As I think about inclusive language, particularly as it pertains to God and humanity, I think of my own journey as I have come to understand God and humanity, particularly in relation to gender. In the not so distant past, I would have argued that to use mother to refer to God instead of father would amount to a type of blasphemy. In one sense, if scripture uses [male]language, even [male] pronouns with regard to God, and the language of “mankind” along with male pronouns in regard to humanity, who are we to tamper? Yet as I have come to talk about and even debate the merits of maintaining or expanding language one thing comes to mind; I have a wonderful relationship with my father. And in this sentence there is another truth. Some people have very difficult relationships with their fathers, or their mothers, or they don’t have one or the other or both parents altogether. What is their image of God compared to mine? Now this brings up the question, will my dogmatism to maintain the use of patristic language, because that’s how it was originally written, cause others to draw away from God because the images used for God reflect a broken reality in their own lives?
And this brings up another question. If there are images that are not particularly helpful for people to use when thinking about God, are there alternative images that expand the understanding of God? Are there alternative images that allow for a greater inclusivity of humanity? Of course! The bible overflows with ways to speak of humanity, of God, of Christ.
Inclusive language to me is about being able to proclaim God and the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that no one will feel that they are excluded. Or to put it another way, in such a way that everyone may have not one, but multiple images that help them to know God and the gospel.
Gender inclusivity is one area where this takes form. When and where we can use humanity instead of mankind, or persons instead of men, or sisters and brothers instead of simply brothers, we are opening up our message to a wider array of hearers and readers. When we use pronouns beyond “he” and “him” we speak in a different way to all, both women and men. What step could we take then, if we even embrace our transgendered kin by using the pronouns “ze” in conjunction with he and she and “per” alongside of him and her?
Of course, our language demands that we must use pronouns to refer to God. It becomes redundant when I say God multiple times in one sentence. Yet, to favor one gender in the pronouns excludes the other two. An incorporation of all three is one way to speak to a multitude of hearers.
Yet, to speak of God having gender at all is to define God in our own image. Any time we speak of God and create an image in our mind or language we run the risk of forgetting that God is transcendent to the creation. Rather, imagery and language used to describe God should not be to describe God, but rather God’s attributes. Metaphor and simile are useful to describe how we have known God to act throughout history, and in our personal histories.
The use of inclusive language in regard to both humanity and God is not a restriction or a law. Rather it offers freedom to proclaim welcome to all of us who have our own broken realities and freedom to experience the multifaceted attributes of God in new and meaningful ways.