HE

Recently I read an article called "11 Reasons Why Everyone Should Leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America."

At the risk of disseminating it further, you can find it at this link: http://www.exposingtheelca.com/exposed-blog/11-reasons-everyone-should-leave-the-evangelical-lutheran-church-in-america. It's part of a large series of similar fare about why the ELCA is supposedly evil and no longer teaches Biblical or confessional Lutheranism. As an ELCA pastor, I of course think this is a bunch of nonsense.

Everything I and most of my colleagues do is connected to a deep reading of scripture and the Lutheran confessions. A glance at this list shows its absurdity. Some of the things on it are things I'm quite proud of, like the ordination of gay or transgendered pastors, or our health care's coverage of certain controversial medical procedures--both things that can be supported by scripture, by the way. (It's just that the authors refuse to accept the idea that any interpretation of scripture other than their own might also be valid.) Others are patently false; the ELCA is not universalist, it does not reject substitutionary atonement--I'd be surprised if even Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber did so altogether, as the article accuses her of doing--and it certainly does not worship Asherah.

But there is one (just one) among its many statements that does ring true, and that makes me uncomfortable. The list says that "The ELCA has a hard time referring to God as 'He' and references to God the Father are rare." In some parts of the ELCA, this is quite true, and for good reason. But I also find it quite problematic.

The reasoning behind the absence of the masculine singular pronoun in our language today is mostly sound. Theologically speaking, God isn't male. Or rather, isn't limited by masculinity. In the first chapter of Genesis, we're told that God "created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." This means that men and women are equally reflective of God's image. God's image is as truly present in the woman as it is in the man. We understand that God encompasses masculinity and femininity, both at the same time, and isn't fully described by either. And our language should reflect that.

But it hasn't. For two thousand years, it hasn't. In Hebrew, the male pronoun is used in situations where you don't know the gender of the pronoun's object. The same is true, I believe, in Greek, where there is a neuter pronoun, but it isn't used for living beings (and God is certainly a living being). This is also true in Latin. And it's true for English. And most other modern languages. Typically, historically, the masculine pronoun is "universal." That means God got to be called "He" in every major language of the Christian Faith. Spanish, French, Italian, Slavonic, Russian: Él, Le, Il, I, Oн. The language we have used does not reflect the much wider reality of who God is. Our language has "boxed in" our understanding of God.

And for some people, this is more than simply limiting. Consider those who have been victims of abuse by a man--emotional, physical, sexual--who hear again and again God described as a male, as one of "them," those people who have caused such hurt and pain. Having the freedom to call God in other ways than "he" can free these people to have a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. This is of course especially true for those victims of a parent's abuse who are still cruelly expected to call God "Father."

The response that some in the church are adopting to these realities is to refuse to call God "he" anymore. There's some wisdom in seeking out other names. There's even Biblical precedent. Wisdom, personified as a woman in chapter 8 of Proverbs (among other places) was seen by the Church Fathers (and Mothers) as a type for Jesus. Jesus, who himself was incarnated as a male human, has Biblical evidence for being called female! He calls himself a mother hen in Luke 13. In a more violent feminine image, God is described as a mother bear, protecting her cubs, in Hosea 13. Seeking out other imagery for God, imagery that transgresses gender boundaries, or even gender binaries, can be a very powerful and deeply useful idea.

But I think there's still a problem in the rejection of the male pronoun. After all, calling God "He" has worked well for two thousand years worth of Christians. It has given our theology some powerful insights to encounter the masculinity of God. Excising that language altogether means excising nearly two millennia of Christian theology, spirituality, and imagery. We can't do it, or we'll lose God in the process.

The answer is clearly not to limit our language further. It is to expand our language as our understanding of God expands. We should call God both "He" and "She," as well as by other things that transcend gender. After all, God transcends all our human categories.

This is most true in the language we use to call upon the Triune God. Many postmodern Christians are beginning to reject the description of God as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Our current hymnal in the ELCA provides alternative language, such as, "Blessed is the Holy Trinity, One God..." This is a good alternative, but needs to be only that. An alternative. Sometimes we must call God by the old formulae. But if we are uncomfortable calling God "Mother, Child, and Spirit," we are also limiting ourselves. We need to remember that all these are metaphors--some of which are deeply embedded in scripture and God's own self-revelation (as, for example, Jesus often called the first person of the Trinity, "Father")--but none of them can encompass the totality of the One Who Is.

An aside: Some who have rejected the old Trinitarian formula have replaced it with "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier." Describing each person of the Trinity with its function is a problem--an old problem called modalism and labeled as heretical. The Father is not creator alone. The Son and the Spirit also participate in creation. Likewise with the other actions.

And one last thought. Not only is it important to hold on to those old ways of naming God, but it is also of equally vital importance that we find new ones. Rejecting feminine language for God leads to heresy just as readily. Why else did early Lutherans have to push back against the cultus around the Virgin Mary? That unhealthy veneration grew in the medieval church simply because the medieval church felt the lack of the feminine in its language for God. It is only through recognizing God's femininity that we can fully reject any attempts to develop a second, female idol.