God: The latest subject of woke pronoun wars

woke pronoun wars

This memo is a twofer, offering both a lively story theme to pursue and an issue that is now affecting the work of every stylebook and copy editor in the American media.

An older campaign by feminists, including those working in the world of liturgy, sought to shun male pronouns — particularly when either gender is meant — in favour of plural they-them-their usage with singular antecedents.

This increasingly common wording is of course grammatically incorrect given the structure of the English language and can be confusing for readers.

That’s now combined with the efforts of transgender and nonbinary advocates to suppress gender-specific adjectives by applying that same singular “they” along with newly crafted pronouns.

A list of such neologisms recommended at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — said to be non-exhaustive — covers ae, e, ey, fae, per, sie, tey, ve xe, ze and zie.

So, for example, with “xe,” the variants to parallel she-her-hers-herself are xem-xyr-xyrs-xemself.

As you would expect, references to God himself — or is that “themself”? — are now part of this debate.

Religion News Service ran a column last week from one of its regulars, Mark Silk, headlined “Why our preferred pronoun for God should be ‘they.'”

He thinks calling God “they,” not “he,” and similar verbal tactics have become “imperative.”

How would other progressives respond? His proposal was immediately publicized in a tweet from RNS’ Roman Catholic columnist, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, and the online comments began flowing.

Silk is the director of Trinity College’s Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, former editor of its now-defunct Religion in the News magazine and well-known on the beat otherwise — for instance as a one-time reporter and editorial writer on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of “Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America” (1995).

Your biblical sources could explore the idea as follows:

Theologians would agree with Silk’s starting point, that although male singular personal pronouns are used in English to refer to the God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims, “God is not gendered” according to the teaching of all three faiths.

Why our preferred pronoun for God should be ‘they’ https://t.co/neL2e6lOyB via @RNS @directorsilk
— Thomas Reese, S.J. (@ThomasReeseSJ) September 29, 2021

How might we get around this?

“It” instead of “he” doesn’t work because God is personal. Silk acknowledges that speaking of God by his preferred plural “they” instead of “he” could seem to “undermine monotheism,” the belief in the one and only God that is at the heart of all three of these world religions.

A problem? “No,” Silk insists, because in the Hebrew Bible, the plural form Elohim refers to Israel’s God and collectively to other gods. He says experts can ponder whether this “signifies an embedded polytheism in ancient Judaism.”

The “New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible” is among resources that explain Elohim in plural form “is the usual name of the one true God,” expressed “as the plural of majesty,” and also serves in Scripture as the common noun for plural divinities in general.

Looking to the past, one such project that pretty much flopped was the production of “inclusive language” rewrites of the standard three-year lectionary cycle of Bible readings by the National Council of Churches that were issued by several mainline Protestant book houses in 1983-1985.

With “his” forbidden, the repeated guttural sounds became almost comical as in, for example, Isaiah 62:8: “God has sworn by God’s right hand and by God’s mighty arm.”

In the effort to shun “kingdom,” the NCC’s “reign of God” sounded like precipitation, not sovereignty. Eyebrows arched especially when the NCC team began the Lord’s Prayer with the alternate reading “O God, Father and Mother, hallowed be your name.” As with Silk’s “they,” critics complained that this seemed to evoke a belief in two deities, not one.

  • Richard Ostling is a former religion reporter for AP, Christianity Today and former correspondent for TIME Magazine. This piece first appeared at Get Religion.
  • Published in Religion Unplugged. Reproduced with permission.
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