Gendered Language, Spirituality & Female Exclusion

Guest Post for The Revelation Project by Kathleen Schwab.

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I began to experience God as a young teenager, not long after my 14th birthday. I don’t want to go into that story here, but I’ll just say that the experience was so powerful and visceral that my whole life changed shape. It wasn’t just me in my life anymore, it was me and God. So I started going to church, because that’s where people go to be close to God. The idea that being female would automatically shunt me to second class status didn’t occur to me: I would find that out over the next decade. Our whole culture uses language to exclude women, but in my experience exclusion in spirituality packs a particularly painful punch, because it strikes at the deepest part of us, the intuitive center that helps us find our way through a dark world, that feeds and sustains us when nothing else can, that part of us that connects to God.

Language is a powerful tool in this exclusion. Words shape how we understand the world. Freud said that people who cannot name an emotion cannot fully experience that emotion. We’ve all had the experience of struggling to put something into words, and then feeling the relief of finally being able to express it, even if only to ourselves. If you can’t put something into words, you don’t own it; you can’t inhabit it with confidence. 

Language is a powerful tool in this exclusion. Words shape how we understand the world.

When I first experienced God, I didn’t know language could be used to push me out, but I learned. When I was 16, the chaplain of my high school mentioned that I might like to take a look at some of the old church classics, and he pulled The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis down from his shelf. It is a 15th century text, which gave my suburban teenage self a bit of pause. Would I be able to make sense of a writer from five centuries ago? But, opening the book, I fell directly into the universality of experiencing God, and the sense that living a life devoted to Jesus crossed all barriers of time, culture, and place. This monk from 500 years ago was just like me, all people everywhere had something within them of a common pattern, the Kingdom of Heaven within that Jesus talked about.

And then. And then I hit Thomas a Kempis’ warnings that if a Christian was serious about the spiritual life, better to stay aloof from women. I realized that this book was not written for me, but for male Christians, as though they were the only Christians. A physical pang went through me. I not only didn’t count as a Christian, I was a danger to Christians, just by being myself, a girl. Somehow, I was no longer in the warm center of a communal spiritual experience, I was the enemy outside the gates, the one who undermines. 

At the time, I just put it aside and went on. I saw over time that male Christians didn’t exclude women on purpose; they simply didn’t think about us. In any mixed gender group men’s perspectives and experiences were “general interest,” and women’s perspectives and experiences were “women’s,” and therefore didn’t get group time. 

The fact that this is an unconscious bias was demonstrated by a Christian musician playing a concert at my women’s college one year. All the music was written by himself, and by the second song he stopped and spoke to the sea of female faces looking back at him, “You know, I never realized how male my lyrics are.” He stumbled through the rest of his set, every song describing Christians as strong men and brothers, every pronoun male, and every expectation masculine. He had clearly never even noticed this about his music before. Ripples of laughter went through the audience as he began, towards the end of the performance, to self-consciously try to make his lyrics more gender neutral. 


That happened back in the 80s, but I’ve wondered about him since. Before performing, he came to my dorm, where the Christian fellowship had set up a meet and greet for students and the performers. He was a gregarious fellow, married with several small children, and he was perfectly at ease in this women’s college, in a room full of women. Any church setting is at least half women, usually more than half. We are the majority, but to him we were invisible. In his songs, which I think simply express his view of the world, Christianity was for men, and female experience was a side issue that didn’t concern him. “I never realized how male my lyrics are.” I wonder if his perspective changed after that experience, if he began to look out at audiences and see the women as people, just as much as the men. I wonder if it changed how he saw the world.

I’ve just given an example of a man not seeing female experience, but I think women have also been trained out of seeing our lives and experiences. We don’t have the words either, because our culture tells stories from a masculine perspective, and all of us shape our stories around the larger voice of our culture. 


Even a woman writer with decades of experience can struggle. This is Ursula LeGuin in an introduction to a recent edition of her EarthSea novels:

“Why was I, a woman, writing almost entirely about what men did? Why, because I was a reader who read, loved, and learned from the books my culture provided me; and they were almost entirely about what men did…. I knew what men did, in books, and how to write about them. But when it came to what women did, or how to write about it, all I had to write about was my own experiences – uncertified, unapproved by the great consensus of criticism, lacking the imprimatur of the Canon of Literature, piping solo against the universally dominant and almost unison chorus of the voices of men talking about men.”  

At 51 years old, I feel like I am just beginning to find my rhythm talking about spiritual ideas authentically, from my own experience, from my body, from my life. I’ve finally stopped editing out anything that sounds too feminine, for fear it will be relegated to some kind of ‘special interest’ area, as if being a woman is as rare as being born with albinism. When I saw an article about a Calculus teacher who uses knitting to explain complex math ideas, spiritual parallels immediately jumped to mind; this time, instead of keeping my thoughts to myself because knitting is for girls, I wrote my ideas on my FB page Messages from God. The post ended up very popular. I don’t think people responded because it was about knitting per se, but because I was writing from wholeness, and not editing myself. In the coming decades, this is my goal: to be fully myself

The Enigma project, which broke the Nazi's secret code, was made up mostly of women, since so many men were soldiers. How did these women manage the advanced math needed for code breaking? Have you ever looked at a sweater pattern? You would think it was some sort of computer programming or an alien language - but in the WW2 generation, girls, moms, and grannies deciphered those patterns together over cups of tea, cheerfully turning out tiny perfect baby outfits, and Christmas sweaters with mind-boggling cables. They thought they were just making a nice holiday, knitting up a pair of argyles to make a boyfriend smile, but they were preparing to defeat Hitler. It's a story of the meek inheriting the Earth, as epic as the story of two humble hobbits traveling to Mordor because they are the only ones who can destroy the ring.

Whoever you are, and whatever large or small things you have done in life, you are capable of more than you know. God uses all our days to prepare us for the coming Kingdom, and to build the great Kingdom we all carry within us.

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Bio:

Kathleen Schwab is a lifelong lover of God, a literature teacher, and a wife and mother. Together with her book partner Therese Kay, she is the author of Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional, a five week devotional inspired by the synergy of words and art in medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Link to my book Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional here.

Link to the Messages from God Facebook page here.