The limitations of language… making sense without talking nonsense.

So, today I thought I’d write about language rather than post yesterday’s sermon (partly because I didn’t preach a sermon yesterday- we had an open floor discussion around the things that are important in families, while in another part of the space a group tried to find as many different families within the Bible as they could… lots of fun.

Anyway- language, and specifically the problem of talking about God in English. More specifically, can we use female language to talk about the Christian God in English without dishonouring the person of God.  Answer- yes and no. Wahey… now go and enjoy the rest of the day, if you just wanted the answer without the thinking… or read on for some more thoughts and a rationale…

Yes- we can use female language to talk about God. The Bible uses maternal imagery (as a mother hen…), the Bible also talks about men and women, male and female being created in the image of God… so that seems to imply that God is not limited to the male gender, and therefore not limited to male language.

But no- the Bible clearly describes God as Father (that’s the word Jesus uses), and the pronoun used by Jesus to describe the Father is a male word- he. So that’s that really… God’s a he because Jesus said so. And Jesus was trying to communicate ideas that were bigger than language…

You see, Jesus was trying to talk about God to people, and God is unimaginably huge, and our brains are limited… and language, as much as it helps to explain, also limits thing. If Jesus said ‘Father’ he meant all sorts of things by it- and probably none of them included primary earner, ability to grow a beard, propensity for breaking the speed limit or a certain genetic make-up. He could have said ‘Mother’, but that would have meant all sorts of other things in his culture, and chief among those would have been the understanding of authority and power- Jesus was reframing the sovereignty of God- the LORD almighty, in a personal way, but God was still to be understood as God, the LORD almighty… and that just wouldn’t make sense to his listeners if you said ‘Mother’.  A whole load of other good things would be understood, but not that one.

And then there’s the grammar thing- in English, we have male and female pronouns which we only use to describe things which have gender (people and animals), and boats and the sea. Everything else is neuter (it)… In French, however, the word ‘it’ and every noun has a gender- things are masculine or feminine- so tables and chairs and clothes and the weather are all masculine or feminine… And in German there’s 3 genders- but this time you have things that are masculine, feminine or neuter. So the whole idea of gender language to talk about something that is beyond our normal understanding of male and female is just odd- its something that is irrelevant in many languages…

Asking a French person the question ‘can we use female language to talk about God?’ is like asking ‘can we use male language to talk about the church?’… it makes no sense… every word has a gender, it doesn’t make it male or female… the use of the ‘der’ or ‘le’ pronoun doesn’t imbue German and French tables with testosterone…

So, you can use ‘she’ to talk about God, so long as you realise its equally as limited as when you use ‘he’. You can call God mother if you would like to, so long as you realise you’re missing out on something that was important enough to Jesus that he made a different decision when he chose to talk about God in a personal way; and you can call God ‘father’, so long as you remember that God isn’t the same as your biological father… God is our Father in Heaven- which is so much more that it should encompass all that was appreciate in the mothers and fathers that we see around us…

Ultimately, though, we have to make some kind of decision and use shorthand… maybe we should use ‘mother’ for the next millennium to balance out the discrimination against women and mothers in our society, or just stick with ‘father’ because its what we’re using now, but either way it won’t actually change who God is, will it?


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