The Problem with Being a Man

A little semantic mischief-making may be forgivable on this dull, wet Monday morning, but if you are the kind of person who takes pleasure in pointing out the errors of others, I beg you to read no further.

You see, I have a problem. Whenever I say the Nicene Creed in English, I am obliged to assert that Christ died ‘for us men and for our salvation’. Now, I do have a little bit of Greek and Latin and a smattering of theological and liturgical formation, even a smidgeon of history, if truth be told. I am not exactly a rabid revolutionary, either, but I do find that formulation rather difficult. I believe that Christ died for me, and I would like to be able to proclaim that fact as part of my faith — not as a man (which I’m not) nor as a woman (which I am) but as a human being (which we all are and which, in Christ, transcends all questions of sex and gender). It would not be difficult to drop the word ‘man’ and simply say ‘for us and for our salvation’ without affecting either the sense or the euphony of the phrase, but, of course, we aren’t allowed to, for all the reasons that I’m sure will be brought up in the comments section.

Having done a little liturgical translation in my time, I am aware of some of the pitfalls and would always argue for respecting the historical formulations of faith and belief. That does not mean, however, that an attempt at a literal translation will always be more authentic than one which aims at what we used to call dynamic equivalence. (I think I can hear the sabres rattling as I write those words.)

To proclaim one’s faith is both a personal and an ecclesial act. To express it in language which can only really be true of some is, at best, an impoverishment, at worst, a distortion and falsification. Recently, I re-read the Catechism of the Catholic Church from beginning to end. Part of me was impressed by its clear and comprehensive treatment of Christian doctrine while part of me was thoroughly depressed by the fact that the language seemed to concern men only. The words we use do matter. The problem with being a man when one isn’t is that it introduces a falsity at the point where one ought to be most truthful. Ultimately, it really does affect what one believes. Did Christ die for me or not? Do not be too quick with your answer.


57 thoughts on “The Problem with Being a Man”

  1. As an Anglican, we do say, For us and for our salvation but it irked me long before they wisely decided to change it. Now oddly, it wouldn’t bother me as much. I think I am becoming jaded and hardened to the unconscious bias in language towards the male.

  2. Well said Sister. This example in the creed is an example of a few such spoken word that we say. I have thought the same thing as you for sometime. I thought that when they reformed the mass new translation of the liturgy in 2011, this would have been a good opportunity.

    Of course, my comments should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt as I’m no expert in liturgical translation. And I appreciate the importance of keeping translations accurate. But also think it’s important for the congregation to understand and feel included and whilst they speak the liturgy for them to feel like they are speaking from their hearts. To say ‘for us men’ may present a emotional barrier in this for some, especially for the younger generation living in a world of greater ‘equality’ than in the past.

    I think whatever is right or wrong in terms of liturgical translation, your blog still makes a valid point that should be considered.

  3. How do you think I feel knowing that as a man I am going to be the Bride of Christ. Before you answer, you did say that it was a dull wet Monday Morning ^.^

      • Just to add: I once heard of a male theologian who valiantly embraked on reading a book rendered in 100% female language – so everyone was a woman, sister etc. Apparently after a day or so he had to give up: he just couldn’t cope with the sense of feeling so utterly excluded from what he was reading! Just a pity this exercise couldn’t be compulsory for all seminarians and potential liturgical translators…

        • The mind boggles. I love the way Prof Denys Turner, for example, often alternates he/she when writing of God. At first I found it exhausting, then I realised he was making me think beyond my usual categories of thought.

  4. we were taught growing up that such a use of ‘men’ as in this sense and ‘mankind’ is the inclusive for all genders so the issue of ‘does this apply to me’ is a non issue grammar wise apart from for the possibly ultra sensitive [ no offence intended ]. Agreed the grammar books were written by males for generations but I know of few other women for whom this particular use of these words is an honest difficulty. We are all members of mankind – for myself I am no fan of humankind. All humans are from Adam even woMEN.

    • I think possibly you have dismissed my point rather than engaged with the argument, which is fair enough, but to think that it is not an ‘honest difficulty’ is a bit extreme, if I may say so. With my liturgical translator cap on, I am aware that the masculine embraces the feminine, but language isn’t merely a matter of grammar and syntax. It has emotional resonances which the good translator is sensitive to — in the best sense.

  5. But “men” and “mankind” carry the sense of “human beings” – not males. The actual words “human being” “human” etc. were not used in that sense until relatively recently… and most people would still think it strange to say “for us humans”.
    I think that it does change slightly the meaning if you say “for us and for our salvation” – it doesn’t specify, who you mean.

    The word is “homines” (mankind/people) not “viri” (men as in males).

    • Thank you. Although I can read Latin and Greek and am aware of the complex history of the Creed, may I say I don’t agree with your conclusions. Language evolves, and it involves more than grammar and syntax. As a translator, I often hesitate over the most helpful rendering of homo in its context. That is because nuance is important, and the translators’ job is to communicate, as best they can, meaning. Whether ‘most people’ would agree with me, is another matter entirely. As I said above, I think ‘for us and for our salvation’ is a perfectly expressive and euphonious rendering of the Latin, not in the least unspecific because of the context in which it is used: the ecclesial proclamation of faith.

      • I think I appreciate where Digitalnun is coming from. Language carries context-specific meaning and “cognitive dissonance” is what she’s talking about here ISTM.

  6. We use the Apostles Creed in our church but when I have to say the Nicene I do omit the word men. I also had to stop reading the Catechism because of the non-inclusive language.

    • The Catechism is a great treasure but perhaps best devoured in chunks rather than read straight through. The first, ‘inclusive-language’, translation was rejected because it had gone too far; so what we have is a reaction to that, which may explain why it does rather overdo the maleness at times — at least, for this reader.

  7. I’m entirely with you, Sister, about the importance of everyone owning the language of worship and must say that “for us and for our salvation” is an admirable solution. It works and fulfils the need for euphony, as you say. I was wrily amused, on the other hand, listening to Peter Day on Radio 4 struggling with inclusion last night, talking about drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) as “unpersonned aerial vehicles”, which singularly lacked euphony! However that was trivial compared to the importance of what we say in worship, which reflects what we are.

    • Yes, inclusive language can often end in bathos or ugliness. When I translated the Rule of St Benedict a few years ago, I was asked to make it as inclusive as possible. I said I wanted to respect the traditional language about God (so ‘he’, ‘him’, etc) and reflect the fact that the text was written for monks, but that where the Latin was obligingly unspecific, I would be, too. It was a compromise which, on the whole I think, worked. My critics in community got a bit uptight about these changes, but I pointed out that there was a long history of rendering the Rule in the feminine form in German and, indeed, in English. (Bishop Fox of Winchester did a feminine version early in the sixteenth century, for example.) The problem was that we had forgotten all that in the intervening centuries. Maybe there is something of the same at work in the polarisation on liturgical language in our own day.

  8. Isn’t there a connection here to other linguistic sensitivities? For centuries we used terms which today are recognised as racist. In many cases they were used innocently (or, may be ignorantly). We need to be sensitive to all peole. And, as an aside, there are many alternatives to replacing men with “humans” which I was told at school was not to be used as a noun. Human is an adjective and needs to be combined with being to make a noun.

  9. I can’t understand the emphasis on literal translations. I taught Latin and used to say that a good translation must be natural English. And, being mischievous, the new dismissal is hardly a literal translation of “Ite, missa est.” For a clacissist, Church Latin is an abomination anyway. English only has the one word to translate both vir and homo which mean differnet things in Latin.

  10. The juggling act in rendering liturgical English comes because of the aggressively feminist push to emasculate all language in every context, even when the subject is a male person. If the KJV was being translated from the Vulgate now, it would be interesting to speculate on the forms that would be used by genuinely devout scholars. Perhaps we are fortunate that they are not doing so in this gender confused era. I would suggest we perhaps wait until this cycle of rabid anti-man culture is over before any drastic changes. The use of “for us and for our salvation” in the new translation is fine, but I would hesitate to do too much for fear of locking in a briefly fashionable but ultimately cringeworthy text.

    • May I correct one error of fact? The ‘new translation’ does not say ‘for us and for our salvation’; it says ‘for us men’. As to your other points, I must confess to finding your language a trifle on the rabid side myself. 🙂

  11. The Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia , regarding Latin, says “…it gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favour one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is acceptable to all… full of majesty and dignity.”

    So – problem solved, no pedantics, no gender inequalities and no splitting hairs! Forgive me for mischief making too, but wouldn’t a return (for the Liturgy at least) to Latin solve the problem. Scholars will always argue on translation of text, but, as Mgr. Marini once said, the liturgy should be beautiful!

    • 🙂 I have no problems with Latin liturgy, as you know, but after years (mis?)spent trying to make a small contribution to the beauty and accuracy of liturgy in English (e.g. Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal, A Word in Season), I find the current insistence on literalism (whose literalism, I want to ask), a bit . . . odd. It is almost as though we really had no appreciation for all the generations that have gone before us.

  12. I have dropped the the “men” years ago……..I also proclaim “human” instead of saying “became man”.
    People will look at me a bit strange, but I am sure they start thinking.
    Continue your thoughts……..

    • Interesting. I am careful to observe all the liturgical norms (otherwise, as a nun, I’d be setting private judgement above that of the Church and you know where that could lead!) and I have no difficulty saying that Christ became man because that was the form his humanity took. There is an important difference, I think, between the language we use on the vertical level, so to say, and that which we use on the horizontal. In speaking about God, I am happy to use all the masculine forms we are familiar with.

      • I am an Anglican and also use the forms “for us and” and “became human”. (I have noticed that the Anglican Community of the Sisters of the Church do likewise.) For me, inclusive language is important in terms of equality and visibility for all human beings, and questioning our often very masculine image of God. Regarding the latter, men can lose out as much as women. But although the practice is important to me, I haven’t read much theory as there is too much else to read! I’m interested in a later comment about the differences between inclusive language, gender-free language and non-specific language, and any examples you could give.

        I’m also interested in the difference between “became human”, “became man” and “became a man”. To me (hedge hedge!), the first is synonymous with incarnation, the second uses exclusive language, and the third is the version that recognises the form Jesus’ humanity took, which is only relevant in terms of the cultural context and because he had to choose one or the other (except that medical science nowadays recognises a spectrum of gender, so we can’t know for sure – controversial!).

        I’m not sure where in the comment stream this will end up, but if there’s any doubt, it’s a reply to

  13. Thank you for raising this issue, Sister. I think we can move to more inclusive language without being man haters. I also am an Anglican and at Southwark Cathedral we omit masculine nouns where we can do so without distorting texts. God is still ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ but some preachers say ‘Creator, Saviour and Advocate’ or something similar when starting their sermons. If someone wants to talk of God our Mother, we are quite content – after all, Julian of Norwich sometimes used that imagery. I am reading the Roman Catholic Catechism this year and was very surprised to discover how unnecessarily masculine it is. As a lawyer who has often been asked to draft documents in non-sexist language, I have found that there are often easy ways to do this if one just thinks for a moment. For example, I think that drone could simply be described as ‘un-piloted’. ‘Person’ often comes in useful, as does ‘all [those] who ….’. There are many other ways to produce a non-sexist text without using strange words or inelegant constructions.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I certainly hope being a man-hater doesn’t come into it! Hatred has no place in the language of prayer, in any case, as I trust you’d agree. I think sometimes we opt for certain forms simply because they are familiar and require no effort; similarly, some people choose not to use the traditional forms just to make a point (not always a point that needs making, perhaps, but that is by the bye). Many years ago I wrote an essay on the differences between inclusive language, gender-free language and non-specific language. It was fascinating to see the struggle some had with the difference between inclusive and gender-free. It made me think more.

  14. Your sentence about ” we aren’t allowed to” does not appear to have been addressed in the ‘comments’, but I, as a comparative outsider, wonder ‘what can you do to achieve this change?’ Would it need another convocation? Is there no autonomy in congregations which would permit it on a local level? (I am pretty sure there is none.)
    Anything which detracts from the power of the liturgy must be undesirable and there must be some smidgen of disappointment, resentment or even rebellion at some point if a woman sees ‘man’ as non-inclusive.
    Oh Dame Catherine, how do you manage to write so clearly when I stumble along, not always certain of what I want to say, far less say it cogently?

    • No, we follow the liturgical norms set by Rome and our own Bishops’ Conference. I have no problem with that, but I suspect it will be a long time before anyone reconsiders how to translate the phrase I wrote about. In the meantime, I wonder what the effect will be on those who have grown up in a different kind of world from the one in which you and I grew up. (And thank you for the compliment: I try to write clearly, but, as the comments section has taught me over the years, never clearly enough.)

      • I used to write articles for a dolls house magazine and I soon discovered that no matter how carefully you write, someone will always find a way to misunderstand!

  15. Just imagine that this “outdated” use of “men” for “humans” were not a translation, but the original text. (I guess this happens often, in ancient texts.) Would you insist for updating it, or would you make an extra effort to accommodate to the original meaning trying to cope with your “cognitive dissonance”? It’s exactly because I fully share the feeling on the importance of language, that I dare to ask…

    • I’m assuming your question is meant for Andy, who wrote about cognitive dissonance; or for anyone who wrote about ‘updating’ or substituting ‘human’ for ‘man’? I can’t see that I did any of those, but if you ARE asking me, I’d have to say I don’t think I understand your question.

      • Sorry for the unclear formulation of my question. Let me retry. I understand you feel “uneasy” about certain “translations” of liturgical texts, because of an apparent use of “sexist” language. I do not understand if you advocate a “better” translation BECAUSE it would render a more genuine adherence to the original, or IN SPITE of introducing some “amendments” to the original texts. Thanks!

  16. While the pragmatic part of me agrees that it your suggestion of omitting “men” solves the problem of your feeling left out of salvation, another part mourns the loss of the former inclusive understanding of English mentioned above by Janua.

    All languages that descend from Latin have the convention that the “male” form is inclusive of both genders. That fact was simply understood and no one gave the matter a second thought. I live in Europe and can see little or no evidence of this being an issue for women in Spanish or Italian, they know the meaning of the form. It is a peculiarly English language phenomenon rooted in the feminist movement.

    To say that language evolves is true, but in this particular case, I would argue that it was not so much a natural evolution as an ideological movement intent to change the meaning of the language for its own purposes. What used to be inclusive was somewhat deliberately made to be otherwise. When words lose the depth and richness of their meaning, the language itself is impoverished.

    Alas, as with too many things Western, I suspect the pragmatic will inevitably win the day. I just don’t think our language will be better for it.

    • I don’t think it is simply a matter of pragmatism, nor am I quite sure that everyone has always hitherto accepted the inclusivity of ‘man’ in English. It might be nearer the truth to say that women have often just been disregarded — not out of malice, nor in a desire to do them down, but because they simply did not register as of beings of any consequence. (Having said that, if you look at the article on ‘woman’ in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, you may find some statements that would astonish you.) I don’t believe that every change in language is always loss, nor do I think that what I am saying is trivial or untheological. The Greek text antedates the Latin, after all; so a translation of a translation has challenges peculiarly its own, doesn’t it?

  17. I accept the point that “To proclaim one’s faith is both a personal and an ecclesial act.” It would appear that there is face-off between the personal and ecclesial. One which I think the ecclesial wins.

    Omitting the word ‘man’ would appear to me to damage links with scripture. The richness of the Genesis account would, I think, be undermined by changing “God created man in the image of himself” to “God created humans in the image of himself”.

    I would suggest that ‘human’ is a more synthetic word than ‘man’ and while I understand that Digitalnun is not arguing for inserting the word ‘human’ it does draw out another point. The use of ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ suggest an understanding of personhood which is essential for our ability, albeit limited, of explaining and understanding the Eucharist and the Trinity. By removing the word we move further away from a traditional way of speaking about the person. I don’t think that making the change suggested would do much damage on its own but if it is held as a principle (removing the word ‘man’ everywhere possible) it would.

    Our understanding of masculinity and femininity, of complementarity and identity is so caught up in the ‘man-woman’ discourse of Genesis, changing our language by removing the word ‘man’ would make it almost impossible to understand.

    (On a side note some websites suggest that the roots of the word ‘human’ are in the word ‘homo’. Do we have any further incite on this? Development etc. I would have thought human has become a popular in the last 60 years because of human rights etc.)

    • But we are not discussing Genesis here! I say that because I am arguing a specific case: the Creed as proclamation of faith to be said by all. I could widen the terms of my argument, but that would require a book, not a blog post, and it would mean going through the whole of scripture and every liturgical or patristic text. It would, at least, demonstrate that I am not arguing that we drop the word ‘man’ wholesale. By the way, I think there’s a case to be made for thinking the roots of ‘human’ are to be found as much in humus as in homo. It is a late medieval coinage derived from the French humaine — exploring which would surely take us even further afield.

      • I know that we weren’t discussing Genesis I was including it to draw out a point that excluding ‘man’ in general does damage. One change may not make too much difference, but why stop at only one…

  18. The problem is that we do not have a third word in the English language which is neither man nor woman.

    I would be happy to say, ‘For us beings and our salvation’, but then I am a wo ‘man’ hu’man’ being, and the men might not like it.

    Even when we are ‘fe ‘male’ we seem to have a little extra about us though 🙂

    In truth, the Holy Spirit works between us all, we are simply vessels to carry God’s love. To someone blind and deaf we would be another ‘being’.

  19. I just looked at the Latin and Greek versions which use homines and anthropous, respectively. So I could see substituting “humans” for “men” in the creed, but I don’t think just dropping the word quite covers it.

  20. Hmm? Been there, done that, argued the same thing and habitually left out “men” when reciting the Creed. And then something happened I won’t go into now… But one of the things that did happen was realising the importance of the word anthropos. That, at one level “for us” could be understood as “for us Greeks” or “for us whites” of whatever particular group – even, perhaps, “for us Christians”. But also that, at another level, the lack of an inclusive English word for a personalised humanity, which is further undermined by the feminist rejection of “man”, undercuts so much Christologically in terms of Christ’s taking on and recapitulating our humanity. If I were to see the word “man” as excluding women, then I would have just as much of a problem confessing that Christ “became man”.

    As an aside, I have noticed recently that David Fagerberg (there may be others too, but he’s the only one I’ve noticed) has taken to simply using the word anthropos in English.

    • We could solve quite a lot of problems by keeping our liturgy in Greek, but I’m afraid it would create others for Western Christians — especially as very few seem to know any Greek these days. I think of St Athanasius’s encouraging sentence, ‘What Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed’ but I suppose it does cut both ways.

      • Well, I’d be just as happy with the Latin. And, no, I don’t really think that keeping the Liturgy in the original languages is the answer – far from it in fact! It’s just that I think in this case by jettisoning the word “man” without finding an alternative one is losing rather a lot.

        Of course it’s a problem that other modern languages don’t have. After praying the Creed for years in Dutch, in which one confesses that Christ became “mens” (human) I found it rather shocking to hear that translated “and became man”. Either I had to understand that inclusively, or else I couldn’t pray it, because what He assumed was humanity, not male humanity!

  21. I agree with your point. I think it also has something to do with the changing English language: ‘men’ did used to be considered to mean either 1. male human beings or 2. human beings in general. Now, the second use is widely questioned in our society
    But it brings up all sorts of other troublesome bigger issues. The biggest one for me, is that actually you could say for us and for our salvation, but you don’t feel that you should? Why?
    Personally, I have come to address God as She not He. If you have never tried it, please do. It may make you smile.

    • Please see my answer to Sharon above. If one is a Catholic, I believe that one accepts the authority of the Church to decide these matters over and above one’s personal judgement/preferences. It may not always be easy, but it does keep one on the side of knowing one can be wrong.

  22. The beauty of the words in the liturgy, to me at least, transcends the issues of the language to a certain extent. It feels in keeping with the slower pace of the Church to change and adapt. When in Church (cough – not often as all sorts of *other* issues!) & throughout the liturgy I always feel connected to those who have gone before.

    But I stumble over new versions of the Lord’s Prayer, use the term Holy Ghost instead of Spirit so… I’ve always thought that the word men meant mankind. Human kind sounds so awkward.

  23. A post with which I entirely agree and sympathise and a fascinating comment discussion. As a modern linguist, I always find saying the Nicene creed in German more comfortable than in French because of the German use of ‘uns Menschen’, whereas the French version is “nous les hommes”. Thankfully the modern Anglican usage is “for us and our salvation” which i find totally satisfactory and unambiguous.

    Language does matter and it does change, often to the point where a change of practice is necessary if the sense is to be retained. As an Anglican I think of the preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in which the amendments to the original 1549 edition were justified by the marked changes in English usage and meaning which had occurred in the intervening century or more.

  24. Thank you for a very helpful and perceptive post, Sr Catherine. Perhaps we could all agree that ultimately God is beyond both gender and words. However, we are creatures of words and they both define us and reflect us – this is why they have such power. Language will always be changing in use and understanding and I think we should not be afraid of this. At the moment our culture has become more sensitive to painful racist language and, sometimes rather clumsily, is trying to repair the hurt. Who would use the ‘n’ word these days, for example? The church has addressed this matter but is dragging its feet over the issue of sexist language – often making fun of it, in fact. If you feel that such language doesn’t matter just try saying… ‘for us white men and for our salvation’. Rather uncomfortable I hope.

  25. I would suggest “For us all, and for all our salvation” might be a compromise, if one felt that the Anglican rendering “For us and for our salvation” looses something. But what do I know… 🙂

  26. You did say take your time over responding 🙂

    I go to a local church for mid-week Holy Communion.

    This Church has a female Vicar who takes this seriously and does in fact omit the masculine words in all such prayers, even in Book of Common Prayer services.

    It’s really up to us as a congregation to decide which word we use, the original or the substituted word. My thoughts are that language which separates us by gender is unhelpful, therefore, I prefer the usage in this particular church.

    In other churches and in particular, Canterbury Cathedral, they stick totally to the 1662 text with no latitude to use other words. I suspect that if they didn’t there would be outraged Prayer Book people banging on their doors and complaining.

    I’m not sure of the legality of otherwise of diverging from the words as prescribed in the BCP, but I note that Common Worship is much more modern and inclusive of gender, and many clergy and laity are more comfortable with it than the traditional language of the BCP or KJV of the bible.

    I’m torn because I value the tone and content of traditional language from the BCP, but also that of Common Worship. So, each time they are used I have to make a decision on which to use. I just wish that it could be different and that all gender exclusive language could be amended by a word or phrase which reflects the whole of humanity, not just one gender.

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