Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pronouns and Pronouncements

Contemplation of the Trinity often leads to discussion about language. Can we refer to the Spirit as "She"? What about God? Do we have to say "Father"? The following is a reflection around some nuances of that discussion.

Whenever I consider the changes to worship, theology or language, I think first about Luther’s understanding of the first commandment. Luther said, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends… that is really your God.”[1] It is too easy for change for change’s sake to be made into an idol and, conversely, it is too easy to remain unchanged because of the idol of tradition. When we are seeking alternatives to what we have, we must first explore the why before the what. Is our change meant to correct “years of wrong” by substituting one set-in stone decision for another? Are we looking for how the Spirit may lead us to a deeper understanding of God in our midst or are we looking for a more tightly defined orthodoxy? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but unexamined faith is worth even less; it has the potential to harm the image of God for our neighbors.

Revisiting Paul Tillich’s thoughts on Trinitarian symbolism, the signs and names we attribute to the Holy, Holy, Holy help us comprehend how God is in community with us. Without that variety, the symbols lose their potency and, with that loss, their effectiveness in answering our ultimate concerns. Rosemary Radford Ruether argues once Christianity becomes the dominant cultural voice, the more the nuanced language of the New Testament loses its tension and, correspondingly, the more we need to look for the deeper metaphors that are present in our biblical tradition. Ruether specifically points to feminine imagery in the gospel of Luke and the comparisons of God to a woman adding yeast to flour (creating) or searching for a lost coin (redeeming). For Ruether, the rise of Christian belief and, thus, organization led to the weakening in understanding of the Father God, whom Jesus called, “Abba.”[2]

Yet, does simply stirring in new God-as-mother imagery really solve the problem that is, at its root, a creation of God our in our image, instead of considering in Whose image we were made? In order to address my ultimate concerns (Tillich), God must be different from me. “Why am I here and what will happen to me after here?” are not questions that I can satisfactorily answer from within myself, for myself. I need to look at the communion of the Trinity and the community around me to have those questions answered. Abrupt changes due to cultural alterations disrupt my understanding and re-stir the anxiety of those questions within me.

Simply alternating pronouns for God creates a binary trap, away from which even Paul tries to move believers. Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV) When there is no longer male and female, it is God’s undoing of what humans set in place in the Garden of Eden. The separation from one another that also separated us from God is undone through the righteousness and power of Jesus Christ. Our redemption and unity in creation must be considered anew daily, along with our baptisms, as a way of recognizing the death of the old Adam (and Eve).

The figures of the Trinity release us, through faith, from the binary trap of our world of sin. In loving relationship to one another, the one God reminds and shows us how to move together and how we think of the Three affects our ability to understand that reminder. If only “female” part of the Trinity is the Spirit, sent out from the first two members with a pat on the head, we risk projecting our cultural experiences onto the Spirit. That perspective risks the understanding the Spirit as not quite on the same level as the other Two Persons, just as women are somewhat perceived to be not on the same level as men. If the Mothering God is the one who suffers with us and is present in our pain, this is a subliminal way of portraying the lot of women as suffering. Finally, naming Jesus as a “Daughter” in an ultra-feminist Trinitarian formula runs up against the heresy of not recognizing the fully human, historical person of Jesus who, in human form, was a man.

To come back to my original thoughts, caution is needed in alternative Trinitarian formulas, but avoiding them or uncritically embracing them makes an idol of words and masks the depth of God in three persons. The variety of symbols for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit expresses some of the richness of God’s ability to exceed our needs, desires and expectations. We know we cannot save ourselves, but it is interesting that many of our attempts at linguistic change are approached from the idea of “redeeming” the history of the church.

If I refer to God as “She” when I preach, I do not undo the Crusades. I do not make God more palatable for someone who struggles with the word “Father” because of past experience. I do not make up for clergy abuse or undo hypocrisy on the church council. And if I think I do anything of those or similar things, I am making an idol of myself. However, if I listen to the Word with an open heart and believe that it is alive among us, the Spirit can guide me, and others, to new ways to express God, Three in One.

The first commandment is the easiest to break because we are always looking to affirm what we know to be true. If we ponder more deeply what we believe to be true, we may be still enough to look for how God, Living Word, Water and Wind, is graciously working in, through and for us and expanding our understanding and our faith.



[1] Kolb, Robert and Wengert, Timothy J. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000. p. 386.2

[2] Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk. Boston, MA: Beacon Press,1993. 65ff.


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