Because God is not a Guy: Why Language Matters

My foster dog, Janey, lives in a state of perpetual fear. She is afraid of walking over a threshold; of any sudden movement or loud noise; of anyone walking toward her; and most directly, of my husband who is decidedly not an imposing figure. Despite letting me pet and walk her, Janey also has trouble trusting me. One moment I can be stroking her fur so that she is momentarily happy, her tail easily wagging. And the next, she will resist coming when I call her and instead backs away from me, her tail firmly planted between her legs conveying just how difficult it is for her to trust me completely. In these instances, I sit down and wait for her to regain her courage and come to me again.

In the three short weeks I’ve been Janey’s care-giver, I’ve learned a lot from her. She has helped me recognize a similar fear within myself, a feeling I had not identified before.

Let me back up and give you the fuller story.

Recently my friend Letha Dawson Scanzoni asked me to reflect on my story about language, to examine how language—about people and God—became so important to me, especially language used in churches. Her suggestion required me to go back through some painful episodes in my life. Here are some of the conclusions I discovered:

  • Language is never separate from our experiences. When several years ago I awakened to how limited our speaking about God in masculine terms was I simultaneously experienced patriarchal patterns of leadership in churches and Christian institutions.
  • Being a woman at a Christian college (when I taught at George Fox University) that employed masculine language for God and exclusive language for people produced in me experiences not just of exclusion and invisibility but ones that felt like personal attacks or violations. You can read more about why it felt this way here: I think that many people assume our language about God doesn’t really matter and that for those who make a big deal of it, we are just being picky or obstinate. Instead, not only does masculine language result in idolatry, narrowing our images of God to just a few, it also works to injure…again and again.
  • Janey’s life must be exhausting as she doesn’t relax around my husband until he falls asleep at night. All other times, she is actively responding to his every move. When he enters a room, she moves to the other side making sure there is at least one obstacle between them. If he makes a sudden movement, she crouches assuming she needs to protect herself. If he is downstairs, she moves upstairs. Her actions are completely determined upon his position. Like Janey who is continually alert to sources of danger, I employ the same kind of guardedness when in faith communities. Seldom can I relax and simply enjoy a hymn or liturgy or sermon but instead I am poised to resist the language bullets that potentially will be shot at me. I must be ready to duck and/or take cover in order to emerge as unscathed as possible.
  • I hope Janey will eventually overcome her fear as she builds trust in new care-givers. It will take time and effort, I imagine, both on her part and on those who will become her forever family. Too, I suppose her path toward healing will not be substantially different from mine where I, also, will need to work on trusting others not to hurt me. Of course this also means that more of us need to take seriously how we talk with one another and how we talk about God. Without such efforts, there are few “safe” places. A few years back, Melanie Springer Mock, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, and I wrote about just this very topic when remembering our experiences of Potluck dinners. You can read more about this here:

I’m aware that I’m not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences in churches and faith communities so I’m interested in hearing more about your encounters with language. Are there ways you have been hurt by language, and ways you have expanded your understandings of God by changing your language?