Thursday, February 01, 2007

Godtalk, Grace and Anxiety Management

My blogpal Mark recently posted on the dilemma of congregational resistance to inclusive language for God .

I myself, when I write prayers or sermons, try to avoid unrelenting male language and imagery for God. So far I haven't encountered any negative reaction to this. But I recall, awhile back, attending a retreat where one of our pastor-mentors gave an impassioned plea for inclusive language. Looking around the room at my fellow retreatants, I saw narrowed eyes, thinned lips, a throbbing neck vein or two, and thought, "Uh-oh...this isn't going well." And, indeed, when it came time for lay participants to join in extemporaneous prayer, it seemed that many people deliberately, contrarily chose masculine invocations and pronouns.

Why this reaction -- even when people are shown non-male images of God directly from Scripture, even when it's explained to them that the language used in the Judeo-Christian tradition to describe God is essentially male-default language -- because it was developed in a patriarchal context, but also because we don't have adequate nouns and pronouns to describe a God who is bigger than our human constructs of gender -- whose character encompasses the best of what we tend to assign to one gender or the other?

Thinking about this yesterday, as I responded to Mark's post, I was reminded of something my pastor had said to me one day as we were talking about ministerial stuff. "A large part of pastoring," he told me, "is just anxiety management."

Is resistance to inclusive Godtalk a symptom of internalized sexism? Probably in part. Is it an attempt to retain comforting words and images from our early religious life? Maybe. Is it a natural reaction to rewording of liturgy and hymns that can be jarring or awkward? Sure. But I suspect that part of the resistance is grounded in fear.

I think that a lot of us, at heart, have a hard time believing that God loves us and means us well. I think that, deep down, a lot of us fear that not saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts about God will cause God to reject us. Like our pagan ancestors who worried about appeasing their capricious and demanding deities through acceptable rituals and sacrifices and incantations, we harbor a similar primal anxiety, even if we can't articulate it. And stress over inclusifying the language of worship is just one example; we inclusive folk have our own set of anxieties about God that suggest God's grace is contingent on our doing or saying or thinking "right" things.

Sometimes I think the good news of a God who loves us, who in Christ has redeemed us and who calls us into a relationship with God that allows us to live and love boldly, is just too good for us to believe.


Anonymous said...

Inclusive language seems to be one of those litmus test issues where people seem to just have knee-jerk reactions based, I assume, on what they've been taught, w/o any sort of internal processing. They just seem to "feel" it's wrong even though when pressed they really can't find any reasonable reason why. Even my young students seem to react this way. I suppose it has to do with the difficulty of making paradigm shifts, changing long-embedded habits that feel "sacred" even when they don't fit our theology.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that the church spends way too much time trying to create God in IT'S image, in order to make those in the church feel more comfortable or more affirmed or more like God or whatever. This is obvious also in our worship as noted in the post above about the loss of mystery in worship. We aren't comfortable with mystery, so we create worship in an image that makes us feel good, that we can (too) easily understand, and that we think might be fun, just so that we can be comfortable and affirmed.

The Church is not about us - it's about God.

I'm so over the inclusive language thing - scratches me where I don't itch. People can use it or not use it and it makes no difference as far as I'm concerned, except that Jesus calls God "Father". Who am I to say that's not what he meant???


PamBG said...

I think that you are right that people are fearful that God won't love them if they don't do the right thing.

The problem with gendered language about God is that different people have different issues with mothers and fathers. I consider myself a feminist, but it was my father who was the nurturing parent who loved me unconditionally and my mother who was critical and judgemental and used "love" as a weapon. Although I know better, it's not surprising that an entire service geared toward calling God "Mother" and "She", etc., really winds me up. But I do understand that other people will have the same issues with a "father" image.

I actually find that careful use of truly non-gendered language about God often doesn't draw a lot of attention except positive attention from those who have a hard time with the "father image". 98 times out of 100, one can get away with a linguistic circumlocution that avoids the problem of gender entirely!

Trish said...

It's sad to say, but when our own society dichotomizes sex like we do, it seems natural to throw God into one sex as well. Like on surveys and those type things when the sex question is asked, there are usually two responses: Male or Female. Those who do not fall within those categories (such as people with both parts due to birth abnormalities) are left out. I think that it's the putting God/people into boxes that is really the problem. I wish there was a good way to "solve" the problem.

Scooper said...

My comments are here

Tom in Ontario said...

I only rarely use masculine pronouns in reference to God. He, him, or his show up occasionally when I think I've been substituting "God" for the pronouns too often or when a sentence just sounds too awkward.

What I am guilty of is shying away from feminine language for God. Occasionally I'll refer to the Holy Spirit as "she" but those occasions are few and far between.

For our Prayers of Intercession we use the canned prayers from Sundays & Seasons which generally do a good job with God language. For instance, on the First Sunday in Lent we hear "Gracious One," "All-wise One," "Sovereign One," "Sheltering One," "Healing One," and "Everlasting One."