Why Inclusive Language Is Important

She by Chris Titze Imagingby Nancy Hardesty

Have you ever thought of yourself as a man?  Probably not unless you are one.  In that case you’ve probably never thought of yourself as anything but a man.

For twenty years I’ve taught New Testament.  Sometimes I ask students:  “What does the Bible say about the ‘image of God’?”  Every time, a young man raises his hand and answers:  “God made man in His image.”  No male student has ever finished Genesis 1:26:  “male and female God created them.”

For women and for spiritually thoughtful people, that captures the essence of why inclusive language is important.

I usually joke that I don’t mind when people say, “All men are sinners,” but I do object to the King James Version’s assertion that God wants “all men to be saved” and that God is “the Savior of all men” (1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10).   Since women do not think of themselves as “men” and men don’t think that their term for themselves includes females, writers and speakers must intentionally include women and girls, “her” and “she.”

In terms of human language one can speak of a person, an individual, a human being.  God created all human beings, people, persons, males and females, women and men, girls and boys.  Yes, “men” is a shorter word, takes up less space, rhymes with more words in poetry.  But that is no excuse to exclude half the human race when speaking or writing.  The term “men” is not and never was inclusive.  Nor does capitalizing it –“Man”– make it inclusive, as a recent master’s student of mine asserted.   Capitalizing “Man” and “He” only makes it more obvious and offensive.

And inclusive language is about more than gender language.  Child psychologists recently did a pilot study of racism in pre-school students and found it rampant.  They began with a chart picturing five small child-figures ranging in shade from white to black.  Then the subjects were asked to point to the figure that best answered a series of questions.  A small blond boy was asked, “Which child is the bad child?”  He immediately selected the black figure.  When asked, “Which child is the good child,” he pointed to the white figure.  In answer to the question, “Which child is the mean child,” he chose the brown figure.

Was this child making racial distinctions?  Perhaps.  Or was he remembering the little song that begins, “My heart was black with sin until the Savior came in . . .” and making a moral decision that being a “bad” child was a degree worse than being a “mean” child?  Was he a Christian child who understood that Christ had forgiven his sins and made him “white as snow”?  Even some African American childre n in the study showed a preference for choosing the white figure as the “good” child.  Perhaps they too learned that in Sunday school.

I learned that little song nearly 60 years ago and it is still embedded in my mind   So what are we teaching our children (and reinforcing in ourselves) when we use Bible verses and familiar songs that speak of color. Or those that speak of violence or use military images?  Do we want to be“warriors” for God?  Do we really want to wield the Bible as a “sword”?

The more controversial issue is language about God – the capital “He.”  Some people seem to be convinced that God really is male.  Many of these are the same people who answer, “God made man is His image” and assume that is, in some way, a literal statement.  They also usually believe that when the Bible speaks of Jesus of Nazareth as the “Son of God,” it is teaching that a male God literally had sex with Mary.

However, a cursory reading of the Bible reveals many metaphors for God. And a small amount of theological thinking suggests that all human language about God is metaphorical.  God is both mother (Ps. 131:2; Isa. 49:15; Isa. 66:13) and father (Ps. 103:13-14; Rom. 8:15); rock (Exod. 32:4; Ps. 95:1) and fire (Exod. 3:1-6); pillar (Exod. 13:1) and eagle (Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11), midwife (Num. 11:12, by implication); Shekinah or Shekinah God (Exod. 40:34-38); and shepherd (Psalm 23; Luke 15:4-7; John 10).

Yes, all God-language is metaphorical.  The God that can be named or fully described is not the real God.  It is an idol, a human creation.  God is ineffable, beyond all human description or definition,  Beyond all naming.

When Moses wondered about God’s name, God replied, “YHWH,” “I AM WHO I AM,” a riff on the irregular verb “to be.”  God told Moses to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent me to you” (Exod. 3:13-15).  Carolyn Bohler, in her book Prayer on Wings, says that “‘names’ for God would more accurately be called ‘nicknames’— ways we call the Deity, knowing that we are not using a ‘real’ name. It is impossible to think of any name which is not a metaphor and does not conjure up some image” (p. 38).

As theologian and church historian Mary Daly once perceptively declared in Beyond God the Father, “If God is male, then the male is God” (p. 19).  Many conservative preachers liberally sprinkle their prayers with the word “Father.”  Certainly that is a comforting metaphor for God for many of God’s children, but a parenting image, whether father or mother,  is not our only available image. God also expects children to mature into adults (1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:13-14); and God enjoys adult relationships with human beings.

God can be addressed as “God,” “Gracious God, Merciful God” (Jonah 4:2),“Holy One,” “Holy Spirit” or “Advocate” (John 14:26 and Rom. 8:26), “Creator,”“Source of Our Being,” “Beloved,” “Giver of Every God and Perfect Gift” (James 1:17), “God of all “comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3-4),  God of Peace” (1 Thess, 5:23), “God of Love and Peace” (2 Cor. 13:11). God can be spoken of as the One, the Divine, the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Eternal One, Ancient of Days, the Ground of All Being (Acts 17:28-29).   As 1 John 4:8 says simply, “God is love.”

Muslims use a string of beads to remind themselves of the ninety-nine descriptions of God in the Qur’an and a final bead for all of the additional, unmentioned names of God. Jewish and Christian scriptures contain at least as many.  Each one enriches our view of God with new images and aspects of the divine nature.

Here too we must be careful about divine images that evoke fear and violence.  In my childhood I was taught to fear God.  God was a rather despotic king and merciless judge.  God was ever vigilant, watching everything everyone did in order to catch us misbehaving.  Then God could and would punish us.  For some reason, the preaching illustration I remember most vividly concerned a man who decided to go golfing on Sunday morning rather than going to church.  He was struck by lightning and died instantly, without a moment to repent of his sin.  I understood that God was someone I should obey and try to appease, but I had trouble understanding why or how a person could have a close relationship with such a being.

Eventually I learned that the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions offer many different images of the Divine, and I can choose those which most support and encourage my own spiritual growth. In presenting God to children, it is important that we choose images that provide security and promote positive self-images for both girls and boys.  We need understandings of God that expand and grow as our own understandings expand to include the welfare of our planet, the vastness of the universe, and the mysteries of quantum physics.

For a more detailed discussion of this subject, see my book Inclusive Language in the Church.  As scripture says, God created us and God loves us.  God does not play favorites.  We are all made in God’s image and made for relationship with the ultimate Ground of all being.  As we speak and listen to God, the riches of our language expand our knowledge of the Holy One and remind us of the Creator’s care for all of  us.

For further reading:

Inclusive Language in the Church by Nancy A. Hardesty.  Atlanta: John Knox Press,  1987.
 
God the What?  What Our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefsin God by Carolyn Bohler. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2008.  See also an online profile of Carolyn Bohler and her work on metaphors for God and a review of God the What? 

Prayer on Wings by Carolyn Bohler   San Diego: LuraMedia, 1990.  This book is now out of print, but used copies are available online.
 
God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality by Phyllis Trible.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

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Nancy A. Hardesty
Nancy A. Hardesty was a founding member of the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today organization. She spent much of her career in higher education. From 1988 to her death in 2011, Hardesty taught in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Clemson University in South Carolina. Before arriving at Clemson, Hardesty also taught at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Hardesty’s first book, co-authored with Letha Dawson Scanzoni, was All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today published in 1974. The ground-breaking book has gone through several editions, and was noted by Christianity Today, in its 50th anniversary issue, as one of the top fifty books influencing the evangelical movement. Hardesty subsequently wrote other books on topics ranging from women in the Bible to inclusive language in the church.

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