Faith and Reason: Words that must tell a fuller truth: In a further article in our series on Catholicism and feminism, Sara Maitland argues that traditional language about God has shown women as inferior, and should be changed.

WHEN I first read the Archdeacon of York's column (Faith and Reason, 23 July) I itched to take him up on a number of points, especially about translation - his article seems to imply that God uses only the King James version of the Bible and speaks rather outmoded English. The pronoun problem is a peculiarly English one. But I do not want to start from there: being orthodox myself I do not want to start with God's gender at all - simply because God does not have one.

Gender is a feature of biology, which God does not have, being, as the Archdeacon reminds us, 'without body, parts and passions'. Christianity claims that it is a revealed religion; what we know about God we know because God, in love, wants us to know. That revelation is historical: it is given in a series of what the psalmist calls 'wonderful acts'. And in these acts - from the chivying of Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and into the desert, right through to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost and beyond, in the promise to remain with us always even to the end of time - we see a God who refuses to be pinned down to our rules; a God who continually shakes and drives and inspires the faithful to new things. We see a God who demands that we expand our minds and hearts; a God who sets aside the powerful of each generation and has a bias towards the poor and the oppressed: a God who loves justice and who calls on us through our incorporation in Christ to contest injustice.

There are many injustices in the world. One of them is sexism; the oppression of women. That women as women are oppressed, are deprived of justice, on a global scale has been demonstrated beyond question. This injustice cries to heaven throughout the Scriptures, and its amelioration is a Gospel imperative.

Like Christianity, feminism is not a self-fulfilment movement, it is a justice movement. We fail, we are self-indulgent, selfish, wrong- headed, incompetent, sometimes even crazy; we are like everyone else, we sin. None the less feminism offers an analysis and, at its best, an outline at least of a means to combat this injustice of sexism.

Feminist analysis is wide-ranging, but central to a good deal of its work is the conviction that language actually matters. It argues that a language that ignores women, that constructs them as inferior, as contained within maleness, or as less like God for example, is a language that enables - and even creates - the injustice against them. Language, various feminisms claim, is more than a tool. It has power; it constructs worlds, it constructs acts, it constructs truths; and also it destroys, conceals, lies, and manipulates.

Funnily enough this is what Christianity believes too. It believes in the central creative power of words. We are created by God's speaking; we are redeemed by the Logos, the eternal Word. Sacramentally, intention and matter are not enough; there must also be right rite: not just the correct things done, but also the correct words spoken. We are Children of the Book - looking to the ancient words as our cornerstone. Orthodox Christianity further believes that men and women were both created 'in the image of God' and, most of the time, also believes that women and men are equally precious to God; and that equality is sealed in our identical incorporation into Christ's death and resurrection through baptism.

You would think then that Christianity would fall upon the neck of feminism with gratitude and rejoicing.

What has gone wrong? I do not think that, put this way round, anything I have said is contentious; certainly nothing here is heretical or even particularly novel.

That God is without 'qualities' and that since sex is a 'quality' God does not have it. That God loves all people equally. That women are, in the fullest theological sense of the word, people. That language matters, that it must struggle to tell the truth, not neutrally but with the passionate engagement that Jesus, who was the Word, demonstrated, by loving us so much that for our sake he would 'humble himself even unto death, yes death on a cross'.

Now just suppose for one moment that there is any truth at all in the feminist suggestion that renewing and expanding the language we have traditionally used for God might help in eliminating the injustice against women. Is it actually imaginable that, even if God is most properly spoken only with male images and masculine pronouns, that He would mind being incorrectly addressed?

It is with God's love for justice and with Jesus's self-emptying and the direct injunction to follow that pattern that we must start. In this context we are entitled to ask who has what to gain or lose by insisting on one strand of traditional truth (that of naming God out of a gender-restrictive pattern of imagery only, even though we know that those who created that complex, beautiful, tough, subtle language were living with a theory of female 'incompleteness' or deficiency that we do not believe in any more) at the expense of another (that God is without qualities; and that all our God-language is therefore the language of analogy). And if the answer is 'people with power', we are authorised to reprimand them. We know that these traditionalists do not mind 'innovations' such as verbal images of Jesus as 'lover', nor visual ones that show him as northern European. So what is happening? Could it be sexism itself? Surely we are called upon to remind such people that Jesus, unlike their verbal postures 'did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped'. We are obliged to try and forge a new poetry and a new grammar which expresses the complexity of God better.

I am a feminist. I am also a Christian and a writer. I believe that there is real content to feminist ideas about language and its power. I am delighted that the new biological, social, historical, ontological knowledge about women has asked new questions of the tradition; and given us access to another way of engaging against sexism. I am excited by the chance to explore how a without-qualities-but-personal God might now be spoken of. I believe I not only may, but we must.

Obviously God is not going to be hurt by the process; who is?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links