AN INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE CONVOCATION TALK by S.D. Giere, WTS Associate Professor of Homiletics & Biblical Interpretation

A brief excerpt from a book that we are studying in one of my classes this fall:

To the prophet… no subject is as worthy of consideration as the plight of man…  Man is rebellious and full of iniquity, and yet so cherished is he that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, is saddened when forsaken by him.[i]

To borrow from my good friend, David Tracy, “We belong to language far more than it belongs to us.  Language shapes our perception, our understanding, our world, our sense of community, our sense of who God is.”[ii]

When Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Conservative Rabbi, reworked and published his book The Prophets in 1962, he used the language of man to refer to all of humanity.  Heschel, a prominent progressive figure in the Civil Rights movement,[iii] clearly did not intend to exclude with his choice of language.  At the time, Heschel’s use of “man” for all humanity was understood as inclusive.  And guess what?  Times have changed.  When we read from Heschel’s text in class, we spit and sputter and choke as we work toward hearing and engaging Heschel’s important and profound observations, because Heschel’s most basic language for communicating about humanity and about who God is are simply no longer inclusive.  This kind of language is out of tune… not for everyone, mind you, but for many and for us here at WTS.  Language changes over time.

In the WTS Student Life Handbook[iv] we have a policy, which is worthy of your attention.  By my count, this is the 29th annual Convocation that addresses inclusivity.  (Doesn’t quite get back to 1962, but…)  In short, there is longstanding commitment to inclusivity in this worship-centered community of critical theological reflection, where learning leads to mission and mission informs learning.

Policies are often experienced as law or political correctness, in particular when it comes to inclusive language.  I want to suggest that we reframe policy in light of the gospel.  Simply put, inclusive language has to do with the gospel.  For whom is God’s love in Jesus Christ?  For whom did Jesus die?   Do we want to use language that communicates the inclusive nature of God’s love in Jesus Christ?

Inclusive language was a priority during my time as a student here.  I was unleashed upon the church with a commitment to inclusive language, but the gospel importance of it didn’t hit home until sometime in 1998, when I was serving my first call at Messiah Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota.  Because of my formation at Wartburg Seminary, I naturally used inclusive language, perhaps most noticeably in the context of worship.  Early one week, I received a note from a parishioner, scratched on the back of a communion card.  The note was from a woman in her early twenties, away a good chunk of the time at university.  Her note, which I still have in my desk, read: “Pastor Sam, thank you using language that includes me.”  This little note nudged me toward the notion that inclusive language is about the hearing of the Gospel. The language we use impacts how people hear the Good News of Jesus Christ as being for them.

Closely related to inclusive language is the use of expansive language for God.  In Heschel’s day, it was common to hear God referenced with masculine pronouns, e.g., God Himself.  To ascribe gender to God is never the point when a masculine pronoun is used.  Rather, it has do with language and the change of language over time.  While it’s best (in my humble opinion) to avoid the heresy of Patripassianism, a.k.a., Sabellianism, modalism (referring to the three persons of God as modes of God’s activity, e.g., creator, redeemer, sustainer), scripture provides many images for God. Perhaps we ought to consider the use of expansive language as Gospel-centered in the same way as inclusive language (so that people will hear the good news of Jesus Christ!), though differently responsible to the witness of Scripture and the Rule of Faith.

 

[i] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (Harper Perennial, 1962) 6.

[ii] David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (University of Chicago Press, 1985) 53.

[iii] I am delighted to share with the reader a children’s book that was shared with me by Wartburg student Carina Schiltz after the convocation: Richard Michelson (author) and Raul Colon (illustrator), As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom (Dragonfly Books, 2013).

[iv] §3.1 Inclusive Language, p.84.

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