Sunday, February 12, 2023

Theological Misreadings

In a move that was all-but-inevitable from the moment they started ordaining women, Church of England bishops have announced they are launching a “major project on gendered language” in the next few months, with the goal (at least in some quarters) of moving away from the use of gendered pronouns for God. It might start with prayer language, but would quickly escalate to the rewriting of hymns, creeds and scripture itself.

“Our Parent who art in heaven,” anyone?

Defining the Indefinable

In order for such an initiative to become policy, the church’s General Synod would have to ratify it, a move some C of E traditionalists will almost surely strongly resist.

A representative from an organization called Women and the Church commented, “We hope that a proposal will be brought to Synod soon, as we believe that a theological misreading of God as exclusively male is a driver of much continuing discrimination and sexism against women.” The Archbishop of Canterbury opined, “God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable.”

It is true that God created both men and women in his own image, and that scripture reveals in him character qualities traditionally associated with women as well as those associated with men. However, to aver that God is “not male or female” is to go beyond what the scriptures themselves say and to apply finite human categories to the Almighty. If we cannot strictly affirm whether God is male or female from scripture, then we certainly cannot affirm that he isn’t. And if God is “not definable”, then how is referring to him as an androgyne an improvement on referring to him as male? It is still an attempt at defining, just a different one than that used by the writers of scripture carried along by the Holy Spirit of God himself. It is self-indulgent nattering by theologians too big for their own britches.

God and Pronouns

What is plain to any devout believer is that even entertaining the idea of de-sexing the language of scripture represents a rejection of the biblical doctrine of inspiration. If the Bible is merely a collection of thoughts about God written by human beings, then we can do what we like with its pronouns and other gendered expressions. But if the Bible is, as it claims, God revealing himself in words of his own choosing, we have no license to mess with the language of scripture whatever good we believe might come from it.

God did not need to reveal himself to the world in the language and imagery of masculinity. He did not do it to stroke the egos of the patriarchs or to make it more likely they would pay attention to what he had to say. The reality is that all pagan nations of antiquity had goddesses as well as gods. A feminine deity would have been as acceptable in Israel as in every other nation of its day. Moreover, at every possible opportunity, Israel turned away from YHWH to worship Asherah or the “Queen of Heaven”. We may reasonably argue many Israelites actually preferred a feminized god to a masculine one. That should constitute a strong hint as to where the impulse to feminize God originates, and it has nothing to do with fighting discrimination and sexism.

If emphasizing the attributes of God’s character traditionally thought of as female might have been a savvy move, it’s nevertheless not the one he made. The fact is that God chose “gendered language” to refer to himself and male imagery to describe himself to us from the moment he revealed himself to mankind. Moreover, when he became incarnate, it was not as a woman or some kind of neuter-creature. God sent a Son into the world, not a daughter.

Yet Another Transition

Let’s be honest: using neutral language for God is only a transitional move. Calling someone “it” is a universally recognized insult. Woke culture demands we refer to individuals by the pronouns like “he/him”, “she/her” or “they/them”. Curiously, nobody chooses “it/its” as their pairing of choice. Just as third-wave feminism teaches that women are actually superior to men rather than their equals, and would like to rid our culture of every expression of maleness, so also any attempt at introducing “equality” of the sexes into the language of the Bible will invariably end in portraying God as female.

That’s not a matter of conjecture. It’s right there in Revelation. Or maybe that’s just another theological misreading.

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