Posted by: Allyson | July 31, 2008

A Follow-Up Concerning Religion, Gender, and Language

Last night, my partner and friend and I were discussing yesterday’s post during dinner.  My friend told me that in Catholic Canon, the Catholic god does not have a gender (not the most legitimate source, but the actual copies of canon law that I found online aren’t very searchable, and I genunienly don’t want to spend my afternoon reading Catholic law to find this information.  Feel free to search yourself, though.  Also, not that I didn’t believe my friend, I just wanted to link to something).  So according to at least one form of Christianity, the god in and of itself is genderless (although Jesus is definitely male).  My partner also informed me that, when speaking of their god, Jewish people try to avoid using pronouns whenever necessary.  So these two traditions avoid using pronouns, but when necessary, use “he” (as “it” is disrespectful).  However, I’m willing to bet that not all forms of Christianity agree with Catholicism’s law.  And based on what I’m reading in Kafir Girl’s blog, the Muslim god is definitely male.  In Mormonism, there is both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, but the Heavenly Mother is conspicuously absent from liturgy, texts, and other canonical Mormon practices.  But, there are tons of religious beliefs, and if I were to address them all I’d have to write an entire book.  So right now, I’m going to expand my post from yesterday, focusing on what I’ve recently learned about Catholicism and Judaism. 

After we had been discussing the issue for awhile, my friend made the following arguments:

  1. We use the masculine pronoun because religion and pronoun use stems from a patriarchal society (okay, she didn’t say “patriarchal society,” but I’m paraphrasing), and since “he” is the normative pronoun, of course “he” became the normative pronoun for referring to a monotheistic god.
  2. Therefore, this isn’t the fault of religion, it’s the fault of language.

Of course, both of these make sense.  But I can’t just take these rational, sensible, true arguments, accept them, and move on. 

First, “he” may be normative, but it’s not an empty adjective.  When we think “he,” we think “male,” not “genderless spirit form.”  Look at Christian art; how often is the god portrayed as female?  Of course Jesus is going to be portrayed male.  But the god in and of itself (and I’m okay with using “it” because if I don’t believe in the god, I’m not too concerned about being reverential towards it) is often portrayed as male, too.  Probably the most famous example is from a painting by Michaelangelo:

Basically, when we refer even to a genderless thing as “he,” that thing becomes conceptualized as male.  And in doing so, that normativizes and empowers masculinity.  A god, which created all life, and which is omnipotent, is also a male.  Maybe Catholicism doesn’t think that god has a gender, but, by employing the pronoun use “he,” even sparingly, then the god is imagined as male.  Perhaps this is why younger forms of Christianity do believe that their god is male; they have internalized the sparse uses of “he” to refer to the male, not to the neutral.

Furthermore, because English has coded “he” with “male,” the pronoun “he” cannot be a neutral term.  Attempting to make it so renders “male/masculine” as normative and “female/feminine” as other.  It makes women not normal, substandard, defective, deficient.  So if Catholicism and Judaism want to actually practice what they preach (no pun intended) about their god being genderless, they need to develop true gender-neutral pronouns.  Of course, gender-neutral pronouns are slow to catch on.  But if these two belief systems genuinely believe that their god is genderless, they need to reflect that in their speech.  And they can’t blame it on the fact that a gender-neutral pronoun doesn’t exist.  New words get developed all the time. 

And now to the second point, that referring to a god by “he” is the fault of language, not religion.  Fair enough.  But as I just pointed out above, if that’s the case, religion needs to take responsibility for changing language use.  Yes, language is a big, huge thing.  Us feminists can’t just lead a charge brigade against the entire English language in order to eliminate all forms of sexism from it.  It’s too big, and furthermore, it’s too intantible.  But what we can do is change language a little bit at a time.  A good way to start would be by developing completely gender-neutral pronouns to describe a genderless god, and then using them regularly.  Change religious texts to include the gender-neutral pronoun; use it when speaking during religious services and discussions; make sure you insert it into songs and poetry.  Doing so won’t eliminate all sexism from English.  But it will eliminate some sexism from English, and therefore will make room for a little more sexism to be removed later.  It’s an incremental thing.  And in addition, conceptions of god will take on more gender-inclusive forms.  Women who feel marginalized from religion for gender reasons might begin to feel more welcome.  And eventually, this inclusiveness will spill over into secular areas of society as well.  There won’t be massive change right away, but there will be minor changes that lead the way to more minor changes, which collectively yield big change.

Yes, language is at fault, but that doesn’t mean the church gets let off the hook.  By going along with language, they’re not helping; they’re hurting.  So I recognize that our language may limit religious expression of a god’s identity.  But that doesn’t mean that religions have to be complicit.  They should be linguistic activists, developing words that express the true and exact nature of their beliefs.  The great thing about language is that it’s dynamic; it’s always evolving.  Religions should not feel afraid to change language for the better; I think it’s imperative that they try.  Then they can use pronouns in a way that adequately expresses a god’s genderless spirit nature, while reducing sexist language at the same time.  What do we have to lose?

Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like.

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Responses

  1. I don’t necessarily think it’s the fault of the language, but moreso the fault of the penholders (most likely men) writing the sacred texts that established the patriarchal pronouns.

    In my own understanding of naming god, I didn’t think about it too much until a Christian theology class when I thought, “Well, Jesus is definitely male so his gender doesn’t count… God can be male and the Holy Spirit can be female. Everyone wins.” The more I read and thought about it, I came to realize that mentally assigning gender to deities isn’t constructive in depicting what the Bible implicitly and explicitly says – that god is genderless.

    Now, in my writing and my speech, I try to use “God” in all circumstances as opposed to pronouns. If I have to use one, I try to use female and male pronouns equally. A really useful book for me was She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson and Sexism and God-Talk by Rosemary Radford Ruether. Reclaiming patriarchal language for God is something theologians have been trying to do in Christianity for awhile now – there’s a bunch of good literature out there if you’re interested in reading more.

    Mary Daly brilliant said, “If God is male, then the male is God.”

  2. By the way, in She Who Is, Johnson promotes thinking of the femininity of Jesus as while, to not think of Jesus as a male, but a divinity in a male body that encompasses both traditionally male and female traits. She also points to a lot of parables that have a female as the metaphorical stand in for JC.

  3. Lindsay-

    Great point. Of course, if men were writing the sacred texts (and they probably were), then they would envision a god that looked like them (a commenter noted this in the previous post I wrote).

    While I agree that assigning genders to deities isn’t constructive, your decision that God was male and the Holy Spirit female was interesting. It reminds me of how, in Mormonism, there is the conception of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father. Of course, as I mentioned, the Heavenly Mother seems largely overlooked in Mormon theology.

    My partner only uses pronouns sparingly when discussing god. However, when he does, he defaults male, which bothers me. I understand that if he’s having a discussion in synagogue or with his parents, that then he has perfectly good reasons for using “he.” I don’t expect him to be a linguistic activist at all times. But when we’re at home, I wish he’d mix it up a bit. Still, his god, his choice.

    I am going to see if the library has both Johnson’s and Ruether’s books as soon as I’m done typing this. I certainly do want to read more.

  4. Have you read Sara Mills’ ‘Feminist Stylistics’ (1995)? She has a pretty good discussion of pronouns and ‘he’ as a supposedly-neutral word.
    Of course, we all KNOW that GOD is MAN because men are GREAT and men and MANLY and men are POWERFUL and a stupid WOMAN couldn’t do what a MANLY MANNISH MAN can do. To call God a woman is insulting to Christians – try it, it’s delicious.

  5. *are, not ‘and’

  6. To call God female is not insulting to all us Christians. When I pray, sometimes I envision Father God, sometimes (more and more often these days) I envision Mother God, and sometimes God is neither gender and sometimes both.

    Male and female both were created in the image of God, and so we all carry the image of God in us. That which makes me uniquely and beautifully woman is a reflection of qualities of God herself.


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