I had a curious conversation last week following my Inner-Light yoga class. A lovely woman, with whom I have recently been getting acquainted, attended my scripture yoga class for the first time. She came up to me, after class, to discuss some insights that she thought might be helpful for me as a teacher. She shared with me that she teaches trainings on diversity and is a feminist. According to her, it was “an obstacle” to hear Scripture that portrays God as male, specifically referring to God as “He” and as “Heavenly Father”. She also shared with me that she felt that this class might be alienating people, namely Muslims or Jews (although I would also include others in this category, such as atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.). Although I didn’t “enjoy” the conversation, (it was uncomfortable at times and sharpening for my mind) I was extremely grateful that this dear woman felt comfortable enough to come to me with these concerns. We talked for the better part of an hour and sealed our time off in prayer- asking that our friendship would be strengthened out of mutual respect and TRUTH would be revealed.
This conversation came on the heels of reading a thought-provoking article in the September issue of the Yoga Journal. In this article, Jacoby Ballard, the founder of Queer and Trans Yoga and workshops, (JacobyBallard.com) discusses the experience of attending yoga classes as a “queer, transgender person”. Jacoby explains, “Over and over again in yoga, the gender binary- classifying a person as either masculine or feminine, male or female- is reinforced, and every time, it’s painful.” Jacoby has developed a style of yoga that avoids gendered language. He shares suggestions for making yoga classes more inclusive, such as taking the gender out of cueing during class and asking each person in the class their name as well as their preferred pronoun. Pronoun preference is personal choice Ballard explains, “Some trans people prefer to identify as the gender they have transitioned to, while others prefer more gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they’ or ‘xe,’ ‘xim,’ and ‘xir,’. (Yoga Journal, September 2016 p. 12)
When I read about Jacoby’s experience, I was mortified to think that I might have ever hurt someone, unknowingly, by referring to gender in my yoga classes (or outside of classes, for that matter!). Likewise, it pained me to think that my student and new friend was hindered from drawing near to the presence of God in my class because I had referred to God as male and as our heavenly Father.
These are the things I know to be true according to Scripture (Bible):
- God is a Spirit and does not possess human characteristics or limitations. (John 4:24)
- Humans are made in the image of God, both male and female. (Genesis 1:26-27)
- In Scripture, God reveals himself to mankind in male form. (Approximately 170 references to God as “Father” and both OT and NT used male nouns and pronouns when referring to God)
- Jesus Christ came in the form of a human man to reconcile the world or “all flesh” back to the Creator. (Acts 1:3-7 & Matthew 28:18-20)
We can conclude, that while God is a spiritual being and not a man, God did choose to reveal himself to humanity through masculine form. This is illustrated throughout Scripture and also in the person of Jesus Christ.
As human beings, we are limited in our understanding of things beyond the physical realm. In Scripture, figurative language is often used to assign human characteristics, or behaviors, to God in order to help us understand who God is. The practice of assigning human characteristics to God, called anthropomorphism, helps to make it possible for humans to grasp the idea of an infinite God, who is a Spirit being.
Scripture reveals the nature and character of God to the reader through “language” that is familiar to the reader. So, while my friend is correct, God is not a male or female, the language of “God as Father” was meant to foster a better understanding of who God is to the reader; serving to help the created to understand the Creator.
This brings me to the subject of pronouns, and language in general. (Disclaimer: I am not a linguist.)
Language is a method and form of communication. Words are used in all languages as symbols, or tools, for communicating a deeper meaning. Words are meant to serve humankind by allowing them to convey thoughts and ideas with each other.
It seems to me that language, in the examples above, might be getting in the way… To further, the words being used to communicate a thought or idea to another person are actually hindering, rather than facilitating, the comprehension of that thought or idea.
In the setting of a classical yoga class, the instructor is in the leadership position of helping their students to move beyond daily distractions of the mind and body to encounter the Divine Presence within. (Of course, instructors may have different definitions of the Divine, but that is a conversation for another time…) Language is a tool to help instructors to convey the “thoughts and ideas” of the instructor to the class. In Jacoby’s experience, the language used in the yoga classes, which he attended, did not yield the desired outcome of drawing him into the safe, healing presence of the Divine. Somehow, language, more specifically pronouns, got in the way of the overall intention and idea being conveyed.
Last week, while teaching my Inner-Light yoga class, I quoted the following scripture:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. Psalm 121:1-8
The idea that I intended to convey to my class was a message of comfort; my intention, and I believe the intention of this Scripture, was to draw the listener into deeper intimacy with their Heavenly Creator. The language was but a tool, which I chose to use, to convey a deeper meaning. Unfortunately, the deeper meaning was lost for my friend, because the words did not serve their intended purpose. I believe this teaches us something worth noting.
In the situations above, the purpose of the language, and words, being used was to draw people’s hearts closer to each other and to the heart of their Heavenly Creator. It seems that the language, instead of working as a tool to facilitate the communication of one’s thoughts and ideas to another, was actually acting as an obstacle to that communication.
If we are not careful, we will become servants to language instead of allowing language to serve us.
While I agree, it is important that we speak with intention and to choose our words wisely; I think it is also important that we listen to the words being spoken and try to discern underlying meaning and ideas behind those words. If we allow ourselves to hold too tightly to the words being spoken, we may risk losing the deeper meaning those words were meant to communicate. The consequence being a division between hearts.
Where in our lives might we be hearing only words and not the deeper, underlying messages being conveyed?
Paul refers to this deeper understanding in Ephesians when he prays, “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened”. In John 16, Jesus explains that it is the Holy Spirit that helps us to hear what is truly being spoken when he says, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak”. Jesus teaches that there is a deeper hearing, or listening, than that of mere words.
In the spirit of humility and conviction, I will sign off from this post with the same words that Jesus so often ended his teachings. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”