(This post is related to this earlier one.)

I’ve been thinking about theological/liturgical language a fair bit over the past few days. This past sunday, one of the hymns our church sang was “Be Thou My Vision.” It’s a hymn that I’ve liked for a long time. But verse three contains the line:

riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise

At least, that’s how I’m used to signing it. I was a bit surprised, then, when we sang not those words but these:

riches I heed not nor vain, empty praise

(My surprise may reflect our change in denominational affiliation a few years back.) Of course, the original version was never intended to suggest that the ‘vain, empty praise’ we ought to avoid only comes from men and that ‘vain, empty praise’ is religiously acceptable if it comes from women. We’re aware that much of the Church’s theology and liturgy has historically been sexist in its phrasing (not to mention it’s content). And we’re smart enough to see that the restriction to one gender isn’t intended or endorsed, despite what our language might suggest. We don’t think, for instance, that what matters in the Incarnation is that Jesus “became man” but rather that Jesus “became human.” (Remember, ‘whatever is not assumed is not redeemed’.)

And yet despite knowing that when we say ‘men’ or ‘man’ what our liturgy and theology often means is really the more inclusive ‘human’, we still change our language to be more explicitly inclusive. We realize that our unintentionally language may suggest or reinforce limitations or associations that we’d reject if made explicit.

So I was a bit caught off guard when a bit later in the service we sang “Holy Holy Holy!” Again, it’s one of my favorite hymns. But here too (interestingly enough, also in verse 3) the language was changed to be more inclusive–less exclusionary–with respect to gender:

though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see

became

though the eye made blind by sin thy glory may not see

Again, I like that the words word made more inclusive with respect to gender. But I was struck that that in seeking to make the liturgy’s words more inclusive with respect to gender, we actually made them less inclusive with respect to disability.

I talk some in Disability and Inclusive Communities (and more in some of my scholarly writing) about the history of ableism in Christian theology. The Church has for too long associated disability with sin. And it’s not surprising that we do so, since the Christian scriptures often do this (despite John 9).

With respect to gender, we know that it’s important to make sure our language matches our explicit theology rather than reinforcing what we don’t want.

And yet that’s much harder for us to do when it comes to disability. Here we actually introduced an association between blindness and sin that wasn’t in the earlier English lyrics.

And this, I think, is unfortunate. We ought not further stigmatize those who are oppressed.

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