Why does the Course use masculine terms?

Question: Why does the Course always use masculine terms when referring to God, the Holy Spirit, and the beings that God created?

Short answer: In my opinion, the Course uses masculine terms in order to heal the wounds that stem from our conventional understanding of those terms, an understanding which has often been used as a means of exclusion. The Course brings about this healing by giving masculine terms a meaning that is non-physical and all-encompassing, thus transforming them into a means of inclusion. The Course does use the traditional Christian terms "Father" and "Son" and the earthly father-son relationship as metaphors, but it applies these metaphors to everyone in a totally inclusive way. As we read and practice the Course over time, the old negative meanings we have assigned to these masculine terms are gradually replaced by the Course's new positive meanings, and it is this that heals our wounds.


The Course's use of masculine terms for God, the Holy Spirit, and the beings God created (us) has been a source of controversy from the time it was first published. Since the Course emerged in a time of women's liberation, this language has struck a number of people as anachronistic and exclusionary. (It is ironic that all of this masculine language was scribed by a woman!) I know of some Course students who were so offended by this language that they crossed the masculine terms out wherever they appeared in the Course and replaced them with gender-free equivalents. All of this has led many people to wonder: Why did Jesus, the teacher of radical inclusion, use language that seems to exclude fifty percent of the human race? Is Jesus sexist? Or was the masculine language in the Course a mistake, a distortion that reflected Helen Schucman's own writing style rather than the words of Jesus?

In my opinion, the masculine terms in the Course did indeed come from Jesus. I believe that he chose the words he used in the Course very carefully, and the words he used for God and His creations are no exception. He is certainly not sexist. Why, then, did he use the masculine terms? The Course never gives us a specific answer, but my own opinion is that he used them for the same purpose that he used every word in the Course: the purpose of healing. Just as he did with so many words—especially those from the Christian tradition—he radically redefined the masculine terminology that he used, transforming it from a means of exclusion into a means of inclusion, and thus from a means of wounding to a means of healing.

To show how the Course does this, I will expand on my short answer in the points below. But before I do, I want to add an important note concerning the scope of this inquiry. In this Q & A, I am not addressing the wider issue of how human beings in general should deal with gender-specific language for God and collective humanity; rather, I'm addressing the much narrower issue of why the author of the Course used the language that he did. I think there are many valid approaches to the issue of gendered language and different traditions deal with it in different ways, but I'm simply presenting what I believe to be Jesus' particular way of using such language in the Course.

The Course gives masculine terms a meaning that is non-physical and all-encompassing, thus transforming them into a means of inclusion.

Normally, of course, masculine terms bring to mind an image of beings who are physically male. There is nothing exclusionary or wounding about this if one is referring to specific beings who definitely are physically male. The problem comes when we use masculine terms to refer to collective humanity, or to beings whose sex (if any) we cannot readily determine, such as God.

When we use such terms to refer to collective humanity—as we do when we use "he" and "him" as generic pronouns, or use words like "man" to refer to the entire human race—we imply that humanity is primarily defined as male, and the female is secondary. When we use such terms to refer to God, we imply that divinity is primarily (or exclusively) male as well. It is men, not women, who are created in the image and likeness of God. In general, the use of masculine language tends to suggest that men and maleness are first and foremost in the hierarchy of things, and women are, to borrow the title of Simone de Beauvoir's feminist classic, "the second sex." Historically, the outward social, political, and religious dominance of men reflected in this masculine language has been a source of great pain in our world, both for women and for men. Such language has tended to exclude women, to the detriment of both sexes.

However, that being said, a crucial point must be made: Masculine terms are not inherently exclusionary, because words are neutral in themselves, and only have the meanings we choose to assign to them. The implications discussed above are thus not in the words themselves; sexism isn't in words, but in people. And the sexism in people—simply another expression of the belief in separation that divides us all—isn't going to magically go away just by changing the words we use. Of course, I'm not saying that we should never change the words we use; such a change can be truly healing if it is the expression of a healed mind. I'm simply saying that if the content of our minds is still sexist, then just changing the form of our words, in and of itself, will not make a difference.

And just as we can still be sexist at heart even while using "inclusive" terms, we can also be non-sexist at heart while using masculine (or feminine) terms for God and humanity. I think masculine terms have often been used without the intent (conscious or unconscious) to exclude anyone. Over time, these terms simply became conventions of our language, and have been used even by people who unequivocally support the equality of women. Great advocates of inclusion like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. used such terms. Indeed, numerous women have used them, including feminist icons such as the early women's rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Many people today, especially older people, use them simply because these were the terms used when they were growing up, just as some older black people in America use "colored" or "Negro" (the word King usually used to refer to black people) instead of "African-American." Thus, as with all words, masculine terms are only as exclusionary as we choose to make them.

This inherent neutrality of words makes possible the Course's radical redefinition of the masculine terms it uses. How does it redefine them? Essentially, by stripping them of their conventional association with physical maleness, and the exclusion that implies. The Course makes it abundantly clear that the beings it refers to as "he" and "him" and "Father" and "Son" and "brother" are all non-physical beings. God, the Holy Spirit, and our true Self are all formless, bodiless realities beyond the usual categories of this world, including the category of gender. Indeed, some of the terms used to refer to God, such as "Formlessness Itself" (W-pI.186.14:1) and "Divine Abstraction" (T-4.VII.5:4), strongly emphasize God's non-physicality. Thus, the Course's masculine terms refer to beings that, whatever their surface appearance, are neither male nor female. These terms encompass literally everyone and everything, and so what was once exclusive has been transformed into something radically inclusive.

This inclusiveness is apparent in the Course's use of three traditional Christian terms: "Father," "Son," and "brother." In all three cases, a term that has traditionally been used to exclude is transformed by the Course into a term that includes. God the Father, Who is traditionally regarded as totally Other and commonly pictured as a bearded old man in the sky, is transformed by the Course into a formless, bodiless reality Whose Being literally includes everyone and everything. God the Son, who is traditionally regarded to be Jesus (a man) and no one else, is transformed by the Course into the Sonship, our true Self, an Identity that, as part of God, also literally includes everyone and everything. And the term "brother," which traditionally has been used to refer only to fellow male Christians, is transformed by the Course into a term that refers to every member of the Sonship. This term therefore includes men, women, and even (in my opinion) non-human aspects of the Sonship like animals, plants, and grains of sand. You can't get much more inclusive than that.

The Course does use the traditional Christian terms "Father" and "Son" and the earthly father-son relationship as metaphors, but it applies these metaphors to everyone in a totally inclusive way.

To slightly qualify what I said in the last point, in the case of the terms "Father" and "Son" (and perhaps "brother" as well), I don't think all gender associations have been removed. Even though the Course has stripped these terms of their literal gender-based meaning, I do think the Course has retained some of their metaphorical gender-based meanings. This is in keeping with the Course's modus operandi of retaining the loving connotations of the Christian terms it uses, while removing the fearful ones.

So, the Course does draw upon the positive aspects of the metaphor of God the Father: His love, strength, protection, majesty, generosity, etc. It also draws upon the positive aspects of the metaphor of God the Son: his holiness, power, compassion, his intimate relationship with the Father, etc. But at the same time, it drops the negative aspects of these metaphors as traditionally used: things such as the vengeful, punishing Father, the fiercely condemning Son whom the Father sacrificed for our sins and who will judge us at the end of time. In particular, the Course drops the implication that we are separate from the Father and the Son. Since in truth we are all—men and women—included in both the Father and the Son, we share in all of Their wholly benevolent and loving characteristics.

The Course also uses the metaphor of an earthly father and his son to illustrate our relationship with God. It says that God is like the father in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, welcoming his son (us) back with open arms even after the son had seemingly squandered his inheritance (as we have seemingly done by separating from God). It says that God is like a loving father who leaves his entire inheritance—including his very name—to his son, because he loves his son and the son carries on the father's lineage. In these metaphors, the Course uses the ideal father-son relationship as a means of illustrating what the relationship between God and us is like.

But even here, the Course is inclusive. It takes these father-son images and applies them to the relationship that all of us have with God. And none of the qualities illustrated in the father-son metaphor are exclusively male qualities. The qualities exemplified in the ideal father-son relationship are equally qualities of an ideal mother-daughter relationship (or mother-son, or father-daughter). In fact, the Course material does use some feminine imagery to describe God and His relationship with His children. The "Clarification of Terms" depicts the miracle (which comes from God) as a healing balm which "corrects as gently as a loving mother sings her child to rest" (C-2.8:2). In The Gifts of God, the last work Jesus dictated to Helen Schucman, we read this beautiful description of God's Love: "He loves you as a mother loves her child; her only one, the only love she has, her all-in-all, extension of herself, as much a part of her as breath itself" (Gifts of God, p. 126).

This feminine imagery is extremely rare in the Course material, but the very fact that Jesus uses it at all shows us that he doesn't see God as exclusively male. The loving traits he assigns to God are as much feminine as masculine—or better, they are neither feminine nor masculine. Whatever metaphors the Course uses, whether they be the masculine terms it usually uses or the feminine terms I've cited here, they are meant to include everyone.

As we read and practice the Course over time, the old negative meanings we have assigned to these masculine terms are gradually replaced by the Course's new positive meanings, and it is this that heals our wounds.

As we've seen, the use of masculine terms for collective humanity and for God, while not inherently negative, has led to a lot of pain for many people. In response to this pain, many people have simply stopped using the traditional terms entirely, either using neutral terms or using masculine and feminine terms together, as in "he or she" or "Father-Mother God." I certainly think this can be a very positive approach; I often do it myself. Yet I think this method of dealing with the problem of gender-specific language, though it can be a positive statement of inclusion, has a potential downside: It can often leave the wounds associated with the masculine terms unhealed. The wounds are still there; they've just been pushed out of awareness by avoiding the words associated with them. And so those wounds fester in darkness, instead of being healed by the light.

I think that the Course's way of using masculine terms is its solution to this problem. Rather than avoiding these terms, it transforms them, as we've seen above. It takes these familiar words, pours out all of the negative meanings that they have accumulated over the years, and fills them up with its own meanings, meanings that are wholly positive, loving, and healing. As we read the Course over time, slowly but surely our old associations are leached out, and we begin to make new associations based on the Course's reinterpretation. We begin to think about these terms in a new way. And since emotions come from thoughts, as our thoughts about these terms change, our emotional response to them changes as well. Every page of the Course is so drenched with inclusion that eventually the masculine terms just get absorbed into that inclusion. As this happens, the wounds that have resulted from our old associations are not just buried by denial; they are truly healed.

Some may argue that it is impossible to redefine masculine terms in a truly inclusive way, and what I'm proposing here is just a convenient justification for holding on to them. But I think that given the inherent neutrality of words, it can be done. Moreover, this approach to masculine terms is not unique to the Course, but is used by people in other spiritual traditions as well. One example of this appears in Huston Smith's classic book on comparative religion, The World's Religions. Apparently, in the Navajo tradition there is no name for God, which has led some people outside that tradition to conclude that it has no supreme God. A Navajo artist named Carl Gorman gives the following response to this claim:

Some researchers into Navajo religion say that we have no supreme God because he is not named. This is not so. The Supreme Being is not named because he is unknowable. He is simply the Unknown Power.

Notice that that Gorman refers to God as "he." But clearly this "he" is not literally a male God, nor even a God with male qualities, because this "he" points to a nameless "Unknown Power" beyond any earthly categories. This strikes me as very similar to the Course using "He" to point to a God Who is "Formlessness Itself." Clearly Gorman, like the Course, has redefined his masculine terms for God in a way that takes them beyond their literal masculine meaning.

Based on my own experience, I can personally vouch for the efficacy of this redefining process and the healing it brings. Through reading and practicing the Course over a period of years, I have come to the point that when I use masculine terms in a Course context, they have little to no gender-association for me. So, for instance, if I'm working on mentally extending forgiveness to a particular woman, I can use a practice like "Because I will to know myself, I see you as God's Son and my brother" (T-9.II.12:6) without changing the words at all. And there is something curiously liberating about this. Since I now associate those words with our shared, gender-neutral Identity, they seem to lead me into a deeper joining with the woman to whom I'm mentally addressing them. In a surprising way, applying the redefined masculine terms to everyone (silently in my mind, not verbally in the presence of the individual) actually feels more inclusive to me than anything else. Since everyone is included in them, they have become in my mind a statement of inclusion. And I think this is exactly what the Course is trying to accomplish.

Because of my experience (an experience shared by other Course students I've known), and because I think Jesus is intentionally trying to facilitate such an experience, I recommend that Course students not change the Course's masculine terms to something else. Certainly people are free to do as they wish, and one should go ahead and change them if strongly guided to do so. But I believe we should think carefully before doing so, because changing the terms may rob us of the healing that Jesus intends to bring about through his use of language. Therefore, my suggestion is that we as Course students allow Jesus' own choice of words to do its healing work.

Conclusion

The relationship between men and women, and the masculine and feminine in general, is one of the thorniest and most divisive issues in our world. The "battle of the sexes" has been raging from time immemorial on many fronts. It is one of our most profound sources of separation; so profound that at least one best-selling author, John Gray of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus fame, has made a career out of the observation that men and women seem to come from entirely different planets.

Yet what is striking about the Course is that it says nothing about this battle. There are no instructions for how Martians and Venusians can get along, no discussions of yin and yang, no discourses on the masculine and feminine faces of God. I think the reason for this is quite simple, and has already been stated above: Our gender difference is just one more form of separation. As an expression of separation, this difference is wholly illusory, and thus ultimately unimportant. The Course's focus is on teaching us about the difference between illusions and the truth, not about a meaningless difference between illusory bodies.

I think it is because of this focus, coupled with the fact that the Course addresses itself to a culture steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that the Course uses masculine terms as it does. If it constantly said "he and she" and referred to "Father-Mother God," it would tend to lend reality to the illusory difference between the masculine and the feminine. If it constantly used totally gender-neutral terms instead, it would lack the emotional resonance that the traditional gendered terms have acquired in the Judeo-Christian culture to which the Course is addressed. But by taking traditional masculine forms of referring to God and humanity and transforming them into all-encompassing forms, it de-emphasizes the separation yet retains the positive emotional impact of tradition.

There is no doubt that these words are loaded, but the Course's goal is to unload them, and this is exactly what it does. By retaining traditional terms, Jesus is able to draw from the deep well of positive emotional associations we have with them; by redefining these traditional terms, Jesus is able to undo the negative emotional associations we have with them by removing the fearful and exclusionary elements that have corrupted them. His usage strips them of their power as tools of separation, and points to a reality that is totally non-separate and all-inclusive. Therefore, let us allow the Course to do its work by allowing its inclusive use of masculine terms to heal the wounds that the illusory distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" has wrought.

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