How Changing a Pronoun affects the Meaning of God Safwan Zabalawi
(Published in the Philosophical Society Annual Review 2020)
A revolution at the essence of Christian discourse is slowly developing among various teachers of Christianity – a demand is growing to change the reference to God from patriarchal to gender-neutral designation. In the Evangelical Luther- an Church of Sweden, their clergy are directed to now use gender-neutral language when referring to God, and avoid masculine terms such as ‘He’ and ‘Lord’ (1).
The same gender-neutral view of God is now taught in prestigious Catholic schools in Australia. Instead of ‘Himself ’, the students are taught to use the word ‘God- self’, and to refrain from using the words ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ in prayer (2).
This shift in the way God is described implies a deeper philosophical matter – deeper than merely choosing gender-neutral words. In his book Belief in God, T J Mawson defines various properties of the Divine, starting with an embodied ‘Personhood’:
‘By believing that there is God, theists believe that there is a being who is personal’ (3).
Applying this to the recent movement of a gender-neutral approach, the idea of God as a ‘genderless person’ is a completely new concept in the history of language and philosophy.
The scientific view of an embodied God
Leaving aside gender, assigning the property of person to God has created a conflict between religion and science – as the Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda explains (4), quoting from Albert Einstein’s view on the subject:
'The main source of conflict between science and re- ligion, according to Einstein,
was ‘the concept of a personal God’. (5)
Einstein’s belief in the existence of a cosmic order permeating the universe did not fit with the anthropomorphic concept of a personal God, and he makes this clear in the following statement:
'It seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse
of the dross of its anthropomorphism,
but also contributes to a religious spiritualisation of our understanding of life. (6).
Ikeda further explains:
'The ‘dross of anthropomorphism’ refers to this concept [of personal God].
The humble search for the Law of life was according to Einstein simultaneously
scientific and religious.
Einstein described the motivation for his passionate search for the truth
as a ‘cosmic religious feeling’. (7)
It was, he said, ‘to experience the universe as a single significant whole’.
He perceived ‘ the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves
both in nature and in the world of thoughts. (8)
The concept of God – in this perspective – surpasses the limitation of gender and personhood and manifests itself as a great cosmic power permeating the whole universe and the life of all living beings.
In an article titled: ‘How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?’, UCSD professor Lera Boroditsky reveals that the grammar of language spoken by an individual shapes and affects the individual’s perception of reality:
'In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects
having opposite gender assignment in those two languages.
To describe a ‘bridge,’ which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish,
the German speakers said ‘beautiful,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘fragile,’ ‘pretty,’ and ‘slender,’
and the Spanish speakers said ‘big,‘dangerous',‘long,’ ‘strong,’ ‘sturdy,’ and ‘towering.’
This was true even though all testing was done in English,
a language without grammatical gender. (9)
The offered conclusion about the effect of grammar on the way people perceive reality leads us to question the concept of a patriarchal personal God – and how was it formed.
What were the languages that introduced this concept?
Books of the Abrahamic religions were recorded in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic – three Semitic languages, which assign to nouns one of two genders: either masculine or feminine.
Any object in existence (tree, sun, moon, wind, light, rain, sand etc...) and also living beings as well as their relationships (love, hate, war, belief, doubt...) are described by nouns designated as either masculine or feminine. The languages of the historical records of the Abrahamic religions have no grammatical reflection for the neu- tral state of existence:
In Hebrew, every noun is assigned a gender, either masculine or feminine.
There is no such thing as a neutral gender for nouns in Hebrew. (10)
The grammatical gender of nouns [in Arabic] is one of two:
a noun may be masculine or it may be feminine, and there is no neutral option. (11)
With the rising tide of gender equality, work has been done to incorporate the feminine aspect within the patriarchal indications (apparent in religious texts) — trying to soften gender-bias:
The meanings of words change over time, and translations must be periodically updated
to keep up with these changes. One of the most significant changes in English
over the last quarter century has been related to gender language.
While it was once commonplace to refer to people as ‘men’ and all fellow Christians
as ‘brothers,’ such usage has declined significantly in recent years.
More inclusive terms like ‘people’ and ‘brothers and sisters’ are used more often today.(12)
Adding words related to both genders in the translation of old texts is a cosmetic alteration, used to suit the times. The real problem is not solved by fixing sentences and adding words – there are basic doctrines that are in their essence, patriarchal.
Apparently, the mentioned Middle Eastern languages are not equipped with the necessary linguistic flexibility to present the nature of God as a gender-neutral power of life, permeating the Universe and all entities within it.
Neither/Nor vs Either/Or
In order to observe reality, it is inevitable that we use the proper light of impartiality and non-bias. The light we use for describing events of the observed world is set by the language we use and its grammar. The two- gender grammar encodes a dualistic perspective in seeing the world (either this or that – and nothing else).
In other systems of language, for example in Sanskrit, there is a space for categories that are neither male nor female, expressing a neutral nature:
Sanskrit has three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter just like German,
Latin and Greek. The Romance languages have two – masculine and feminine.
English only shows gender in the pronoun system (he, she, it).
This is a remnant of our Proto- Indo-European origins. (13)
A grammar that is not restricted to the duality of black and white and nothing else would offer flexibility in expression, allowing for priming the mind to faithfully describe occurring phenomena or sophisticated spiritual concepts. If we regard language as an instrument for expressing reality (or the truth about the world), then the more flexible and impartial our instrument is the closer we arrive to better expressions of the true nature of phenomena.
There is a category of sophisticated phenomena that requires employing the logic and language of Neither/ Nor, as in various psychological phenomena, and in science – such as in describing the true nature of light as being neither particle nor wave. The concept of God belongs to this sophisticated category, and as a power and cosmic order it can be described faithfully as neither male nor female.
The slow shift away from an anthropomorphic God has a long-term unifying effect in the realm of spirituality. It reveals that many non-theist religions are in fact speaking about the same concept of God in terms of Life of the Universe, which is omnipresent both within the individual as well as in the environment.
1/ The Christian Post:
2/ Christian Headlines, 2 June 2019
3/ Belief in God, page 10, T.J. Mawson, Oxford University Press, 2005
4/ The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra Vol. 1 page 203. D. Ikeda,
World Tribune Press Soka Gakkai , ISBN 978-0-915678-69-3
5/ Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (New York: the philosophical Library, Inc., 1950) p27
6/ ibid, page 29
7/ The World As I see It, Albert Einstein. Trans. Alan Harris
(London: Watts and Company, 1935). P. 56
9/ Lera Boroditsky. Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science, UCSD
10/ Hebrew Grammar:
11/ Gender in Arabic nouns:
12/ Gender and Translation:
13/ Introduction to Grammar
The Philosophical Society Annual Review 2020, page 12:
Safwan Zabalawi is a regular contributor, and describes himslef as ‘A happy world citizen’.
Before retiring, he was an Information Officer at the State Library in Sydney, Australia.
He has attended several online courses in philosophy,
and he has enjoyed over 30 years of studying Eastern Philosophy.
He frequently submits essays to our Chadwick Prize competitions (you can too) and won the 2019 Boethius Prize with his essay‘The General Law of Identity’: