Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How preoccupation with pronouns led to trifling with the Trinity

by Frederick W. Baltz, WordAlone Board member

"Coming of Age: Exploring the Identity and Spirituality of
Young Men"
by David W. Anderson, Paul G. Hill and Roland D.
Martinson (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), is a fascinating book
for everyone concerned about young men and their
disappearance from the church.

Based on 88 interviews with young men of varied backgrounds
between their teens and mid-thirties, the book offers
understanding and concrete, helpful suggestions to engage a
spiritual problem that simply will not go away. The authors
state that the church has been evolving into a feminized
organization for a long time now, with a 30% male to 70%
female ratio as the present state of affairs in some

Researchers have impressed upon us that it is extremely
hard to be a boy today. Bridget Murray of the APA Monitor
Online writes that schools are "antiboy" ("Boys to Men:
Emotional Miseducation," July/August 1999, American
Psychological Association.) Boys are more active than girls
and get in trouble for not being as studious in school.
Teachers often discipline boys more harshly than girls.
Boys are given mixed messages about their feelings; they
are to be sensitive (without models), yet faulted if they
aren't tough. They are often victims of hurtful words.
Girls' academic performance has increased while boys' has
declined. Boys are more likely to hurt or kill themselves
than girls are.

Anderson, Hill and Martinson say for every girl in therapy
there are four boys.

In the churches we continue to find people who seem to be
more interested in what they call "justice issues" than in
reaching people with the good news of Jesus--what used to
be called saving souls. A few decades ago these people
decided that it was urgent for us all to stop using
masculine pronouns for God. None of this has ever seemed
natural to broadcast or print media, but it became the law
in seminaries and elsewhere. The people who had the idea
also had the power to make it happen. In fairness to them,
some of their concern may have been evangelical; we were
told that some women could not deal with the concept of God
as Father in view of terrible things their own fathers had
done to them. One suspects, however, that their chief
reason was more ideological than theological.

Where was the research to support this pronoun revolution
that became mandatory as things sometimes do in the
churches? From all I've been able to tell, it was
non-existent. No one ever really found evidence that
banishing all male pronouns when used of God would actually
be a good thing, or that there really were lots of women
who would approve. They did it anyway.

For all anyone knew, the new avoidance of masculine
pronouns for God might have some bad effects such as…

1) sending one more message to boys and young men that the
church isn't for them, and that they should run just as
soon as they could break free from their parents'

2) trying the patience of large numbers of men and women,
leading them to the conclusion that pronoun fixation is at
best silly and at worst exasperating. (Were you ever in a
place where the usual Lutheran Book of Worship words became
"God recalls God's promises and leads God's people forth in
joy . . ."? I'm not making that up.)

3) contributing to the erosion of the Trinitarian language
that belongs to the orthodox faith. After all, if "he" or
"him" is verboten, it is only logical that Father and Son
must go too.

4) becoming a dialect spoken nowhere else that is by its
nature exclusive and foreign, a dialect that even begins to
resemble an obsessive/compulsive neurosis. How much
difference is there between the person who will not step on
a crack in the sidewalk and the person who automatically
edits his or her speech of masculine pronouns for God? I
submit: sometimes, not much.

Yet the use of this revised, ecclesio-speak language has
been strictly enforced. Do not expect to enter seminary if
you don't plan to speak it. Do not expect to get very far
in church organizations until you have become fluent in it.

Is there a kernel of truth in the point behind inclusive
language? Indeed there is, but the solution is not pronoun
police, and certainly not an assault on the classical
definition of the Trinity. The solution is first to affirm
the classical language of the Trinity as one certain
boundary, and then to practice an inclusive language that
does not draw attention to itself. That probably means God
will sometimes be called "he," and never called "she." Of
course we know that God is neither male nor female, but we
also know there are more important matters before us than
to justify being preoccupied with that one.

The attempts of church leaders to transform society by
removing masculine pronouns for God will probably rank
somewhere between the attempts to adopt the metric system
in the U.S.A., and trying to teach the world Esperanto. The
reasons are not compelling except to the few who continue
to enforce it. The Emperor/Empress has no clothes.

The good ship ELCA...

The good ship ELCA...
Or the Shellfish blog...