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God Beyond Gender: Feminist Christian God-Language.

Gail Ramshaw, a professor of religion at LaSalle University, Philadelphia, is well known for her writings on liturgical language (amongst them her 1986 book, Christ in Sacred Speech). She is also co-editor of an inclusive language lectionary (Lectionary for the Christian People, 1986-1988). As such, she comes well prepared for the task of her new book: "the consideration of androcentrism in the language to and about God in the approved worship texts of the church" (p.5).

As Ramshaw rightly observes, secular contemporary American English has pushed the churches to review their "horizontal" language, but it can offer little inspiration when God-language is concerned. The task, then, of analyzing the churches' God-language "to see if it speaks of God and not only of the speaker" (p.5) must be approached by different avenues. Ramshaw in her book chooses grammatical categories to guide her reflections: she examines, in turn, the noun God; pronouns for the divine; biblical designations; the so-called name of God, YHWH'; the "myth of the crown" as the calls it (i.e. monarchical and hierarchical images); the language of trinitarian doctrine; anthropomorphic metaphors for God; objectifying metaphors; and verbs.

The book is a thoughtful and carefully-crafted reflection on Christian God-language from a feminist-liturgical perspective. It is in the nature of the (controversial) subject that there are not many immediately obvious solutions to the thorny issues Ramshaw raises. But the current liturgical attempts at inclusive God-language find in this book a rich theological basis, resource and sympathetic critique. As Ramshaw notes: the task for feminist Christians is formidable in relation to liturgical God-language. "It is easy to detect which language speaks more of male power than of divine mercy: it is arduous to offer an alternative that does not merely tout a female counterpart to male power, but moves beyond gender toward the mystery of God" (p.5f.). Ramshaw nevertheless manages to offer both: a sharp analysis of liturgical language that speaks primarily of male power, and alternatives that move beyond gender. This reader, for one, was particularly impressed with the chapters on God as a proper noun and on sex-specific singular pronouns for God. The author convincingly argues for "degendering" and "unhumanizing" the word God, and for abstaining from third-person pronouns in God-language.

There will probably be less consensus on some other proposals, such as the gradual suppression of the liturgical feast of the ascension (p.73). But Ramshaw herself recognizes that the "continual and faithful reformation" (the author herself is Lutheran) of liturgical language is an ongoing task, and that the task of a feminist reform of liturgical language is "a hundred-year project, but only if the church is zealously engaged in the endless and exacting tasks of reform today" (p. 135, emphasis mine). Ramshaw's partial list of such tasks is ambitious indeed: "distinguish God from both Zeus and Superman; eliminate the pronoun 'he' for God; adopt what is appropriate and discard what is not from other religions' vocabularies; make God's names and Christ's title gender-neutral; confront the myth of the crown; continue the work of the Cappadocians... so that the Trinity says mercy; attend to anthropomorphisms; enliven objective metaphors; and triple the verbs for God" (p.135).

The specific ecumenical importance of the book lies in the fact that it treats a subject of vital concern to many churches of the English-speaking world, and one in which no consensus is in sight. An area where, from an ecumenical point of view, one would have wished to read more is in Ramshaw's treatment of the trinitarian language in baptism (p.90f.). One single paragraph is barely able to do justice to the ecumenically explosive issue of the baptismal formula (which, for many churches, is one of the key elements on which hinges the validity of other churches' baptisms).

The struggle over (God-) language in the liturgy is certainly virulent in the mainline denominations of the English-speaking world. It is this world out of which and for which Ramshaw writes. Other linguistic contexts will not necessarily find the book immediately applicable to their own situation. And there are even churches in the English-speaking world which will not resonate with Ramshaw's work: for example, most fundamentalist and pentecostal churches, some African American churches (Ramshaw herself recognizes that the linguistic context of these is different from that of white denominations, cf. pp.53f.), and English-speaking churches of the two-thirds world. All this goes to say that the struggle over appropriate (liturgical) God-language is always constituted in, out of and for a particular context. Nevertheless, even churches in different social locations from those Ramshaw has in view will find many worthwhile starting points in her book for their struggle over how to name God in their own liturgical language.

Teresa Berger is a Roman Catholic who teaches ecumenical theology at the Divinity School of Duke University in Durham, NC, USA.
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Author:Berger, Teresa
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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