"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for 1 December 2010

Heresy challenge: On male pronouns for God

So my friend Rae observed today that she has “yet to meet an American woman my age who can talk for 5 mins about why male pronouns are preferable for God without speaking heresy.”  When I stuck my tongue in my cheek and said we need to hang out more, she extended to me a challenge to see if I could do so on the blog.

Linguistically, I find pronouns to be a tricky thing.  English tends to be strongly dichotomous whereas other languages, such as Latin and German, have a range of possibilities.  We use pronouns in reference to something particular, and many people construct sentences that lead to ambiguous pronoun use.  For example, inserting “them” after “that lead” creates an unclear referent because am I meaning to say “that lead many people” or “that lead sentences”?  If every day sentences can carry this ambiguity, then how much more can theological constructs carry ambiguity?

When discussing the triune God, we must remember that God carries the fullness of both male and female.  God creates male and female after His own image.  We must always be careful when ascribing anthropology to the mystery of the Godhead.  God is a Trinity.  The community within the Godhead should boggle our mind about everything we ascribe to human community.  Gender relations within our human community do not get a free ride.  St Paul famously exhorts in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is neither male or female.  Reading this letter in its entirety, I am of the opinion that St Paul is saying that we don’t have a unique Gospel for men and a unique Gospel for women.  If readers want to hear some more on that observation, let me know.  I’ll write another post.

Yet, we have a particular challenge when we discuss the triune God by His name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The incarnation establishes Christ’s appropriate pronouns as male as He came and dwelt among us in a male body.  Christ can only be one person.  However, I am equally of the opinion that the Incarnation renders the appropriate name of the Father as “Father” with the related pronouns.  After all, the Mother of Christ is a distinct human person.  Mary’s presence as mother cannot be overstated when one defends the Incarnation of Christ.  What is more, Christ Himself is consistent in His usage of “mother” and “father” according to His Father in heaven.

The Holy Spirit proves to be a bit different relative to an ascribed tradition of pronoun use.  I’ll admit that I frequently just go with “the Spirit” when I’m trying to truncate the full title to something shorter.  Additionally, the Holy Spirit frequently comes to us as a non-human form: the cloud, the dove, the breath.  Such an observation about the Holy Spirit allows the faithful to speak rightly in similes and metaphors.  We can compare God to a mother hen; we can use our image of our own mothers to speak of Christ’s faithfulness.  Even St Paul in his epistle to the Galatians speaks about giving birth to the Gospel again in Galatia.  It’s an entirely reasonable thing to do provided one is mindful about where attention is directed.  I do think that Biblically, the Holy Spirit does carry some gender ambiguity as it relates to the manifestations of Lady Wisdom.

We also come to a question regarding prayer.  Our pronouns should generally reflect the person we’re addressing.  The Orthodox Prayer of the Holy Spirit reveals some more of the gender ambiguity regarding the Spirit:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Looking at appropriate genders of the metaphors, we flop around. O heavenly King: male; the Comforter: generally more associated with female; the Spirit of Truth: unclear unless we want to say that Christ is Truth and therefore this one is male; Treasury of Blessings: we’ll have to switch out of English here if I tried to make sense of the gender; and Giver of Life; generally female.  Yet the prayer itself never incorporates any direct pronouns.

Conversely, we find two distinct prayers offered by the faithful addressed to God as Father: the Lord’s prayer and the invocation associated with baptism.  As people who pray in the way that Christ commanded, I think Christians must preserve the integrity of these prayers.  Additionally, we have to consider the reality of the Incarnate God when considering who is Christ’s mother.

So what are your thoughts on these issues of addressing God in prayer?