Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Naming God: Maggi Dawn explores Expansive Language

Maggi Dawn, Chaplain at Robinson Chapel, Cambridge University, UK, is, in my view, an amazing voice in today's Anglican Church and emergent theology. Her essay, Naming God, was written early this month and published in the Yale Divinity School's "Marquand Reader".

Here is an excerpt:


“Like the nine billion names of God
Don’t bring you any closer
To anyone you can simply set eyes on…”

(Bruce Cockburn, One of the Best Ones)

Language is a powerful tool. How we employ it in theology matters because we are attempting to articulate truth as we find it. But liturgical language has a particular power to reinforce ideas, images and beliefs; it is a performative utterance, enhanced and reinforced by rhythm, poetry, and music, and it sounds the depths within us because it is employed consciously and deliberately in relationship to God and to the worshipping community. It’s hard, then, to overestimate the importance of the language of worship, and in constructing it we need to attend to concerns that are closely entwined: pastoral, theological and aesthetic.

Innovation in liturgical language always has a theological undercurrent, but the initial motivation for change is often pastoral, rising from a concern to ensure that those who come to worship do not feel excluded, disinherited, or undervalued by the language of worship. In response to this, words that imply feudal, military or imperial power, gender attribution, or other culturally sensitive issues, have often been carefully excised from liturgical scripts, rendering unusable for the purposes of worship a whole slew of names for God, such as Father, Lord, King, Warrior, Strong Tower, Shield, Defender.

Problems raised by “Inclusive” Language

There are, though, a number of problems with this exercise. In the effort to make language inclusive to one group, we can inadvertently exclude another, or we find that we have achieved little more than replacing one problem with another. For example, to exclude any charge of patriarchy, liturgical language may be re-cast by replacing all male pronouns with female ones. Certainly this may have some value in shocking the ear, startling the mind into entertaining a new vision of God. But simply employing a new set of pronouns while leaving the structure and enactment of the liturgy exactly the same is at best a temporary fix. If we merely substitute one power structure for another, a new metaphor for an old one, then we are in danger of merely whitewashing sepulchers, rather than drawing closer to truth.

Another approach is to remove gendered language from liturgy altogether, and instead to engage neutral descriptors for God. One of the most-used replacements for Father-Son-Spirit is Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer, which attempts to retain a three-fold character without attributing gender to God. Yet here again the language has theological limitations. It is a seemingly Trinitarian formula, but these three actions properly belong to God in Unity; to assign them to three functionary names is, by implication, to deny the unity of God in creation or redemption. But perhaps worse, used in exclusion, this kind of language describes God in terms of function rather than relationship. It is fundamental to Christian theology that God, while not a corporeal being, is not impersonal. God is not an “it”, and the language of job-descriptions doesn’t serve to address God adequately.

A further issue with avoiding particular names or pronouns is the tortured relationship that results with historic texts that are undeniably beautiful, but were not written in inclusive language. Adapting anonymous texts from unknown sources is one matter, but can we really justify updating the elegant and captivating language of John Donne, George Herbert, or John Mason? (If it doesn’t disturb the artistic conscience to replace a pronoun in one of their works, at least one would hope that respect for rhyme and meter might deter us!) But once we realize we cannot rewrite their words, are we really going to accept the impossible choice that the demands of inclusivity impose, and impoverish our experience by never reading them at all?

“Expansive Language”: a better solution?

It’s clear, then, that inclusive language poses significant difficulties. But another approach is available in “expansive language”, which has been an undercurrent in liturgics for some time, and has more recently come to the fore.

To read the rest of this essay please visit Maggi's blog here.

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