Adventures in Seminary: Jesus was a White Guy

Debating gender and God.

Let me admit right up front that I was not there for the moment that spawned the controversy. I confess before God and before you all, my brothers and sisters in Internet-Land, that I do not regularly attend the interdenominational morning service at Marquand Chapel here at the divinity school. Between the hustle and bustle of school and work, the constraints of Chronic Fatigue, and morning and/or evening prayer every day at the Berkeley Center, I’m lucky if I make it to Marquand once a week to pray with all of my fellow students.

So I was not there on the morning when the incident took place. But I have been given accounts of it by several of my fellow students. The accounts generally follow one of two patterns:

Version One

The service was going along swimmingly. The congregation seemed to be really enjoying the additions of incense and extra hymns that the “preaching and presiding” class had provided. And then a student got up to deliver the sermon. In love, he had suggested briefly that maybe the attempt to always use “gender-inclusive language” when referring to God was in itself a form of exclusion, or at least that some people feel that way.

Immediately, Siobhain Garrigan (the dean of the chapel) and the chapel ministers (students interning under Siobhain who help organize services and keep the chapel running) stood up, huffed and puffed, made snarling faces at the preacher, and then walked out, loudly stomping their feet as they went.

It was terrible! How could they walk out like that? Totally unprofessional and uncalled for. It marred the rest of the service and put everyone on edge.

Version Two

The service was already a bit overdone to begin with, having all these crazy embellishments like incense and extra hymns (as if we needed more!). Then this guy gets up to preach. He’s not up there for five seconds before he starts saying things like:

“Gender-inclusive language is exclusivist! God is not an ‘it’! If we can’t talk about God the Father, then how can we call ourselves Christians? What’s wrong with you crazy women!”

It was so upsetting. After sitting through a few minutes of this abuse, one of the chapel ministers leaned over to Siobhain and said that she couldn’t stay there any longer, that it was too painful to keep listening. Siobhain told her that she could go. After the sermon was over, Siobhain left to check on her and make sure she was alright.

It was terrible! How could he preach something so divisive and sexist? Totally unprofessional and uncalled for. It marred the rest of the service and put everyone on edge.

Whatever it was that really happened at this service, it was enough to ignite the entire campus into a frustrated state of debate over the language we use to speak of God. What followed was a series of public debates on the issue, as well as many private conversations and bitch fests.

One such private conversation in which I was privileged to participate went something like this:

WILL: Can you believe what happened in chapel the other day?

NED: No, I can’t believe it.

ME: What happened?

ROB: Yeah, it seems to have people pretty upset.

ME: Wait, what happened?

WILL: Well, I think that’s understandable, considering the issues involved. And then the way that the debate unfolded.

NED: Yeah, it’s been pretty hectic. Everyone is taking sides.

ME: What happened?

ROB: Wait, you don’t know what happened?

ME: NO!!!

At this point, all three of them breathed a collective sigh, realized that I’m a big loser who never goes to chapel, and then proceeded to try to explain, Will giving me version one, Rob giving me version two, and Ned muttering something about Jesus being a white guy and then snickering to himself.

It should not be especially surprising that a discussion about gender language and God has come up at Yale, an interdenominational school. The tension between traditions and ideologies marks everything we do here, even though we all go out of our way to play nice and respect each other’s ideas.

My gender studies minor as an undergrad did not prepare me for the fact that gender language in worship is an issue for Christians. Every class that I took as part of that minor spent little time on Christianity, only taking a few moments here or there to quote Thomas Aquinas (generally out of context) and use that as evidence for why the Christian Church has been a cause of patriarchy and generally an enemy of everything that is right and good.

I never entirely bought that line of secular assault. As an Episcopalian, I know that gender has been an issue in my church and that it has caused deep divides. In the 1970s, my church broke with the rest of the Anglican Communion by ordaining women first to the deaconate and then to the priesthood. In 1989, we ordained our first female bishop. The backlash was fierce and the road we’ve traveled as a church has been long and hard.

We’ve weathered the storm, however. Women are entering the ordained ministry in our church with great regularity. Many of the other churches in the Communion also ordain women now, even some of the most conservative churches. Of course, there are still those within the Episcopal Church who turn their noses up at the idea of women performing the sacraments, but these people are a tiny minority. They have to accept the fact that the ordination of women is a done deal, that there is nothing about the penis that makes its owner more qualified to preach than someone who has a menstrual cycle.

But the debate over worship language is not one that has been visible to me in my church. Yes, there was a great deal of debate over the language that was included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer which still governs our services today, but that debate had more to do with style of language than with gender issues. At least that’s what I always assumed. Walking into church on a Sunday, though you might see women performing any number of tasks on equal footing with men, you’d never know that women are considered equal from the language we use. You’d certainly never know it from the way that we talk about God.

For most of my teen years, I was away from the Christian Church. There were a variety of reasons for this, but one of them was the fact that I’ve never quite been able to identify with a male God, or at least with a God who is solely male. How could God the Father give birth to creation? How could God be loving, nurturing, sensitive, forgiving, and not have anything of the sacred feminine within her? It just seemed to make more sense for me to relate to female or feminine images of God. And so, for those years, as I developed a personal piety that did not require church, I used exclusively feminine language and images to talk about and think about God.

When I returned to the Church at age 20, I did not leave behind the feminine imagery or language of my personal piety. But I accepted the fact that the corporate or group worship life of the Church involved exclusively male language and imagery. I would sometimes switch pronouns around under my breath during services: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, with the Father and the Son, she is worshipped and glorified, she has spoken through the prophets …”

But by and large, I embraced the concept of God the Father and God the Son. We all make compromises of one sort or another when we enter corporate worship. It’s a necessity if we are to try to find a common space in which to celebrate something as personal and unique as our individual relationships with the divine. On the whole, I didn’t find my compromise to be so bad. For a number of years, I had been thinking of God in only female imagery. Perhaps the idea of the Father and the Son would provide some necessary balance to my admittedly one-sided gender equation for God.

It was quite a shock for me to learn when I came to Yale that the Christian Church has been involved in the feminist struggle for more inclusive language since day one. In my Forms of Christian Worship class, Dean Garrigan, speaking with us as a guest lecturer on the subject of inclusive language, discussed with us the various Trinitarian formulas that feminists have proposed, many of which are in use in Marquand Chapel. “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is one that is popular. “Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker” is one that I am particularly fond of. It was so amazing to realize that such work was going on within the Church. I felt like scales were falling from my eyes as the Dean spoke.

“But what about Jesus?” Kaji asked at the time. “Isn’t it kind of obvious that he was male?”

“Yes,” said Siobhain, “but it was not his gender which made him God. The language that feminists are using highlights Christ’s function in the Trinity rather than his maleness.”

And this is a big part of the issue. For so long, our model of how to understand God has been built around our model of how we understand the world, which in the West has been patriarchal. It is problematic to make God a father and not a mother, a son and not a daughter. If we are made in the likeness of God, the absence of female names for God means more than just a turn of phrase.

God as the Father is a particularly troubling concept for some people. How can we tell a woman who was raped by her father that God is her Father in Heaven? A child who has been abandoned by his father may start to see God as just another source of abandonment if Father is the only model for God that we present.

Nevertheless, the imposition of strictly inclusive language for God has created its own problems. There are people for whom Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are very powerful images, and when they cannot invoke those images they cannot connect with God at all. They feel stifled.

Likewise, the move to make all God talk gender neutral denies the many rich benefits that can be found in relating to God in a gendered way. My private prayer language of the Sacred Feminine, of God as Mother and Daughter, would presumably be no more welcome in a strictly inclusive environment than would its male counterparts. In a compromise like that, where God is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ but simply ‘it,’ it’s hard to see how anybody benefits. God can become sterile in such an environment if we aren’t careful.

In the wake of the controversy, the Right Reverend Chilton Knudsen, Bishop of Maine, came to preach and preside at the regular Wednesday night Eucharist. After the service, we were invited to stay and engage the bishop, one of only 11 women who have been ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church, in a discussion about gender inclusive language in worship.

After a few opening remarks, Bishop Knudsen opened the room up to questions and comments. A few deceivingly silent moments later, Will took the bait.

“I have no problem with finding ways of referring to God other than Father,” he says. “It’s when we try to de-gender Jesus Christ that I have a problem. Jesus was obviously male. He didn’t have to be a male, but he was one. I’d like to think that if he had come as a woman, that I wouldn’t have a problem referring to him as such. But since he did come as a man, I have a problem with language that attempts to mask that fact.”

“What you’re saying is that this is where you draw the line,” the bishop replied after a thoughtful pause. “It’s important that we hear each other when we say these things, that we not just jump to respond. You are pointing out where the line is for you. We need to listen and try to understand that.”

Andie, a second-year student, picked up on that theme. “We are so polarized in our society today about everything,” she said, “and I see it here at the divinity school too. I see it in this debate and the way that we’ve responded to it. When we had public discussions about it, people would talk and immediately you’d try to determine which side they were on, to size them up. Professors did it too. You could see them nod their heads when they agreed with someone or cross their arms and scowl when they didn’t. I found myself doing it too. And though I have strong opinions about this, I wonder if all this polarization is helping anything, if it’s even possible to listen to each other anymore.”

That’s the real question. It’s at the heart of this debate and at the heart of most others that we are having as a society. How can we possibly do anything meaningful and constructive as a people if we can’t be bothered to hear what we’re saying to one another, to understand where it comes from, even when we vehemently disagree?

The poison pill that has been swallowed by our society is not simply a product of broken morals and open indulgence nor of reactionary bigotry and unabated self-interest, neither of the Left or the Right. Rather, it is our unwillingness to listen to each other and to see each other as women and men engaged in a struggle for common ground.

Frankly, it’s amazing to me that Christian worship has been able to maintain as much unity as it has over the centuries. The collective group of Christians is a body divided, a Church with more splinters than a rotted piece of plywood. And yet we continue to exist and even occasionally to grow. We continue to come to places like Yale where we can bang our heads against each other in an attempt to find some common way to relate to God and to each other. We are still the Church, even in our brokenness. And God is still God, regardless of the pronouns we attach to her.

Article © 2004 by Jonathan Ratican