What they mean matters

Eddie Arthur has pitched into the controversy about using “they” instead of “he” as a pronoun to describe God.  Arthur was responding to this article in Christianity Today and particularly this quote:

Introducing a nongendered, personal, singular pronoun into our theological discourse isn’t orthodox, in my opinion. 

Arthur goes on to show that nongendered pronouns are not in fact uncommon when you look across languages. He rightly argues for care in how we enter into debates about language. We need to make sure that we know how language works.  His concern here is to help us from guad against a western/Anglo-centric view of the world that fails to take account of realities in other cultural contexts. He also encourages us to think about how language itself may may changing and that this is not necessarily a sinister thing.

I agree with Eddie on those points. Indeed, I would argue that there is a long tradition within the English language of using the pronoun “they” in a personal and singular form.  If you haven’t read Eddie’s post, you might respond to me by saying:

“I’ve not read it yet. What do they say?”

By using the word “they” you are not intending to imply a plurality of authors, nor are you suggesting ambiguity about Eddie’s gender.  You are simply employing a colloquial expression.

However, at the same time, without context, you might risk bringing some confusion or ambiguity into the conversation.  I used that phrase on twitter as a light hearted response to someone sharing the original article. They in turn argued that my response was ungrammatical. I asked “why?” and they explained that I couldn’t use the pronoun “they” to refer to the blogpost, I should have said “it.”  In fact, my point wasn’t ungrammatical because I wasn’t using “they” to refer to the article but to the author.  The problem was that in a condensed conversation, those referred to wasn’t immediately clear.  More explanation was necessary.

Here I think is where we come to the problem with using “they” to refer to God. The intended meaning matters.  In the current context, we are seeing pronouns politicised within the English language. If I am able to chose and self-identify my gender then I must be able to chose how I’m named and identified including through pronouns. So, some people will now list their preferred pronouns in social media biographies. For some, this may involve sticking with he/she depending on their sex but even that indicates a suggestion that the pronoun is optional and may be changed at any point.  They could choose to switch from “he” to “she” or they could opt for “they.”

When opting for “they” they are consciously choosing a pronoun that allows for flexibility and ambiguity. There is a message behind the pronoun. It is not completely neutral but rather is intended to convey something about the person and personality about them.

What then about God. What is intended when we use the pronoun “they.”   Are we simply using the word as a colloquial alternative to “he” or do we intend something else? Perhaps the intention is to indicate something about the plurality of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If so, then does the pronoun help us to keep in view the one nature of God or does it risk suggesting a social trinity.

However, the primary purpose of the language shift does seem to be around the question of gender.  By using “they” I can avoid “he” without resorting to “it.” “They” enables me to continue to recognise the person of God without dropping into the debate about whether we should refer to God in masculine terms.

In that regard, not because “they” in and of itself is problematic but because of the intended meaning, we do have a problem.  We cannot shift to referring to God as “they” without addressing how God identifies himself both with the use of pronouns and as Father, Son, King. 

We need to be careful about a discussion that fails to regard how language works in other contexts but we still need to address how it is used in ours.

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