The Journal of Applied Impossibility
(Begun June 6, 2021) The Backlog is thinner than ever -- Less than a year!
It's my sometimes M.O. to attempt drawing connections between two disparate ideas in a way that seems jarring at first blush, but which I hope ends up being illuminating. This is how thinking and learning in general feel to me, and while some may not wish to share in the feeling of being jarred, I think it's good to experience it from time to time at least. Today's first topic is social-justice language in theology.
At one of my adjunct positions, the following language was mandated at the departmental level for all syllabuses:
The Department of Religious Studies, in accordance with mainstream usage and the accepted editorial policy of academic journals in our area and in the liberal arts, will require students to use gender inclusive language in all written assignments, oral presentations, and classroom discussions when referring to human beings. Gender inclusive language prohibits the use of the word "man" or "he" (and the terms "men," "mankind," "family of man," "brotherhood," and the compound terms of "chairman," and "clergyman," etc.) as generic terms when applied to human beings. "Man," and "he" in the past, were applied to both women and men, but such usage is no longer considered appropriate. Students instead should use language that is inclusive; such as "human being," "person," "humanity," "people," "minister," etc. to designate individuals and groups. Inclusive language accurately represents all persons and groups. The Department of Religious Studies requires students to use inclusive language when writing, speaking, and referring to religious concepts and traditions. Students are strongly encouraged to use inclusive language when referring to God as a means of exploring the diversity of references to the Deity. Quotations, of course, are to represent the original text exactly. Translations should reflect as precisely as possible the translator's understanding of the intention of the original text with regard to gender. Language about God should be appropriate to its context, and students should make every effort to widen their references to the Deity.
I happen to hold a view on this matter that some would describe as nuanced. On the one hand, I want to acknowledge as best I can the importance of gender inclusive language. I was raised by a single mother who fought to be treated as an equal by her (predominantly male) co-workers, and I have never abandoned the understanding she instilled in me during her life. On the other hand, I think that etymology is important, and we should be cautious about attributing motives to our ancestors, and especially ill motives. As the above statement acknowledges, the word "mankind," derivative of the word "man" is in its origin gender neutral. The old English word for adult male was "wer" -- cognate of vir, (from which the word virtue is derived) and present today in "werewolf" (There wolf! There castle!). Thus, the desire "to boldly go where no man has gone before" is, and always was meant to be inclusive of Lieutenant Uhuru and Captain Janeway just as much as of Captain Kirk and Ensign Chekov.* But, when we change the standard procedures for referring to people, we often forget to circulate the memo about what used to be acceptable. Younger readers (or viewers) commit eisogesis -- interpreting modern standards into earlier works. The Declaration of Independence must be a sexist document because they use "man" for everyone.
On the other-other hand, it may be argued that the rise of inclusive language means that when we hear the word "man-" in "mankind" we now consider it gendered. Since the words such as "mankind" and "chairman" are now regarded as being gendered, their use has fallen to sexists, and so it is sexists who insist on this gendered language. The only recourse for demonstrating opposition to them is to opt for this new version of gender neutral language†
And yet, still on the other-other-other hand (we are tetrapods, recall), the engendering of the term "mankind" is the consequence of, not a reason for, the creation of new versions of gender neutral language. The concern is that this language will hear the syllable "man" and react unreasonably.‡ Thus, one might worry that the neologism-pejoration treadmill will continue indefinitely.
This, then, is my position vis-à-vis "inclusive language." I understand it's apparent importance, but I also suspect that it causes further misunderstanding, and that there is no end to the process.
The second subject I want to talk about today is the Slave Bible. This is a carefully curated selection of the bits of the Bible that are convenient for slaves to have heard about, without those pesky bits that would be terribly inconvenient to know about. "Slaves, obey your masters"? Keeper! Seventh year jubilee freeing everyone? Can't have everything. My reaction to this today is more-or-less what it was when I first heard about it. Those poor souls. Pray for them, friends, for they are likely headed to Hell. I'm talking about the people who excised the Bible. God has some explicit stuff to say about how this is bad, and perhaps damnable.❦
I find this repugnant -- not only because it facilitated the morally repugnant practice of slavery (which it did), but because it is distorting the message of the Gospel. The degree to which this is the case is measurable (according to Wikipedia, only 10% of the Old Testament, and 50% of the New Testament are included). And the problem with this is, one would hope, obvious to most religious types. So what is going on?
The simplest way I can understand this is to say that the editors of the Slave Bible have an idea that they think is more important than the Bible. Namely, their idea of upholding the conditions that are conducive to slavery is more important than what the Bible might actually say about the matter, and so they are happy to make the Bible subservient to their own ideas.
If I am being honest, I would say that this is a characteristic hubris of my fellow Protestants: That our own perspective is equal or superior to the tradition in which we claim to participate. The Slave Bible has this in common with the mandated language of my syllabus. Full disclosure: I was a coward, and put the words on my syllabus too (Lord, have mercy).
There is a video on YouTube from PragerU discussing why God is a He. I suspect that I would believe this if I were merely a theist. But as a Christian and a father, I believe two things. First that Jesus was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and second, that I know (more or less) where babies come from. There are certainly some aspects of the Deity for which traditionally feminine language may be appropriate, and certainly God is not encompassed by the category of gender. But I do believe in God the Father -- for realsies.
Still, is there a case to be made that the contemporary Left will listen to? Or one that will at least appeal to their vocabulary? One they would recognize at least? I am willing to bet that the same people who insist on she-talk about God are the very ones who make complaints about "misgendering" -- or that there is, at the very least a substantial overlap. If it's wrong to use gendered language about someone other than the language that person tells you to use, what sort of language does the antimisgendering crowd think we should use for God? And here is our connection, again. There is a group who are creating a new 'translation' of the Psalter in order to do away with 'unnecessarily gendered [masculine] language.' Of course, the arbiters of what is necessary are the translators themselves, rather than the tradition to which they claim to belong.
One of my dearest friends in the world is fond of scolding me. He points out that my mistake (to which I readily admit each time) is in taking my opponents' position for one of principle. There is no principle here -- or if there is, it is not the principle that is spoken on their lips. They appeal to the commandment, "Thou shalt not call someone by a nonpreferred gender." Yet, this is law for thee, and not for me. Which is to say, this is a principle and the principle is literally what this commandment says. It sounds like, "no one should call someone else by a nonpreferred gender." But what it actually says is, "Thou shalt not..."
Please note: this conversation is about gender only inasmuch as the people who are trying to muck about and alter scripture for their political ends are doing so with respect to gender. In the early nineteenth century, they were doing this about slavery, and my counterpart of that century writing his broadsheet would have had something to say about that as well. The principle -- and for me it is a principle --
* TNG, made after the 1970s -- when gender inclusive language became a mainstream concern -- changed the words to "no one." Arguably, the expansion is more radical, not because of gender, but because of its inclusion of Lieutenant Worf and Lieutenant Commander Data. That is, if we lived in a world of Klingons and sentient androids, referring exclusively to humans would be discriminatory in a way I would probably find unacceptable. When I discuss our potential moral obligations to machines, this may come up again.
† I am quite fond of Borges's observation: "The implacable detractors of etymology argue that the origins of words do not instruct us in what they now mean; its defenders could reply that origins always instruct us in what words no longer mean." (Definition of a Germanophile, 1940. Selected Nonfictions, p. 203)
‡ For some time, I have wondered why "man" in "human" or the "son" in "person" are acceptable, and for how long. I began writing this before the apparent hypercorrection of "Amen" became a battlefront of the culture wars. It appears as though the hullaballoo was based on a misunderstanding, but things might have gone otherwise. How long, I wonder, until the bachelor's degree becomes the bachelorette degree, becomes the 'batch' degree -- as though college graduates were so many cookies? when I asked a friend, he responded, "When I hear this, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already." Absit Omen.
❦ Cf., e.g., Deuteronomy 4:2, or Revelation 22:18-19. Don't make God angry, folks.
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