Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Holy Spirit is More Than a She

No one who knows me or reads this blog would be surprised to hear that I am a feminist. But they might be surprised that I object to referring to the Holy Spirit as feminine.
The question of gendered pronouns is difficult for writers and for people of faith. I did an examination of the subject in a term paper for a theology class and came to the conclusion that there is nothing heretical or theologically inaccurate in using feminine pronouns for God. I would not refer to Jesus as a “she,” but that is because Jesus was fully human and fully male, so to use “she” would be simply silly. But I have no problem referring to the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, as “she,” because God transcends gender.

I first encountered the idea that we could bring the divine feminine back into Christianity by referring to the Holy Spirit as “she” when I was in divinity school. To be clear, this isn't about occasionally using feminine pronouns. It's about consistently assigned feminine pronouns to just the Holy Spirit. At first it seemed like a good first step in addressing patriarchal thought. I no longer agree with that idea, for two main reasons.

1. A feminine Holy Spirit reinforces gender stereotypes. 

Most people who argue for the feminine Holy Spirit point out that the Spirit embodies traditional feminine values: intuition, grace, mysticism, embracing, comforting. They aren't trying to be sexist, but they are playing right into gender stereotypes. I have two problems with this.
a. Stereotypes are used to enforce hierarchical systems of oppression which are harmful to both women AND men. (Think of how often husbands in the media are portrayed as helpless fools).
b. Continuing to assign specific traits to one gender or the other blocks people from embracing the truth that there is no male or female in Christ. It can also directly block people from following their God given call. A man who wants to be a stay at home father. A woman who wants to lead a corporation. To be personal: I was raised in a complementarian church which definitely delayed my understanding of my pastoral calling.

2. A feminine Holy Spirit creates imbalance in the Trinity. 

A fully masculine trinity is balanced. A fully feminine trinity is also balanced. A fully gender neutral trinity is balanced. But when you assign binary labels to a trinity, you create imbalance. It will always be two to one. Two masculine persons to one feminine person. Even if we counter by addressing God the Creator as God the Mother, it is out of balance: two feminine persons to one masculine. We cannot force a trinity into a binary system.

3. A feminine Holy Spirit does not do the radical work of addressing patriarchal theology.

If the issue is the loss of the divine feminine, simply naming part of the Godhead female is far too simplistic. It’s obviously a semantic solution to the problem. It tells me, a feminist, that rather than address the patriarchal problems in Christian theology, I should be content with a simple change of language. As if randomly assigning a gender to one person of the Trinity is enough to resolve centuries of patriarchy. Um, thanks but no thanks.

4. A feminine Holy Spirit does not enhance our understanding of the Trinity.

The Bible and the saints have used powerful words to describe God and the Trinity. Rocks, rivers, birds, mother, father, child, husband, quiet whispers, wheels within wheels: our language is evocative and requires us to meditate and pray to understand. So when we propose to change a significant aspect of our God talk, we must look to see if those new words help us with understanding. This is similar to a translation issue: using "pounds" instead of "omers" can help with understanding without altering the true meaning of the text. But changing the commandment from "do not kill" to "do not murder" changes the deeper meaning.
Does a feminine Holy Spirit contradict our theology, enhance our understanding, or confuse it? I would say it confuses our theology and understanding. Therefore it is not effective or beneficial.

So what are we to do?

First, I suggest that we get comfortable with using both feminine and masculine pronouns for God. Mother is a Biblical image for the First Person of the Trinity, so there is no rational basis for refusing to pray to Our Heavenly Mother. Freedom to use feminine pronouns without censure or rebuke is a sign that we are actually moving past our patriarchal roots.

Second, I suggest that we begin to really explore gender neutral imagery for the Trinity. In a prayer book created by Robert Benson, one of the prayers ends with an invocation of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life. I LOVE that Trinitarian description. It avoids gender stereotypes, it clearly describes the Three Persons, and it evokes thoughtful consideration of Who God Is. Yes, it also addresses feminist critique of masculine language, but it does it in a thoughtful way, a way that indicates critical thinking rather than just slapping a band aid on the problem. (And yes, calling the feminine Holy Spirit a “band aid” is glib, I know).

Third, we need to dig into our own theology in order to see what is true and what is not, learning how to recognize human mistakes like patriarchy, colonialism, and dualism.
I started reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The Trinity and the Law of Three yesterday and I love it. Her starting chapter, which was published as a standalone article in 2000, inspired this post. There are lots of good books out there that teach us about theology without putting us to sleep. (Thomas Aquinas put me to sleep more times than I care to admit).

God transcends gender. But can we?

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