“Images of God dictate who will feel worthy in society and who will feel inferior, who will be respected and who will get easy access to the material goods of a culture and who will have to fight for those same goods.”- Naomi R. Goldenberg
Images of God are created with words. Words are only tools. They are not reality. Language serves as a guide. Sometimes it points us in a direction that is close to our perceived reality. Sometimes it crystallizes a concept into an idea so difficult to conceive in any other way, it almost becomes law. Sometimes, language, upon reflection, takes us to a place we might never have visited otherwise.
Teaching French gave me many gifts. I find language and, specifically, grammar quite fascinating. I made every attempt to infect my students with my passion. One issue that always baffled my students about the French language was gender. The masculine plural subject pronoun “they” in French was particularly disturbing for many of them…but more so for the girls.
In French, similar to many other languages, there is a feminine “they” and a separate masculine “they." This appears on the surface to be reasonable once you can decipher the difference in vowel sounds. A group of girls would be they, elles e-l-l-e-s, a group of boys, then, would be ils, i-l-s. The students could generally handle being assigned their separate pronouns. Yet, after a little more explanation, the apparent bias leaps out from behind these pronouns and they discover a sort of separate-but-not-equal situation. If there is one boy in a group of girls…just one…then the masculine plural i-l-s is grammatically correct. In fact, any mixed-gender group receives the male plural subject pronoun.
Every year that I taught French One, the same situation unfolded.
After instructing them on the rules for subject pronouns, a moment or two would pass. The significance would begin to percolate. Then questions would come in rapid fire.
“So, if there are 10 girls and 2 guys?”
“Masculine i-l-s,” I reply.
“300 girls and 1 guy?”
“i-l-s,” I say again.
I was always torn between the joy that they actually understood the concept and the angst of its implications.
“1,000 girls, and 2 guys?” they would plead.
“i-l-s," I spell.
“Why?” they inevitably ask.
I usually answer with much despair: “Because that is the rule and the rule has been around for a long time.” I can blame the Academie Francaise, which is a French institution funded by the French government that “controls” and “sustains” the French language. The Academie Francaise controls advertising and print material, newspapers, and journals. The French are very proud of their grammatical structure. Some women have chosen to counterbalance the standard pronoun choice by using e-l-l-e-s for a mixed gender group, but I have been told on numerous occasions that e-l-l-e-s used in this manner doesn’t sit right in the French ear. It sounds wrong.
Every year, I would have to justify, that even in my classroom, a socially aware choice would be counted wrong, and that on their standardized tests it would be counted wrong as well because they had to prove that they knew and understood the concept. Yet, there I was, training another group of ears. And all the while my inner voice groans with the injustice of it all.
Nearly every year, one of the few boys in the class would protest, “It’s just a pronoun.” After the past few decades of sensitization to gender bias, I, too, have struggled with our attempts to neutralize or feminize the gender of our language in order to be more inclusive. It is just a pronoun. Why can’t we just say “he” for goodness sake? “He” means mankind, which includes women, doesn’t it? Well, actually no, it means Man-kind. Just as the French have been lumping whomever into i-l-s.
I am now trained to say humankind and mankind rings exclusive to me. I must admit, though, that my own ear still hears God when paired with she or her as distracting.
When I was teaching in Garland, Texas, there was a song on the radio:
Tell me all your thoughts on God
Cause I’d really like to meet her.
And ask her why we’re who we are
This was my first real receptive encounter of God as “she" in popular culture, and it did catch my attention, distracted my ear, and made me think about my image of God.
As a minister, I choose very carefully when to distract the ears of those to whom I am speaking. Often, my choice is to go with the male pronouns when referring to God in order to get a larger message across. I bank on my relationship with the people hoping that they know that when I say God, I include an image that reflects me and other women.
Maybe the very presence of a woman in a collar will stretch people's images of clergy and, therefore, God. Perhaps it will broaden their image of the divine to include all of the identities on the spectrum -- a God who looks like them, whatever gender they claim. Because my understanding of God includes the 1 in 1000.