Name-Calling

Do you know anyone who is “revisionist and dangerous?”  I am apparently married to such a person.

In her efforts to secure a speaker for an event, Rachel has been in communication with a particular individual who, over the weekend, declined the invitation. I have read one of this person’s books and advised Rachel to have a conversation about God language with the person.

In the world of the United Methodist Church, God language is not gendered.  I have to admit that I will throw in a masculine pronoun every now and then, but only to avoid the awkwardness of using the word “God” seven times in one sentence. Both of us felt this issue held potential for contention should this person come to speak.

The issue of God-language raised, the author/speaker backed out.  That is respectable.  But to back out because people with such concerns are “revisionist and dangerous”?  There’s not much respect there.

I have known people with a wide variety of theologies over the years.  I know, and enjoy talking about issues with, a pretty eclectic group of folks now. (For that matter, I really appreciate the broad range of perspectives among readers of this blog) But I learned several years ago that labeling someone, or even some idea or position with words like “revisionist” or “dangerous” is itself perhaps dangerous.

This kind of thing happens regularly in politics. People accused President Bush of calling anyone who diagreed with his war policies a traitor.  People are now Accusing President Obama of labeling all anti-abortion protestors as terrorists.

We owe it to people not to strap them with labels until after we’ve at least had a conversation with them.  The act of having a legitimate conversation with another person will overcome many labels.

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12 thoughts on “Name-Calling

  1. It’s interesting to note that it is ‘respectable’ for someone to back out of a speaking engagement due to his thoughts on ‘God language’ issue. To presume it is respectable because one would not care to cause a polemic, per se, is not respectable at all. There is no ‘controversy’ with regards to God language that the Bible itself speaks. Ergo, any disagreement your speaker has with said topic is feckless and misinformed. So, a label here would be in perfect order. Not to label him would, in a sense, be labeling him anyway. So, the terms ‘revisionist’ & ‘dangerous’ are certainly apropos for him (or, her whatever the case may be). Interestingly, the idea not to label someone ‘dangerous’ or, perhaps ‘heretic’, or ‘non-biblicist’, etc. is indeed a coward’s notion: is it not? Why are Christians so intent on not ‘labeling’ others for what they say and do? Is it wrong to suggest that Catholics are in fact Pelagian (or, at least, semi-Pelagian) in their theology. Is it safe to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as heretics, or are cults not ‘fair game’? Labels can be most useful in understanding the nuances & differences in transdenominational learning: even in proselytizing. I do see the wisdom in not carrying oneself away with branding someone so quickly that you don’t have a notion what he/she believes. In essence, God is a HE; there is no disagreement here. If the speaker has a problem with this, then the difficulty is all about him or her and not with you and anybody else who espouses this unequivocal truth. The gender neutral issue is not only bad theology (or, exegesis) it borders on heresy. If the question is about egalitarianism (another label) then the argument falls grossly short of true & accurate exegetical findings. All this gender issue (in the Bible) is certainly refutable. Perhaps your speaker-to-be should be called out on the carpet and chided for his/her lack of wisdom and political correctness (?). In fact, if this is a problem that he/she possesses, it is altogether plausible to think he/she has other abject theological issues for which I’m certain you’d not want to be promulgated to any group. If in fact, the UMC language about God is not gendered, therein lies a remarkable problem.

    • I’m not sure I understand what your point is. I thought it respectable to decline and invitation to speak if your references to God must be male and the audience to whom you were invited to speak might well have trouble hearing God through that.

      If this serves as an illustrative response, it may be “safe” to call a Jehovah’s Witness a heretic, but it is not at all helpful if you are attempting to communicate with the Jehovah’s Witness.

      • If one has ‘trouble’ hearing God through the fact that He is God & that would be troublesome for some, then perhaps the trouble is not with the group at to which the information would be posed, but, rather with the deliverer. Is it not a sad state of affairs, Steve, that you would not want to share with the predilection in mind that the group to whom you would deliver the truth about God might ‘have trouble hearing God through that’? Whose problem is it to hear God referred to as a “HE”? The UMC? or another group? You yourself? In any case, it is appallingly debasing of our Lord to suggest that we cannot speak of Him (yes, Him) as Who He is. I am intrigued by Kevin’s response that he does writing for the UMC and has been ‘tortured with creatively expressing a genderless divine nature’. Wow! Is this what God has become? Are we so consumed by keeping our fellow neighbor happy & fat that we have become derelict to the truth? Is the UMC really condoning this type of writing? I eagerly anticipate your reply, for I am somewhat ignorant of the UMC’s position about this tenet–except for what was propagated in Kevin’s reply. Soli Deo Gloria–Rob McMichael

      • This is a reply to Rob; for some reason your comment appears below mine right now, which is confusing. It will probably reverse when I post, making this statement irrelevant.

        I’m not a mouthpiece for the UMC, so don’t take these as John Wesley’s words. It’s not actually torture, that may have been too strong. It is difficult to write about any being without employing gendered pronouns, that’s all. The reason the UMC avoids gendered language about God, as best as I understand it, isn’t that they’re chicken or trying necessarily to avoid offending anyone. It comes from a place of acknowledging that the God we worship is LIMITED by gender-based expression apart from discussion of Jesus or the understanding of God as Father, which is different than restricting the characteristics of God to maleness. Or femaleness, for that matter.

        It would seem that the UMC’s view of God has increased, not decreased.

      • Although I find it bizarre why the UMC would want in some subtle way to feminize God, or, perhaps demasculinize Him, or in some way, associate Him with both maleness & femaleness, or, perhaps emasculate Him by removing all His ‘maleness’, or in another way provide some sort of egalitarian view of Him–not sure where to go here. I can certainly see where certain translative changes are permissible in Scripture: “men” to “all” or “everyone” or perhaps “mankind” where exegesis dictates. However, it is never permissible to suggest that in some manner God can be reduced to something other than He is not. (Note the use of the masculine singular pronoun “He” in previous sentence.) It is not ‘sound’ Biblical translation to avoid controversy where possible or to be sensitive to women just because it may seem expedient. The UMC, if indeed they have taken such a stance, has abdicated good practice, not to mention sound theology. Why, then, would you preclude understanding this by mentioning the we worship a God who is ‘limited’ by gender-based expression apart from Jesus & God the Father? How then are these variables separable? To suggest a genderless God & a feigned neutrality is to suggest that God the Father & Jesus the Son are in some way wrong with the titles bestowed on them. Not sure I understand the UMCs position here at all, except that it appears to be weak-minded. If you suggest that it is some way this is progressive or, in your words your view of God ‘has increased’ you fail to establish any credibility with what Scripture says. Could the writers of the Word chosen a different direction? I suppose so, if that direction were true–but it is not. Translators chose specifically what pronouns to utilize by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I wonder where Wesley would stand on such a topic?
        Soli Deo Gloria

      • Paul himself wrote (I Corinthians 9):
        19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.

        I submit that finding ways to refer to God and express the good news that do not involve gender reference, if by this means we reach some, is a worthwhile endeavor.

        No one that I know denies Jesus’ gender; on the other hand, what part of the Gospel is changed when one doesn’t insist on God’s being male?

      • I suppose the issue is the idea of anyone (Kevin or you, for example) or anything (the UMC, for example) avoiding the essential truth about Who God is with regards to ‘gender’ identification. The notion that one would be so careful not to offend with the truth is somewhat ignoble. Certainly Paul ‘adapted’ to various situations to enable himself to share the gospel–no doubt. However, Paul never once violated the truth or his principles in order to get his point across. Jesus Christ Himself was the prime example of master offender. The gospel is ‘offensive’ when one perceives the essentials of it. This is its nature. I just get sick & tired of hearing Christians having to adapt so that they won’t infringe upon someone’s sensibilities. The truth of the cross is certainly ‘painful’ for some to hear, but not at the cost of dilution or tergiversation. What would be next on the list if this is number one? Should we make other compromises on exegesis to support our theological position? God forbid. It is a precarious edge upon which you are walking, Steve (et al) if you think this is a ‘good’ way to ‘share the faith’. Does the end justify the means? Hardly. At what point does one stop & say “enough”. I will not subjugate my faith to the whims of man. This is simply a (not so) subtle example of how postmodernity has crept into the church. I pray that you share your faith with wisdom, too.

  2. If I understand all terms correctly, Steve’s wife is the dangerous revisionist, not the declining speaker.

    I do a little writing within the UMC and therefore find myself perpetually tortured with creatively expressing a genderless divine nature. At one point I remember calling for my editors to generate a list of acceptable genderless pronouns. I even spotted them a couple, my personal favorite of which was the formal “Mr. She.”

    I don’t have a problem with expressing divinity above gender, particularly going forward creating new works for education and edification. I’m less certain where I stand on inclusive translation. I get that our culture has perhaps a better understanding of the equality of women, the nature of God, etc. But to re-translate original texts to reflect our culture’s understanding of them seems a little tricky to me. Is that tampering with our and future generations of original cultural context? Do we lose some of the milestones of where we’ve been versus where we are in our understanding of God?

    We’ve already got a good ten years of students that likely believe that “The Message” is a legitimate translation of the Scriptures. I’m all for updating translations as we better understand original languages, etc. But to change Scripture to reflect our cultural understanding of content seems odd to me. We don’t do it to other classic literature.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’m fine with our understanding of God changing and reflecting that in our generation’s literature, commentaries, etc., but I’m afraid that changing the work of the past may hinder those in the future from processing humankind’s (non-gendered) journey with God.

    • I’m not talking about re-writing scriptures to neuter God and all God references therein.

      I’m talking about communicating the Gospel with/to people for whom constant reference to God as a male feels more like a barrage than protection.

  3. Steve, you really generated the controversy this time! As for myself…
    1. I don’t count the masculinity of either God or “God” to be a part of the Gospel.
    2. I don’t count the non-masculinity of either God or “God” to be a part of the Gospel.
    3. It sounds odd to never use pronouns for God.
    4. The main Hebrew & Greek words used for “God” in the OT & NT are masculine in gender.
    5. In inflected languages the gender of the pronoun generally reflects the gender of the noun.
    6. English is not a highly inflected language. We tend to use pronouns to differentiate first, animate and inanimate and secondly gender. English lacks a pronoun that reflects both personality and non-gender identification.
    7. Some people are WAY too sensitive.
    8. Some people are WAY too insensitive.
    9. I probably fit in 8 more frequently than 7.
    10. I’d better quit now.

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