Why Inclusive Language Is Still Important
Guest Post by Jann Aldredge-Clanton
“We don’t need to do inclusive language any more,” some of the young women tell my professor friend in her intern classes at Perkins School of Theology. “That was important when you were going through seminary because there were all men. Inclusive language isn’t important anymore because now women can be leaders in church and are in the workplace big time.” My friend says that when they go out into churches, these students discover that gender discrimination, although often more subtle now than in the past, is still all too prevalent.
For ministers and laypeople of all genders, inclusive language is still vital to social justice and equality. In 1974, in All We’re Meant to Be, and more emphatically in the 1986 and 1992 editions of this book, Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty advocate for inclusive language and give biblical support for their belief that “women have just as much right as men to think of themselves in God’s image.” In 1983, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott writes: “It seems natural to assume that Christian people, eager to transmit the Good News that the Creator loves each human being equally and unconditionally, would be right in the vanguard of those who utilize inclusive language. Yet a visit to almost any church on Sunday morning indicates that alas, it is not happening that way.” In 1988, Nancy Hardesty also makes a persuasive case for inclusive language as central to the gospel, and in 2010 she reinforces use of female and male images of the Divine to affirm the biblical declaration that all are made in the Divine image.
So why is there still so much resistance to inclusive language? It doesn’t seem to matter that Genesis 1:27 clearly reveals female and male in the Divine image. The language of litanies and hymns and visual images in most churches, synagogues, and temples reveal worship of a white male God. Many still use exclusively masculine language for humanity as well as for divinity. I’ve even heard the argument that changing “man” to “mankind” makes the term inclusive. Although inclusive language for people made the grammar books in the 1980s, “man,” “mankind,” and other exclusive words persist in many churches and in the media. As Hardesty declares, there is “no excuse to exclude half the human race when speaking or writing.” From these patriarchal practices follow patterns of dominance and subordination, resulting in the interlocking oppressions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, classicism, ableism, rape of the earth.
Some people argue that inclusive language is a “trivial” issue and that those who advocate for it are just too “sensitive.” But if language is unimportant, why do they react with such anger, as though we have brought pornography into worship, when we refer to God as “Mother” or “She”? No better proof could be found for the bias against the feminine and the need to overcome it by calling God “She.”
Marg Herder attributes this bias to the fact that “language was created by patriarchy.” She writes: “Think it doesn’t matter that God is referred to almost exclusively as ‘He’? Sure, you’re enlightened enough to think of God as a force, or a presence, or as Spirit. But when you need a pronoun, what pronoun do you reach for? It matters. It is huge. Try calling God by female pronouns in almost any Christian church sometime. See how that goes over. Try referring to God as ‘She’ in your own speech. Feel kinda like you are breaking a rule, being bad?”
Womanist theologian Monica A. Coleman believes that it’s important to use female language for Deity because of the prevalence of patriarchy. “And the fact that people rail so much against female language for God shows how important it is. It’s just amazing to me how much people are attached to God’s being a man.”
When she was a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary working on an inclusive language worship resource for use in chapel, Rebecca Kiser also discovered how resistant people are to changing exclusively male language for Deity. “Inclusive language about people was a given by that time, but inclusive language about God was the cutting edge. At one point I got into a really big discussion with a systematic theology professor about language for God. We were trying to say ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,’ and he just went ballistic. He got really red-faced and said that if you weren’t baptized in the name of the ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ those exact words, it was not a Christian baptism and didn’t count. Some people were really invested in the maleness of the language. Words have power.”
In advocating for inclusive worship language, Judith Liro uses this metaphor: “Several factories are built on a river, and they pollute the water of a village downstream. A hospital is built to treat the illnesses that result, but there is still a need to track down the source of the pollution, to stop the pollution, and to clean up the water itself. Many organizations including the Church do the important work of the hospital. Yet I have also come to realize that the Church is one of the factories that contribute to the problem. Our liturgical language with its current, heavily masculine content supports a patriarchal hierarchical ordering. Most are simply unaware of the power of language. The status quo that includes the exploitation of the earth, poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, militarism… is held in place by a deep symbolic imbalance, and we are unwitting participants in it.”
The prevalent worship of an exclusively male Supreme Being is the strongest support imaginable for the dominance of men. Some advocate using only female divine references for the next 2000 years to rebaptize our imaginations that have been so fully immersed in masculine divine images. Although worship services with only feminine language will help raise awareness, I advocate gender-balanced language to support equal partnership.
The only way to begin in some faith communities is with non-gender divine language; however, I believe that to be truly inclusive we need to move toward language that Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Kiser, a Presbyterian pastor, calls “gender-full rather than genderless.” Because of centuries of association of “God” with male pronouns and imagery, this word generally evokes male images, so it is not truly gender-neutral. Referring to “God” as “She” brings gender balance.
The Bible provides many female divine names and images. “Wisdom” (Hokmah in Hebrew Scriptures; Sophia, Greek word for “Wisdom,” linked to Christ in Christian Scriptures) stands out in the book of Proverbs (1, 3, 8), in the books of Wisdom and Sirach in the Catholic canon, and in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Among other female divine names and images in the Bible are “Mother” (Isaiah 66:13, 42:14, 49:15); “Mother Eagle” (Deuteronomy 32:11-12); Ruah (Hebrew word for “Spirit,” Genesis 1:2); El Shaddai (Hebrew for “The Breasted God,” Genesis 49:25); Shekinah (feminine Hebrew word used in the book of Exodus to denote the dwelling presence and/or the glory of God); “Midwife” (Psalm 22:9-10); “Mistress of Household” (Psalm 123:2); “Mother Hen” (Matthew 23:37); “Baker Woman” (Luke 13:20-21); and “Searching Woman” (Luke 14:8-10).
Naming the Divine as “Wisdom,” Sophia, Hokmah, “Mother,” Ruah, “Midwife,” “Baker Woman,” “She,” and other biblical female designations gives sacred value to women and girls who for centuries have been excluded, demeaned, discounted, even abused and murdered. Exclusive worship language and images oppress people by devaluing those excluded. This devaluation lays the foundation for worldwide violence against women and girls. In the U.S. alone, every fifteen seconds a woman is battered. One in three women in the world experiences some kind of abuse in her lifetime. Worldwide, an estimated four million women and girls each year are bought and sold into prostitution, slavery, or marriage. Two-thirds of the world’s poor are women. “More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than people were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.” There are many more alarming statistics on worldwide violence and discrimination against women and girls. Theology and worship that include females as well as other genders can make a powerful contribution to a more just world.
Inclusive language also helps to heal racism and supports the sacred value of people of color by changing the traditional symbolism of dark as evil and white as purity. We can name Deity as “Creative Darkness” from which the universe came (Genesis 1:1-2), and symbolize darkness as a sacred well of richest beauty (Isaiah 45:3). We can celebrate the life-giving darkness of the “Womb” (Psalm 139:13-14) and of the “Earth” (Psalm 139:15-16).
Including multicultural female divine images along with male and other gender images in worship contributes to equality and justice in human relationships and right relationship with the earth, while expanding our experience of divinity. Through this inclusive worship we spread the Good News of liberation and abundant life for all.
Copyright 2013 by Jann Aldredge-Clanton and EEWC-Christian Feminism Today. All rights reserved. Originally published on the Christian Feminism Today website. Reposted with permission.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 18. All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation, First Edition (Waco, TX: Word, 1974). All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, Second Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986).
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 1-2.
Nancy A. Hardesty, Inclusive Language in the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988).
Nancy Hardesty, “Why Inclusive Language Is Important,” Christian Feminism Today. Online: http://www.eewc.com/christian-feminism-basics/.
Online: http://www.margherder.com/musicLyricsAName.htm; http://jannaldredgeclanton.com/blog/?p=959
Jann Aldredge-Clanton, Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011), 157-158.
See Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female; and Aldredge-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (New York: Crossroad, 2001), and In Search of the Christ-Sophia (Austin: Eakin Press, 2004).
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009), xvii.
Thanks, Jann, for the contribution of your article! While I agree with almost all of it, at this point I’m still advocating sticking to non-gendered God-language in worship services rather than balancing male and female. It’s not because I’m bothered by female references, but I believe that genderless language is more fully inclusive. As you said in the article, quoting Nancy Hardesty, “there is ‘no excuse to exclude half the human race when speaking or writing.'” I do see, however, how female imagery can raise consciousness and lead to profitable discussions as we (men, mostly) confront privilege and evils of patriarchy. Thanks again for joining the conversation!
Thanks Jann for your consistent advocacy on inclusive language. You reminded me of my own language, Hiligaynon which is somewhat inclusive. Hiligaynon has developed some inclusive words. For example, God is “Makaako” which can either be feminine or masculine. The second pronoun, “sya” can mean either “he” or “she”. That is why, I always make mistake of saying “he” when I mean “she” (or vice versa), simply because I am used to say “sya”. Although my language is inclusive, yet our current (Hiligaynon) culture is, to a certain extent, still male-dominated. This is where culture is very important in developing inclusive language. Once an inclusive culture is developed , then the inclusive language develops. And yet it is also important to develop inclusive language to develop the culture. Thanks again Jann.
The English language would benefit, I think, from having inclusive pronouns. There have been many (a few?) attempts, but they didn’t catch on. You are probably correct that a culture shift would make that easier. Thanks for sharing.
I like the idea of gender-balance instead of genderless. For me it is still very difficult to feel connected to genderless, non-anthropomorphic idea of Creation. I have related to that out of which all life comes and goes back into like i do an imaginary buddy, friend, mentor, mother, father, brother. It is just how i relate more fully i think. So, yeah, i like gender-balance idea.
I understand, Chuck. It’s been a gradual process with me. I began to move away from anthropomorphism when I decided that, for me, there were too many problems believing in Something that had intention… the perennial “problem of evil”, etc. That’s also why I rarely use the word “God”, except to facilitate communication. I have come to embrace the deep connectedness of all life as “the Sacred” and like the metaphor of a fish’s relationship to the water in which it swims. Thanks for the comment!
Thank you all for engaging the content of my article and writing such thoughtful responses. David, I’m glad you’re advocating language that moves beyond the patriarchal exclusively male language for divinity. But until all cultures have gender equality, I strongly believe that we need female divine images to “revalue” females as equal in the divine image. The gender-balanced language for Deity I advocate does not exclude half the human race because it balances “She” and “He,” “Sister Spirit/Brother Spirit,” “Mother-Father,” etc. In my article I focused on female images mainly because most people are not familiar with these and don’t know they’re in the Bible. Including truly non-gendered names like “Spirit,” “Sacred,” “Maker,” “Mystery,” along with gender-balanced names, (a multiplicity of names and images), I believe conveys the truth that all our naming of Deity is metaphorical. I hear people argue that “God,” “Christ,” and “Lord” are gender-neutral, but these are all male names. And because male names for Deity are the most prevalent in almost all religious traditions and cultures, people usually “hear” even genderless names as male. And because of the horrible violence, abuse, denigration, discrimination that women and girls continue to suffer all around the world, I believe it’s vital to do whatever we can to promote belief in the sacredness of females in the divine image. I understand that an anthropomorphic Deity with “intention” may not be satisfactory in light of the “problem of evil” (probably a whole other blog topic for you!), but using female divine metaphors is a way to lessen evil done to females.
Nestor, my good chaplain friend, it’s great to hear from you also! I remember discussing inclusive language with you and your enlightening me about your language in which “Makaako” can either be feminine or masculine, and the pronoun “sya” can mean “he” or “she.” I wish the English language had an inclusive third person singular pronoun. As David mentioned, many possibilities have been proposed, but none have caught on. So current grammar books teach using “he or she,” “she/he,” or changing the antecedent to plural so that we can use “they” correctly. I wish people would also refer to Deity as “She/He” or “He or She.”
Chuck, I also appreciate your comment about relating to Deity through human imagery. In my chaplaincy ministry, this seemed to be the way most people, especially in times of illness and crisis, could best relate to Deity. Also, in my Christian tradition, incarnational theology is big! I’ve come to expand incarnation to include all of us. I grew up in a Baptist church where I heard, “You may be the only Jesus some people see.” And later I read in scripture these words of Jesus, “You are all gods.” I believe we are all created in the divine image, and we are all divine. So divine images like friend, sister, brother, mother, father, mentor, etc. are meaningful to me.
Thanks for the depth of this article. I have tried for years, with varying degrees of success, to talk myself into being “ok” with the masculine references to God, to remember that “he” doesn’t necesarily refer to a man, etc. Now that I am raising a daughter, though, I am realizing that I wasn’t just being picky or too sensitive in my need for feminine imagery. It is so important for her to be presented with a less biased portrait of God, and I am really struggling to give her that. It is now, at three and four years old, that her basic ideas of God are being formed, and I do not want them to be a default “God = white man” idea that she has to consciously change as she matures. As long as new generations are born, gender inclusive language will be needed.
Also, Nestor, I think you’re absolutely right about inclusive language developing an inclusive culture and inclusive culture developing inclusive language. I also believe it goes both ways. Our language shapes and reflects our culture.
Thank you for your response, Lindsay! I am delighted to know that you are giving your daughter a God beyond the “default white man,” that you are giving her female names and images for God so that she can grow up believing that she is created equally in the divine image. As you know, our culture doesn’t support this belief very well, and neither do most churches. You are so right that at her young age, her basic ideas of God are being formed. For this reason, I wrote “God, A Word for Girls and Boys,” “Sing and Dance and Play with Joy! Inclusive Songs and Activities for Young Children,” and “Imagine God! A Children’s Musical Exploring and Expressing Images of God.” Also on my website you can find my brief discussion on teaching girls and boys that they are equal.