God has no daughters: Masculine imagery in the liturgy


Anything that tends to make religion more feminine is the last thing that Christianity in America needs.

By Leon J. Podles


The feminist reconstruction of Roman Catholic worship by the International Committee for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has commenced. A small obstacle has arisen in the form of Cardinal Ratzinger's objection on doctrinal grounds to the use of the inclusive language New Revised Standard Version for the readings, but the English-speaking bishops are determined that the new lectionary and translations of the various prayers in English will use this type of language. That is, the use of the words man and men and son and related words such as brethren will be replaced by gender-neutral words such as human person, child, or such phrases as sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Some dioceses have issued guidelines strongly discouraging the use of king, lord, father, in any discourse about God, or the use of hymns such as Faith of Our Fathers. What the translators and other banners of masculine terms seem to be cheerfully ignorant of, or at least willing to discard, are the theological implications of the gender symbolism in Scripture. The ignorance is often joined to a fairly explicit hostility to masculinity, and many priests and lectors eliminate masculine words such as man or brother even when these words refer to a specific male individual. Such a hostility to the masculine can provide much material for amateur speculation about the psychological motivation of the impromptu translators and the soon-to-be-official translations. Whatever the motivation, the rhetorical strategy of eliminating masculine references distorts an important part of the message of Christianity and cannot but contribute to the increasing feminization of Roman Catholicism, and of all other churches which adopt this feminist stance.


Proponents of inclusive language claim that usage has changed, and that therefore man and men or the pronoun he are no longer used to refer to both men and women. That is, they claim that the charming grammatical rule, "the masculine embraces the feminine" is no longer true in English usage. The rule held as late as the 1960s, when the phrase in the Creed, propter nos homines became, properly, for us men. The ICEL claims that English usage has changed radically in this respect since the 1960s. Has it?


There is not much evidence for such a change. A priori, such a change would be improbable. Linguistic change, especially in commonly used words such as pronouns, is very slow. It took centuries in the middle ages for the pronouns he, she, and they to replace the forms used in Old English and in various dialects of Middle English, and the pace of linguistic change has slowed with the advent of literacy and standardized education, which are very conservative forces in language. American usage shows a little hesitancy about using he to refer to any person. Because clarity is always desirable for communication,  English would be a more accurate language if it had a generic pronoun distinct from he. But it doesn't, and confusion rarely occurs. Colloquially they is often used: "Everyone should bring their books." The British often use one when an American would use he formally or they colloquially: "One should bring one's book, now, shouldn't one?" The television critic for The Spectator has fond memories of the Queen's Christmas broadcast, in which he would try to spot "how many 'ones' was it possible for one to use in one sentence." Indeed, the use of he rather than one was something of a conscious decision in American English, like the spellings behavior for behaviour and Savior for Saviour, as one was felt to be too stuffy and British, unsuitable for American informality. Nor has the literate usage changed much. The National Geographic still contains headlines with phrases like The Story of Man. The New Yorker, even under its new ultratrendy editor, still uses he as an indefinite pronoun. In January 18, 1993 a review by John Updike contains this sentence: "If man were an artifact, no doubt he would have improved himself out of existence by now." In general, there is no change in common literate English usage of man, men, he, and similar words to refer indefinitely to individuals of both sexes.


The only prose that has changed is that of politically-correct academics, who write a language that bears about the same resemblance to English as do the instructions that come with Oriental products. A brochure from a Shanghai hotel extols its dancing hall in which the "atmosphere causes ladies sedate & charming, ever full of nobel aspiration is possessed by all gentlemen in a fantastic night." In the same category as this sentence belongs horrors such as God/ess, Godself, and metacritical discourses, self-implicatory, heterosexual phallocentrism. Such words do not convey meaning, they merely make a noise that identifies one initiate to another, like mastodons bellowing across the primeval swamp. The RC (Religiously Correct, not Roman Catholic) control of the ICEL guarantees trendiness for the indefinite future. It is a new type of churchy language: instead of thee and thou and similar archaisms, we will get at first an excision of the hated masculine terms, and later a replacement of Father and Son, with Creator and Redeemer, and later still neologisms such as Godself.


A feminist salute


Does it matter that much? For those of us who are aware of the issues, it will be grating. Peter Berger recounted his memories of Fascist Italy when Mussolini decided that the Italian lei (you) was effeminate and degenerate (it was of course nothing of the sort) and that true Italians should instead use voi. Every time someone used voi instead of the expected lei, it was the verbal equivalent of giving the Fascist salute. Similarly every time a neutral word is used instead of the expected masculine or generic one, it is a feminist salute, and is clearly intended as one. There is also a usage more and more in the mouths of clerics that will be noticed (although not fully understood) by any man who hears it. In an English phrase that contains several words, the customary and expected order of words is from shorter to longer. That is why we use the phrases ladies and gentlemen but men and women. Departures from this pattern are done for a specific effect. The two most common, in addressing people, are the most honored to the less honored. A priest will therefore begin a sermon before his ordinary, "Your Excellency, Reverend Monsignori, fellow priests, deacons, religious, and all who have come to etc." The other common variation is from those nearer to those further away, either geographically or those with whom one identifies more closely to those with whom one identifies less closely. The Pope gives his address urbi et orbi, to the city [of Rome] and to the world. Shakespeare's phrase "Friends, Romans and countrymen" is good writing, and as 1066 and All That would say memorable, because it combines the pattern shorter to longer with the pattern nearer to farther. Therefore when a male preacher breaks the pattern, and instead of saying men and women or brothers and sisters, says women and men, or sisters and brothers, he is rhetorically identifying himself with the first group rather than the second, implying that he is nearer to women than to men, whatever his intention. Rhetoric has certain laws which cannot be ignored; certain approaches will have certain effects by emphasizing certain words, whatever the intention of the speaker.


This is true in art as well. At a Lutheran church in Baltimore, an artist constructed in the nave an elaborate mosaic with many figures. He neglected to consider that the central point of the picture was a natural compositional focus, and put a minor figure of a child there. The congregation, which includes few art historians, responded to the focal point, not to the artist's intention, and began to speculate abut the meaning of this obviously important figure (the Christ child? an angel?). The artist vainly protested that the congregation should ignore the figure, that he had not meant it to be important. The laws of optics are objective, and the congregation could not help responding to them. Similarly the laws of rhetoric have an objective component, and the rhetorical, even if unintended, identification of the male preacher with the women rather than the men in the congregation will grate upon the ears of male listeners. This is especially true because religion in general in America has long been identified with the feminine rather than the masculine spheres of life. Anything that tends to make religion and its representatives even more feminine is the last thing that Christianity in America needs, both for its own good and the good of a society that suffers from a masculinity that is not transformed by Christianity.


Nor is the use of the masculine as generic in pericopes from Scriptures a matter of theological indifference. First of all, in the Old Testament the use of such phrases as the God of Abraham and Sarah rather than The God of Abraham, obscures the meaning of the terrible trial of faith which Abraham had to undergo to prove his allegiance to God, and to become in faith the father of all who believe. Since circumcision is so central to NOVEMBER 1995 Jewish identity, a great deal of verbal gymnastics has to be played with the Old Testament texts to include women.


In the New Testament, femininity and masculinity are used to refer to different aspects of the Christian's relationship with God. The Church as a whole is feminine, the bride of the Bridegroom, inheriting the role of Israel. The Song of Songs was early allegorized as a story of the relationship of Yahweh and Israel and of Christ and the Church. This symbolism is also under attack; Wesley's hymn "The Church's One Foundation" has been rewritten in the new Methodist hymnal to eliminate the references to the Church as she and bride. In the early middle ages, in a change that perhaps ultimately had a deleterious effect on Christian spirituality and contributed to the sociological feminization of the Church, the individual soul, anima, was also spoken of as the Bride of Christ, the part standing for the whole. In the New Testament, Christians are referred to as the sons and daughters of God only in quotes from the Old Testament. Christians are referred to as the children of God, sometimes with an implication of immaturity, or proleptically as the sons of God, with emphasis upon what they are destined to become. The fatherhood of God became an Enlightenment commonplace: Alle Menschen werden Bruder. That God is our Father and we are his children was held to be the common belief of all religions. Is it? God is rarely described as man's father in the Old Testament or in paganism, and when used fatherhood is clearly felt to be a metaphor, in the same way that God is the father of the dew. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in On Words, the begetting of the Son by the Father and the begetting of the Christian by God is a revelation of something humanity could never have imagined on its own. The Son is truly begotten of God; he is not simply "like" God, the closest thing to God of any creature; rather he is the same substance (ousia) as God. Like begets like, a man a man, a horse a horse, a dog a dog, God, God. The Son is not made, there never was when he was not. He is the only-begotten; there is no other like him.


Why Father and not Mother?


Yet Christians are also begotten in a sense that surpasses all metaphor and is almost impossible for reason to fathom. The Son, by pouring forth the Holy Spirit, creates others sons. He conforms both men and women to his own image as Son, thereby making them all God's sons (not daughters). God has no only- begotten daughter, for reasons we shall see; he therefore has no daughters begotten of the Spirit, only sons. There is only one pattern for both men and women to be conformed to, that of the Son. In the Son, Christians become deiform, apotheosized, and achieve an intimacy and union with the Godhead that is beyond the categories of natural reason, which seeks to reduce this relationship to that of a metaphor. Obviously we are not yet what we shall be; that remains to be revealed. Therefore in our immaturity we are the children of God, growing into the image of the Son, so that we may become his sons. Explaining the phrases in the Scripture should be an opportunity for delineating an extraordinarily important and neglected or misunderstood part of the Christian message. Instead "inclusive language" blurs over an important point by conforming it to feminist usage, which is not theologically applicable in this instance, whatever justification it might have in other texts.


The impromptu modifications of Scripture I have heard convey a real dislike of masculinity. Why else would the word man itself, not used generically but as a reference to a individual, be so hateful? The Psalms are the model of Christian prayer, and modifications to them are especially dangerous. The Psalms are spoken in the voice of David, and often refer to specific historical situations he had experienced . Translating man and he as they, those, or we distorts the meaning of the Psalms. The Psalms are used by Christians because David was a type, a fore- shadowing of the Messiah. Because of their own identification with the Messiah, the Christ, Christians, can use these prayers in their own voice. Nor is David's voice a generic human one; it is deeply and tragically masculine, reflecting the anthropological situation of masculinity and therefore looking forward to the revelation of the Father in the crucified Son.


Why is the First Person a Father and not a Mother? Why therefore is the Second Person the Son and not the Daughter? These names, unlike the substitutes for them, Creator and Redeemer, refer to inner-Trinitarian relationships into which Christians are inserted not as a result of their creation but as a result of their deification by grace. There has not been much reflection on the meaning of these names. Christian thought in both East and West has been influenced by its roots in the Greek Fathers, who did not share the Hebrew sense of the significance of the body and therefore of gender. Although orthodoxy demanded a respect for the body which would be resurrected because it had been united with God in the Incarnation, there was a certain lack of enthusiasm for the bodily manifestation of gender in sexual differentiation. Consequently there has never been an extensive theological reflection on the meaning of gender and therefore of the meaning of the ascription of masculinity (not of course bodily maleness) to God. I therefore offer these speculations.


Separation characterizes maleness


Men know the Father as Father only in the Son; the Son is a revelation of the Father, and most so in the Paschal mystery, the Death and Resurrection. David was taken as a type of the Messiah because he was rejected, a scapegoat, pushed out into the wilderness to die, hunted by the forces of a kingdom. Men, insofar as they try to be masculine, often end up in this situation. Masculinity, as anthropologist David Gilmore points out, is a cultural construct, one in which men accept the dangerous roles in society so that women may survive and raise children. Men nurture, but in a specifically masculine way: they "do it by shedding their blood, their sweat, their semen; by bringing food home, by producing children, or dying if necessary in far away places to provide security for their family." The situation has not changed since neolithic hunting cultures: in 1991 in America, of those killed at work, 92°7o were men. War is the ultimate masculine role; the soldier insofar as he dies to protect those he loves is felt even in secularized twentieth century Europe to be like Christ. Psalm 18, spoken by David, is uncannily like the experience of modern warfare: "the snares of death confronted me . . . the earth reeled and rocked . . . smoke went up from his nostrils and devouring fire from his mouth." The soldier, in any war, but especially in modern war, feels that the elemental forces of nature have been set loose to destroy him. For his long poem In Parenthesis, about the experience of a soldier in World War I, David Jones, a disciple and friend of Eric Gill, provided integral woodcut illustrations. The final one shows the paschal lamb, with the horns of the scapegoat, caught in barbed wire in no-man's land. The soldier feels rejected by all, purged out of normal life, thrust out of the safe, feminine world, destroyed because of the sins of the world. David knew that desolation, and so did Jesus on the cross.


The cross is the revelation to a fallen world (and we know no other) of the meaning of sonship and fatherhood in the deity, and why God is spoken of as masculine. The masculine is characterized by separation, by separation from the feminine first of all, and then separation from the world of safety that the feminine represents. Within the Godhead itself there is a real distinction between the Father and the Son. God is masculine in relationship to creation, because he creates by separating light from darkness, man from women, Israel from the nations. He is holy because he is separate from sinners, who have separated themselves from Him. Yet that separation is not eternal loss, because it is taken up into the distinction of the Father and the Son.


We have gone far from the question of using human person for man in liturgical texts. Yet what is it that the translators, both official and impromptu, dislike? The phonemes that make up the word man? Or the implications that God is masculine? Some extreme feminists recognize the implications, and reject the theological meaning behind the masculine terms. Sacrifice to some feminists is a masculine category and the crucifixion a form of child-abuse. The category of sacrifice must be expurgated from Christianity. Yet even those who would not agree with this extreme position are affected by the current attempt to demasculinize Christianity. Walter Ong pointed out in Fighting for Life that many of the changes following Vatican II, whether or not that was their intention, had the effect of demasculinizing Christianity. Western Christianity already is almost universally perceived as feminine, and therefore part of the world that men must reject to establish their separate identities as men. The demasculinizing of the language of the liturgy is more a symptom of the problem than a cause, but the word is both creative and destructive, and a feminist Christianity is what such verbal changes will help create.


If language can be made ambiguous in its references to gender, the same is not true of the visual arts. Although theologians have not paid much attention to the meaning of gender, painters in Christian cultures have often used visual imagery to explore the meaning of gender. Modern Christians often feel discomfort with Renaissance and Baroque paintings of the nude infant Christ or the almost nude crucified Christ; the focal point of the painting is often the genitals. Although painters make mistakes, as did the decorator of the Lutheran church mentioned above, generations of painters including Michelangelo and Rubens did not make a simple mistake in composition nor were they expressing homosexual interests. As Leo Steinberg demonstrated in his book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, the sexuality of Christ was of great interest to painters. But Steinberg does not quite have it right; it was Christ's sexuality in the sense of a visual manifestation of his masculine gender that was of interest to painters. If theologians didn't realize the significance of masculinity, painters did. The masculinity of Christ was intimately connected with his sacrifice, even in the paintings of the infant, who in childish nudity played with the emblems of the coming Passion.


In Eastern Christianity painters are not simply artisans. Icons are painted by the hand of a human but the true artist is the Holy Spirit. In Orthodoxy the use of icons is intimately and almost necessarily connected with faith in the Incarnation. Since God truly became flesh and took a material body to himself, painters can show God by painting the true image of Christ. The historical particularity of Christ has long been a scandal to both mythology and rationality. The Greeks tried to reduce him to the category of the creature, even though the highest one; modern syncretism tries to understand Jesus as an avatar of the divinity, one among many Christs. Yet the faith of the Church hinges upon the belief that Jesus is the Christ, that there is no other, that his flesh was really the flesh of the second person of the Trinity, and can therefore be shown in visual form. The mystery of femininity and masculinity in the relationship of Mary and the Child has long fascinated icon painters.


The use of visual representations of Jesus necessarily and inescapably involves his masculinity. How can images be made inclusive? Is Jesus to become Christa, as in the female corpus on the crucifix in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine? Or is he to be a hermaphrodite, as in Hindu art? Or is he to be softened and feminized, as he was in the holy card and Sunday School art of previous generations? Or is representation to be abandoned for abstraction? Already many Catholic churches have removed the corpus from their crucifixes, and some substitute a tree for the cross itself. Christian art has received its impetus from the doctrine of the Incarnation, and in turn makes that doctrine a real doctrine rather than an abstraction in the life of the Christian. Representation necessarily demands attention to gender.

The use of feminist language and imagery in Christian worship is especially dangerous because it places a further obstacle in the way of an appreciation of the theological meaning of gender. Such appreciation is necessary if we are to begin to overcome the feminization of Western Christianity. Masculinity plays a central role in Judaism and Christianity, and men can be shown that Christianity does not want to convert them into pseudo-women, but help to fulfill the deepest meaning of masculinity. In Christ men should be able to see what it is to be a man. Ecce homo, et ecce vir. The powerful currents of masculinity, especially the admiration that verges on eros that men feel for the exemplars of masculinity, the athlete and the soldier, can be directed away from crime, violence, and quasi-fascist nationalism into a relationship with God in Christ. The Church will benefit, men will benefit, and society as a whole will benefit. A key to beginning this work is to use the language of Scripture rather than a language constructed by feminists, because in the religion of the Word made flesh words can be both creative and destructive.