The faculty of two esteemed divinity schools have been asked to use more inclusive language to talk about God in their classrooms.
Duke and Vanderbilt Universities have both separately made the request through different methods.
At Vanderbilt, the divinity school’s course catalog talks about its commitment to taking “account of the religious pluralism in our world.” It goes on to say, “The Vanderbilt Divinity School commits continuously and explicitly to include gender as an analyzed category and to mitigate sexism in the Divinity School’s curricula … This includes consistent attention to the use of inclusive language, especially in relation to the Divine.”
The school’s associate dean for academic affairs, Melissa Snarr, told Heatstreet that this new request has actually been part of the school’s policy since 1999. The pertinent part of that document said “masculine titles, pronouns, and imagery for God have served as a cornerstone for the patriarchy,” and pointed out that God is not always referred to with a gendered name or pronoun. That 1999 document goes on to recommend the faculty’s “exploration of fresh language for God.”
Snarr also told Heatstreet that these aren’t mandates, but suggestions that are up for interpretation.
At Duke, their request for more inclusive language is for a program where students are already working in Methodist churches. The Duke guidelines were more detailed, but still described as a suggestion based on the times we’re in.
Today we are more acutely aware that our use of language is gendered, and that use of exclusively gendered language … can be harmful and exclusionary. “Man” is now viewed as what we call an “exclusive” use of language; that is, it is seen as excluding women. Therefore, we recommend that you find other ways to refer to humankind in general and use terms that are inclusive.
The four-page guide includes suggestions for pronouns, occupations, collective nouns, ways to address people and God, suggesting “Godself” as a substitute for “Him.”
Referring to God in gender-neutral language can sound clumsy, but this is largely due to the fact that we are in a transitional period with our use of language. Imagination, patience and diligence are required in order to use language that expands and enriches our understanding of God.
Similarly, in the Harvard Theological Review‘s guidelines for prospective writers, it says to avoid speaking about humankind by using words like “man” or gendered pronouns. It also goes on to say, “The editors are aware that it is not always appropriate to employ inclusive language when referring to God or divine beings. In such cases, authors should adjust their usage to the historical character of the material studied.”