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?

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy