When the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered what became one of history’s most memorable lines: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Had this event occurred 15 years later, Armstrong’s word choice might have been very different. By then, cultural shifts had brought about the emergence of more inclusive language forms. Humankind became the norm for speaking of our species, not mankind.
Language changes over time. In the church, however, we can be slow to make adjustments to linguistic shifts. Take, for example, our Christian language about God. The prevailing theological language in most congregations continues to identify God with almost exclusively male designations. Many of our hymns, Bible translations and everyday conversations are saturated with masculine imagery for God. Every reference for God that uses something other than “he” or “Father” can appear almost deviant to many faithful people.
The source of these inherited male images in our God talk is not difficult to locate. Male dominated language grew straight out of a world where ruling men recorded the Scriptures. Women, slaves and other secondary people on the outskirts of society had no recognized authority in the patriarchal culture of the day. Despite this marginalization, women remained some of Jesus’ closest followers. Their role in his ministry, their presence at the tomb, and their togetherness in prayer are unmistakable. No one called on these first-century women, much less their ancestral mothers, to play a role in interpreting the times. That would have been unthinkable.
Out of the biblical account grew plenty of literal associations of God with maleness. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling depiction of God as an older man with a white beard became emblematic for much of the art world. Many believers still assume that strictly male representations of God are the most fitting way to honor the divine, this in spite of the Bible’s references to God as midwife (Psalm 22), birth giver (Isaiah 42), mistress of a household (Psalm 123) and nursing mother (Isaiah 66).
If the only language we have for God is masculine, we limit the breadth of our theology. We significantly reduce the fullness of our relationship with God. To be sure, all words and metaphors have their limits. But why limit our God talk to the smallest version of ourselves, making us out to be narrower than we really want to be? God doesn’t deserve to be domesticated in the way we tend to constrain our own imagination.
Our conceptualizations of God inevitably affect the way we relate to each other. Christians have spilled plenty of blood over the centuries and have engaged all sorts of violent behaviors. Much of the formal justification for this hostility and aggression has stemmed from associations made with the violent and vengeful God sprinkled across the pages of the Old Testament. In New Testament portrayals, Christ as a warrior fighting evil has inspired countless Christians to fight in defense of God’s kingdom.
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© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers