Reason and the First Person -- gender language, names and God

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, the second for chapter 21, can be found here.]

[This entry concludes Chapter 21, "Some Detours", and also concludes Section Two.]

In philosophy, there is a relationship that may be described as agent-to-patient. The 'agent' acts; the 'patient' receives the action. When philosophers of old described this relationship, they quite naturally put masculine pronouns on the side of the agent, and feminine on the sides of the patient. This reflected the most basic of male/female relationships: biologically speaking, when a child is conceived, the male gives and the female receives.

'Action', in this human situation, does not necessarily have its full philosophical rigor: it might only indicate one very particular cause/effect relationship. [See first comment below for footnote here.] Yet true actions do still exhibit this relationship. If I act, and you react, then for that interchange, I am the agent, and you are the patient.

Notice, however, that if God is the Independent Fact of reality (and I think the IF must be God, for reasons I have already given), then God’s fundamental relationship to all other things (if any not-God entities exist at all!) must be that of agent to patient. If any other relationship exists, it is because God chooses (or has chosen) to allow it--thus the original agent/patient relationship would still exist. And the easiest way of describing that relationship in terms of personal pronouns, is to use the masculine for God.

Perhaps I can illustrate this if I look at the proposed alternative: what if I called God "She"?

If I only lacked a genderless pronoun set, and if the female pronoun set was somehow established as appropriate for such neuter use in my language, then I suppose I would be just as willing to call God "She". But when it comes time to talk practically about God, then I run into a problem.

I am aware there are well-meaning people who speak of God as "Goddess" with appropriate modifications to pronouns. Very well, let me try that for a while. Goddess is my creator. (This can sound a bit odd, because our society has long been comfortable with using 'God' as a proper name, not merely as a term--another issue I'll touch on shortly.) This naturally brings up the following association: Goddess (as my creator, or at least as the One Who generates me) is my heavenly Mother.

But a mother is a person who has had something happen to her (in the net sum, at least) to bring me to birth. What happened to Goddess to cause me to be? Put bluntly (though metaphorically) how did She become impregnated? That seems to beg the question of another entity. But Goddess must be the IF; if anything could do that, it would have to be something She created. Yet that puts the question one stage further back; what is the relationship between Her and that entity, then? It might be feasible to say that She begot of Herself an entity which, by Her grace, then proceeded to beget other entities through Her--then perhaps into a third entity which She had also created (Nature), as a receptacle for further derivative entities like us.

The notion becomes rather convoluted from there (though not yet strictly self-contradictory: if we ask where the first begotten of Goddess came from, there might in fact be a self-consistent answer--which I will address not many chapters from now.) Whatever else may be true, the traditional role of God the Father allows a simpler notion. God creates Nature, and through Nature He begets derivative entities such as ourselves; Nature can be spoken of (either metaphorically or literally, depending on whether Nature is itself a derivative sentience) as our mother.

This view is so fitting to the concept of a creating sentience that it has a rich history into the deeps of pagan antiquity: Mother Earth and the Sky-Father. I find it also cleanly fits the character I am (on other grounds) discovering of God.

I will gladly admit, on the other hand, that if pantheism turns out to be true, then it might well be better to speak of Goddess the Mother: the IF would not be using a derivative entity to produce us, because the natural level of reality around us would itself be the ultimate level and itself Divine. This remains to be seen; so perhaps Goddess the Mother will be a metaphysically accurate description after all.

But there is another role whereby God has been symbolically described, related to gender. Actual religions which promote the idea of Goddess as our Mother may go the next step (mirroring their masculine alternative) and describe Goddess as our Bride.

And this is a concept I reject.

I do not reject it out of distaste: I find the idea very attractive! But this immediately alerts my suspicions: why do I find such an idea so attractive?

I think the idea implies, that at a fundamental level I can reverse the agent/patient relationship.

If I do have derivative action capability, then in a sense the IF could indeed choose (and in fact will have already chosen, by giving my current existence with action ability) to allow me such a privilege. God in humility could choose to submit to letting me make real contributions to the ongoing process of creation, such that God might then consequently make other choices based on the results of my input.

Yet the underlying fact would still be that the IF is choosing to do this, and my own ability and privilege would be the result. I still remain the patient, and God still remains the agent. (I have not forgotten the potential problem I raised in the previous chapter, though: is action-to-derivative-action a contradictory notion?!)

But to speak of the IF as being the Bride (as I might speak of Her as the Mother) carries with it the implication that She is the patient to me at the fundamental level of Her reality; and this idea must be contradictive, if She is the IF and I am derivative.

A human bride wouldn't be subordinate to me in such a fashion, either; I would be furious at the thought of it! But neither is a human bride being proposed as the level of reality to which I have the most fundamental possible relation. The Divinity is acting to generate me, and therefore is causing effects upon me. Analogical 'bride' language would imply that the fundamental relationship between Goddess and me, is my action to Her dependent response. I think this agent/patient relationship is extremely untrue--it essentially implies that I am the creator or inventor of 'Goddess'--so I will not use such language about the ultimate creating Divinity.

I can understand (for instance) the Christian Church, or the Jewish Nation, as a corporate body being metaphorically described as the Bride of God. That keeps the agent/patient relationship established properly. But Goddess as Bride does not seem to me to do this.

For these reasons, then--and there are others I may bring out later--I think it makes most sense to speak of God, through a useful and practical analogy, as 'He Himself'; as the Father, the King, the Husband. I do not claim this is a deductive necessity, but it fits better with what I am discovering elsewhere. (Although, again, if pantheism turns out to be true, I would be inclined to use the opposite analogy, at least insofar as Mother and Queen. I think I would still be obligated to reject Bride. Goddess Herself would be the Holy Virgin giving birth, I suppose.)

I recently mentioned that we Westerners have grown very comfortable using the word 'God' as a proper name for the Personality Who grounds all facts. I am content to continue this usage; it may be that God has revealed to us names which He Himself would prefer we use of Him, but this would beg the question of scriptural inspiration and attendant doctrines--a topic I am certainly not yet in a position to discuss! To the sceptic, then--that is, to the person who, it may be, only now is coming to accept the bare existence of God or who does not agree yet with certain historical and metaphysical claims about Him which I profess as a Christian--to that person, I willingly accede to a middle ground, and so shall use God (and only 'God') as a proper name.

And to the believer (of any type, including my own) who rightfully (but with a touch of naivete) wishes to guard the attribute of God as a Person and thus insists on a proper name, I say this: I challenge you to produce a proper name of God that means more than God. You may give me words of any description; yet I ask you to notice that these words (exotic as they may sound to us moderns who very probably speak another mother-tongue than the people who originally coined, or received permission to use, those titles) are themselves mundane descriptions which borrow divine importance by being applied to God.

You may insist, for instance, that Yahweh is His proper name. I would agree (although you should charitably remember that many of my other readers would not) that He has taught us to call Him this--or, rather, that He taught us to call Him something, but thanks to historical factors 'Yahweh' is perhaps the closest we can now come to the pronunciation of that lost name. But what does Yahweh mean? It doesn’t seem to mean anything, unless perhaps an abbreviation for the phrase “I AM THAT I AM”; and in Jewish scriptures it is often replaced with (the plural form of) “Lord”. I agree, He is the Lord. But lords exist who are not God, don't they? He is the King of Kings, yet there are kings who are not He. If I called God "King" throughout my discourses of Him, would you say I have denied or underplayed His Personhood, by using 'merely' a title and not a 'proper name'? Yet 'Lord' as such is also 'merely' a title, and not a 'proper name'. Indeed all of our names, to the best of my knowledge, are 'merely' titles if we insist on reducing them--and the person who insists on marginalizing God will insist on reductions of this sort no matter what you or I call Him. My own name could be transliterated to mean 'healer in the grassy meadow', or 'babbling thin bookish man'! This is what happens if we place too much weight on the name of God.

If I think it worthwhile to preserve and ratify the concept of the personhood of God, and if I am told that I must do so through the acceptance of a name which itself means less than God (as if that name was not itself a titular recognition of some aspect of His personality), then I would shut myself in a tower of contemplation and leave the field unchecked to the sceptics.

No; you may depend upon it: God's 'personhood' will not be ratified nor guarded by a name less than God (however applicable and lovely and pertinent and divinely sanctioned such a name may be); and a name equivalent to God might as well be God. I am told that Jehovah is not a real word, being a transliterated mush of Latin, Hebrew, Greek or whatnot. I say: by God Himself, Jehovah is a real word and means God, if I honestly and seriously and reverently use it for that purpose, no matter its origins! Am I supposed to think that God, Who in Hebrew Scripture alone gives us dozens of purportedly legitimate ways to name Him (most of them adjectives and gerunds which can be legitimately applied in lesser standing to many other subjects), cares overmuch whether I apply another batch of syllables to name Him, as long as by doing so I keep in mind Who He is and follow Him to the best of my ability to do so? I follow God, not (merely) His Name; I am not spending years writing this testimony in order to give sceptics better grounds (or believers clearer grounds) for joyfully receiving and following merely His Name!

Even the term 'God' itself is derived originally from a pagan word for deity--along with our English word 'good'. But the word itself originally meant something fairly mundane (as mundane as an ancient word for 'good' can be); as do all of our names for God, even the ones I think He has used of Himself. As I argued in Chapter 11, if we despise metaphorical language when speaking about God, we will only end up using metaphors of a type perhaps significantly different from our best ideas of Him.

Besides, while I am certainly not adverse to using names which mean 'King' or 'Lord'--as I frequently do in my own devotions to Him, and contemplations with Him--I have my own reasons, to be given later, for preferring to use a name that means 'Good'.

(And for preferring to use a name that means 'The Lord God saves'...)

All this being the case, I will continue to speak of God as "God" throughout this book; and I will continue to use the traditional masculine pronouns.

And having cleared away a few minor (but possible) stumbling blocks to the best of my ability (and having spliced into their proper place some earlier arguments of mine in my first section, in order to smooth out some rather more serious wrinkles), I now find myself free to proceed along my path--and perhaps to begin unraveling the problem of action-to-action which I detected in my most recent chapter.

[Next up: Section Three begins, "Creation and the Second Person".]


Jason Pratt said…
[First extended footnote]

It is, of course, entirely possible for a woman to initiate her own 'actions' during conception, and a man could in his own turn be whelmed into merely reacting. The interinanimations and combinations of these roles are generally recognized to produce the most satisfying lovemaking--as is also recognizably true about the art of dancing, and not coincidentally!
Jason Pratt said…
I don't normally name-check other works in this book, as I would rather discuss ideas than get bogged down in debate about whether I'm rightly representing and/or critiquing this person, or whether I agree or disagree with that other person's other ideas.

But I do want to take a moment to highly recommend Marianne Meye Thompson's The God of the Gospel of John for (among other things) a detailed introduction to the use of God's name in Jewish, Greek and early Christian texts; since these have heavily influenced Western use of the term-as-name.

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