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Avoiding The 'it' Word


GeorgeW
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Yesterday, an inadvertent his occurred in this forum in reference to an impersonal God.

 

I have wondered a number of times why, among those who do not believe that God exists as an independent personal being refrain from using the pronoun it.

 

There seems to be a continuum in Christianity from the most conservative in which both the concept of God and the pronoun are masculine. Then, there are those who believe in a personal God, but with no gender. They refrain from a personal pronoun and often use an awkward (IMO) circumlocution like, God does what God wants because God . . . Finally, there those, like apparently a number of members of the TCPC, who do not believe in a personal God, but still refrain from the it word in reference to God.

 

The authors of the Hebrew Scriptures had no choice (except circumlocution) to avoid gendered personal pronouns as they had no neuter from which to select. However, I am confident that their concept of God was personal and masculine.

 

The writers of the New Testament using Greek had the neuter tool available, but apparently saw God as personal and masculine. (I cannot read Greek, so if someone who does knows of an instance of the neuter pronoun being used in the NT in reference to God, I would be most interested).

 

Of course, we don't know specifically what Jesus used, but preaching, almost certainly in Aramaic, he would not have had access to a neuter pronoun. However, it is reported in multiple places that he spoke of God as father, presumably reflecting the concept of a personal and masculine god. Had he used circumlocutions, this would have been very marked in his society and I suspect it would have been noted and reported.

 

Today, in English, we have the pronoun it available and it is a perfectly good English word without negative connotations. We use it to refer to positive things like angels, constitutions, moral values, peace, love, kindness, etc. So, why do those who do not believe in a personal god, refrain from the it word?

 

(Note: I have used 'they' and not 'we" above so as to maintain a neutral, hopefully objective, position on the question)

 

George

Edited by GeorgeW
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Hi George,

 

I think this is a good question.

 

My take on this would be that whichever pronoun we choose is ultimately that which we have chosen. He/she/it all work, and all equally probably don't 'stick'. God is the one "before whom all words recoil." Traditional patriarchal conceptions of God will focus on God as a masculine being. Feminist theology will elaborate on the meaning of God as She. Indeed, God as 'It', too, has a long tradition: God as Spirit, as Breath, Wisdom. What all these have in common is "God as...". God is known by being disclosed...and we too are known, in turn, in that disclosure. Hence, relationship.

 

I think this is probably why people usually avoid the 'It' word - unless, again, we are talking about God as Spirit, God as ultimate reality, etc., then it seems more fitting. But when we speak of God in - or as - relationship, then 'It' does not seem to do justice to the living Presence being disclosed in our own human, personal, embodiment.

 

Lastly, I think it is reasonable to feel that explicitly denying God as 'he' or as 'person' might represent too much of a break in the Christian tradition, so people choose to keep the metaphor going. I'd like to think that not everybody, even in biblical periods, conceived of God literally as a large male being.

 

Peace,

Mike

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This is an example of an important topic I wish I had a good contribution to add to the discussion. I tend to refer to God as a being (more specifically, an actor), but I often fall into gendered language, because English prefers to gender pronouns when dealing with actors. My problem with "it" is that the word "it" implies an object, not a subject.

 

So, yeah. I'm confused, and use "He" more than I should.

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For me it comes down to the age old, if not "this" then "that". To a choice between "either/or" or "both/and". If "Reality-as-is" is beyond conceptual understanding, there seems no need to insist on "this" (rather than "that") nor insist that it must be a choice between things, rather than a recognition that "both/and" can be included. And I do say beyong conceptual understanding, not beyond the our capacity to experience..................i.e. that life can be lived but not "thought" (captured by words)

 

A good example of this is the "is it HE or is it SHE?".............here is D T Suzuki, speaking of Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.....

 

We believe in Amida as our Oya-sama, or Oya-san, as it is sometimes called. It is the term used to express love and compassion. Oya means parent, but not either parent, rather both mother and father; not separate personalities, but both fatherly and motherly qualities united in one personality. The honorific san is the familiar form of sama. The latter, Oya-sama, is the standard form. In Christianity, God is addressed as the Father - "Our Father who art in Heaven" - but Oya-sama is not in Heaven, nor is Oya-sama father. It is incorrect to say "he" or "she", for no gender distinction is found. I don't like to say "it", so I don't know what to say. Oya-sama is a unique word, deeply endearing and at the same time rich with religious significance and warmth.

 

 

So Suzuki doesn't like to say "it" and so this is the answer, at least for me. (I realise that this is at a slight counterpoint to the original question, but seems relevant in its own way)

 

And Suzuki, after speaking of "suchness", of "emptiness" and its various "manifestations", nevertheless sums up by saying......

 

The highest reality is not a mere abstraction, it is very much alive with sense and intelligence, and, above all, with love purged of human infirmities and defilements. (The Essence of Buddhism, p.47)

Edited by tariki
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@Mike: "God as 'It', too, has a long tradition: God as Spirit, as Breath, Wisdom."

 

I am curious what pronouns are used when God is referred to obliquely or metaphorically. In Hebrew, it certainly would be decided by the gender (grammatical) of the referent. I may do some searching at this site of past posts to see what people use.

 

"Lastly, I think it is reasonable to feel that explicitly denying God as 'he' or as 'person' might represent too much of a break in the Christian tradition, so people choose to keep the metaphor going."

 

Good point, I think that is an influencing factor.

 

"I'd like to think that not everybody, even in biblical periods, conceived of God literally as a large male being."

 

I would like to see evidence of that.

 

 

@Jeannot: I am sorry, but I could read your comments. All I got was my "quote. "Did they come out on your computer?

 

 

@Nick: "So, yeah. I'm confused, and use "He" more than I should."

 

I hope I didn't suggest there were any 'shoulds' or 'should nots.' However, there does seem to be an inconsistency between language and concept with some writings, at least on the surface.

 

George

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Tariki,

 

In English, except in very limited instances (like ships that are feminine, expressions like 'mother earth', etc.), the gendered pronouns refer to the sex of the referent.

 

Even with animals, we use the personal pronouns only if we know the sex of the referent, otherwise we say 'it.'

 

As an example, if I were to refer to 'peace' as he, it would be very marked and get special attention.

 

George

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George,

 

it seems to me in progressive Christianity there is no standard as others have already mentioned. If it pleases one to use a male pronoun or a female or an it, so be it according to ones present understanding. From my experience, there is no requirement in progressive Christianity to accept the Bible as written as any more than it is perceived to be by the reader, My mention in the other thread of "his" was retracted on my part in a following post as an error or slip in grammer on my part from past habits according to my present understanding. I prefer to leave out either pronoun or the word "it" because to me none of them offer in my view a completely accurate portrayal. However, it is fine with me and not at all problematic to see others chose a pronoun. With words we are attempting to describe the indescribable. How can i say in words to you that you can't get more personal than God yet at the same time you cannot separate God from creation? It is a conundrum that can be subjectively experienced but most difficult to verbalize without another forming a concept in ones mind that is not an accurate description of the communicator.

 

Just my 2 cents,

Joseph

 

 

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George,

 

it seems to me in progressive Christianity there is no standard as others have already mentioned. If it pleases one to use a male pronoun or a female or an it, so be it according to ones present understanding. From my experience, there is no requirement in progressive Christianity to accept the Bible as written as any more than it is perceived to be by the reader, My mention in the other thread of "his" was retracted on my part in a following post as an error or slip in grammer on my part from past habits according to my present understanding. I prefer to leave out either pronoun or the word "it" because to me none of them offer in my view a completely accurate portrayal. However, it is fine with me and not at all problematic to see others chose a pronoun. With words we are attempting to describe the indescribable. How can i say in words to you that you can't get more personal than God yet at the same time you cannot separate God from creation? It is a conundrum that can be subjectively experienced but most difficult to verbalize without another forming a concept in ones mind that is not an accurate description of the communicator.

 

Just my 2 cents,

Joseph

 

I very much agree that there is no right or wrong in ones beliefs as long as they are benign. And, of course, one is free to choose any pronoun they wish. However, the pronoun system in English is sex-based unlike Hebrew and a number of other languages. If I were to refer to my wife as 'he' she would be very offended or likewise, my brother as 'she.' It would be even worse if I referred to either on as 'it.' Alternatively, to refer to an inanimate thing with a personal pronoun is unusual and would often carry connotations of some sort.

 

I realize you retracted your 'his' and in my first post in this thread, I said "inadvertent" (i.e. unintentional). I did not intend to call you out on this, but this triggered something that I have observed a number of times in the past and find interesting.

 

I suspect that, in many instances, the use of a personal pronoun for an impersonal force (God in this case) is, as Mike suggested, a reluctance to make a complete break with tradition. Also, it sometimes may be an intuitive attempt to avoid offending those who think of God as a personal being (gendered or ungendered). Like the examples about my wife and brother, I suspect that if one referred to God with 'it' to a traditional Christian they would be quite offended. I have never heard a traditional Christian use 'it' in reference to God.

 

George

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George,

 

Being a fine upstanding English Gentleman ( :D ), I'm aware of common English usage. I was seeking to make the point that perhaps the alternative to "believing in" a transcendent personal God (and subsequently living totally within an "I-Thou" relationship with such a Being) is not to relate to an "it", nor does it require one to refer to anything as "it".

 

I suspect that, in many instances, the use of a personal pronoun for an impersonal force (God in this case) is, as Mike suggested, a reluctance to make a complete break with tradition.

 

By no means, at least in my own case.

 

The "if not this then it must be that" is inappropriate - at least to me - when we need to speak of that which is, ultimately, beyond conceptual knowledge, yet not beyond that which we are able to experience. And that which we can experience is at its deepest - it seems to me - when it involves empathy and communion with others like myself. It seems to me that this is when we are at our most "personal".

 

All the best

Derek

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George,

 

Being a fine upstanding English Gentleman ( :D ), I'm aware of common English usage. I was seeking to make the point that perhaps the alternative to "believing in" a transcendent personal God (and subsequently living totally within an "I-Thou" relationship with such a Being) is not to relate to an "it", nor does it require one to refer to anything as "it".

 

I suspect that, in many instances, the use of a personal pronoun for an impersonal force (God in this case) is, as Mike suggested, a reluctance to make a complete break with tradition.

 

By no means, at least in my own case.

 

The "if not this then it must be that" is inappropriate - at least to me - when we need to speak of that which is, ultimately, beyond conceptual knowledge, yet not beyond that which we are able to experience. And that which we can experience is at its deepest - it seems to me - when it involves empathy and communion with others like myself. It seems to me that this is when we are at our most "personal".

 

All the best

Derek

 

Derek, Thanks for your comments and follow up.

 

FWIW, there are many things that are beyond my personal conceptual knowledge (quantum physics as just one example) but in referring to them, I use the neuter pronoun.

 

I am sorry, but I am confused. Do you use third person, masculine, singular pronouns in reference to God? If so, why?

 

George

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Derek, Thanks for your comments and follow up.

 

FWIW, there are many things that are beyond my personal conceptual knowledge (quantum physics as just one example) but in referring to them, I use the neuter pronoun.

 

I am sorry, but I am confused. Do you use third person, masculine, singular pronouns in reference to God? If so, why?

 

George

 

Hi George,

 

I'm often confused about a lot of things, but just try to carry on as if nothing has happened...... :D Anyway, I'm off to the footy in a minute or two, and normally I'm not confused there when choosing just what to call the referee. But just have time for a quick cut and paste......

 

From the Journals of Thomas Merton.

 

The entry is dated Oct 5th, 1957. After a brief description of various birds, and the observation that they were not concerned with "our problems", he goes on to say......

 

Watching those birds was as food for meditation, or a mystical reading. Perhaps better.

 

Also the beautiful, unidentified red flower or fruit I found on a bud yesterday. These things say so much more than words.

 

Mark Van Doren ( a friend of Mertons ), when he was here, said, "The birds don't know they have names."

 

Watching them I thought: who cares what they are called? But do I have the courage not to care? Why not be like Adam, in a new world of my own, and call them by my own names?

 

That would still mean that I thought the names were important.

 

No name and no word to identify the beauty and reality of those birds today is the gift of God to me in letting me see them.

 

(And that name - God - is not a name! It is like a letter X or Y. Yahweh is a better name - it finally means Nameless One

 

I'm not going "all mystical" on you, I'm a very simple guy. Really, there is no problem.

 

:)

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(And that name - God - is not a name! It is like a letter X or Y. Yahweh is a better name - it finally means Nameless One[/i]

:)

 

To pick a couple of nits, Yahweh doesn't mean "Nameless One," it was one of the Israelite names for God. In Hebrew, it literally means "he is." It was used freely by Israelites as one of the names of their god. Later, it became too sacred to be said so they switched to alternative names like Ha-shem which literally means "the name."

 

It is also interesting to me, that some modern Christians have adopted this convention - kinda. They omit the vowel in writing the name (G-d), but, unlike Jews, have no reservations in saying the name.

 

(Note: I don't mean these comments as criticism of anyone, just observation)

 

George

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To pick a couple of nits, Yahweh doesn't mean "Nameless One," it was one of the Israelite names for God. In Hebrew, it literally means "he is." It was used freely by Israelites as one of the names of their god. Later, it became too sacred to be said so they switched to alternative names like Ha-shem which literally means "the name."

 

 

George,

 

While it may mean in Hebrew literally "he is" , it seems to me, it speaks to me the same 'picture' as " Nameless One" but i would not debate the point if you disagree.

 

Joseph

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George,

 

While it may mean in Hebrew literally "he is" , it seems to me, it speaks to me the same 'picture' as " Nameless One" but i would not debate the point if you disagree.

 

Joseph

 

Joseph,

 

No, I don't want to debate anyone's interpretation or metaphor. I have no problem with it 'meaning' anything anyone wants.

 

I thought Derek was addressing the literal Hebrew meaning.

 

George

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Joseph,

 

No, I don't want to debate anyone's interpretation or metaphor. I have no problem with it 'meaning' anything anyone wants.

 

I thought Derek was addressing the literal Hebrew meaning.

 

George

 

George, well, it was Merton I was quoting. He was in all probability being a bit "free" with his wording.

 

:)

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George, well, it was Merton I was quoting. He was in all probability being a bit "free" with his wording.

 

:)

 

Derek,

 

Sorry about the false attribution.

 

(FWIW, the 3rd Commandment prohibits taking the name of the Nameless One in vain. So, I shouldn't have a problem with that one, or at least, I now have a defense.)

 

George

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I feel pronouns are practical in that the personal pronouns are easy for me to visualize Christ as a person and is one way for me to experience the non-dual through the images of the dual. To call God He or She seems to be a projection of my emotions and characteristics. It sure makes it easy to love God in the personal image and to love my wife, kids and others as I do God. This does limit me to gender roles so I think It is practical to remind me of an abstract, all-powerful, singular creator. God is the first cause so would not have a gender. This abstract form did not evolve into a God, no parents and It has no need for sexual organs. I feel in my waking state God as a personal experience works and in my meditation and moments of spacing out the abstract works.

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This does limit me to gender roles so I think It is practical to remind me of an abstract, all-powerful, singular creator. God is the first cause so would not have a gender. This abstract form did not evolve into a God, no parents and It has no need for sexual organs. I feel in my waking state God as a personal experience works and in my meditation and moments of spacing out the abstract works.

 

Soma,

 

Please understand that I have not appointed myself as the pronoun policeman on the forum and I am not challenging you. However, I noticed that you used third person, masculine pronouns several times today in another thread in reference to God.

 

I am wondering if a factor of this is the idea that Jesus = God, Jesus was male, therefore God is masculine.

 

(Again, I an not making judgements, I am just trying to understand and reconcile a non-theist view of God with human, gendered language. Also, in the future, I will cease and desist from mentioning this except in response to comments on this thread).

 

George

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Soma,

 

I noticed that you used third person, masculine pronouns several times today in another thread in reference to God.

 

I am wondering if a factor of this is the idea that Jesus = God, Jesus was male, therefore God is masculine.

George

 

As Christian I guess I am in the habit of using He.............I like She better, but habit does prevail. I also use Jesus as my personal model and as focal point so I might use He in reference to that also, but I support the idea that there are varied upward paths to God's pure consciousness. When I see my wife as a reflection of God, our relationship is at its peak. The relationship with God and with my wife helps me to understand the female side of God. I feel we become Holy or wholely by uniting the two forces of male and female. A person living alone can do it uniting the two forces within while a married person get a little help.

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I don't believe in a personal God but I still refer to God as he because that's what I'm used to. I was raised to refer to God as the Holy Father and that's how I've always addressed him. I've tried praying to God in feminine terms before and while it was an interesting experience, it was just too awkward for me. I feel like I pray more naturally when I refer to God as a he. It's the same reason why even though I don't believe in a personal god, I still pray to God as if he was a personal god because that's how I've always prayed and it's what I'm most comfortable with doing. I think it's like how people refer to their cars as she or they refer to a thunder storm as Mother Nature even though those don't have genders.

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I think it's like how people refer to their cars as she or they refer to a thunder storm as Mother Nature even though those don't have genders.

 

Neon,

 

I think that when we use metaphors, even gendered pronouns, we select something that has characteristics of the thing we are using as a metaphor. We would be suggesting that ships, cars, hurricanes, etc. have feminine characteristics.

 

From your, and other comments, it seems that habit plays a significant role in the use of a personal, masculine pronoun in reference to God, even if this is inconsistent with one's belief.

 

George

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