Why calling God ‘they’ shouldn’t upset you

We've been through such linguistic change before.

(RNS) — I’m afraid my last column, which suggested that our preferred pronoun for God be “they,” upset some folks. Angry emojis outnumber happy ones 4-1 on the RNS reaction app, and the negative retweets are legion. 

“I thought it was all supposed to be about the preferred pronouns of the individual concerned, not the pronouns that those around would prefer to have them known,” wrote one commenter. “I think God has made His preferred pronouns perfectly well known throughout the divinely inspired Scripture.”

“God has already told us his preferred pronouns,” wrote another. “This is about as straightforward as possible.”

Given that Biblical Hebrew is the language in which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob conveyed their presumed pronoun preferences, these retorts are reminiscent of the remark, usually attributed to Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas!”

But the shift from singular (“he”) to plural (“they”) is nothing new in addressing the Most High. In the Hebrew Bible, God is addressed with the second-person masculine pronoun “‘attah.” Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and, later, Middle English, did not differentiate pronouns by gender but did, like Hebrew, have different singular and plural second-person forms. Namely, the Middle English singular “thou-thee-thy” and plural “ye-you-your.” 

Between the 14th and 17th centuries, however, the plural forms “you” and “your” replaced “thou and thy” (along the lines of the French vous), bringing with them the plural verb form “are” in place of the singular “art.” That’s to say, “you are” — the plural form — replaced the singular “thou art.” Eventually the English-speaking world became comfortable with addressing God with the once exclusively plural “you.”

A similar process appears to be underway as “they are” replaces “he is” and “she is” in the third-person singular. I’m prepared to bet that God is no more bummed about this latest change than they were about the switch from “thou” to “you.”

Of course it will take many of us a while to adjust to having to refer to any and all beings as “they” — and perhaps especially when it comes to the Deity. The King James translation of the Bible, first published in 1611, still employs Thou-Thee-Thy when addressing God, despite the fact that these were well on their way out of ordinary usage.

Many of my commenters have made it clear that they see my proposal as a rejection of all male terms for God — part and parcel of the feminist critique that has been underway at least since the late theologian Mary Daly published their influential “Beyond God the Father” in 1973.

But it’s standard Christian theology that God is not a gendered being. As early as the 4th century, the Cappadocian Father St. Gregory of Nazianzus contended that “Father” and “Son” in the Trinity are meant to be understood as metaphors. The current Catholic Catechism teaches the same even as it refers to God with the traditional masculine third-person singular pronoun.

In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband. (pg. 370)

This theological position is expressed in the desire of many Jews and Christians to steer clear of calling God “he.” The evolution of the English third-person singular to “they” helps them do that.

But it does not prevent any English speaker attached to singular male metaphors like father, husband and king from continuing to use them — no more than the evolution to “you” did centuries ago.

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