by Tim Belben
from Signs of the Times No. 59 - Oct 2015
It is a commonly accepted problem that the English language lacks a gender-free singular personal pronoun, so we cannot quote St Paul’s 'In him we live and move and have our being' without risking offence through our use of ‘in him’.
The usual refuge in the plural ‘them’ will not do here, for that would raise the spectre of the classical pantheon - a result very contrary to St Paul’s express object of developing the Athenians reverence for their ‘unknown God’... from whom we are, St Paul tells us, inseparable. ‘Them’ will not do. ’She’ carries other echoes of an entirely different religion.
But some recognition of the deity’s immanence and transcendence is needed for us to be able to place our own existence in the context of St Paul’s message to the Athenians. Language being our only means of definition or communication of these abstract ideas, we cannot help its anthropomorphism, yet to make our communication gender-free risks the communication itself.
An alternative is to use the neuter for all references to the deity but doesn’t ‘it’ carry as much danger of misunderstanding as the gender-specific ‘him’?
I suggest we might take refuge in poetic symbolism, borrowing ‘love’ from Herbert’s Love bade me welcome to be a synonym of the deity here: so does not ‘in love we live and move and have our being’ carry the appropriate sense of transcendence without the offence of presuming gender?
Another biblical and liturgical use of ‘his’ occurs with ‘his face is turned towards his people’ which is borrowed from the book of Numbers, as is ‘lift up the light of his countenance... which adds the anthropomorphic oddity of the deity’s ‘turning’ his face to [or, indeed, away] but the imagery is clear, though the pronoun’s gender may cause offence. Here, again, the plural would be unhelpful, as would the neuter! Alas for the long-endured custom of the English language’s assumption that the masculine pronoun incorporates the feminine. But it is easy to see how this could cause offence. Another anomalous anthropomorphism?