I attended worship at our local Metropolitan Community Church
on Sunday for the first time in quite some while. It was wonderful to connect with old (and current) friends and also to see the place packed with people. Interest in matters spiritual does not fall away during an economic recession.
Pastor Robin's sermon, The Invitation
- on authentic spirituality in the context of incarnation - was inspirational. But I felt discomfited by the less than elegant 'inclusifying' of the scripture reading. The passage in question was John 3:14-20, and we all read aloud the sixteenth verse thus:
For God so loved the world that she gave her one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
There it is - two thousand years of Christian patriarchy set aside by a simple pronoun switch. She, not he. As Robin explained it a few moments later,
It's not an easy scripture to inclusify which is why I balanced the 2000 years of God's male image by affirming the divine female. Kinda gets our attention hearing it differently.
It certainly got my attention, but what was the teaching moment? How does simply trans/gendering God help create a theologically meaningful and inclusive understanding of the purpose of the divine in our lives? Especially how so when the same reading went on to state two verses later (without the benefit of additional inclusive concepts) that 'whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son'?
The use of 'balancing' pronouns when referring to God always seemed to me to be a convenient and too easy way to circumvent having to struggle with the text in a truly meaningful way to draw out the implications of patriarchal language in scripture and daily life. References to God as 'he' reflect a limited understanding of the divine nature that was almost universally prevalent until recent times, for sure. But I think most of us (at least in progressive Christian circles) get this already, and pronoun acrobatics in the liturgy tend (for me at least) to detract from rather than draw or attention weightier considerations of how we perceive God and one another.
While God was getting a sex change and a point scored for women's visibility, some of us were cringing at the clumsiness of it all. Perhaps others were celebrating, even if all that was being celebrated was the triumph of political correctness over substance. Who among us even noticed that the God presented in this passage comes across as a divine asshole who, for some reason seeming to have little to do with love and grace, has condemned the whole world with the exception of those who believe in his or her one and only Son.
I favor the use of inclusive language when it is a natural extension of inclusive thinking and relating. But inclusifying pieces of a text from a gender perspective only, while maintaining (or even tacitly endorsing through liturgy) a theology of exclusion conveyed through language elsewhere in the passage, seems to be an exercise in whitewashing the tombstones. I would have rather have heard how God (or perhaps God's interpreters) may have been wrong about this either/or confession thing just as he/she/they were wrong to always present the divine in such primarily masculine language.
One of the problems with inclusive language of the cut/paste variety often used in MCC (and possibly in other progressive faith traditions) is that it tends to come across as glib, literalist and even (dare I say) theologically shallow.
Inclusivity in practice should extend beyond text editing to the very process of selecting and juxtaposing scriptures for use in worship. The question is how to pose and juxtapose the sometime negative statements of the Bible about women, gays, Jews, non-Jews, pagans an non-believers with those that are more inclusive and more expansive - and in the process, hopefully, generate reflection, dialogue and prayer. Considering the con/text, not just the text.
This requires ongoing theological and social education within the local church. I like the way the United Church of Christ frames it in their description of inclusive and 'expansive' language
Scripture contains many gender neutral metaphors for God such as shepherd, rock, or Holy One. The rediscovery of the complementary female and male metaphors in the Bible and the literature of the early church encourages Christians not to settle for literary poverty in the midst of literary riches.
Inclusive language is far more than an aesthetic matter of male and female imagery; it is a fundamental issue of social justice. Language that is truly inclusive affirms sexuality, racial and ethnic background, stages of maturity, and degrees of limiting conditions. It shows respect for all people. Scripture proclaims the world is created, redeemed, and sustained by the Word of God, and the church attests to the power of language and words, recognizing that words have the power to exploit and exclude as well as affirm and liberate.
I think that this can be accomplished better sometimes by acknowledging the reality of exclusiveness in scripture and church history, rather than covering it up as if it weren't there. Rather than word-policing so-called 'difficult' passages, we might keep them (in a non-naive way) in order to propose a way to move forward to a deeper truth that is also abundantly found throughout the sacred stories.