Growing up, the use of inclusive language was a foreign concept. Although I grew up in diverse church settings -- Korean Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Vineyard, and Pentecostal -- one thing they all had in common was the heavy use of masculine language in reference to God. Prayers were inundated with what I call FPM's (Fathers Per Minute). "Father God, I just want to thank you for ... and Father God, bless us with ... Father God, forgive us for ... and finally Father God, help us to ... " The use of "Father God" rolled off the tongue as automatic as breathing in air. I wasn't even conscious of my own frequent use until I began my seminary journey. I chose to go to a Presbyterian seminary and one of the first things I noticed was the intention in using inclusive language, not only in reference to God, but the people of God as well. Because language is important in shaping our experience and understanding of God, using inclusive language makes room for the diversity of God's people to feel equally valued, included, acknowledged, and invited to participate in God's community. It also broadens our ideas of God, knowing that there isn't one word or phrase that fully encompasses who God is.
Some of the challenges I find with using inclusive language is generalizing references to God so much that it almost neutralizes our concept of God. Early on in seminary, I felt challenged to be conscious of the words I used for God in prayer, in conversation, and especially in my papers. I tried out many different names for and images of God as if I was trying on pairs of shoes. While I loved the imagination of opening myself up to seeing the image of God in creative ways, I struggled to find a personal connection. Calling God by a new name or a different name felt like calling my own father "Joe" all of a sudden -- strange, uncomfortable, impersonal, and, in a strange way, disrespectful. A lot of the feelings had to do with my conservative upbringing, but I also think it touched on another challenge of using inclusive language, which is finding a personal and authentic connection to who God is and yet not keep our concept of God in a comfortable box.
No matter how broad or open our concepts of God are, or how inclusive our names of God are, language has a way of linking our experiences of God with both negative and positive memories. While taking a feminist theology class, I had an opportunity to earn extra credit and attend a conference that focused heavily on using female images and language for God. Many of the women at this conference were pioneers in feminist practical theology and struggled in ministry to feel included, accepted, and valued in the church. Even the use of "God" or "Lord" was too masculine of a term to be used and therefore throughout worship, there was frequent use of "Godde" which is a combination of the word "God" and "Goddess." One of the things I noticed is that there was an interesting generational divide. For those who have paved the hard road for the inclusion of women leadership, the term "God" carried painful baggage and the use of "Godde" freed them to worship with full acceptance of who they are. For those of us who benefitted from the paved road before us, "God" held a more neutral quality and the use of "Godde" ironically felt exclusive only because we had no familiarity with the term.
Now as a pastor, I am sensitive and aware of how I address God. My congregation resides in a city with a diverse spiritual make-up. Some of our families are interfaith, where one is Christian and the other Jewish or Universalist Unitarian. I serve a congregation that is open to explore the many images, names, and roles of God. Certainly as a mother, I have come to appreciate the more motherly attributes of God and have come to feel a connection with God as Mother, Bosom, and Nurturer.
What I have learned in my personal journey through the use of inclusive language is:
- It is important to use language when addressing God and the people of God so that all feel invited to participate in the faith journey, the story, the exploration, and the conversation.
- It is important to be sensitive to the power of language when addressing God -- never knowing what negative or positive meanings people have attached to certain names when referring to God.
- Faith is personal, beliefs are personal, and therefore, although, we should be intentional about using inclusive language, we also should use language that has personal and authentic connections to our own faith. Inclusive language does not mean fully eliminating male language or fully embracing only female language in reference to God. By trying to only use words that are gender neutral or neither male or female, we are in danger of sterilizing our concept of God. The beauty of God is embracing all the many facets of God's identity.
- It is important to be aware of not only how we verbally address God, but also non-verbally. My 6-year-old son has never heard me refer to God in masculine terms and since I provide the Sunday School curriculum, I know that inclusive language is certainly used in the lessons. And yet, I was surprised to hear my son tell me that God was a man. Although it was a wonderful opportunity to talk to him about what he thought about God and to give him permission to think of the many images of God in the Bible, it made me aware of the possible ways I communicate to him or how his environment communicates to him the images of God.
- It's a journey. My life experiences as I get older have given me more adjectives, nouns, and verbs in my vocabulary when addressing God. I have had moments to reconcile my negative associations with certain names of God as well as find affinity to new ones. I have had further confirmations that certain references to God are not ones that I will use as well as greater ability to extend grace to those who often use those non-preferred references or more "FPMs" than I would like.
What has been your journey or experience? What are some of your favorite words, images, or use of language for God or "Godde"?
Theresa Cho is a Reno, Nevada native who graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago with awards in preaching and theology. She blogs at Still Waters.