Tuesday, April 28, 2009

God and Lord, He and She

“God” is a hard word.

It’s hard in many respects, not least in its sound. Its relentless use in liturgy to avoid persona, projection, or pronouns feels like an assault, a pulsing hammer on the psyche, like a bad migraine.

There are dangers here. “God be with you” instead of “the Lord be with you” may be a well-intended anodyne, but it completely misses the theological and spiritual essence of the Christian message. “God be with you” is an impersonal abstraction. It isn’t even a gesture into the apophatic because there is not enough content or meaning in the phrase to go beyond, especially when it is used at the opening of the liturgy. Why should I want this nameless, characterless abstraction to be with me?

While it may be salutary to wish to compensate for misuse of hierarchical images from the past, the message that underlies the lost phrase, “the Lord be with you” is not about hierarchy. It is rather a challenge, the drastic message that to be Lord is to be a servant, that the unfathomable mystery chooses to be embodied.

The same difficulty occurs with liturgical overuse of “she” or avoidance of “he” in reference to God. The desire to make people comfortable or to break stereotypes about the divine may seem a good idea in the short term, but when personal pronouns are scattered willy-nilly, or omitted altogether, they can block interpretation at a deeper level. The same difficulty occurs when the male pronoun is insisted on in every context, no matter how inappropriate. Pronouns can be tools of violence, asserting the very sort of power that Jesus seeks to subvert.

We need to consider why the male pronoun is at times as important to use as the word “Lord.” While we might wish it otherwise, men are usually stronger than women, express dominance issues differently, and, as noted in (male) spiritual writing through the ages, seem less often naturally inclined to contemplation (see, for example, Gregory of Nyssa’s writing about Macrina).

However culturally conditioned these perceptions may be, and however much one might feel it appropriate to challenge them, these attributes play an essential role in the central metaphor/paradox of Christianity. It is not the maleness that is important here; it is rather that the use of the male pronoun is a way of emphasizing the reach, the infinite extent between the potential for the abuse of power and the divine humility. The essence of the one who is omnipotent is outpouring love, negating our expectations. The use of the male pronoun to signify this paradox is the opposite of justification for male dominance and exclusion of women.

Instead, it tells us that what is most potent, most capable of exercising power, what is “holy and mighty, holy and immortal” is more humble that we can bring our selves to imagine or could ever be; that the willing humility of the divine made manifest in Christ is an appalling, terrifying humility which we would rather not see, because to put on this mind of Christ would require us to give up too much of the illusion we hold dear. Yet modern liturgy seems to want feed this illusion, to have its cake and eat it, making us comfortable, perhaps, but leaving us empty, caught by the webs of our own artifice, unable to mirror the outpouring that moves us into the transcendent, which transfigures and sustains our daily round.

The twenty-first century doesn’t like paradoxes; they don’t give instant results, and they aren’t comfortable. You have to sit with them, accept them on their own terms before they open the narrow gate to salvation, the freedom from the trap of our own circular thinking.

In short, our liturgical emphasis on not giving offence puts us in danger of confining our “worship” to the most superficial level of our minds. Forced neutrality or imposed gender assignments confine us equally. They put us in danger missing the message, of losing the liturgical richness of metaphor and imagery that awakens, animates and engages the depths of our souls in the ordinary round. Such liturgical flatness reinforces our narcissism.

Liturgy is supposed to help us turn away from our likes and dislikes, our comfort or discomfort, to go deeper, to realize our communion, our share in the divine nature, our inheritance with Christ, by pointing us beyond ourselves to seek into the beholding. The Christian message is shocking in its reversals of power, and it is these reversals that break us open to receive the love that seeks to give us more than we can ask or imagine.


Anonymous J. A. Frazer Crocker, Jr. said...

Out of the park, Maggie!! Good on yer!!
I have a friend, once a Mormon missionary in Finland, who says that
Finnish has a gender-neutral personal
pronoun. I wish we had that in English. Our reality is shaped by our language, sometimes to our misshapenness.

1:25 am, April 29, 2009  
Anonymous Dfish said...

Dear Maggie:
I know there's a lot to unpack in here, or most often in your posts. The first line really made me pause. Just last night, I realized I am really struggling with the word "God" and God's presence for that matter. Your word for the liturgical replacement from Lord to God are nameless, characterless. This is exactly what I'm feeling - a very distant, abstract divine I'm often attacked by doubt and the thought that maybe I have a faith that doesn't work, that puts God in the pedestal of abstraction. How am I coping with this "faceless, nameless" God? I go deeper into my years of attraction to the Benedictine spiritual wellspring that Paul Wilkes, Esther de Waal, the Rule, and other online resources to sense a FACE to the Sacred I want to relate with. Now, Saint Benedict is becoming intimately a soul friend and guide, someone reachable, human, and who took the project of holiness with all the "poisons" around. I could extend this comment a bit. But I'll linger with some of your points in silence. Thank you for this no-nonsense commentary on language and liturgy.

1:31 am, April 29, 2009  
Blogger Sr. Valerie said...

Someone has said, though I don't know who, that God's name is not God. Sometimes I am struck by what an ugly word 'God' is. It's so bland, amorphous, and non-relational--the very opposite of what I understand the Divine to be. I, personally, have no difficulties with the word 'Lord' and have had to suffer through this period of so-called liturgical correctness where we substitute another expression for Lord. I have no difficulty with referring to the Divine with the male pronoun, as long as we realize that it is a placeholder for the Divine and does not limit who the Divine is in anyway. Thankfully, there are some glimmers that the tide may be turning...

12:57 pm, May 02, 2009  

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