Is God a ‘She?’ Divinity Schools Encourage ‘Inclusive Language’

Brian Lonergan | January 18, 2017 | 11:45am EST
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The perception of God as a masculine entity is being challenged by two of the nation’s leading divinity schools, where professors are being urged to use gender-neutral language when referencing the Higher Power.

Morgan Freeman as God in 2003's "Bruce Almighty." (screen capture)

Heat Street reported that the divinity schools at Vanderbilt and Duke recently published guidelines on language to be used in the curriculum. The Vanderbilt catalog says the school “commits continuously and explicitly to include gender as an analyzed category and to mitigate sexism ... This includes consistent attention to the use of inclusive language, especially in relation to the Divine.”

Vanderbilt’s associate dean for academic affairs at its divinity school, Melissa Snarr, said the 2016-2017 guidelines actually derive from a policy that dates back to 1999.

That document states that “masculine titles, pronouns, and imagery for God have served as a cornerstone for the patriarchy,” while also noting that not all of God’s names are gendered. It recommended “exploration of fresh language for God.”

Views about how to express the divine among the Vanderbilt faculty vary, Snarr said. “It is up to the individual professor’s interpretation for their classes and is suggestive rather than mandatory,” she said of the 2016-2017 guidelines.

Duke’s guidelines define the suggestions “as a beginning point for developing a more inclusive language about God.” This includes avoiding gender-specific pronouns, instead using “God” and “Godself.”

The Durham, N.C., school suggests professors forgo gendered metaphors for God. It is recommended that a professor might say “God is a parent to us all” instead of “a father.” Combining gender metaphors is another option, such as “God is the father who welcomes his son, but she is also the woman searching for the lost coin.”

“Referring to God in gender-neutral language can sound clumsy,” the Duke guidelines say, “but this is largely due to the fact that we are in a transitional period with our use of language. Imagination, patience, and diligence are required in order to use language that expands and enriches our understanding of God.”

“Inclusive language” has been a topic of debate at other divinity schools. Harvard’s Theological Review issued a statement that “it is not always appropriate to employ inclusive language when referring to God or divine beings.”

Notre Dame’s Theology Department recognized “the ongoing debate and conflicting views about gender-sensitive language for God.” Ultimately, the school chose to issue no formal policy, and left the decision at the discretion of its professors.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God is referred to as male, the “father.” Jesus Christ frequently spoke about God the Father. A few examples: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  –Matthew 6:26.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”  –John 14:1-2 

Then, when asked how to pray, Jesus told the apostles, “When you pray, say ‘Father, hallowed be thy name….”

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