“I AM” - An examination of the Mennonite COF, Part 1

Note: This is a repost from http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/

One of the ideas behind confessions of faith and creeds and the like is to attempt to answer questions being asked by people of the current culture and society as relates to matters of faith and the practice thereof.  So, in these posts I make about the articles of the Mennonite Confession of Faith I’m going to attempt to address them in how well they answer the questions of our current society and culture.  And, honestly, I do so with great humility.  I am by no means an expert in sociology or culture, nor am I a pillar when it comes to theological discussion.  But I am someone who struggles at times with belief and faith and what it means.  Perhaps we need more people like that talking about theology than people who study in the ivory towers.

So, with great trepidation, here I go.

The first article of the Confession of faith is simply titled “God”.  I think this is an important factor.  Any religion you pick has some sort of concept of a supreme deity or deities.  Even those that are devout atheists (those who adamantly deny the possibility of any existence of such a being) have something to say about supreme beings, albeit in the negative.  And yes, I consider atheism to be a religion in the purest sense of the word.  So, it is important for a confession of faith to start with a defining statement about that ultimate question: Is there a God?

Note that the article in the confession answers that question in the positive.  The Mennonite Church part of the body of Christ definitely believes that there IS a God.  We must establish that first.  There is a God and He has made Himself known.  Now, note that I am using the male pronoun.  Considering some words from one of my sisters in the church (Hi, KrisAnne!), I use this pronoun, not out of saying that men are superior or that God Himself has a gender.  However, the traditional form of addressing one aspect of God is as “Father” or “Son”, both being male indicators.  Rather than muddy the waters with some sort of strange way of addressing God, making up pronouns or words (like “godself”), I’ll bow to tradition simply because the English language is insufficient to truly describe God in those sort of terms.  However, as I said, God has no specific gender and even is described in very feminine ways in various scriptural passages.  Humans, male and female, were made in the image of God in that both human genders display the characteristics of God.  So, we can not say God is male or female, but is God.

This article of the confession makes some great effort to describe who God is, what He does, and so on.  He is the creator.  He loves His creation.  He reaches out to people.  He has called specific peoples to be His witness to the purpose for creation.  He calls people to love as He has loved.  He is glorious, compassionate, sovereign, powerful, merciful, full of love.  He knows all and abounds in wisdom.  He is both full of perfect grace that gives to no end.  But he is also righteous in His wrath and the ensuing campaign against sin and rebellion against His purposes.  God is just but He is patient.  He is a redeemer.  He gives great freedom and gives selflessly of His love.  There is so much about God that characterizes God that a few paragraphs seems hardly to begin to do justice.

And that is something that I think needs extra emphasis in today’s US culture and society.  This confession makes a point of saying “We humbly recognize that God far surpasses human comprehension and understanding.”  This is very important to remember.  Many of those characteristics that the article uses to describe God, in our limited humanity, we perceive as being paradoxical.  How can someone be both merciful and wrathful?  How can justice be done but mercy also be done?  How can there be a sense of grace but a demand for righteousness?  This all seems to contradict itself.

The commentary seems to try to make sense of this but I think it still falls short.  Using a phrase like “righteous love” helps, but it does not satisfy the questions that these contradictions raise.  Again, the commentary says that there is a tension in knowing the unknowable.  God has revealed Himself but our human understanding sometimes cannot make sense of it.

In our post-Christian world, we cannot depend upon people understanding God in the same way that we do who have been brought up in the church.  In our post-modern age, we cannot rely on human reason to describe it either as, in the reaction to modern age of reason, the post-modernist is skeptical of the ability for human reason to answer all questions.  What is truth?  We can answer that God is the source of all truth.  And that is a characteristic of God.  What that implies, though, is that God, being beyond our understanding, “owns” a level of truth that we cannot grasp as humans.  We can only see parts of that truth and comprehend it in our finitude.  We will even make mistakes in this comprehension in our falleness.  And that is where the revelation of God’s grace comes to play.  Through his grace, mercy and compassion, he allows us to make those mistakes in the journey of coming to grips with the truth that He alone can contain.  And, through His grace, he has reached out to us in a way that we can get a glimpse of that light.  Calvinists use the term “condescend”.  This is not a bad term.  It is the same fashion in which parents and teachers take a complex idea (like the refraction of light waves) and explain it to a child who cannot comprehend of quantum particle theory.  Things are explained in a context and in a fashion suitable to the person receiving the information.  It is not false.  There is nothing wrong in saying “The rain drops break up the light into all the colors”.  That is true.  And it is understandable for a younger mind.  It is not a lie.

So, God has revealed himself in such a way that we can understand him.  Jesus is the ultimate means of that revelation where God, Himself, came down to our level, experienced what we experienced, and taught us about Him in terms even we can understand.  Does this answer all the questions?  It doesn’t even start.  But we can trust God (that is what faith is, anyways) to not lead us wrong.  After all, he went through all that effort to reach us, he must care deeply for us.

But I get ahead of myself. Tomorrow, I look at Jesus Christ.  God bless!

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33 Responses to ““I AM” - An examination of the Mennonite COF, Part 1”

  1. TimN Says:

    Robert,

    Thanks for your post. Unfortunately, I find I really can’t get past your use of He, Him and Himself. Perhaps it is because I grew up in churches that simply say “God” rather then using “He” that I find that the use of the capital H really grates on me.

    One of the key eye openers for me in understanding the value of inclusive language for God has been realizing that when we constantly using “He” or “Him” in reference to God we normalize men as the standard and women as the exception. As long as we continue to talk about gender neutral language for God as “strange way of addressing God” that might “muddy the waters” we reinforce the idea that maleness is the norm. And we pass the clear message on to boys and young men that they are universal norm and that women are not. That’s not a message I found helpful as a young man and its not one I want to pass on to the next generation.

    It’s interesting that you justify your use of the male pronoun by saying, “English language is insufficient to truly describe God in those sort of terms”. This is precisely the reason I prefer to use God instead of the capitalized pronoun. God is too big for a He or a Him. I’d rather put up with the slight grammatical awkwardness and just call God God.

  2. Robert Martin Says:

    Tim,

    You’re correct, actually. However, for myself, in trying to write something coherent and maintaining meaning, I got so lost and confused trying to write it that it was easier for me to drop back to the old form.

    The truth of the matter is that even the word “God” I think has way too much connotation to it in current culture because of the visual images it conjures up… anything from the Sistine Chapel to Monty Python. They all have an anthropomorphic feel to it. Human language is SOOO inefficient when talking about matters of the divine that sometimes I despair of even trying to discuss the simplest things.

    We cannot deny the scriptural references, though to God the Father and God the Son, both male nomenclatures for our deity. We don’t have God the mother or God the daughter in scriptural reference, but we have those references. Again, this does not imply God has gender or that any gender is better than another, at least, in my mind it doesn’t. However, because of the limitations of language in describing something that does not have gender or, for that matter, any real quality that matches the anthropomorphic form, we are reduced to using the imperfect representations of language. I choose to use the male pronouns simply to maintain the references to Father and Son that are in Scripture, recognizing that, with the notable exception of the God-Man Jesus, no gender form really makes sense with God.

    And that gets back to the point of my post in the first place: a recognition that humans, with our limitations of finitude and fallenness, are incapable of completely encompassing within any manner of human thought, reasoning, or interpretation, the complete nature and character of God. That, as best as I can understand, is the main purpose (or at least one of them) for the commandment to not make a graven image of God. The moment we try and make a visual representation of God, or even a linguistic interpretation, we put a veil around God so that all we end up seeing is the man-made representation.

    Should we stop talking about God because of this? Should we stop using pronouns to represent him? I think not. I can just as easily talk about God as “she” or “it” and end up with the same danger. And, as mentioned, even calling God “God” conjures up images. For westerners those images are one way, for folks from the African continenant, perhaps different, for the Middle-East, even different, and so on. Any human word to talk about the “I AM” has so much history of language wrapped around it that we inevitably end up creating an image in our heads.

    So, rather than complicate matters unnecessarily, i.e., “muddy the waters”, I stated what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and my humble statement that even that is insufficient.

    God is God, beyond me, above me. I cannot fathom God fully. All I can do is revel in the fact that God has been revealed in the way that was chosen so that I can, in my limited human fashion, come into relationship with my heavenly Father. I don’t know all, but I know enough to know I am loved, imperfect and finite as I am.

  3. Tim Baer Says:

    I don’t take issue with the use of “He”. As one who believes that God could be gender nuetral, the He language is fine. If one wishes to refer to God as “God” that too is fine by me. However, I take HUGE exeption that one would justify his/her opinion of God’s nuetrality through a 21st century worldview, one that is based more on being offended than any theological reason.

    When discussing God use theological reasoning, not human opinions of being “grated” upon, offended, or any other ill-conceived modern interpretation gained through cultural experience.

    If you have a theological case on a theological issue, share. Personal feelings are a poor way to interpret religious text.

  4. Robert Martin Says:

    Time Baer,

    I think you make an excellent point. To use opinion shaped by political correctness to come to a conclusion about God’s character is probably not the best way to handle a theological discussion. While culture and such can be used as a context within which we interact with God and theology, God surpasses and transcends such human contexts so, at best, any interpretations based in those contexts is incomplete.

    However, Tim N implies an equally good point. There may be baggage surrounding some of the historical ways in which God has been referenced. This baggage, through no fault of God’s and through no DIRECT fault of those means of referencing, can cause hurt, emotional and spiritual, to some. As compassionate people, should we take such things into consideration when referencing God? I think the answer to that is yes which is ultimately why I said what I said…not necessarily to say “This is the RIGHT way” but to give reason for why I do what I do so that those who read can give me that grace to be human and, instead of taking offense at me, allow me the grace and freedom to interact with God in a way that is comfortable and meaningful to me. I do my best to reciprocate by not blatantly saying that “God is male” or by saying “This is the ONLY way” and to listen with a compassionate ear to those who express their hurt coming from that baggage in the past.

    If I offend, it is definitely not my intent. But the offense is, I hope, seen as not something of my doing, but something due to that history that surrounds the terms used for God that, only through grace, mercy and forgiveness, can it be overcome.

  5. Jean Says:

    I stopped reading after I saw you’re using male references for God and defending it.

  6. Lyle Says:

    To borrow a phrase, it seems we have an adventure in missing the point. So much useful dialog has been lost because of hangups over pronouns. What Robert originally posted, which was a very rich discussion of God and how God reveals himself/herself/itself to us, has been almost completely ignored for the sake of political correctness. Sure, he could have used more inclusive language, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  7. Robert Martin Says:

    @Jean,

    Why does the use of the male pronoun bother you? As stated in my main post as well as in subsequent comments, the use of the pronoun was not intended to indicate that God is male or that maleness is somehow superior to femaleness. Instead, the intention was a) to prevent undue complication for myself in trying to write something meaningful about the nature of God and b) to retain some reference to two of the Scriptural forms of addressing God, that being God the Father and God the Son.

    Ultimately, which pronoun is used is insufficient simply because a) the English language is insufficient in describing a being that has no gender in terms that still preserve some aspect of the nature of that being and b) ANY human language is entirely insufficient for describing ANY aspect of God as, by definition, the human language is human and, therefore, a creation. The created cannot sufficiently describe the Creator.

    @Lyle

    Thank you. If we are so easily offended by something as simple as a pronoun, how can we EVER hope to get along when it comes to working through something as complex as the nature of God?

  8. Tim Baer Says:

    Robert,

    People are offended because they have no interest in the Gospel, only in themselves.

    Is God beyond or greater than Gender? Perhaps, and you admit as much and more. However, closed minds won’t see past your “snafu”. They are not interested in the Gospel at all, they are interested in being served, not serving. They are not interested in being taught, they are interested in their own interests. They are not interested in Truth, but cultural norms (They value this above all else and put it before acceptance of the Gospel).

    Paul tells us to avoid such people who wish to use the Gospel to their own advantages and to see their own agenda(s) met. They are a plague upon the church, they cause unecessary division, and love legalism. They are not interested in dialogue, they are interested in shouting. They are not interested in the humility demanded upon us in Timothy 1 & 2 and Titus. They put rules upon mankind to fit their own needs and desires.

    You can find these people at Tea Parties and at Gay rallies. They are at every stage in the political spectrum and they sit in the pews around you.

    There, I said it. You can delete it now.

  9. TimN Says:

    Robert,

    Thanks for your extensive response. I understand that in naming the issue you were trying to move past it in a graceful way. I sympathize with the ease with which the “old form” is easier, especially when working with complex concepts in new ways. This work is hard.

    For me, talking about the way we represent God is not about political correctness. In fact it relates very directly to how I understand God’s message throughout the Biblical narrative. For me, one clear thread is God’s shalom vision for peace, justice and redemption for all of creation. And within that vision is a challenge to sexism and patriarchy. Jesus challenged the way his culture treated women (Woman at the well, woman threatened with stoning, etc). Much of that vision was lost through the cultural layers that grew up over it. Let’s take the time to examine those layers. I think you said it well here:

    There may be baggage surrounding some of the historical ways in which God has been referenced. This baggage, through no fault of God’s and through no DIRECT fault of those means of referencing, can cause hurt, emotional and spiritual, to some. As compassionate people, should we take such things into consideration when referencing God?

    I would add to your call to compassion, the message from the very first sermon Jesus preached to kick off his ministry:

    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to preach good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to release the oppressed, Luke 4:18

    If we accept that women are one of the groups that has been held captive by religious institutions, both in Jesus’ time and in ours, what does this mean for how we think and talk about God? How do we move beyond political correctness, giving or taking offense and cultural norms to a shalom centered community that celebrates men and women in their full humanity? I certainly don’t have the answer, but I know it won’t be easy and there is no doubt that we will need God’s grace, mercy and compassion along the way…

  10. Samuel Says:

    Tim B,
    There is so much anger in your last post, it is frightening to me-you even acknowledge your anger is enough that a moderator might be justified in deleting it.

    I hope that we all might try to care for one another, as Jesus cared for the wounded. I wonder if you can acknowledge that many women testify the language the church has used about God for so many generations has been wounding, as I acknowledge the pain you feel watching what you see as cultural rather than religious battles.

    I also note with some sadness that this conversation has been carried on nearly exclusively by men, and the one voice that is female has been attacked with very harsh language.

  11. tali Says:

    “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Cor 9:19-23

    Speak the language of your audience. “…and if necessary, use words.”

  12. Robert Martin Says:

    @Samuel - If by responding to the female voice in anger you meant me, then again, the drawback of text on a screen to convey messages with sensitivity has come up. My question to Jean was very honest, in fact. I would like to know why the male pronoun bothers her so much. If I am to be able to walk with my sisters in Christ with sensitivity, I need to relate to them an attempt to understand what they perceive around them. The rest of my response to her was, again, to reiterate my point (which is still getting lost in all this conversation, BTW) and hopefully to enter into dialogue with the female voice in this debate. I’ve asked the question, stated my position, and am waiting for a response so that we can continue to dialogue. To be totally honest, I could EASILY be offended by the complete and utter disregard for anything I have to say simply because of the use of a pronoun. I will re-quote myself:

    If we are so easily offended by something as simple as a pronoun, how can we EVER hope to get along when it comes to working through something as complex as the nature of God?

  13. Tim "somasoul" Baer Says:

    Samuel,

    I am hardly angry. Anger is an emotion we often give ourselves to make ourselves believe we can control a situation we cannot. Most of the time people are actually sad or frustrated but choose to feel angry to gain a sense of control.

    I’m not angry at all. Disgusted, actually. It disgusts me to see political correctness become the justification for theology.

    I thought Robert’s original post was the best thing I have seen on this blog roll in a long, long while. He justified his religious experience within the framework of Biblical and Institutional authority. His commentary on his personal take on the Mennonite Confession of Faith stayed within the confines of the Confession itself, while adding his own spin. He admits his wording of God as Male is imperfect and gives reasons why other wording is less perfect still. And for this he was questioned as if he had committed some sort of atrocity.

    I always hear the liberals and progressives in the church say how all they want is “dialogue” and “conversation” but when we do have dialogue and it happens in a way those folks dislike, they shut down, point fingers, and call names. Call me crazy but it’s become a Modus Operandi for certain groups within the church.

    So yeah, disgusted.

  14. AlanS Says:

    First things first: everyone take a deep breath and chill out. You’re still all Christians and, theoretically, on the same side.

    That being said, I have some disjointed thoughts to throw in the mix

    1)@robert. I too have shared the same impulse to defend the gendered use of God. The problem is your justification of it’s use by using tradition. A core part of Anabaptism is the impulse to to call tradition into question and reject things that are not Biblically based. That’s a pretty weak argument. Which brings me to my next point.

    2) You said,

    We cannot deny the scriptural references, though to God the Father and God the Son, both male nomenclatures for our deity. We don’t have God the mother or God the daughter in scriptural reference, but we have those references

    Please clarify this for me. It sounds like you are saying that there are no scriptural references that refer to God as female. Am I reading that right? Because that is simply not the case. There are all kinds of feminine references to God. I hope I read that wrong.

    3)@TimB. First let me say that I am truly sorry for however you were hurt to bring up the kind of bitterness that you’re expressing. I don’t what it is but it must cut very deep for that kind of disgust and bitterness to come out.

    However, I do think you’re misunderstanding a couple of things though. First, don’t confuse Christian accountability and care for sisters and brothers in the faith who are different than us as ‘political correctness’. The concept of political correctness is based in ‘Human Rights’ language and concepts. What we’re talking about here is more based in Christian mutual aid and care, which is a very different thing. They might both cause us to have very similar actions, but I think you’re putting some of you’re own neo-conservative political hangups onto people and concepts where it doesn’t belong.

    It’s also worth noting that the charge of being disgusted with ‘political correctness’ can really only be leveled by people who are in positions of power who do not feel the effects of racism/sexism/classism/discrimination/or anything else to which ‘political correctness’ would apply. And I say this as as someone who is 6′3″, 350 lb, white, male, upper-middle class, in the U.S., and is working in a position of power as a pastor. All of those things allow me to live in such a way that I don’t have to care about anyone else…..unless I choose to.

    My guess is you and I are more alike than you realize. And from that similarity, let me say to you as a peer; you’re reaction and hostility to this discussion has WAY more to do with your own insecurities than it does what we’re actually talking about.

    I’m also sure that my challenging on this will make you even more angry….because it would probably make me angry too. Take a moment to do some self-reflection before coming after me in your next post.

  15. Robert Martin Says:

    @AlanS - First, thanks for the reminder. :-)

    Now, to respond to your queries:

    1) My justification for use wasn’t solely on tradition. I do question the tradition but do so by indicating that establishing a new tradition of “godself” or some sort of neuter is equally insufficient to describe God. So, rather than trying to do that, I fall back on the comfortable simply because it’s convenient. Is it correct? Probably not, but I’d hope that people of grace would be willing to give me the grace to make that fumble while we try and figure out stuff.

    2) There is, literally, no references in scripture of “God the Mother” or “God the Daughter”. That is what I intended. Yes, God is described in feminine terms in MANY places throughout the canon, but nothing quite so deliberately as “Father” and “Son”. Christ, himself called God his “Father”. So, we can refer to God in feminine terms, but the specific identifing “names” of God in the canon are male. In deference to Scripture, I choose the male pronoun. And again, this is not because I think maleness is better than femaleness (if I did, my wife would have something to say ;-) ), but simply because there is not something sufficient in the English language that describes God that will both capture God’s nature and avoid additional baggage from the historical tradition.

    I choose the male pronoun simply because there really is nothing else better and, while we can debate until the cows come home all sorts of different ways, the nature of God defies any of them as being sufficient. So… a fallen human language used by fallen humans trying to in a finite way describe the infinite. Yeah… see how that works out. ;-)

  16. Samuel Says:

    Robert,
    I really enjoy what you’ve written, and think you’ve been very calm in this conversation-Tim B and I agree that this was an insightful article, and the discussion in the comments section is clearly a digression from your agenda. I liked what you wrote enough to not really feel like I had anything to add to the substance. I also think you’ve been very honest and open about your arguments, and civil the whole way through the comment section. You could have chosen to be offended by the discussion, and I thank you for the ways that you have entered into this conversation-I am certainly learning something about good dialogue from the way you have handled this.

    I admit I read your last line about fallen human language describing the infinite, and I think ’so why wouldn’t we use the language that causes least pain?’ but I think it is legitimate to say ‘thus we must use the most biblical language’. (He is obviously most Biblical).

    Tim B,
    I don’t notice anyone attacking Robert as if he had committed an atrocity (Robert, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Reading back over the comments, Tim N. and Robert had a back and forth, Jean offered a somewhat dismissive comment (the closest thing to an attack on Robert), several people reprimanded her, and then a lot of people jumped on you for being angry/over the line.

    As one of those liberal’s you speak of, trust me, I don’t just want ‘dialogue’ and ‘conversation.’ I think that your disgust at those who support gender neutral language about God is wrong, I think ignoring the power disparities between men and women is inappropriate, I think that political correctness is almost always a virtue, not a vice, and I hope that you come to see the error of your ways. I’m happy to engage in continued argumentation, and will try to avoid name-calling, shutting down, and pointing fingers.

  17. Robert Martin Says:

    @Samuel - Thank you for your encouragement, especially the part about civil discussion. To be honest, this is a falling of mine that it’s nice to know that the efforts that God and I have put into improving this are bearing fruit.

    As for Jean’s comment, I honestly didn’t feel attacked. Compassionate and concerned, though: what about what I said caused offense?

    As for using the most Biblical language… that’s an interesting point. Whether or not integrated pronouns should be used is one thing, but we should always strive towards making sure we don’t lose site of the Biblical. IIRC, Anabaptists were once called “People of the Book”, yes?

    You know, looking over this, I wonder what folks will say when I finally put up my reflections on Article 2. ;-)

  18. Tim Baer Says:

    Alright, I’ll take a breath. I already said I wasn’t angry but, rather, disgusted and it remains so.

    First the concept of not calling God “Father” or “Him” truly disturbs me. The Bible uses this language nearly exclusively (Not “inclusively” since we’re busy playing with words here). I ponder how one can be offended at “Him” when referring to God yet still choke up enough strength to open up the Book. I picture, in my brain, looks of horror on your faces as Jesus prays “Abba”, scribbling it out, and writing “Godself” in its place. I’m just baffled.

    Second, the argument is that God is neither male or female, Biblically speaking (despite the whole “Abba” business, the Abraham parallel, the repeated references to God as Father, etc, etc). So to make up for this imperfection in the text, to remain true to the source, the solution is to invent whole new non-Biblical words to describe the accuracy of the Bible (Or, perhaps, to make it fit our own wishes)? I guess the theory being that since the text doesn’t convey what the text should convey would should rewrite the text to make it convey what we think it should thus the re-writing will be more Biblical than the actual Bible. I find this line of reasoning absolutely rediculous. I find the defense of it pure insanity.

    And from that similarity, let me say to you as a peer; you’re reaction and hostility to this discussion has WAY more to do with your own insecurities than it does what we’re actually talking about.

    Then you’d be wrong. I find your leftist agenda as despicable as I find rightest agendas within the church. I’ll tell you why you scare me, and why I find leftist (and rightest) agendas deplorable; you’ll use the text to defend your own opinion and positions.

    I suspect many on this blog roll find the “racist” attitude of tea paritiers and anti-illegal immigration activists deplorable. You believe, and perhaps rightly so, that those folks use the Bible to defend their positions. From my seat I see the left doing the same thing. They have an agenda and they’ll make the Bible fit it with whatever crazy, backward, interpretation they can find. And if others don’t buy into it, you blow them off (The right does this too. “Vote Republican or….”).

    I see it all the time. The crazy “open-mindedness” is all just cover for the same group think people have demanding on each-other for thousands of years. There’s no real interest in understanding others, there’s only interest in your own goals. At least rightests like Ayn Rand admitted it. With the left its all smoke and mirrors.

  19. Samuel Says:

    Tim,
    thanks for the post! I was delighted to hear your arguments, I feel like I have a better sense of where you are coming from, and I think they are well presented.

    I agree that it is important to use biblical language like ‘father’ or Abba in reference to God. (there are other people who would disagree with me on this point). I think of God as father often, and use it in prayer. I think that there is a problem when we exclusively use the male pronoun, because I think the Biblical case that God has testes is very weak, that both male and female are created fully in God’s image, and I think that in Greek and Hebrew the male pronoun is more gender neutral than it has become in modern English.

    But I confess that I am comfortable incorporating modern understandings into my reading of the Gospel. I argue with the Bible. The Bible is the experience of God written down by human people, and the text is shaped by the sexism and racism and scientific understandings of its day. I am willing to consider that the core of the Gospel message of Christ may work at cross purposes with particular Biblical texts, and I think that the gendered language about God in the Bible reflects the sexism of the Biblical time period, and does not demonstrate the best of the love of Christ or love of neighbor.

    I am not trying to hide this position. I acknowledge that if I took the Bible more literally, I would end up at a different place.

    However, I think its unfair to say that I (or all people on the right, for that matter) are in this for power reasons. I do try to understand others, and I appreciate your willingness to share your views honestly.

  20. Joseph P Says:

    Robert, I’m sorry to say that reading these arguments over pronouns is far more titillating to me than your reflections on article 1 of the COF.

    Go figure.

    One thing that’s convinced me that pronouns DO matter is how radical it sounds and feels to me when someone uses feminine pronouns for God.

    As for Article 1…

    As I read your post, I starting meditating on the following dilemma: do we profess certain beliefs about God because we literally believe them to be true, or do we profess certain beliefs about God because we believe they promote a better society.

    Personally, I am becoming less interested in saying anything about God that I don’t believe to be literally true…which severely limits what I can say.

    The pronoun discussion seems to indicate that people no longer believe in God as literally as they once did. When we call God “He” it embodies God in a literal form that we can understand. When we alternate use of “He” and “She,” “Father” and “Mother,” God becomes mysterious, beyond literal comprehension.

    I’m not sure if it’s enough to say that “language is inadequate” to describe God. Perhaps the “mind is inadequate” to understand God, or even to know if there is a God.

    Incidentally, it seems to me that using gender-neutral language is a start towards fostering a realistic appreciation for the mystery of God.

  21. Tim Baer Says:

    Incidentally, it seems to me that using gender-neutral language is a start towards fostering a realistic appreciation for the mystery of God.

    I agree with you that we should appreciate the mystery of God. For indeed, God is mysterious and incomprehensible. However, I don’t believe this is the reason for the switch to gender nuetral language. If it were you would hear nary a peep from me. The switch stems more from a 20th century understanding of modern feminism than good theology. Those who use the language identify their outside interests at once and show where their true loyalties lie. I don’t believe those interests are the church’s interests.

    Anytime you see someone promote gender nuetral language the argument that follows goes like this: “The Phallo-centric systems of oppression that reduced women to living within the hetero-maleness cultures of the….” This is all modern psycho-babble that really doesn’t mean anything. I’d say such things are harmless, but it makes dangerous, reckless theology. We’re all still shocked at the Christianity of the past based on European culture or Puritanism or Nationalism and how poorly those beliefs actually materialized the Gospel. We are equally aghast at White Nationalism’s use of the Bible. Yet here we are using the same techniques to justify the way we believe. We build churches around this nonsense, denominations around it, and ministries around it.

    It doesn’t promote good Bible reading or understanding. It’s a cheap way to make the Bible understandable to the reader without comprehension. Literalists use the same technique for a different purpose. They cannot understand the text so they cheapen it’s worth.

  22. AlanS Says:

    TimB

    First let apologize for making some assumptions about you. I was caught up in the rhetoric and catchphrases that you were using such as “liberal agenda”, “political correctness”, “crazy ‘openmindedness’”. Combined with the clear disdain and dismissiveness that you have used them with, I made some assumptions about your political persuasions and power that your life situations have given you.

    Perhaps I was wrong about these assumptions.

    Likewise, when you said:

    I find your leftist agenda as despicable as I find rightest agendas within the church. I’ll tell you why you scare me, and why I find leftist (and rightest) agendas deplorable; you’ll use the text to defend your own opinion and positions.

    I think you have misunderstood me. If you want to play the ‘left-right’ card, for the record I am a registered republican in the state of Kansas, so that should tell you a couple of things right there. People have called me many things over the years, but saying that I have a ‘leftist agenda’ is certainly not one of them.

    What’s more, you still don’t seem to understand the difference between care for other Christians who are in lower positions is society and your distorted and politically charged understanding of the ‘left’ and ‘political correctness’. Yes I am offended when people engage in systematic racism…..because I’m a Christian. Yes I’m offended when my sisters are made to feel second class citizens, by language or action, whether it is in society of church…..because I’m a Christian. Yes I’m offended when economic and political systems only function to keep old white guys in power rather than serving the poor and sick…..because I’m a Christian. If these happen to match up with those on the political left, fine, but I believe in these things because I’m rooted in the Gospel. In the same way that Glen Beck has misunderstood and distorted the term ’social justice’ it feels like you’re are misunderstanding and distorting my views (on this blog at least) and the views of others similar to me. Again, this may not be your intent, but it’s definitely how you’re coming across. If I’m wrong about this, show me different.

    In this discussion, you argue for honesty in the agenda that everyone has, yet you maintain that you are neither left or right. However, comments like the one above betray you and clearly out you as very conservative. Even if you might reject the ultra-fringe of the Tea Party, you clearly have shown yourself to be solidly within the beliefs, and at least have accepted the rhetoric, of the political right in the U.S. Presenting yourself as somehow neutral is disingenuous.

    As I’ve read your posts, I’ve tried to challenge myself to take you serious, especially since it hasn’t been that long since I’ve held similar beliefs to the ones your espousing. I’ve also tried to admonish you as a brother. Don’t mistake my concerns and corrections for rejection of you or hatred to you. But from where I sit these days, the church needs people like you to really re-think some things. And let me tell you, from living in a small town where I hear blatantly and unbelievably racist things on a regular basis, the real change that this world needs has to begin and include those people who are in positions of power. You and I are the key, buddy.

    In all honesty,
    may God’s peace be with you.

  23. Tim "somasoul" Baer Says:

    Let’s try to not turn Mr. Martin’s post into a post about who believes what on the political scale. (For the record I don’t think I have ever voted Republican with the possible exception of Michael Steele for Senator in my home state of Maryland some years back.) Perhaps I come off as being right of center because everyone here is so very, very far left and I disagree with you. I often describe myself as a “classical liberal” (But even that is a misnomer at best).

    Yes I’m offended when economic and political systems only function to keep old white guys in power rather than serving the poor and sick…..because I’m a Christian.

    If I were to say this but change the word “white” to “black” I’d be called a racist. This is the sort of thing I often lamblast liberals for. There’s no less than 2 sets of rules at play at any given time. Whether or not you play by them determines how much of a bigot you are.

    Yes I’m offended when my sisters are made to feel second class citizens, by language or action, whether it is in society of church…..because I’m a Christian.

    Women have traditionally been in the church in larger numbers than men. Prior to 1900 the “He” language wasn’t an issue. It’s only the modern woman who doesn’t understand her place in this world. And by “her place” I don’t mean some convoluted premise men have devised for her. Women are pulled in a hundred different directions, pick up any woman’s magazine and you’ll see articles declaring that if a woman doesn’t stay home with her children she’s neglecting her duties or if she goes back to work after a birth she’s a traitor to the woman’s movement. She’s told be happy with her body in magazines that only feature woman no larger than size zero. In comparison men are expected to go to work everyday, mow the lawn, and stay out of jail. Not much has changed for us dudes. But the world is a lot different for Western women. I can’t help but think these theological issues are determined by these secular cultural shifts.

    Also, taking into account the “second class citizen” factor some women feel (I’d say a small percentage of women) though I can’t find any data on this, I find that people “feeling” something about God is a bad direction to aim a/the Church. If someone feels God can’t save humanity does that make it so? If I dislike your name “Alan” does that mean I can change it? This is stupendously baffling to me, that someone can change the history of the faith because they feel offended or slighted. If you can back it up theologically do so.

    Lastly, I find conservatives tend to boil everything down to the least common denominator “They’re illegal so send them back” or “They attacked us so we can attack them…” Doing this means conservatives do not to take into consideration the effects of their actions. Likewise, liberals tend to participate in reclassification. “We love justice so if I can make vegetarianism a justice issue then we all have to buy into it.” Both present formidable challenges. And both make it difficult to discuss the Bible because I find both are using the aforementioned techniques to justify whatever the hell they feel like.

    Lastly, and on Mr. Martin’s post, he declares that God is

    something

    . Loving. Compassionate. Merciful. Strong in wrath. [fill in the blank]. God is many things (we agree, right, Alan?). So if God is something who are we to make an attempt to change what Godself [HA!] is based on our own particular needs or desires. The Bible is clear. God is who He is. From the meeting with Moses to Jesus’ declaration “I AM!”, it has not been up to us to define. The changing of the language is all about meeting our own needs, and you admit as much:

    sisters are made to feel second class

    These changes have nothing do with understanding God, but with our own hangups in dealing with the Creator. Mr. Martin said it best:

    There may be baggage surrounding some of the historical ways in which God has been referenced. This baggage, through no fault of God’s and through no DIRECT fault of those means of referencing, can cause hurt, emotional and spiritual, to some.

    And yet, that hurt doesn’t give us license to alter how we perceive God. God remains God whether or not we like Him.

  24. AlanS Says:

    Tim,

    I could spend a really long time explaining the differences between our worldviews that play into your post. I don’t have the time right now to do all of them, but I want to highlight one theological and glaring heresy which seems to be at the heart of your argument.

    Your last line is

    And yet, that hurt doesn’t give us license to alter how we perceive God. God remains God whether or not we like Him.

    Two things:
    1) There is a fundamental difference between the never changing nature of God, and the ever changing perception of him. Do not ever confuse these two things.

    2) The ability for us, as human, to alter how we perceive God is not a primary threat to Christianity, but rather it is the core of it. Our ability to change how we perceive God is what it means to have a conversion experience.

    It’s not that God has ever loves us less or more whether we are a professed Christian or not, but the conversion experience is a change in our perception.

    Nicodemus most certainly believed in YHWH but was in need of his perception of God to be radically changed.

    The early church changed it’s perception of God drastically on the issue of circumcision. It’s also worth noting that this change in perception of how God was working went contrary to both the scripture that they new and even Jesus himself - “I came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. It was made only on the continued revelation of the Holy Spirit.

    Even the initial understanding of the death of Jesus on the Cross as the end of the story was a mis-perception of the nature of God. One that Jesus was changing.

    Again, it’s not that God has changes, but rather our perception of him that changes. As we have all admitted freely in this discussion, humans are incapable of fully describing God. The use and abuse of language to describe God is primarily our problem. Which is why it’s essential for us to be able to change our understanding of God. In fact, I might say it’s core to the Gospel message.

    After reading your post, I’m really saddened by the gulf of understanding between us. I hope we can both grow from this, if maybe not in our timing, at least in God’s timing.

  25. Samuel Says:

    Tim,
    you write
    “If I were to say this but change the word “white” to “black” I’d be called a racist. This is the sort of thing I often lamblast liberals for. There’s no less than 2 sets of rules at play at any given time. Whether or not you play by them determines how much of a bigot you are.”

    The reason that you would be a racist is because there really is a tremendous divide between black and white achievement in the real world. Pretending that white privilege doesn’t exist, that white males are discriminated against, is perpetuating injustice. If our society had a long history of structural oppression by people of African descent over people of European dissent, then the opposite would be true, and you could switch white and black and not be a bigot.

  26. Jean Says:

    Wow, I’m really surprised, and yet sadly not surprised, that no other women have weighed in on this discussion. This is a serious problem. I know a number of women have been walking away from this space, and it’s no wonder.

    You correctly perceived, Robert, that I was not intending to attack you. Rather, I thought it may be helpful for you to know how some in your intended audience respond. I think several people up the line highlighted that this is useful information if you’re hoping to reach people with your thoughts and enable others to engage you on the things that matter to you.

    It’s hard to take your “REALLY, why would you be offended?!” question seriously. This suggests to me you’ve not invested yourself in reading feminist literature or asking feminists you know about this basic issue. The gendered references for God discussion has been active in the U.S. context for at least 50 years.

    Here’s the crux of it for me: God is neither male nor female. Or God is both male and female. That’s all. To use one gendered pronoun exclusively is simply incorrect and it’s the basis on which the church has been destroying women’s souls and bodies, not to mention smothering our voices, for centuries.

  27. Robert Martin Says:

    @Jean - Thank you, Jean, for responding. I was wondering if we would hear from you.

    As for my question, it was not meant to be incredulously asking, but honestly asking. As you point out, I have not read feminist literature or anything like that and have not been privy to a lot of information about the conversation. Obviously, I’m aware of the conversation or I would have not felt it necessary to at least give an explanation as to why I was using the pronouns I was using.

    As to your “crux”, we agree more than you know. My use of the male pronoun as I have said was not to elevate one gender above another (although I can see, historically speaking, why it could be taken as such). A follow up question back to you would then ask as to whether the burden to make up for that history of the ungracious use of maleness in talking about God should be entirely upon the people using the male pronoun or if there is a need for some grace to be given on the part of the women participating in these conversations? While I understand that there is historical hurt, are we not supposed to be a body built on grace, mercy, compassion and forgiveness?

    For my part, I do try to not specifically call out God as male and, in those cases where I know I might, I make sure I explain that it is not intended to oppress women. While it is not evident in this one interaction, I do avoid the male pronoun where it is unnecessary and try to be more inclusive. However, I would turn it around and request that those women who have been recipients of that hurt over the years take a close look at their reactions and determine if there is a need for grace and forgiveness. Is there room in the conversation about God to forgive those hurts of the past where it is obvious that those who are using male language are not intending to oppress in its use?

  28. Robert Martin Says:

    Let me add, Jean, that my Mother struggled for YEARS with the idea of a woman being a minister of any sort. Our home congregation would not allow her to lead hymns on a Sunday morning simply because of there being a woman “in charge”.

    And, despite all that, when she died, she was a Conference Minister in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a repeat board member for the Mennonite Church Board, on the board of The Mennonite itself, licensed and ordained, a person who had been on the board working towards merging GC and MC, etc.

    While she did all this, never once did she complain about God being called “He” or “Him”. So, to me, it seems that the use of the pronoun can be overcome by women. My mother was one of the pioneers of women leaders in the Mennonite church and she didn’t have to change our language to do it.

    Just my take on it. :-)

  29. Robert Martin Says:

    One more note. :-)

    Here’s the obit…

    http://www.themennonite.org/issues/10-15/articles/Miriam_Martin_conference_minister_dies_at_64

  30. TimN Says:

    Robert,

    Thanks for taking the time to share about your Mom. It sounds like she played a key role in the struggle for women in leadership. I wonder what barriers the young women she mentored are struggling to overcome today?

    Jean has rightly pointed out that women have been “walking away from this space” (with a few exceptions) for quite a while now. This thread is yet another example of why YAR isn’t always a safe for women.

    As the only active admin on this site I really struggle with how to deal with this dynamic. I chose to leave Tim “somasoul” Baer’s inflammatory comment up despite his “delete me” taunting, because I felt like its vitriol was so self-contradictory it spoke for itself. I think this may have been the wrong approach.

    Wikipedia defines trolling as:

    [posting] inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response

    After hearing from a friend that Tim B/Somasoul was bragging on Facebook about causing a “shitstorm” here on YAR, I think that parts of Tim B/Somasoul’s participating in this thread constitute trolling. Our guidelines clearly state that trolling is not acceptable.

    Tim B/Somasoul has consistently walked the line on this site between trolling and genuine participation in conversation. We’ve had these discussions with Tim in the past, both in person and by email. I revoked his rights to write here on YAR, but have continued to allow him to comment freely based on his assurances that he would change his ways. Yet in this thread he’s back at it again.

    Tim B/Somasoul, I’m sure you’ve had lots of pain in your life that you need to vent, but I think its time you stop doing it on this blog. I’m sure you’ll want to go on at length defending yourself and you’re welcome to do so as much as you want in this thread, but I’ll be moderating any future comments you write and trolling won’t be tolerated.

  31. Robert Martin Says:

    @TimN

    It sounds like she played a key role in the struggle for women in leadership. I wonder what barriers the young women she mentored are struggling to overcome today?

    That is a fair question. I’d imagine that the struggles go beyond the use of inclusive language but are infinitely more subtle. I wonder, sometimes, if the problem may be of our own making, similar, in fact, to the problems facing the unity of the larger Christian church. The more we spend time pointing out our differences, the less we spend time rejoicing in our similarities. This is a similar problem with the problem of race in the US. Rather than calling ourselves “Americans”, we add the nomenclature “black” or “white” or “Asian” or “African”. Rather than pointing out these differences of ethnicity, wouldn’t it be better to celebrate that we are all here, together?

    Martin Luther King, Jr., is famous for quoting

    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

    Could that not be adapted for gender issues as well? Judge me not by the kinds of chromosomes I have but by the content of my character. So long as we continue to point out the differences, I fear we’ll always be stuck in discussing gender differences.

    I don’t know the answer to this problem. To quote another famous person, I fear it is “above my pay grade”. But one thing I do know is that, regardless of gender, humanity as a whole was created in the image of God and, as best as it is possible for me to do, my hope is to treat all members of humanity as images of the Creator.

  32. Samuel Says:

    Robert,
    I think you’re absolutely right that the goal is for our differences to be celebrated where they exist, and that the content of one’s character should be the defining measure of a person.

    I think the challenge is knowing when we’ve reached that point, when the advantages of race and gender no longer distort our society. I don’t know when we’ll get there, but I can promise you one thing-we will know we are there when women and people of color no longer tell personal stories of discrimination and racism. Until then, the battle goes on.

    TimN-the trolling question is an interesting one. As a new commentator, I confess I enjoyed having a ideologically unique sparring partner in TimB, and I was impressed how he chose to engage in dialogue over the course of the thread. Obviously, I also understand and worry about constructing a hostile community. Just thought I’d throw in my 2cents.

  33. Tim Baer Says:

    Alan,

    I really appreciate these 2 thoughts:

    1) There is a fundamental difference between the never changing nature of God, and the ever changing perception of him. Do not ever confuse these two things.

    2) The ability for us, as human, to alter how we perceive God is not a primary threat to Christianity, but rather it is the core of it. Our ability to change how we perceive God is what it means to have a conversion experience.

    And I know you’re exactly right. However, that doesn’t mean that how that perception changes is right. If my thought process changed to “God wants us to kill people with weird birthmarks” it doesn’t make it so. The conversion experience must align with some rudimentary Christian beliefs. But what measure do we use to do so?

    I often lurk here because I find YAR startling. From the demands of reading feminist literature to the LGBTQ faq and yet rare references to anything religious is just…it’s just absolutely baffling and infuriating. Make no mistake about it, I fully believe many who frequent here have little interest in the Gospel at all and whenever and wherever I get the impression that others will use the Gospel to further their own ends I’ll call it out, whether they be on the right or the left or anywhere inbetween.

    Lastly, and perhaps the most perplexing, is the frequent calls for “dialogue”. I continue to insist that dialogue is not want anyone wants (The answer to what we want is “our own way”). Once again, I didn’t make a personal attack on anyone nor create anything that I thought was an unsafe space. You think I’m hostile when I simply disagree.

    Once again, Robert’s post was about as insightful as anything I’ve read on YAR.

    What that implies, though, is that God, being beyond our understanding, “owns” a level of truth that we cannot grasp as humans. We can only see parts of that truth and comprehend it in our finitude.

    This is perhaps the best damn I’ve ever read on this blog. The fact it got turned into a discussion about God’s scrotum or lack there-of simply furthers my belief that some people have an agenda they need to see met before the Gospel can be discussed. That terrifies me. Mr. Martin had a lot to say, said is concisely, backed it up Biblically and with his own opninion, and once again YAR devolves into how we should culturally and socially respond to this before a Bible is cracked open.

    As I have always stated, if you have an opinion, and back it up with the Bible, even if I disagree I will respect it. But make no mistake, I have never respected someone’s Biblical or Christian worldview garnered from some outside source and I find that asking anyone to do just that to be completely ridiculous, misinformed at best, and probably dangerously reckless. So if you’re on a gay pride float at a parade or burning a cross on someone’s front lawn, and if you’re waving a Bible while you’re doing it, my internal “bullshit alarms” just start blaring.

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