Is Inclusive Language Inclusive?

While I have mulled this question over in my thoughts for a few years now, I finally decided to get my thoughts together after reading this post by Amadahy.

The issue of our language as it regards God is a struggle, as Amadahy points out:

I know many Christians tell me that they don’t view God as solely male, but when I start referring to God in a gender neutral way… I can feel them screaming “It’s FATHER!” in their minds.  That’s a problem for me … Father.  I don’t have one, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.  Any association I have of Father is either not positive, or an ideal that I’ve never seen.  I think the title of Father God provides some strong comfort to people…. It can make me angry.  I generally catch myself when I start this pattern of thinking, it’s not something I want to encourage my mind to play with, but as Christians start talking about their beloved Father, I can feel myself screaming “How dare you talk to me about a Father!”  Again, I discourage this thought pattern, and it’s not Christian’s fault.. It’s mine.  My Christian friend has said something along the lines of I should embrace this Father-Son concept precisely because it can live up to what I need in a Father that I don’t have.  She means well, but that idea… you will watch me rebel so quick it’s terrible.  I get caught in the mental trap of “I don’t need a father, I’ve never needed a father, I’ve made it this far.. Who the hell does your God think he is, calling himself my Father.  I don’t have a Father”  Again I don’t encourage this thought pattern, but I can’t deny that it rears it’s ugly head.  I should say that I love my biological father despite his actions; that I would still do anything for him, but he has chosen to reject me.  The convoluted father stuff…. The divine femine is easier.

Amadahy makes an excellent point–people react to language in different ways. It is the nature of language that it cannot completely describe the full nature of anything, only the parts that we choose to describe at that moment. My sweater is tan. But it is also long-sleeved, woven, machine-washable, comfortable, speckled, etc.

I understand, then, when people don’t want to talk about God as a Father–God is much more. Though the overwhelmingly dominant image of God in the Bible is masculine and of a Father, and so has its place, it is neither the only image in the Bible, nor is it the only image we experience.

My seminary, Trinity Lutheran, has an inclusive language policy. Here is an excerpt:

Trinity Lutheran Seminary is committed to work toward inclusivity in action and language. Exclusive language has caused alienation of women, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the very young, persons with handicapping conditions, and those from various socio-economic classes. Often the result is that our relationships with others and with God are broken and burdened by the barrier of words.

In our commitment to inclusivity, the faculty calls on all members of the community to:

1. work toward the consistent use of language that is inclusive of all people, and;
2. struggle against the repeated and exclusive use of speech that limits our understanding of God. The faculty asks and expects that inclusive language be the norm of the seminary.

Inclusive language is language carefully chosen to break barriers of exclusivity. It is “for” everyone and “against” no one. Inclusive language is an intentional attempt to communicate our own thoughts and the Gospel in a universal way. Inclusive language allows persons to focus on the message to be communicated rather than on the speech and person of the speaker.

As our community adopts inclusive language as our norm, we also continue our dialogue and education in order to help us lovingly hold one another accountable for our speech and care for one another in this process of growth.
-“Use of Inclusive Language at Trinity Lutheran Seminary”, Community Life Handbook. Adopted by the faculty on May 10, 1991 and revised May 13, 1994.

I struggle with this policy, but not because of what is written (aside from the fact that it has not been revised in 18 years, which is far, far too long). I struggle with it because my experience with inclusive language has not been in line with the policy.

What should be an affirming, opening, inviting policy is often used (by the church at large) in ways that do not promote inclusive language, but instead exclusive language. It is one thing to say, “I will not call God Father because of my experiences.” It is another to say, “You cannot call God Father because of my experiences.” This is how the use of inclusive language has been interpreted: instead of including more images of God, we are excluding them.

It is wrong to force the entirety of the experience of God under the title Father. It is equally wrong to force any part of the experience of God out from under that title. Telling someone that their way of describing God is invalid because you disagree with it is not being inclusive, but exclusive.

In my experiences, God has been a Father. God has also been a Mother. And a Brother and a Sister. Often a Cousin. The heart of these experiences of God is neither gender nor authority–it is relationship. That’s the reason for the Father-Son imagery.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus addressed God as abba, “father.” This address does not ascribe human male sexuality to God but is an intimate address that is suggestive of the loving and trusting relationship between parent and child.
-“What is the Proper Use of Language?”

It is important to me that I can experience God as a loving, comforting father. For others, that image is not so important. Likewise, there are images for God that offend me. Jesus as the Victorious Conqueror, for example, is an image I find highly distasteful. But I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t focus on that image of Jesus. It is a valid image. It tells us something about Christ, as all of our linguistically constructed images do.

By mandating that our images of God, Biblical or not, are no longer acceptable because they are inconvenient to some, we are not making our language inclusive. We are committing the very error we are trying to correct. I believe in inclusive language as long as it is actually inclusive.


14 thoughts on “Is Inclusive Language Inclusive?

  1. I prefer the term “expansive” to inclusive. Whatever includes (someone) excludes (someone else). Expansive language attempts to hold your father next to my sister, your child with my mother, without making any of them more necessary or less welcome than another. It also acknowledges that as inclusive as our language gets, it will never encompass the reality of God, so it must expand …
    Actually, I think it’s as inadequate as “inclusive,” but we still find the need to talk about God in words…


  2. I confess my first thoughts were to remember the movie Talledega Nights and the scene where Will Farrell is praying to the Baby Jesus and a fight ensues because someone else at the table thought that was ridiculous. Seriously though, I would agree that inclusiveness has often been, in my experience, just exclusion of masculine imagery. I do like what Rosalind says about expansive language, that’s kind of appealing to me. I think the problem with arguing about gender and God is that it becomes impossible to transcend such a narrowly defining concept by resorting only to the narrowly defined parameters themselves. In other words we can’t get around people’s personal hangups about language for God just by substituting similar language. And as much as I understand people feeling excluded when we use only male language, I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t to make me feel excluded by never using male language.


    1. Your last sentence sums up how I feel about it as well. And I admit, I do sometimes get confused when people pray to Baby Jesus, silly Lutheran that I am, heh.


  3. I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say that the seminary’s exclusive-language policy can be a good thing in certain cases. Before anyone lays into me or just scrolls past me to the next comment, hear me out.

    First, I’m going to say that the seminary doesn’t have an inclusive language policy, we have an exclusive language policy. Whatever the wording in the handbook is, the de facto policy is “if you call God “he”, someone will say something,” and I agree that that’s frustrating and that it can hurt just as many people as an exclusively-male image of God would. But here’s the thing: there are likely a lot of shiny-new seminarians who have never been exposed to inclusive language or the possibility of other images for God, and who will fall into exclusively-male language just by default. If they don’t learn about all the countless other possibilities for rich and beautiful descriptions of God in seminary – and if the countless other possibilities aren’t drilled with them regularly, in daily worship, as opposed to being covered once in an Intro-to-Worship lecture and then never mentioned again – they’re going to keep going with male-only language by default, and we’ll have raised another generation of leaders in the church, and another generation of the church, who only see God as male, with all the attendant baggage that that brings.
    At least one of my professors has described theology as always corrective: the pendulum will swing too far in one direction, then it’ll swing too far back in the other direction. Although I agree that shutting down any use of male imagery for God is unhealthy in the Church at large, within the walls of the seminary, I think it can be a necessary, albeit frustrating, overcorrection to force those shiny-new male-language-exclusive seminarians to recognize that there are other ways to talk about God.

    Also, I’m now strongly tempted to preach my final sermon at my MIC site about God as (feminine)Wisdom, and draw from Julian of Norwich’s “Jesus as mother” imagery, just to see people’s reactions. =)


    1. I can see that. I wish that were stated as the seminary policy. I may disagree with it, but at least it would be forthright–I’d know what was expected. As it is, the reality and the policy are two different things.


  4. I support gender neutral language as a whole, but it’s hard to get around using a singular pronoun for God. “It” denies God’s personality, and I don’t think “she” is proper. God’s relationship with mankind is described in masculine terms and is pictured in gender roles (Eph 5:20-23; 1 Cor 11:3).


  5. The english language doesn’t make it easy, no. And you’re right, “it” just sounds so very wrong, and impersonal–it’s not gender-neutral, it’s gender-absent, and gender is one of the main ways we identify relationships and humanity in English.


  6. For whatever it’s worth, the English translation of the Roman Missal is fairly gender-inclusive. Where the Latin appeals to “fratres,” the English translation is either “brothers and sisters” or alternately “brethren” (the English-speaking priest is free to use either). And it was that way even before the recent revision.

    Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.

    Hmm… we’re still very big on God’s masculinity, though. 😉


    1. Our liturgical stuff and the translation of the Bible we use most often (the New Revised Standard Version) do the same thing–language about human beings is gender-inclusivised. Same problem with God, though.


  7. There is also a lot of great imagery for God that come from nature (rock of our salvation, stream of living water) that could (and should) be used more often.


  8. If you have a problem with the masculinity of God you should not call yourself Lutheran, but then you are ELCA. If the Bible refers to God as He, that’s who He is and that it enough. Why do we need all this debate?


    1. Please read my post and my replies to the above comments. I do not have a problem addressing God with masculine pronouns, and I have a problem with people and institutions that want to restrict its use.

      There are, however, Biblical female images of God. God describes Godself as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a woman in labor and giving birth. The whole point of my post, and what inclusive/expansive language should do, is allow these images to stand -alongside- the masculine images. Unfortunately, the trend has turned to disallowing the masculine images, which offends both you and me, and is precisely what my post is fighting against.


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