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Women and the Language of Religion

by Casey Miller and Kate Swift

Ms. Miller and Ms. Swift are free-lance writers and editors. This article is adapted from the "The Language of Religion," a chapter from their work Words and Women, to be published in June 1976 by Doubleday/Anchor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 14, 1976, pp. 353-358. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The rising feminist consciousness of the past decade is beginning to effect significant changes in the English language. Linguistic sexism, while still dismissed by many with ridicule, is being confronted with increasing concern by those who recognize the concept of inherent sexual inequality as a scandal that must be resolved. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Christians and Jews are examining with new awareness some of the implications of traditional religious language.

Religious thinkers are forced to depend on symbols, particularly on metaphors and analogies, to describe and communicate what is by nature indescribable except in terms of human experience. The symbols are not intended to be taken literally but to point beyond themselves to a reality that can be only dimly perceived at best. "We must strain the poor resources of our language to express thoughts too great for words," wrote Hilary of Poitiers in the fourth century. "The error of others compels us to err in daring to embody in human terms truths which ought to be hidden in the silent veneration of the heart."

Since the major Western religions all originated in patriarchal societies and continue to defend a patriarchal world view, the metaphors used to express their insights are by tradition and habit overwhelmingly male-oriented. As apologists of these religions have insisted for tens of centuries, the male symbolization of God must not be taken to mean that God really is male. In fact it must be understood that God has no sex at all. But inevitably, when words like "father" and "king" are used to evoke the image of a personal God, at some level of consciousness it is a male image that takes hold. And since the same words are used in reference to male human beings -- from whom, out of the need for analogy, the images of God have been drawn -- female human beings are perceived as less godlike, less perfect, different, "the other." The most powerful symbols are often the simplest, those closest to experience -- in the case of words, those we use daily, almost without thought. But these symbols can also lead most easily to distortion.

I

Linguist Mary Ritchie Key provides a pertinent example. In the Aztec language, which does not have masculine and feminine gender in its grammatical system, the third-person-singular pronoun yejua can refer to he, she or it. Key is convinced

that this is relevant to the concepts which the Aztecs devised for the explanation of their origins. They believed that the origin of the world and all human beings was one single principle with a dual nature. This supreme being had a male and female countenance -- a dual god who conceived the universe, sustains it, and creates life [Male/Female Language, by Mary Ritchie Key (Scarecrow, 1974), pp. 20-21].

The god is called Ometeotl -- from ome, meaning "two," and teoti, meaning "god." Sometimes the deity is described as having a partner or equal counterpart, or is referred to by a term that means "the mother, the father, the old one." Yet despite the notion of plurality, the god is always spoken of in the singular grammatical form. There is a plural in Aztec which the ancients could have used, Key notes, but instead they referred to Ometeotl by the genderless third-person-singular pronoun yejua. Since our language has no personal pronoun equivalent to yejua, she points out, there is simply no way to translate the Aztec concept of a personal God into English.

"Nevertheless," Key says, "the eminent authorities who discuss Aztec religion all use the pronoun ‘he’ in the discussions. There is no more reason to use the male referent than to use ‘she.’ We can substitute the female referent just as correctly: ‘She is Queen . . . and she rules.’" As for the concept of partner or equal, the translators use the words wife or consort. "Again, there is no word in English . . . to refer to this single dual being."

The authorities on Aztec religion are not the only translators who have allowed cultural or religious bias to affect their renderings of ancient texts. Phyllis Trible’s analysis of the creation story in the second chapter of Genesis provides other examples in the translation of the Hebrew ’adham as "man" rather than by a more inclusive term, and in the choice of "help meet" or "help mate" as the meaning of ’ezer ("Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 1973, pp. 35-42). Neither rendering is a mistranslation. When the King James Version of the Bible was completed in 1611, the Old English sense of man as "a person of either sex" was still recognized, though the word had already become ambiguous, and ’ezer does not imply either grade or rank. But no widely accepted translation has ever performed the urgently needed clarification of these Hebrew words by substituting a more accurate rendering of man to include both sexes, and not until 1970, when the New English Bible translated ’ezer as "partner," has the connotation of "handmaiden" been corrected.

II

Female God imagery, clearly present in the Hebrew Scriptures along with male imagery, has often been ignored in English translations. When Moses, near the end of his life, speaks to the Israelites still wandering in the desert, he says, according to the King James Version, "Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee" (Deut. 32:18). Two problems are involved. (We are indebted for this information to Phyllis Trible , who discusses the female imagery of Deuteronomy 32:18 in her article "God, Nature of the Old Testament" in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, Abingdon Press, scheduled for publication in 1976. This article and Dr. Trible’s paper "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation" provides numerous other instances of female imagery for God in the Bible.) The first is that the English word "beget" fails to convey here the full sense of the original Hebrew verb, which means either a father’s act of begetting or a mother’s act of bearing. Modern translations like the Revised Standard Version (1952), the Jerusalem Bible (1966) and the New English Bible (1970) repeat this limited interpretation, possibly because we have no equivalent in English to express the wider meaning conveyed in the Hebrew original.

The second problem has been handled with varying degrees of fidelity. "Thou . . . hast forgotten God that formed thee" is not incorrect, but "formed" is an indefinite rendering of a Hebrew word that specifically describes the action of a woman in labor, and it is therefore never used in reference to a man. The Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible come closer to the Hebrew in their wording "God who gave you birth" and "God who brought you to birth." Even so, the imagery in translation is not as strongly or exclusively female as it could be. The Jerusalem Bible’s reading, "unmindful now of the God who fathered you," is both patriarchal and erroneous.

The meanings of Greek texts also have sometimes been changed in biblical translations. For example, the King James reading of John 16:21 says: "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world." Modern readers quite naturally attribute the woman’s joy to the birth of a son. But the Greek word here translated "man" means "a human being," prompting the translators of the Revised Standard Version to say "for joy that a child is born into the world." Two more recent translations, however, the New English Bible and the Jerusalem Bible, again opt for "man."

In her widely read essay "Games Bible Translators Play," Ruth Hoppin, of the NOW Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion, notes several other instances in which masculine nouns and pronouns have been substituted for those of common gender. In John 1:12 and in I John 3:1-2, for example, the phrase "sons of God" occurs in the King James Version, a reading changed to "children of God" in both the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible. In view of the enormous weight given by Christians to every word of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, the use of "sons" is not easily explained.

While Western religions have traditionally portrayed the spiritual nature of human beings and their relation to God in male terms, sexuality is portrayed as female, the embodiment of sin, forever distracting men from godliness. Men are sons of God; women are daughters of Eve. Catalysts in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, women are defined in terms of the extremes of sexuality men experience -- whore or virgin, agent of Satan or mother of God.

III

Krister Stendahl, dean of Harvard University divinity school, has come to see the seriousness of the problems created by male-centered religious imagery, and he links the way Christians speak about God with the way they tend to think about God. "All good theologians," he has said, "have always been in tune with that story about the person who came back from heaven and told what God looked like, saying: She is black." Stendahl continues:

The masculinity of God, and of God-language, is a cultural and linguistic accident, and I think one should also argue that the masculinity of the Christ is of the same order. To be sure, Jesus Christ was a male, but that may be no more significant to his being than the fact that presumably his eyes were brown. Incarnation is a great thing. But it strikes me as odd to argue that when the Word became flesh, it was to re-enforce male superiority.

Much so-called liberal theology has a special problem here, for it has tended to increase the anthropomorphism of Christian language. In moving away from the deeper aspects of trinitarian speculation, it centered more and more on the idea of God as the Father and made the imagery of Fatherhood the overarching metaphor for God. One started with the idea of "Father" and blew it up into divine proportions. The old process was reversed: Instead of saying that the One who created the world and nurtured the galaxies could even be called "Father" by the mystery of faith, anthropomorphism won out and the Father image became supreme. A metaphor of faith, with a specific and limited intention, hardened into a concept that was not checked by genuine transcendence, and it became trivialized. The time has come to liberate our thoughts of God from such sexism; and a richer trinitarian speculation with the Spirit (which happens to be female in Hebrew) may be one way toward that goal. It is obvious that those who say "God" and mean it cannot accept a male God without falling into idolatry.

Such attempts at rethinking and re-experiencing call for a critique and renewal of the traditional language of theology and liturgy and everyday life. For that reason, I take the matter of pronouns seriously. To many, such concerns seem trivial or ridiculous. They are not. Language is powerful. Generic "man" is a real obstacle to the digested understanding and feeling of "male and female created he them" ["Enrichment or Threat? When the Eves Come Marching In," in Sexist Religion and Women in the Church: No More Silence! edited by Alice L. Hageman (Association, 1974), pp. 120-121].

About a year before Stendahl made these remarks, two Harvard divinity school students, Linda Barufoldi and Emily Culpepper, who were enrolled in a course taught by Harvey Cox, had called for "concerted efforts in the lectures and discussions of this course no longer to use sexist language." As reported in the Harvard Crimson, "The proposal specifically called for a ban on the use of ‘Man,’ ‘Men’ and masculine pronouns ‘to refer to all people.’ It also urged that masculine names and pronouns not be used with reference to God." The class voted overwhelmingly to adopt the proposal, which Professor Cox characterized as responding to "the basic theological question of whether God is more adequately thought of in personal or suprapersonal terms" ("Two Women Liberate Church Course," Harvard Crimson, November 11, 1971).

The incident received wide coverage, including an article in Newsweek ("Pronoun Envy," December 6, 1971) which labeled it "yet another tilt at the windmill," and called the students "distaff theologians." This tongue-in-cheek attention was not paid, however, until 17 members of the university’s department of linguistics, including the department’s chairman, Calvert Watkins, had written a letter to the Crimson on the subject of the students’ action. The proposal "to recast part of the grammar of the English language reflects a concern which we as linguists would like to try to alleviate," the letter began, and it then explained the properties of what linguists call "marked and unmarked" pairs.

Many of the grammatical and lexical oppositions in language are not between equal members of a pair but between two entities one of which is more "marked" than the other (to use the technical term).

For people and pronouns in English the masculine is the unmarked and hence is used as a neutral or unspecified term. This reflects the ancient pattern of the Indo-European languages. . . . The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English (or that the feminine is unmarked in the language of the Tunica Indians) is simply a feature of grammar. It is unlikely to be an impediment to any change in the patterns of the sexual division of labor toward which our society may wish to evolve. There is really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking such changes [Harvard Crimson, November 16, 1971, p. 17].

In a letter to Newsweek (December 27, 1971), James L. Armagost, of the department of linguistics at the University of Washington, commented on his fellow linguist’s explanation of marked and unmarked pairs: "A reasonably inquisitive person might wonder why the masculine is unmarked. The question deserves a better answer than: ‘What a coincidence that the masculine is unmarked in the language of a people convinced that men are superior to women. Randall Blake Michael, a member of Cox’s class, also sensed the deep currents of pain his fellow students were expressing. The Newsweek account "does not seem to recognize that language, including pronouns, is capable of participating in the reality to which human beings must react and respond," he wrote. "Our society’s oppressive nature is all too obvious and all too real to these female human beings; and their expressions of pain should not be dismissed as a party game."

IV

How tendentious the whole issue of God’s "sex" becomes was demonstrated by Episcopal Bishop C. Kilmer Myers of California, in a statement opposing the ordination of women to the priesthood. "A priest is a ‘God-symbol’ whether he likes it or not," Myers wrote. "In the imagery of both the Old and New Testaments God is represented in masculine imagery. The Father begets the Son. This is essential to the givingness of the Christian Faith, and to tamper with this imagery is to change that Faith to something else." But "this does not mean God is a male," the bishop continued, for

biblical language is the language of analogy. It is imperfect, even as all human imagery of God must be imperfect. Nevertheless, it has meaning. The male image about God pertains to the divine initiative in creation. Initiative is, in itself, a male rather than a female attribute. . . . The generative function is plainly a masculine kind of imagery, making priesthood a masculine conception ["Should Women Be Ordained?" in the Episcopalian, February 1972, p. 8].

Conception? The word is a curious one to use in this context, bringing to mind as it does the union of ovum and sperm. And curious, too, is the notion that givingness is somehow more of a male than a female attribute, especially in the context of "generative function." The bishop’s theology here, as well as his biology, appears to be based on the linguistic assignment to males of exclusive credit for procreation. From the begettings of Scripture to the latest seminal idea for saving the world, the English language tells us that males alone are responsible for new life. According to this biology, the male inseminates whereas the female merely incubates. It is a scientific inaccuracy still reflected in the very different meanings assigned to the verbs "to father" and "to mother" -- and it remains a potent factor in traditional theological formulations of God’s nature.

Religious educators maintain that the use of literal images in teaching children about religious faith does not limit a child’s ability to reach a more mature understanding, provided the metaphorical concepts are such that adult faith can be built on them. Certainly from all the evidence available, a child, in modern times at least, would have to be a religious prodigy not to visualize some kind of human male figure out of all the masculine pronouns and the imagery of father, lord, king, etc., used to describe the deity. That many do hold such an image is illustrated in a small book called Children’s Letters to God. A special poignancy leaps from one page: "Dear God," wrote a little girl named Sylvia, "Are boys better than girls. I know you are one but try to be fair" [compiled by Eric Marshall and Stuart Hample (Pocket Books, 1966), unpaged].

The test of a metaphor, said British psychiatrist Robert H. Thouless, is not whether it is true or false, but whether it is adequate. "The test of adequacy," he wrote, "is whether it leads to understanding of and appropriate behaviour with respect to the thing referred to" (Authority and Freedom [Hodder & Stoughton, 1954], pp. 71-72). When Women challenge the masculine linguistic symbols for God, what they are asking, among other things, is whether these metaphors do not encourage a double standard for evaluating human beings in addition to reinforcing an idolatrous concept of the deity.

V

In an effort to avoid the overmasculinized symbolization of modern Christianity, it has become popular to speak of the "masculine" and "feminine" attributes of God. But this is a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, for clearly there are no words more slippery or more susceptible to stereotyping than these. Some religious thinkers shy away from such an obvious cultural trap -- "We have to stop either masculinizing or feminizing God and go for something fundamentally different" -- but from the Vatican to the smallest village congregation, other religious leaders seem all too eager to divide everything in life into sex-differentiated categories as a way of counteracting past prejudices, and they end up complicating the dilemma. For unless the categorizers have reached a level of understanding that frees them from at least the grossest cultural preconceptions in applying to God the words feminine and masculine, they merely add the weight of religious sanction to the polarization that stifles genuine individual distinctions.

"I would suggest the following parallel list as descriptive of the difference between the masculine and feminine sides of life," a minister wrote in his weekly newsletter:

rational, ordered spontaneous, free
form, plan matter, context, content
authority supportiveness
penetrating, aggressive receptive, submissive
linear, pointed voluminous, containing
government community
direction area, space

"Few would have trouble picking the left side as the masculine side and the right as the feminine side," the minister observed. "It is not merely a matter of cultural upbringing, since all of life, even physical objects, can be shown to have its masculine and feminine sides. Where cultural bias comes in is in the assignment of these various characteristics to the male or female" (Earle Fox, writing in the Bell Ringer, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, East Had-dam, Connecticut, February 27, 1972).

Yet that is precisely what the writer has done in imposing a "masculine-feminine" division on all of life, even physical objects. For what do "masculine" and "feminine" (as distinct from "male" and "female") mean except that they describe characteristics a given culture assigns to or associates with males or females? Can any culture that makes such assignments -- and all do -- be without bias from the viewpoint of another culture whose parallel lists of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics are quite different? It is hard to see what can be gained, pedagogically or theologically, by still another list of such contrasts. Apart from its transparent sexual analogies, the characteristics it assigns to "the masculine and feminine sides of life" do, however, reinforce a sex-role division consistent with Judeo-Christian cultural traditions.

In Thinking A bout Women Mary Ellmann tackles the problem of such analogies from a different perspective. She is speaking of the space program, and what it has to say about strength and weakness:

The shape of the rocket no doubt misleads many observers, along the cement paths of Freudian correspondences, to a masculine conception of the program. But its human role is not energetic or forceful.

Like a woman being carted to a delivery room, the astronaut must sit (or lie) still, and go where he is sent. Even the nerve, the genuine courage it takes simply not to run away, is much the same in both situations -- to say nothing of the shared sense of having gone too far to be able to change one’s mind.

It is, then, a time in which sexual differences are more visual than actual. We see a man doing what we would ordinarily think of as feminine, sitting still, and manage to think of it as masculine because a man is doing it. . . . Perhaps as long as sexual interest in any sense is strong, we will continue to comprehend all phenomena, however shifting, in terms of our original and simple sexual differences; and to classify almost all experiences by means of sexual analogy. The persistence of the habit is even, conceivably, admirable. It might be taken as proof of the fertility of the human mind that, given so little sexual evidence, it should contrive so large a body of dependent sexual opinion" [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), pp. 5-6].

Mortmain, a word that literally means "dead hand," came into being as a legal term referring to the perpetual ownership of lands by ecclesiastical or other authorities. "There was a time when the thought of Christendom was in mortmain no less than its land," J. B. Mayor wrote in 1876, and a hundred years later women find themselves still oppressed by the dead hand of sexist theology. Their new self-awareness opens perspectives that in the past have been obscured by "a male-centered cultural and religious heritage which continues to assume that man sets the standards and is the norm for being human."

The words just quoted are from the report of a conference of theologians, all of whom were women. The dual role of language in expressing experience and conditioning it, and the historical fact that males have been the namers and definers and, if not the sole originators, at least the chief interpreters of religious metaphors, were recurring conference themes. In the course of exploring new theological models, one of the concepts that evolved was the need for a greater emphasis on verbs rather than on nouns, the need to speak, for example, of "ruling" rather than of "king." Positions of power have traditionally been held by men, and so the noun forms used to describe images of power have for the most part been masculine. Women, however, have exerted power in other areas of life, the conference report noted. "Since the verb is a more dynamic form, it is more open to additional meaning that women’s experience may bring to it." The greater use of verbs would also avoid "attempts to place both masculine and feminine qualities in God," a step that tends "to eternalize what we now understand as social and historical cultural conditioning."

VII

The radical theologian Mary Daly is also interested in the liberating power of verb-forms -- of "God" as "Being," for example -- and in the power of naming.

The myth of the Fall . . . amounts to a cosmic false naming. It misnames the mystery of evil, casting it into the distorted mold of the myth of feminine evil. In this way images and conceptualizations about evil are thrown out of focus and its deepest dimensions are not really confronted.

Out of the surfacing woman-consciousness is coming the realization that the basic counteraction to patriarchy’s false naming of evil has to come primarily from women. By dislodging ourselves from the role of "the Other" . . . women are dislodging the mystery of evil from this false context and thus clearing the way for seeing and naming it more adequately [Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Beacon, 1973), p.47].

When Daly speaks of naming she refers to bringing into, being "a new meaning context . . . as we re-create our lives in a new experiential context." She says, "To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God."

The "method" of the evolving spiritual consciousness of women is nothing less than a reclaiming of the right to name.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the new speech of women can be equated simply with women speaking men’s words. What is happening is that women are hearing each other and ourselves for the first time, and out of this supportive hearing emerge new words. Words that, materially speaking, are identical with the old become new in a semantic context that emerges from qualitatively new experience. Thus the word "sisterhood," wrenched from its patriarchal context, no longer means a subordinate semibrotherhood but an authentic bonding of women ["The End of God the Father," Unitarian Universalist Christian, fall/winter 1972].

To Mary Daly, the essential thing is "to hear our own words, always giving prior attention to our own experience, never letting prefabricated theory have authority over us" (Beyond God the Father, p.189).

What is happening in language now seems simply to reflect the fact that, in the words of Pauli Murray, candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church, "women are seeking, their own image of themselves nurtured from within rather than imposed from without." Woman as temptress, the eternal Eve, the gateway to Hell, and woman as virgin, pure, undefiled keeper of hearth and home are polarized images in Western religious thought -- impossible extremes of evil and good that leave no place for a real person. But as women free themselves to reflect on their own experiences and longings, they are creating new images and symbols that will bring into being not a "feminine" theology, but new, more inclusive ways of describing the indescribable.


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