Theo-logic of “God’s” gender. The politics of liturgy.

The churches had to turn against those who were still interested in them. Inklusive Schrift und Sprache auf "Gott" angewandt. "Wokeness" and "political correctness" seem to have successfully completed their ecclesiastical takeover.

At any rate, this is the impression created by the small media storm that arose at the beginning of 2022 around a project by the "Compagnie des Pasteurs, Diacres et chargé-e-s de ministères de l'Église Protestante de Genève" (Society of Pastors, Deacons and Ministers of the Protestant Church of Geneva). "Démasculiniser Dieu". The aim: to enable a more inclusive appropriation of the word "God" in liturgical practice. "Women cannot recognise themselves and incorporate their feminine reality into their life of faith if God is only male" (Laurence Mottier, moderator of the Compagnie, Protestinfo).

And the reactions: "Moonlight debate" (Vincent Schmid, philosopher and retired pastor, Watson), "The height of ridiculousness" (Bertrand Reich, President of the FDP Geneva, Watson), "The church has remained very masculine in the way it functions [...] to act first on language is a little secondary" (Agnès Thuégaz, pastor at the Église Évangélique Réformée du Valais, protest info). However, one should know: "The representation of God that emerges from the entire Bible is clearly masculine, especially through the use of exclusively male pronouns." (Denis Ramelet, La Nation)

This small media wave has an impact. Laurence Mottier is put in a defensive position1. A delegate of the consistory asks the question: Is "a clear and institutional position taken on the way of naming God" (Protestinfo)? The theological authority of the Compagnie is controversial: it should be up to the consistory to decide (François Dermange, Protestinfo). The incumbent president must tone it down: All this is just a "vague project" (Eva di Fortunato, Protestinfo) - and seems to remain so (Chantal Eberlé, Protestinfo).

In response to this storm, the Society is joining forces with the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Geneva to offer a study day to revisit the topic:" Which languages to say God? Gender, language and Christianity " (October 5th 2023).

In this article, I would like to briefly discuss the challenges of this day and the debate that motivated its creation. In a first step, I will discuss the controversy and its political and social dimension. In a second step, I summarise and comment on the content of the contributions proposed on this day. In a third step, I will try to summarise what I have learned from the discussion and place it in the context of developments in queer theology.

1 Brief categorisation of a controversy

The Compagnie's initiative is a response to a collective call that emerged from the women's strike in 2019. The various demands in this appeal include the call for "a working group to organise a Theological reflection on representation beyond gender [...] to take account of the diversity of experiences of the divine and to enable everyone to live and express their faith fully." (Theses for the women's strikepoint 6) The claim will be asserted again in 2023.

The politicisation of language with regard to social transformation is one of the established objects of dissent today. It is particularly associated with the emancipatory struggles of feminists and LGBTIQ+. Speaking out on this topic leads to positioning oneself within the spectrum of antagonisms that this struggle produces. This calls for a pluralisation of theological forms of expression within the church.

This demand emerges in a context that at first glance would appear favourable to the project. Apart from the liberality with which the Reformed churches in Switzerland normally treat their liturgical production, the EPG (Eglise protestante de Genève) has been supporting emancipatory dynamics for several years. Initially via the Lab - until its closure announced for the end of 2023 - but also via an LGBTI antenna. Many Reformed churches, both in German-speaking Switzerland and in French-speaking Switzerland, are setting up places that address inclusion in innovative ways. From a linguistic perspective, the EHL has adopted a guide for inclusive language use (Accueillir en mots et en images, 2022) and offers it to its member churches.

These institutional decisions de facto activate a dispute with political implications within the churches. On the one hand, the institutional positioning in favour of a pluralisation of theo-logic in relation to the gender dimension has an external political significance. The church is signalling where it positions itself in the social debate. In doing so, however, it also activates a political dynamic within itself. The political permeates and shapes both the church and society, all the more so for the democratically organised Reformed churches in Switzerland.

The particular challenge for the churches in the case of the Compagnie's work is that it is at the level of their "own" language, their religious language, "their" language. Theo-logic that a transformative dynamic is introduced. This pressure is exerted from two directions: on the one hand, with regard to the raison d'être assigned to the churches in society - who would speak of "God" in a secularised society if not the religious communities, including the churches? On the other hand, with regard to the regulation of church activities by theology, which is understood here as a reflexive authority formed by research and adversarial debate in the academic sphere.

The organisation of a study day in collaboration with the faculty is therefore an attempt to activate this regulating function of theology in the struggle centred on the Theo-logic of the Protestant Church in Geneva. Let's take a closer look at what emerges from this attempt.

2 Summary of the presentations

I will take up the various contributions of the day one after the other. As I was unfortunately unable to take part in the final panel discussion, I won't say anything about it.

God our father or our mother? On the way to a spiritual language beyond gender (Mariel Mazzocco)

The lecture focuses on the mystical experience and its relationship to theology.

The mystical experience holds two elements in tension: firstly, it brings a "God" into play that is beyond language. Secondly, this results in a wealth of experiments with the ways and possibilities of saying "God". This experimentation often takes place on the fringes of the church's institutional communication. It is the work of individuals or movements. It sets the lines of standardised discourse in motion.

This language can seek a form of overcoming language about "God": "God" as the "superessential" (Dionysius Areopagita), the "obvious" (the Beguines). But he can also try to work with specific associations, such as the expression "Dieu-paix" (Madame Guyon). With regard to gender issues, in the Middle Ages "God" was sometimes addressed as "Our Mother", like Jesus.

The discussion that followed this lecture was pervaded by a tension between creativity and work on normativity: on the one hand, the creativity inherent in mystical discourse enabled a form of speaking by women in public, albeit at the cost of their identity - they can speak because, as mystics, it is not they but "God" who speaks. On the other hand, the contemporary politicisation of the theo-logic inherent in church practice (especially in liturgical production) generates a public conflict over the various gendered registers of normativity and their function in institutional and social structuring - and thus aims at a transformation of church practice itself.

Commentary

This article makes it clear that the experience of the radical otherness of "God" in his most intimate proximity does not close off the creative exploration of language in order to say "God". On the contrary: it nourishes and opens it up. Silence may be a moment of mystical experience, but it is not the only one.

According to Mazzocco, the divine is to be sought in the opening and investment of a space of creativity. The productions that emerge from this creativity must be brought into a dialogue. According to this option, creativity is called to unfold freely, insofar as it does not aim to establish itself as a norm. In this respect, the fact that the Compagnie, as the theological authority of the EPG, takes up this creativity is ambivalent at best.

Inclusive language - a storm in a teacup or the answer to a real problem? (Pascal Gygax)

Experiments at the interface between psycholinguistics and social psychology now clearly show how language, and in particular the way in which it structures gender, affects our social behaviour, our evaluations and judgements, our perceptions, and so on. Research also shows that the link between language and psychosocial structures is not rigid, but can change both in a person's life and at the level of a linguistic space. Gygax has made his presentation available online. It provides an excellent introduction to this research.

Gygax emphasised that it is not up to the researchers to say whether practices need to be changed. What his presentation does show, however, is that the exclusive use of the masculine (e.g. in terms of the generic or so-called "universal" masculine) reinforces an androcentric normativity. He also emphasises that working on language is only one possible aspect of the transformation of social normativity involving gender: Rights as well as economic norms (actual representation and regulation) are other dimensions to consider. What his account shows, however, is that the exclusive use of the masculine (e.g. in the sense of the generic or so-called "universal" masculine) reinforces an androcentric normativity. He also emphasises that working on language is only one possible aspect of the transformation of social normativity involving gender: Rights as well as economic norms (actual representation and regulation) are other dimensions that need to be considered.

Commentary

This de-centred intervention in relation to the actual theological discussion. For those for whom the values of equality and justice are central, this lecture provides arguments for a change in the use of language, and thus also in Theo-logic, while at the same time staking out the scope of the possible impact of this engagement.

In the register of liberal democracy, the scientific nature of the elements presented allows them to be used in the debate. It seems to me that this criterion also applies to the "internal" political counselling of the Reformed churches in Switzerland.

Languages and images to say God in the Old Testament (Jean-Daniel Macchi)

This lecture took us through the development of "God's" gender in the Old Testament. In the context of the ancient Near East, both female and male deities are found. The god "Yhwh" first appears (10th-6th century) as a male deity among other deities, and sometimes a female deity seems to be associated with him.

From the point at which an exclusive worship of Yhwh (monolatry) develops, his femininity becomes an issue: either the role of the female deity is transferred to the people (Israel), or the god begins to have female attributes (cf. inter alia Ps 90:2; 131:2; Isa 42:13-14; 46:3; Gen 1:26-27; 49:25-26; Job 38:8-10). The development of the cult of Israel towards the recognition of a single, universal God (monotheism) tends to confirm this own tendency towards monolatry.

Commentary

If "God" appears in the Old Testament text exclusively in the masculine form from a grammatical point of view - and it is no different in the New Testament in this respect - it must be recognised at the same time that the biblical text has a variety of possible configurations of the relationship between "gender-specific attributes" and "grammatical gender". In other words, "God-He" can have both typically feminine and typically masculine attributes. There is a relative fluidity of the gender dimension in the Old Testament representations of "God", even if there is no grammatical visibility of this fluidity.

This description does not offer a solution to the ecclesial tension. It does not yet tell us how this ambivalence is to be interpreted and received in the theology of the church. Argument in favour of the universal masculine? Argument in favour of the fluidity of the gender of "God"? Argument in favour of an evolutionary vision of the gender of "God"? Triviality of the question? The exegete refrains from formulating the criterion that makes a decision possible.

God in his own image. The changing representations of the divine in contemporary Christianity (19th-20th century) (Sarah Scholl)

The last lecture of the day focussed on the transformation of the representation of God in modern Christianity. Such transformations actually take place and are not just a matter of elite discourse. At some point, a transformation is adopted by a majority and by the institution, as the transition from a "terrible God" (16th century) to a "God of love" (19th century) clearly shows. The mockery of the first attempts to depict the "God of love" in church texts (e.g. the 7th proposal for the liturgy of the Church of Geneva in 1875) is an indicator of the effectiveness of the ongoing change.

Similar transformation efforts can also be observed in relation to the nature of "God". Scholl proposes a history in different phases. Firstly, there is a struggle by women to free the speech of "God" from the male embrace, be it in the interaction with the biblical text (Sarah Grimke, 1792-1873) or in the production of the theo-logical imaginary (George Sand, 1804-1876). What follows is a struggle for the de-masculinisation of the theo-logical imaginary. This struggle is both emancipatory and creative. It drives its protagonists to the fringes of Christianity. This phase led to concrete liturgical experiments in the 1980s (see in particular the collective L'autre Parole in Québec).

A comparison can be sketched out: The acceptance of the "God of love" is a done deal. This representation is no longer a topic that causes excitement and contradiction within Christianity. The same cannot be said of the "demasculinised God", even though work on the "gender of the divine" has been underway for well over 100 years. For the time being, the pluralisation of the gender dimension in representations of "God" remains a factor of unrest within Christianity. Those who advocate this change in representations expose themselves to the risk of marginalisation. Is a non-patriarchal and non-androcentric Christianity possible? The answer to this question remains open.

Commentary

This intervention points to the long duration of changes in representation. It also outlines the phases that such changes can go through. It also points out the phenomena of resistance. Nor does it comment on a possible outcome of the ongoing dynamics.

The transformation of representation is first and foremost the story of individuals and collectives struggling first to acquire a space of expression and then fighting for normative change. A hypothesis that I risk here: could the fact that the dynamics of this change in representation have found their place in ecclesiastical instances and especially in regulatory bodies such as the Compagnie not indicate the overcoming of another obstacle?

3 Perspectives

Takeaways

On various levels, they show the variability of the representation of the gender of "God" in the Christian tradition, emphasising that this variation remains a phenomenon of the margins. It remains a disruptive factor in relation to established linguistic usage. They also show which psycholinguistic mechanisms are at work in the normative construction of gender and what role they play in the functioning of gender in social normativity.

The various presentations remained distant in terms of the decisions that should be made in relation to the conditions they described. Only in Mariel Mazzocco's presentation was an approach to action outlined. The aim was to move towards linguistic creativity and dialogue in order to enable a deconditioning of theo-logical language.

This last track, if it is to be pursued, implies, in my opinion, rethinking the political and institutional conditions of this deconditioning - or rather: of the argument about "God" and the theo-logic that claim him in ecclesial practice.

Since what is under discussion is the theo-logic of a church, that is, what is ascribed to it in our social context, it seems to me necessary to think further about the political dynamics of this discussion and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the institutional mechanisms currently in place to regulate these dynamics - in particular, the function that theology occupies or should occupy in this context and the impasses that its usual investment faces.

Strange "God"

Protestant theology has insisted on the word to "God" - to let them say who "God" is. "By listening to the imagery that God gives us of himself, we can stop trying to make God comprehensible through authorised imagery." (Magdalene L. Frettlöh)

Queer theology, for its part, invites us to look at the strangeness in which "God" expresses itself, in particular the material strangeness of bodies. From this perspective, "God" is revealed in the materiality of bodies and their impressions.

By returning to the fluidity and history of bodies, contemporary queer theology is emphasises the ambivalence of identity and the dynamics of belonging. The attainment of freedom by the subjects takes place via a critical distance from any form of original or final (stable) identity. This distance is one of the most important prerequisites for the attainment of freedom. This critical distancing leads people to expose each other to their inherent fragility. In essence, this is an appeal to others to be able to exist in this fragility.

Queer theology sees it as its task to create openings, spaces of uncertainty and strangeness for that which disturbs, for that which does not quite fit into the normative structure - in order to create space for this fragility.

This has particular implications for the practice of theology itself. It is affected by a fundamental difference between a theology that legitimises the existing norm (with a tendency towards totalisation) and a theology that moves in a space of uncertainty and disruption (which resists any integration). This second theology must not want to take the place of the first: "Terrible est le sort des théologies de la marge lorsqu'elles veulent être acceptées par le centre" (Terrible is the fate of theologies on the margins when they want to be accepted by the centre - Marcela Althaus-Reid). And the first must not silence the second.

This tension keeps access to the table open so as not to hold back what G*d has already given: her, his, body - a body that is no longer accessible to those who want to take hold of it (noli me tangere). Accessible is only the breath that enlivens our own bodies and their strangeness: the breath of the body of Christ. Perhaps I dare to risk a direction of liturgical creativity: It is a performative investment in a politics of bodies that expose themselves to and with one another. This investment is made with regard to the fundamental vulnerability of bodies and their exposure in and to the judgement of the cross. "Absence and emptiness become heaven. Into it the "faggot", the Messiah has ascended. They are with G*d. And G*d is new life." (Andreas Krebs)


This text was machine translated and briefly checked before publication.

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Elio Jaillet

Elio Jaillet

Docteur en théologie

Chargé des questions théologiques et éthiques

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