The ancient bards understood that words hold great power. With words they could shore up the cause of a faltering king, or undermine his every effort with sarcasm and biting humor. Words launched armies, and turned the tide of battles.
Words saved lives, and condemned them. But somewhere along the way, maybe when the printing press made words so easy to nail down, we forgot the power they hold. Yet words still hold immense power. We ignore that power at our peril.
Words shape our reality. But not in some new age “manifest your life” bullshit. I’ve got little patience for so called life coaches and spiritual teachers who say that by repeating a mantra or intention you can get rich, or find the man of your dreams, or whatever else they’re selling this week.
Words are not magic. But powerful, and magical are two different things.
The Foundation We Cannot See
Words form the foundation of our reality, and that is their greatest power. The words we use without thinking, that we hear on a regular basis fundamentally change the way we think. If you spend your whole life hearing words of criticism and anger you will have a very different self image than someone who hears words of praise and support.
I grew up in a tradition that claimed that God was not male. And yet all of the language used to describe God was, you guessed it, male. God was Father (never Mother), Son (never Daughter). Every pronoun used for God was male: he/his/him.
The same people who claimed that God was not male gasped in horror the first time they heard someone use a feminine pronoun for God. Our words give us away.
Now, imagine a world where the male pronoun is normative. It isn’t hard, you live in that world. Most of us aren’t even aware of how our world’s assumptions have shaped our own unconscious bias. I find myself falling into it all too easily. A call comes into the church office and if I answer the person is likely to ask for the priest. When I say that’s me there is usually a pause, and then an “oh” of surprise. When a friend mentions they went to their doctor yesterday, the pronoun I automatically assume for that person is almost always male.
The words we use shape our reality in this way. They don’t necessarily move atoms around and make money fly into our bank account, but they shape our interior lives, our thoughts and assumptions in real ways that have real impact on the world.
When the word we use for someone who helps put out fires is fireman the unwritten assumption is that only men can fight fires. When our language for God is all masculine then unconsciously God becomes male. When God cannot be Goddess then women become less than men. It is only logical. If the divine is masculine, never feminine, then clearly male is better/first/holy.
Words reinforce and pass on cultural assumptions from one generation to the next. To disrupt those assumptions and allow real change we must also disrupt the language that keeps them strong. Goddess must become as easy to roll off our tongues as God. She must be as appropriate a pronoun for the Divine as He.
But what if we just stopped using gendered pronouns for God or the Divine at all? What if we used It, or God as a pronoun. Surely it could be argued that’s a better solution. Except it isn’t. Let’s say you are on a road trip. You want to drive straight West across the whole United States (fun). But at some point you start making right turns every now and then. and then more of them. Until you are drifting slowly North. If you were to just stop making right turns and drive straight again you would still totally miss your original destination.
To get where you wanted to go, you’ve got to correct course. You have to go South as well as continuing West. And that is where we find ourselves, up in Canada somewhere when we were aiming for San Francisco.
This is why I believe we cannot simply go gender neutral with our language. We first have to retrain ourselves, correct our course by using the feminine language that has been so neglected.
Have you ever been to a ball park for a baseball game? Somewhere around the 7th inning someone usually starts “the wave.” It begins with just a couple people but eventually it rolls its way around the whole park. Even if some folks sit stubbornly in their seats and refuse to participate that doesn’t stop it once it gets going (though it can make it fizzle out at the beginning when it is still small).
It only takes a few of us to start a wave of words. But if too many of us sit it out, thinking that we can’t possibly make a different at the beginning then our wave will fizzle and fail. Eventually we’ll have enough momentum to change the world. And in the mean time? We’ll be changing our own worlds and those of the people we interact with and that in itself is a big damn deal.
The Spoken Revolution
It starts small. Catch yourself when you find yourself using male pronouns as the default for anything. Switch to female instead, play with they, see how it feels. Pay attention to how it makes you feel and after a while to the assumptions you make. Notice the reaction of the people around you as your language changes.
When you find yourself talking to children don’t ask little boys if they want to be firemen, ask boys and girls if they want to fight fires, or heal sick people, or fly planes. Emphasize not the identity which is often steeped in assumptions, but the verbs and actions. When you give praise pay attention to your first reactions. With girls and women do you go straight for their cute clothes or pretty eyes? With boys do you go straight for their abilities and or interests? Try switching it up. But especially try avoiding praising things someone cannot change (like their physical appearance) and focus on the things they do.
The Face of The Divine
Language has shaped the way we see ourselves and the Divine and our relationship to one another. Reshaping your vision of the divine, opening that to new possibilities is something that language can help with as well. In my own personal prayer life I have taken to referring to the Divine as Mother, Sister, and Friend. It is markedly different language from the Divine of my youth. And I’ve been surprised at the depth of the change.
It isn’t just that the Holy One no longer looks like an old white dude in my mind, my perceptions of Her have changed as well. I find myself far more likely to bring my real self to my prayer and spiritual practice. I find my time with her more comforting, and at once more challenging as well. She loves me, fiercely, like a lioness. But she expects a lot as well, after all, I am Her daughter.
Your own experience will be different from mine, but I can be certain of this: the words you use for the Divine will help to open you to new revelations and experiences. In the end Holiness is too big for human language to ever fully capture. The words we use will always fall short. So experimenting with a variety of language and imagery should be our goal, not something to be afraid of.
Human beings have used an incredible array of imagery and language to try to express One who is beyond our comprehension, but not beyond our experience. Language can offer us a chance to experience far more of Her/Him/They than we ever thought possible, if we’re willing to play with the power of words.