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?” http://www.elca.org
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.