The Way of words

ONE OF THE IMPORTANT things to remember in any inclusive language discussion regarding God is that it's not only a theological issue, but a language - a human tool - issue ("Why God is Not (Just) Father," by Sharon Gallagher, November 1993). Language always has meaning beyond the dictionary definition, carrying biases and implied power and implied powerlessness, and societal and personal associations - almost all words are tinted pejoratively or melioratively and it is those tones that help to shape any idea that is unraveled in words. Words change and meanings of words change and usages of words change, always in a constant flux.

There is a revolution going on in the English language regarding gender and people of color, and no matter how many Elizabeth Achtemeiers there are in the English-speaking world who might wish it otherwise, the language is not going to go back to "man" representing us all or "she" subsumed under "he" or "dark" always meaning bad. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation boldly goes where "no one" has gone before - whereas the original went where no "man" had gone before.

One of the finest introductions to this issue is a little book published by Westminster/John Knox called Inclusive Language in the Church (how I wish we'd published it!) by Nancy Hardesty - which should be the beginning to any discussion on the issue. In an era even more patriarchal than ours, that considered women not much more than property - and "unclean" property, at times - no revealed Word would have made sense to the ears of the powerful that was positive toward females. Our understandings have changed, our language is changing, and God is more than mere male or female - metaphor is the best our puny language can do. People like Elizabeth Achtemeier can dig up the fossils of the English language and wave them in our face all she wants - she can't make those dry bones live.

David M. Perkins

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Sojourners Magazine January 1994
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