Monday, June 1, 1992

The Spiritual Dangers of "Inclusive Language" for God

The Spiritual Dangers of "Inclusive Language" for God

by Stephen F. Noll

"So why the fuss about inclusive language for God?" Now that surveys have shown what we all knew, that there never was a grass-roots mandate for further change in the Church's public prayer, shouldn't we be gracious and keep the genderless "supplemental liturgical resources" (as the latest version is called) as an Anglican relic alongside the 1928 Prayer Book?

The essays in this volume of Mission and Ministry argue from various points of view that the idea of so-called "inclusive language" for God is not an indifferent one but touches on the substance of the faith. To be precise, the idea is heretical. This is why the exertions of the Standing Liturgical Commission to write, and rewrite, Biblically and credally faithful prayers to a genderless God have not succeeded and can never satisfy.

To call the idea heretical is not to declare any individual proponent outside the Kingdom of God. It is to call the Church to be vigilant, to shun false doctrine as dangerous to its corporate health and to the spiritual health of its members (Revelation 2:13ff). In this essay I wish to spell out three threats to the soul from the "inclusive language" idea.

A buffer from the holy God

The first spiritual danger of inclusive language is that it seeks to buffer us from the hard truth of a holy God. Despite the fact that ours is the only nation founded on a proposition, Americans tend to think that well-meant "expression" is more important than precise speech. We should have learned from the propaganda artists of the 20th century that words are the atoms of reality and expressions its black holes.

In this one regard I agree with the inclusive language advocates that language shapes consciousness. What I fear is that this liturgical newspeak will dull our ear to the voice of Him who speaks concretely in Scripture or, what is worse, will teach us to resent Him when He does address us. And in losing or refusing His living word, we shall lose our life.

Urban Holmes wrote (unfairly, I think) of the 1979 Prayer Book that it is the prayer of the Sixties "God is dead" generation. I discern that the present push for inclusive language prayer is based on the assumption and fear that classical Christianity is no longer a living faith. This project thus becomes a ghastly manipulation of the corpse of Biblical faith.

It has happened before. Impatient with Moses' waiting on a word from the mysterious God of Sinai, Aaron, our first liturgical innovator, manufactured a metaphor — call it a golden calf — and authorized a meaningful worship experience complete with liturgical dance (Exodus 32). 1 can understand the temptation to have some religion rather than none, but it is a temptation to be resisted.

The true balm for doubt is found in God's word written. It allows us honest complaint: "My soul is sorely troubled, but thou, Lord, O how long?" ( Psalm 6:3). It ministers genuine comfort: "The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping" (Psalm 6:8). Biblical prayer does not ascend to Heaven and bring Christ down to ease our presumed cultural doubts. The heavenly King laughs mercifully at our fears and says: "This is my Son, listen to Him." The Virgin Mary's response of awed obedience to the Gospel — "How can this be? . . . let it be according to thy word" -- must be the Church's model.

Unloving inclusivism

The second spiritual danger of inclusivism is that it is unloving. Does this charge seem strange? Isn't the great virtue of inclusivity its concern not to offend? Spiritual openness and pluralism, however, are not the same as love, for Christian love always involves repentance and forgiveness.

One small but telling addition in the new rites is the confession of sin against God, our neighbor, and ourselves. In this misreading of Jesus' second great commandment, the idea of sinning against ourselves reveals an unbiblical notion of sin. Sin in this view becomes the failure to "be all that we can be," and forgiveness is God's taking us by the hand and leading us to self-fulfilment. Love thus becomes highly individualistic and sentimental. As one of my students commented: "I think a congregation that used these rites regularly would come to feel they were very nice people."

But niceness is not the same as the love saints are made of. In a climactic scene from A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More's daughter Meg tries to convince him to swear a false oath to King Henry. Sir Thomas, paraphrasing our Lord, rebukes her gently: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn't hope to find himself again." Meg makes one last appeal to her father: "Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?" And he, weeping, makes his last reply: "Well . . . finally . . . it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love." Christian love is at heart a participation in Christ's sacrifice, and in More's case this meant sticking to his word.

Because inclusivism has introduced a false notion of self-fulfillment, it has no coherent place for sacrificial love. Will we ever meet an inclusive language martyr? I have my doubts.

A neglect of judgment and hope

The third danger of the inclusive language mindset has to do with its neglect of eternal judgment and hope. It is the firm teaching of the Bible that beliefs uttered in verbal confession have eternal consequences. Eternal life and joy are promised to those who gladly confess that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9; 1 John 5:12). Conversely, to be ashamed to confess Christ and His word is to risk eternal rejection and regret (Mark 8:38; Revelation 22:18).

The new rites make no reference to judgment and alter the words of Jesus to say his blood is poured out for all, suggesting not only the offer but the guarantee of salvation. The blurring of sin, death, and judgment leads to a blurring of this world and the next. While the new texts use the liturgical formulae of Second Coming, they do not ring true because the central vision is immanental: "Draw us, O God, to your heart at the heart of the world."

I cannot avoid the conclusion that, when all is said and done, inclusive language proponents are more fearful to stand before the judgment seat of the cultural elite than before the future throne of Christ. They have identified the canons of late 20th century "politically correct speech" with the contents of the Lamb's book of life. Ironically, this delusion itself is a likely outworking of God's true judgment in history (Isaiah 29:11ff.). And sadly, for all their "richness" the new rites evoke little or no sense of genuine hope and joy.

The offense caused by literal language for God as Father and Lord is similar to the offense of the bodily Resurrection, to which I can reply no better than in John Updike's words in his poem "Seven Stanzas at Easter":

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own
convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable
hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

A painful conclusion

I know my view will make many readers uncomfortable. Let me assure you, writing this is very painful and comes from five years of struggling with these texts. But I find there is no avoiding the responsibility to discern spirits and to warn God's people of spiritual risk (I John 4: 1; Ezekiel 3:16ff).

For myself, I cannot help but conclude that in taking this language on our lips, we are in danger of taking the Lord's name in vain.


This article was written for Trinity School for Ministry's journal Mission and Ministry in 1992.

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