Elizabeth Johnson discussed feminine perspectives of God in a book that greatly influenced me, She Who Is. It introduced me to feminist theological discourse and set out arguments that explained some of the discomfort I have with the patriarchal Catholic Church. It encouraged me to know that there were others who, like me, would prefer not to turn away from an organisation with which I have some disagreements but would rather work within the organisation to create change – at least within my limited sphere of influence.
One way I try to create change is by raising issues for discussion, for example as I did with teachers at a local catholic school (see Gender and Theology of the Body post). I was delighted when the school responded by examining the content and methods of their teaching and agreed to make changes. Precisely what changes were made was something they decided in a considered manner rather than accepting uncritically my perspective on the issue; which is as it should be.
Another change tactic is simple role modelling, by personally trying to stick to the principles which I would like our society to be guided by – gender equality being one of the major ones I promote. When I do this, I am doing it for my own integrity as well as to possibly make other people think, but I try to stop short of telling other people that they should follow my example. That is their decision, to think critically about what I am doing (if they notice it at all), and to take action or not as they see fit.
A particular point that I try to role model is inclusive language. It is fairly accepted in churches I have attended over the last couple of decades for words in the liturgy and in the songs to be modified to reflect gender inclusive language when referring to people. Instead of “man” we might say “all” or “us”; instead of “he” we might say “they”. I do not hear much comment on these changes anymore, although I am aware that some people think such changes are unnecessary. What struck me recently, though, was a reaction to my use of gender inclusive language for God. For some reason, this appears to be far more unacceptable than gender inclusive language for people.
The example that got me thinking about this was when I was to sing the psalm at mass. At choir practice, another choir member took me to task for changing the words “he” to “God”. She said that I had a responsibility to sing it “correctly”, and that I shouldn’t be pushing my own point of view on the congregation – this wasn’t the time or place for that. If I wanted to make a point, I should ask to do a reflection during the homily. Frankly, I was amazed at what was quite a vehement reaction to a simple word change. However, my instinct is that this reaction would be echoed (although perhaps not so vehemently) by many in the congregation.
Theologically, to call God “God” is not incorrect; certainly not as incorrect as to assign a gender to God who, as Elizabeth Johnson and the catholic catechism both attest, does not have a gender. This is standard catholic teaching. My use of “God” in this case was about sticking to my principles and role modelling my beliefs of gender equality. I wasn’t trying to be provocative – if I was, then I might have changed “he” to “she”. That change I know would offend and anger many people! Yet why should a feminine God be more offensive than a masculine God? And why does the general congregation accept gender inclusive language for people but not for God?
My speculation is that when I publically change the masculine pronouns for God I am disrupting the image of God in some of my listeners, and this is not welcome. People can have a very personal and cherished relationship with God that is based on a particular image, despite there being multiple images to draw on (Elizabeth Johnson resurrects many such images in her book She Who Is). This causes a negative and defensive reaction, as people protect their image of (a masculine) God. My child’s religious education teacher once commented to me that it didn’t matter that the young children have a stereotyped version of God as a bearded old man because at least they could start a relationship with that person, and as they get older their images of God would mature and broaden. Sometimes I wonder if that maturing of the image of God is indeed encouraged through the language and the messages of the church. We continually are given images of God as King, as Father, or as a Trinity of males. In one homily, which I remember vividly, the priest suggested we should have an image of Jesus as “friend” rather than “king”. It was a very insightful message, I thought. We followed it up by singing Hail redeemer, King divine – because it was, after all, the feast of Christ the King. Only one homily in many years is not enough to make a difference against the set structures and language of the church as a whole. To mature the dominant image of God as an (old bearded) man, it will take many people to realise that a single image is misleading, constraining, and is actually a problem worth doing something about.