The first is over-broad — few can claim to understand God. The second betrays a kind of platonic attitude towards language, one which is not uncommon in some circles. This attitude treats words as having, rather than conveying, meaning. It also imbues language with a kind of magic power. It is as if our describing a wall as blue made it blue. The wall, in fact, is what it is, however we perceive it or describe it.
Of course, those who say these things (with a few exceptions) do not really mean them literally. They mean something like, “If we change language about God people will come to have ideas about God that don’t fit the revealed knowledge we have.” And so far, so true. The question is, How useful is the revealed knowledge of God, and is such revelation — given the fact that God has depths we can never plumb — at an end?
A balanced picture
If we turn to the revelatory text (the Scripture) we find that things aren’t quite as monochromatic as the critics of expansive language suggest. In fact, as I examine the Psalms and the Prophets in particular, I find that the Hebraic use of parallelism — a multiplicity of metaphor and image — quite often pairs images about God: male and female, human and nonhuman. And this is exactly what the new inclusive or expansive language liturgies are designed to do: not to remove all male imagery, but to supplement it and enrich it with other language. For examples of such parallel passages, see Deut 32:18, Prov. 1:8, Isa 42:13-14.
I could also note that insistence on an all-male vocabulary for God is a departure from the will of God, who seems opposed to the use of images to represent divinity:
Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice... Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female... — Deut 4:12,14-16 (Emphasis mine)
But what is the source of the tendency towards emphasizing the “maleness” of God, and the predominance of this image? My belief is that the attribution of maleness to God is a result of misapplied natural history concerning God as the source of life. This is an anthropological theory, based on human experience. In earliest times, Mother Nature (Mother Earth) seemed simply to bring forth life. Women likewise were simply fruitful, and the Goddess held sway. With the rise of agriculture and animal husbandry (why isn’t it animal wifery?) there was a general shift in analogizing how things came to be born, and the seed — the vital principle deriving from the male, was perceived (somewhat mistakenly analogized from agriculture) to be the source of life, with the female reduced to the passive level of good soil. This cultural passage into an agricultural world is recorded in Scripture as the expulsion from Eden. The Mother of all Living (Eve) comes to be treated just like the land — someone to be subdued and subordinated. And so, while the female was reduced to a role of nurturing — passive, nourishing, protecting, but not creative, the male came to be seen as the human source of creativity and life. It is during this period of human history our Scripture was given its form: and so God, as Creator, came to be seen (metaphorically, and predominantly) as Father. But that did not mean that God was male.
Of course, there were many corrective voices along the way, alerting people to the fact that this was metaphorical language: “I am God, not man” (Hosea 11:9); as well as the patristic warnings not to attribute such human qualities to God. Still, even today there are some who seem not to appreciate this distinction between what God is as God is, and what we call God. It is those who insist that God must always be described as male who are neglecting the wealth of the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, and the commandment to avoid placing our understanding of God in the place of God.
Tobias Haller BSG