As an Episcopal priest, and now a bishop, I am constantly in awe of the power of symbols to move to the deepest realms of my soul and there to do their work of transformation. Sometimes that work has been at least partially conscious, as in the symbols of Holy Eucharist actively inviting me to reencounter the lively presence of God in the midst of community.
More often, however, the work of symbol is unconscious and exists without a blueprint or a map. As one who relies heavily on my thinking function, having no blueprint or map is not particularly good news. Yet, my experience of discovering the power of intentional inclusive language when speaking of the Divine has led me to believe that our greatest learnings seldom have blueprints and maps. Indeed, if they did, we would manage to limit our learning to what we expected it to be – hardly learning at all!
A few years ago my wife was struggling with the sheer weight of the patriarchy in the Church. She had been raised in the Presbyterian Church, where her father was an ordained minister. She married and found herself in another branch of the Church with an Episcopal priest/husband. In her own inner work, the day finally arrived when Wisdom led her to experience what she had always accepted as the norm (i.e., a male dominated Church) to be far more burden than delight. That can be a problem when one is married to a bishop!
By then, however, I had come to a place in my own journey where the efforts to move the Church to inclusive, gender neutral language had begun to make some sense. Remember, I tend to overuse my thinking function. I had a glimmer of understanding of why that might be important, and, of course, it was also “politically correct.” So our long conversations around the issues of patriarchy and language were only moderately threatening to this male church leader in a male dominated church. I began to find myself intentionally changing my own language, largely to honor what I then thought of as my wife’s struggle. It did not carry much emotional content for me, but it seemed the right thing to do. I cannot pinpoint the time, but at some point it began to occur to me that my own imagery around the Divine was changing. Indeed, when I would occasionally lapse into patriarchal language during preaching or teaching, it would be an almost jarring experience. Referring to God as “he” somehow seemed a betrayal – not of my wife’s need for different language, but of the very image of the Divine.
Of course, I had known at some level for many years that God was not “he.” Nor was God “she.” But it was true nonetheless that the use of certain language had captured the whole experience of the Divine as being a masculine experience. God was not “he,” but I experienced God primarily within my own masculine because my language helped place the experience there.
My use of language, which of course is symbolic, had over many years placed boundaries around my experience of the Divine. I had little concept of the feminine attributes of the Holy, because my language had never carried the feminine to consciousness. And, being male, it never occurred to me that this was a problem until I was able to see it through my wife’s experience.
The symbols of the Divine have shifted in my soul in ways I could not have planned. Little did I know that my own intentional change in language would reap such rewards as discovering the feminine, nurturing openness of God who embraces and holds. Nothing of the God who challenges and calls forth “the warrior” has been lost – only balanced with the fullness of possibility.
This journey began as a reasonable, supportive measure for those for whom language might be a barrier. It has unearthed for me, once again, the awesome power of symbol. Even simple symbols like “he” and “him.” Let no one be surprised by the power of a simple pronoun to limit our understanding of the Divine.
Larry Maze is the retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas. He and his wife, Beth, and their two daughters live in Little Rock. He was first introduced to the concepts of Jungian spirituality by friends who began pointing out that his preaching was “Jungian.” Not knowing what that could mean, Larry attended a Journey Into Wholeness week where he discovered that there were many people who thought like he did and, in fact, there was a whole discipline and body of writing that could help him walk this path. He has taught a number of classes dealing with issues of the shadow and the need for balance in the masculine and feminine.
He and Beth regularly do dream work together.