Thoughts on ‘This Is My Father’s World’

Re-post from 2008. I thought it was germane to some of the current discussion in the post Gender-Inclusive Language. This old post rings strongly of ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!

Albertan Rockies
Albertan Rockies

One of the most important events of my life was moving from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Most notably, by moving to Ontario, I chose to go to the University of Ottawa for my undergrad rather than the University of Calgary. At the U of O, I met my wife, a fellow student of Classics.

In this move, I also learned more and more to trust my Saviour. I was torn from life in the country and began to live the city life. I left behind mountains! More importantly, I left behind friends and a supportive, loving, strong church community. Yet through it all, through the times of loneliness all alone at midnight on my bedroom floor rocking back and forth, God Almighty, Lord of all, was there. He became more real to me through this time.

I truly learned the message of ‘This Is My Father’s World‘ at that time, that the world, the creation, is the Lord’s. The fullness of His glory dwells herein. He speaks to us everywhere. In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass!

Our last Sunday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Rocky we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the music of the spheres ringing round us. My mom and I arrived in Thunder Bay before my dad’s official start at St. Thomas’, so we went to St. Paul’s our first Sunday in the city. And we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the morning light declaring its Maker’s praise. And then, in case we hadn’t quite got the message yet, our first Sunday at St. Thomas’, we sang the hymn again, resting in the thought of rock and trees.

“This Is Our Father’s World” was almost like our theme song! And I wasn’t cognisant of it at the time, but this is the message I truly needed to hear as I crossed two provinces, from foothills to Canadian shield, as I left behind all I knew — that my Father was in control, and that “Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied, / and earth and heaven be one.”

Reading Week 2008. My wife and I avail ourselves of the GO Train and her grandpa’s generosity. We have a lovely visit with him and Ruth and stay with them on Saturday night. Sunday morning we go with them to the local United Church.

The sermon was good. The man preaching knew Jesus and preached that salvation is from Christ our God. It was a good sermon. And we almost sang two of my favourite hymns, “This Is My Father’s World” and “Be Thou My Vision.”

Only Voices United is a sad travesty and butchered both, the former more than the latter.

“This is God’s wondrous world,” the words read. I sang, “This is my Father’s world.” Rather than, “In the rustling grass, I hear him pass,” it read, “In the rustling grass, in the mountain pass.” I was more than a little perturbed and angry.

You see, as Christians, we don’t simply worship some vague divinity up there in the clouds. We worship a specific Person (or, more accurately, Persons) who is certain things and not others. One of the things God is is Father. Clearly no one thinks he has a penis. God does not have a penis. God is Spirit! But as Father, we are reminded that God is our creator, that He is the one who sustains the universe and keeps us alive.

In the Trinitarian God, the Father is the One Who begets the Son, the One from Whom the Spirit proceeds.

He loves us.

And He cannot be both Father and Mother because then He loses specificity and becomes a vague blob of some variety. God is beyond personality, as CS Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, but he is more than our personalities, not less. His role as Father is one of love, care, and benevolent rule.

A glance through Voices United showed me a hymn wherein God was called “Mother.” It’s one thing to call God “Mother” because He performs some motherly tasks for us, another to call Him “Mother” because you are being inclusive and a third to call Him “Mother” but not “Father” which is the biblical name for Him. Are we smarter than the Bible?

A review of Voices United cites that God is only called Father if the word Father is accompanied by the word Mother.

What Voices United is reminding us is that we are smarter than Scripture. It is the modern rejection of the old and traditional for the new and “progressive.”

I could rant longer but won’t. My gorge is rising to high and too quickly.

For the ruin of the falsehood that calling God Father won’t be of use to people who had bad dads, read Knowing God by J I Packer (p. 229, although that whole chapter “Sons of God” is worth a read to understand the fatherhood of God) and Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf (169-181; reader beware, he uses words such as ontologization and the clause, “the Father therefore constitutes the mutual relations between the persons as egalitarian rather than hierarchical”).

Edith M Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, pp. 170-174, dispels this whole “Mother God” business.

For the hubris of modernity, see Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.

Last, Jerome, quoted in Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall:

It is inconceivable that sex exists among God’s agencies, since even the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the usages of the Hebrew tongue, is expressed in the feminine gender, ruach, in Greek in the neuter, to pneuma, in Latin in the masculine, spiritus. Hence we must understand that when there is discussion concerning the above and something is set down in the masculine and feminine, it is not so much an indication of sex as an expression of the idiom of the language; because God Himself, the invisible and incorruptible, is represented in almost all languages in the masculine gender, and since sex does not apply to Him. (112)

Gender-Inclusive Language

A post I recently wrote and then deleted (‘My own powerlessness’) touched on a few subjects, and although it was unwise and indelicate of me to discuss the initial issue in it, not least because I had misunderstood what was going on, some of the other issues that surround that post are worth talking about again, and at least letting my own views be heard properly.

First, I am in many ways a deep traditionalist. My love for the Book of Common Prayer, for example, is fuelled not only because I think its orders for worship helpful and its theology true but because they are beautiful and stand firmly within a wider western — and, to a degree, eastern — liturgical tradition. When I pray or sing those words, I am joining a centuries-old body of people who have also done so, and an even older and broader body who have done so in various other languages.

This love of the old (I am a Classicist, after all) and of the old-fashioned or even archaic, if you will, tends sometimes towards phraseologies that, because of how language is used today, can have the appearance of exclusion and, indeed, can make women feel excluded. And making half (or more) of the human race feel excluded is, in fact, a problem.

As a writer, I try to avoid ‘sexist’ language. This is not always successful, because English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun. As a grammar fiend, I would shudder to use ‘they’ in the singular. This is what Anne Fadiman discusses in her brilliant essay, ‘The His’er Problem’ in the fantastic book Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Some of you may have noticed me use the verbal mash-up ‘his’er’.

As well, sometimes I get caught up in words and phraseologies that strike me and move me. Since I read a lot of old books, the older, etymological use of man(n) (and thus mankind) to mean ‘any human being’ vs. its contemporary use ‘a male human being’ (formerly wer in Old English) sometimes slips into my writing — specifically my blogging, and at times my speech, but not what little academic writing I do.

I am also a bit of a translator and a reader of texts that are often translated. And here I think trying to find gender-inclusive terms for foreign gender-inclusive terms is a worthy endeavour, not only because of the normal issues attendant to gender-inclusive language but also because it can be a more precise way of speaking. Does the writer say ‘men’ or ‘human beings/people’uiri or homines? Sometimes there is certainly a chance that an ancient writer was only thinking of male men when writing homo or anthropos, but my job as translator is to present an English rendering of the words at hand, not necessarily their intention. Hopefully the reader can decide for his’erself.

One of my translation problems with the NRSV is not that it translates anthropoi as ‘people’ or adelphoi as ‘brothers and sisters’ but that when Peter is explicitly masculine in Acts with Andres Israelitai, the translators render it as ‘You that are Israelites.’

However, I am not fond of changing the words of hymns for any reason (see here and here). And this is the contingent point of my last post, not the question of gender-inclusive language. A hymn is a poem is a piece of art from its own time and place, often a time and place more sexist than ours, but also often one where the older meanings of ‘man(n)’ are more clear. I am wary of changing things because they do not match zeitgeist — the desire to change for this reason is often followed by other changes, some aesthetic (getting rid of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’), some theological (getting rid of lines such as ‘Thou our Father, Christ our brother’). I also think a jarring encounter with the past can be helpful in curing us of modern chauvinism. Finally, many times the metre and rhyme-scheme depend on a less-inclusive turn of phrase. The attempts to change are often awkward.

I also think we should not condemn older generations for their use of ostensibly sexist language. Oftentimes, they were being sexist. But maybe they weren’t. We cannot always tell. So it is not worth getting worked up over, especially if in most other ways, what a particular author writes is commendable rather than condemnable.

Contemporary writers, even if they don’t fully grasp the significance of the issues, should use gender-inclusive language for generic human beings. This is just good sense. It removes a barrier from the reader’s mind, and helps women and men who are more sensitive than I am to be able to engage more fully with the text in front of them.

My final note on where I stand with gender-inclusivity is that I am still a traditionalist when it comes to the Godhead and specific human beings. Using the word manhood in reference to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is no problem — he was a man. Thus, in telling a story, say ‘salesman’ or ‘saleswoman’, not ‘salesperson’ (the term used if you are advertising a job vacancy). Using terms endorsed by Scripture of the Trinity is no problem — Father and Son. I am not in favour of removing these terms for vaguer terms that refer to the economy of the Trinity, because that could slide into modalism and ignores the relationships of the Persons involved.

And I am not in favour of using mother-language of the Father, although mothering images as used by Scripture and writers such as John of the Cross (who refers to us suckling at God’s breast) I get. They are probably best used when they can be explained, because if simply slipped into a hymn or the liturgy, they will cause more frustration and anxiety, whereas at least in a book or sermon there is a chance to helpfully challenge our paradigms of how we envision the Divine Person(s).