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Reflections on Fr. Morelli's Essay on Exclusive Language

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

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This essay is a reflection on Fr. George Morelli's, The Power of the Name: Implications For Orthodox Psycho-Theology.

The philosophical ideas behind inclusive language are different than the political rationale that justifies it. In political terms, inclusive language is justified by appeals to “fairness” and “tolerance.” At the center of the apologetic is the assumption that using the word “man” as a collective noun discriminates against females. The assumption has the appearance of moral verity (from which it draws its moral power) because fairness and tolerance are Christian virtues.

In philosophical terms however, language is seen as bound by the limits of personal experience and imagination and not capable of expressing any truth apart from them. The words that we use to talk about God cannot reveal anything except our concepts about God. They can't reach God, neither can we hear what God might have to say. All theological language, in other words, is metaphorical.

Add the political and philosophical notion together and the stage was set for a reworking of the traditional texts that would conform to a new cultural milieu — an egalitarian spirit sweeping the culture, particularly the academic world. Sallie McFague (Metaphors of God) and Rosemary Ruether (Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology), were two prominent apologists for inclusive language in theological circles in those early days. Their ideas were widely accepted, particularly in liberal Protestant seminaries. Their ideas are still influential today.

Ruether charged out of the gate as an unrepentant feminist and remains so today. McFague was more measured. They argued that an inherent discrimination existed in popular discourse against women, and that Christian Tradition carried a large measure of responsibility for it. Not only should popular usage change, so should the language of Christianity, particularly the language that Holy Scripture and Tradition uses to describe God.

They argued that the words that we use to describe God (such as Father and Son) are mere social constructs, mere metaphor, and the time had come to create a new metaphor that reflects a broader inclusivity. For example, take the phrase “Fatherhood of God.” Fatherhood is a male characteristic; only men can be fathers. This, according to Ruether and McFague, de-facto eliminates the female from the “God metaphor” is and thus is inherently discriminatory.

Language needed to be sanitized from the patriarchal influences that tainted it in favor of men, and sanitize the language they did. Their ideas took hold so that now we have biblical texts that reflect inclusiveness standing alongside the traditional texts. But it is a dangerous gambit, especially for the person who (quite unconsciously perhaps) believes that language does indeed have revelatory power and that the words of Scripture can show us Truth.

For example, take the traditional reading of 1 Timothy 2:5:

  • “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Now look at the inclusive version:

  • “For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human.”

Biological particularity has been stripped out. The point of the traditional reading is that Jesus was biologically male, a man like all males are men. The inclusive rewording blunts and obscures biological particularity and introduces in its place a generalized androgyny.

We see it in other passages as well. In Matthew 3:17 we hear the voice of the Father saying:

  • "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

The inclusive text rewords it:

  • "This is my beloved Child, with whom I am well pleased."

Again, this is an attempt to remove biological particularity, to present Christ as something other than male because any definite pointer to biological realism is discriminatory.

These are but two examples but they reveal the underlying problem with inclusive language: Take it far enough and you will end up denying the Incarnation (the place where Ruether and McFague both ended up). Put another way, if the biological maleness of Jesus Christ is not significant, then the physical death of Jesus Christ (the man who was/is God) is not significant either, not in the end anyway.

In ontological terms the Crucifixion becomes meaningless, and at best is seen as nothing more than a morality tale. Man's need for a Savior is disappears, and the Christ who “became flesh and dwelt among us” rises perhaps to the role of moral sage or teacher (in metaphorical terms anyway) but not the space-time actor who is capable of destroying death.

No Son leads to no Savior – at least in our thinking. But a blind mind, leads to blind sight. If the words that enlighten the mind are banished, then any hope of seeing is vanquished as well.

These points were not lost on Ruether or McFague. In fact, they were championed. “God-talk” (by which they mean the received tradition) remember, is metaphor. They were bound by the experience and imagination of the authors. Their words themselves have no revelatory power (although they may have some moral benefit) and must change as our ideas about God change.

“Well, is God really male?” a reader might ask. No. While the language is not literal in terms that it denotes a one-to-one correspondence between the brute definition of a term and its object, it still functions to denote relationship.

For example, we use the masculine pronoun “He” to refer to God. Why do we say “He” if God is not male? The reason is that if we were to use the term “She” (a term inclusivists use frequently), a deep symbolic confusion arises. If God is “She,” then we imply that creation came out of God's womb; that the creative prowess of God is similar to the creative prowess of the created female. This would not be a problem perhaps in the first decade or two where the traditional formulation was still remembered. Over time however, the traditional formulation would be forgotten, and man would slowly submerge himself back into the paganism that Christianity overthrew.

If this sounds far-fetched just look at the denominations that embraced the logic of inclusive language. After biological particularity was jettisoned, all sorts of confusion about gender arose. It is not an accident that, say, in the Episcopal Church schism resulted over female and homosexual bishops. Ironically, the churches who adopt the inclusivist assumptions about language moved closer to pagan antiquity than they did Christian antiquity.

Orthodoxy believes language is revelatory, that if the soil of the heart is properly prepared, a spoken word can reveal Christ to us. We believe that the very existence of language is God-ordained, and that the same word that brought the creation into existence can transform the hearts and minds of men. We must be discerning about what we hear, but we believe that the repository of words held within the tradition – our hymns, poetry, theology, prose, and more – and most important the Holy Scripture (the source of Tradition) are the Word of God through the words of men that reach deeper than metaphor and reveal things about God that can transform the hearer.

We reject the notion that language is bound only to the creation and thus cannot escape the natural limits of experience and imagination. We believe that God speaks, and that through His Word He reveals Himself.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, editor of OrthodoxyToday.org (www.orthodoxytoday.org) and President of the American Orthodox Institute (www.aoiusa.org)

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