Some feminist scholars and theologians were deeply engaged in discussions about the feminine face of the divine by the mid-1970s, but little of the conversation reached members in the pews. Thus, it was surprising to discover that the Lutheran Church in America (a predecessor of the ELCA [1. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1988 when the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America merged.]) had published a collection of essays in 1976 that addressed feminist issues, including the feminine face of the divine. The Consulting Committee on Women in Church and Society of the Lutheran Church in America published In God’s Image: Toward Wholeness for Women and Men. The sub-subtitle is A collection of writings to help readers deal with some basic issues highlighted by International Women’s Year. You may now take a breath. The title, although long, does identify the subject matter and the intent.
The 48-page publication covers a wide-range of topics, from financial credit issues to day care to statistics on women and employment. Other articles directly address the question of language. In “Inclusive Language to Proclaim an Inclusive Gospel” theologian Frederick W. Wentz argues “That women share equally with men in the image of God and that they have the full rights, abilities, and responsibilities for participating in the whole of life, subject only to the individual limitations of any particular human being.” He also wrote that it is a “wrong assumption” “That God is a male person, or at least best pictured as a man rather than as a woman.” [2. Wentz, in In Gods Image, p. 9. If you know of an earlier publication—or any Protestant publication—addressing images of God or naming God using feminine metaphors, please share it in the comment section. It would add a great deal to the discussion.] While some feminist scholars had been addressing the feminine face of the divine in their writings before the publication of In God’s Image, this publication is one of the earlier ones sponsored by a mainstream Protestant denomination.
In another article, “Liturgy that Includes Everyone,” by the Reverends Sharon and Thomas Neuter Emswiler, the authors examine the difficulties of making language inclusive and articulate the importance of making the transition. They write: “We believe that new language about God is demanded for three compelling reasons. Fist the Bible itself sees God as feminine as well as masculine (see Deuteronomy 32:18, Isaiah 42:14, Luke 15:8-10). Second, totally male language about God tends to reinforce sexist attitudes of male superiority in our society at a time when such attitudes need to be overcome. Third, totally masculine language about God makes it increasingly difficult for women to relate as deeply and personally with God as they can when they discover that God may be described using both masculine and feminine words or words that do not imply a gender at all.”[3. Neufer Emswiler and Neufer Emswiler, in In God’s Image, pp.11-12.]
Both Wentz and the Neufer Emswilers make strong arguments for inclusive language and imagery, as do other articles in the publication. While the scholarship on inclusive metaphors for God has expanded dramatically in the last forty years, this work seems so clear in its intent and so grounded in its theology, it is puzzling that our imagery and vocabulary have changed so little.
Does your worship community use inclusive visual and verbal metaphors for God? It would be so enlightening to hear how you do it and what visuals and language you use.