of a phrase like “dikaiosynÄ“ theou” (the righteousness of God0 in order to know God and grow in faith.

    This is why the decline in teaching the languages to Anglican ordinands is so much to be lamented. Both Martin Luther and John Wesley, I note, were strong in their advocacy of understanding Greek and Hebrew in order to minister to ordinary congregations.

    Thus whilst we do, of course, face the general problems of translation, we are also facing the need to understand a limited range of particular texts — which are, incidentally, ‘public domain’ and open to anyone with the resources and energy to read in their original languages.

    We must be very careful, therefore, not to ‘go beyond what is written’, both for the sake of faithfulness to the original, and for the sake of truthfulness in our ministry.

    Thus it is all very well translating ‘adelphoi’ as ‘brothers and sisters’, but what are we to answer to someone who picks up the Greek (or even an older translation) and asks why we do not say what it does in the original text, and who begins to wonder what else we may have ‘changed’ to make things ‘easier’ for them to believe? (This is why, incidentally, I worry about how often our lectionaries skip over ‘difficult’ verses. This must eventually convey the message that either the Bible is defective or that we don’t accept it.)

    As to the question of the biblical imagery regarding God’s people as his bride, we have to ask whether this is referring to an overarching reality which is reflected at the human level, or whether it simply functions as an illustration of ‘the kind of thing’ involved in God’s love for us.

    I hold to the former. It seems to me you hold to the latter (as, of course, do many others). If I am right, though, marriage ought to conform to the reality of what the Church of England calls ‘the mystical union between Christ and his church’. This seems to be the approach of Paul, who calls on husbands to love their wives ‘as Christ loves the church’. Had marriage been merely illustrative of divine love, he would better have written that Christ loves the church ‘as you love your wives’ — a suggestion fraught with difficulty, no doubt.

    One last thing, James. May I as gently as I can suggest it would be better if you did not caricature your opponents quite so often as you do? For example, you have written, “I don't doubt that you, John, perceive such things as sexual equality to be an ungodly product of a society that has turned its back on God. As for me, I stand implacably against that view.” My response on reading this was, “Bully for you, but it would be nice if you found out what I actually thought, first.”

  14. Your gentle suggestion is gently received and accepted. I do apologise and shall endeavor to avoid caricaturing yourself or others in future.

    As for the question of what we might say to someone who has discovered that what NRSV renders as "brothers and sisters" in Paul's letters, was originally written simply as "adelphoi", isn't it simply a matter of pointing out that "adelphoi" would have been used to address a group of men and women, in contrast with the way the word "brothers" is typically used (in contemporary English, at least) to refer to a group consisting solely of men? I don't think it's anything more difficult than that, and someone studying the New Testament in Greek will encounter many words that appear to have a simple, direct translation into English, that are, in reality, not entirely equivalent. The translation of "cheir" as "hand" is one such case, where the Greek word can refer to the wrist and forearm, as well as what we would call the hand.

    Personally, I'm more worried about those whose first encounter with the Bible is with the King James version, or whose first experience of a church service is taken from BCP. One of the great innovations of the Reformation was the idea of conducting services in the local vernacular language, so it baffles me why any Church is still using language which whilst technically described as modern English, is at times barely intelligible to many people. (Of course, I do understand that this wasn't really an innovation - I realise that when Christians first started gathering together, they would use the local vernacular language, probably Latin in the West and Greek in the East. Then for some reason, the Roman Church decided to carry on using Latin even when the languages which people actually spoke had evolved to the point where Latin had become unintelligible to them. When it comes to KJV and BCP, I'm tempted to say let's not repeat their mistake.)