Does it really matter what we call Him? Shakespeare’s Juliet may have declared, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” but the reality of toying with how we speak of God can have results that are sour.
In today’s world of consumer Christianity, we are fond of picking out what we like about the Bible and the Christian Worldview and discarding the rest. As Jean Bethke Elshtain has pointed out, we have moved from a time when God or the Church dominated our sense of identity to an age where we create an identity not only for ourselves but for God as well. Unwittingly, however, in creating God in our own image, we risk cutting ourselves off from the very divine life we so desperately seek and need.
Recently, the Episcopal diocese of Washington, DC voted to purge its liturgy of gendered language. In this effort towards inclusivity, no longer will these churches refer to God with masculine terms such as “Father” or “He.” The Church of Sweden is inching in this direction, and some major American divinity schools are encouraging similar pronoun shifts. For many people, this is not something that Christians need to get all bent out of shape about. Shouldn’t we pay a bit more attention to the logs in our own eyes before worrying about the splinters in others’?
As nice as that sounds, what supporters of this move don’t seem to realize is that this is a pretty big splinter. When we strip our descriptions of God of biblical gendered language, we are stripping the very terms He has used to describe Himself. We are substituting the image of God of our imaginations for the God of the Bible as He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.
I know that for a lot of folks, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. God’s a big boy. He can handle it if we choose to call Him “her” or “zhe” or whatever springs to mind. Of all the things God might be worried about, pronouns can’t be high on his priority, right? God is infinite, beyond our comprehension, and too self-assured to be bothered about petty things like pronouns.
I’ve always found this to be a puzzling way of thinking. It’s the sort thing that sounds high-minded, but nobody would try it in their personal lives. Try this. Men, when you go home, call your wife by the wrong name. Describe her as you want her to be, rather than the way she is. Tell her you love her for characteristics which she does not have. Better yet, call her by an ex-girlfriend’s name. Tell me how that goes for you.
Women, imagine what it’d be like for your husband to do this to you. You’d be upset, and, what’s more, you’d be right! When you’re described in ways other than who you truly are, then you are not being treated as an independent person but only as a convenient figment of someone else’s imagination. For you to demand to be seen and loved for who you are is not about you being petty; it’s about you being a person.
It is the same with God. He is a person. That’s why it matters. God isn’t a force with no opinion about how he’s addressed. He is a person with specific characteristics, not a nebulous blob in the heavens who can be molded into any form we wish. Yes, God is infinite, but He is not indefinite. God has revealed Himself as a God of justice, a God of holiness, a God of compassion, and a God of love. It is not for us to decide which parts of his self-revelation have become passé.
If God is the God of the Bible, then we call Him “Him” because He calls Himself “Him.” We can get into questions of why He is “Him” and not “Her” or “It,” but the key thing is that He calls Himself “Him.” If we are going to call ourselves Christians, then our perceptions of God must be driven by what God has revealed of Himself in the Bible.
Now, many will say, “Oh, I believe the Bible. And I know from His Word that God is a God of love and ‘radical inclusiveness.’ Would the God of the Bible care about all this?” Well, given that one of the most consistent themes throughout the entire Bible is how persnickety God gets when people try to approach Him in ways other than which He has revealed Himself, I’d say, yes, He would and does care.
This image of God as “radically inclusive” is all well and good, but that is simply not the story you see in the Bible. You can make a far stronger case that “radical exclusivity” is a better characteristic of God. How many times in the Bible does God complain about His people’s betrayal and adultery? How many times does He demand absolute and exclusive fidelity? How many times did He grow jealous when Israel tried to worship Him with their own agendas or the characteristics of the neighbors’ deities? These are not the reactions of someone indifferent to how people describe Him.
To refrain from calling Him “Him” is to speak of Him other than the way He has revealed Himself to us. It is to make Him in our image instead allowing Him to be as He would have us know Him, as the one who has made us in His image. If our descriptions are only about our understanding of Him, then there is not really a “Him” to pray to but only our own imaginations. A god whose nature is determined by our own needs and preferences will have no power to save us beyond what we can do for ourselves.
Ironically, by trying to keep limits from the nature of God and saying that He is beyond all of our categories, we put upon Him those same limits we are trying to avoid. When we take away all boundaries, He becomes only what our imagination allows Him to be. This leaves us with a god who will always speak for whatever we hold most dear but can never be truly counted on to speak against the idols of our hearts. He will always be for whatever we are for and opposed to whatever we hate.
We may think that by emphasizing the boundlessness of God we are freeing Him from our historical or moment or individual perspective, allowing Him to push us further than we would otherwise allow ourselves to go. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. In our quest to see God beyond the way He has revealed Himself to us, we paradoxically make Him limited to every passing fancy we have. In place of a church council, papacy, or doctrine reigning over Christian thought and practice, we simply replace those with the Magisterium of the transitory moment.
Fortunately, this phantom is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible does condescend to speak to us in our language and is forever beyond what we may know in full. Yet this same infinite and definite God is there, and, as Francis Schaeffer said, he is not silent. He has spoken truth to us about Himself, and by this we may truly know Him and understand his view of ourselves and the world.
The Bible’s gendered language was no accident of history but tells us something eternal of His attitude towards His Bride, the church. Our lives as gendered beings are not coincidental either, but are designed to tell us something of the greatest love story in human history. God is the Father, Christ is the Groom, and the church is his beloved Bride, for whom He conquered death itself.
Timothy D Padgett, PhD, is the author of the forthcoming book, Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 and is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint.org