People who believe in divine revelation universally agree that revelation is received through language. Language expresses and is shaped by the culture in which it is spoken. Language reflects the cultural biases of the people who speak. Language is continually changing in response to cultural shifts (witness the recent addition of “lol” to official dictionaries of the English language), but language also shapes culture, influences the way that human beings understand their relationships to one another and the world at large. Language–a cultural legacy inherited from our human ancestors–probably shapes us more than we shape it.
The Catholic Bishops currently harassing and censoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an internationally respected theologian, largely agree with this explanation of language as a culturally conditioned, living mode of communication. They also agree that divine revelation comes through language. Yet they perversely and incoherently insist that masculine imagery of the divine in the Bible has nothing to do with human culture, and is simply the direct expression of the deity. God is male, they insist, and anyone who suggests that we use a gender-neutral language to refer to the deity should be punished. Never mind that academics, scholars of religion and theologians alike, have been addressing the question of gender, and the choice of pronouns for the divine, with little controversy for 50 years.
A committee of backward-thinking American bishops have accused Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology at Fordham University, a Catholic institution, of violating church doctrine because she carries on this half-century of scholarship. The Bishops oppose all scholars who ask whether or not God is male.
Sister Johnson irritates the bishops because she supports granting women greater authority in the church and because she speaks to organizations that promote same-sex marriage. She irritates the bishops because she underscores the sexism in the rule that says only persons with a penis can administer the Word and blessings of god. She irritates the bishops because she points out that men have always controlled the Catholic church and used it as a means to perpetuate patriarchal privilege. “All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relations between women and men, and they function to maintain this relationship,” she writes in her most recent book, Quest for the Living God. This kind of statement really pisses them off, and that is why the bishops want to ban it.
I, for one, am going straight out to get and read her book.