Recently, John Piper made a comment that has the Christian blogosphere in a tizzy over issues of gender once again: that "Christianity has a masculine feel" that is God-given. One of my favorite Evangelical bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, notes, "This is... a dismissive, hurtful way to speak about women, who Piper seems to have forgotten were also created in the image of God, were appointed by God as leaders at critical times in the history of Israel and the Church, and were the first to whom Jesus appeared when he inaugurated his new Kingdom on Resurrection Day." Rachel makes a good point. She has also called for male bloggers to write about feminine images of God or that celebrates women's role in the church. You can read the many wonderful responses by Christian men here. While I'm not a man, I wanted to contribute to the discussion because I came from an Evangelical background, and it took me almost 20 years to discover feminine images for God in the Bible. I just wasn't encouraged to read them very often before. And when I did, some of them didn't resonate with me.
But then it hit me: Christians have been worshiping the feminine divine for centuries, in the person of the Holy Spirit. Before you object that the Holy Spirit doesn't have a gender, I want to point out that God doesn't have a gender either, and Jesus only had a gender while on earth, but we tend to ascribe masculine characteristics to them and to refer to them as He. Also note that the Patristics (whom John Wesley studied avidly) referred to the Holy Spirit as She, including Clement of Alexandria, who envisioned the Spirit as mother.
I'd also like to point out the role of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). If you sit down and read Proverbs, you will find wisdom is personified as "She." You can see this right away in Proverbs 1:20-23, for instance. The wisdom passed down from generation to generation in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and other books is revered in Jewish culture. Like the Jews, we believe that wisdom flows from God and the wisdom that we can attain is given by God. Proverbs 8:22-31 references this feminine voice, "Woman Wisdom" as she is sometimes called, and indicates that She was there in the beginning with God, when God was creating the world. Genesis 1:1 says that God's Spirit moved across the waters of the deep, before the world was formed.
Some Christians today interpret these verses as referring to the Holy Spirit, others interpret them as referring to Jesus Christ, and still others say that Woman Wisdom merely personifies one of God's many attributes. But whichever interpretation you choose, each one acknowledges a feminine dimension in one Person of the Trinity. Personally, I prefer to interpret a connection between the Holy Spirit and Woman Wisdom because of the idea of Holy Spirit as breath/ wind as described by Catherine Keller, one of my favorite theologians, in her books On the Mystery and Face of the Deep.
Keller emphasizes that, as Spirit, God is wholly Other to us. Unlike Jesus, the Spirit has never been embodied. While the Bible imagines God as a mother, a warrior, a woman looking for a lost coin, a shepherd, and a father, except for Woman Wisdom, biblical images for the Spirit are non-human: wind, fire, dove. And yet, the Spirit is intimately involved in our lives: She resides with us in this time between the ascension of Jesus and his return. The Spirit is here with us in the everyday spaces of life, the nitty-gritty of our routines and personal struggles. Although the Holy Spirit is most definitely Not Us, the Spirit is always With Us. The Spirit is powerful. Like a mighty rushing wind, the Spirit whooshes into our lives, pushing us to be who God created us to be. Like tongues of fire, the Spirit gives us new words to speak into a world of pain and darkness. If we try to ignore these nudges and the words given to us to speak, the words will come out anyway. Anyone who has ever been called to ministry or who has ever done or said something prophetic knows that! The same power of the Holy Spirit that transforms lives in Christ is the power of the Spirit to propel us to action. In manner of speaking, the tongue of fire above our head becomes the fire in our belly to do mission.
Who is this Person, whom I do not know and can barely comprehend, who has changed my life and transformed my very self? Who is this Person who gave me gifts to live out my call to ministry, thereby making me who I am? Somehow the Spirit has always known me better than I have known my own self, and who has breathed over me every day, on my best days and my worst days. Like women everywhere, this Spirit cannot be stereotyped, tamed, or put in a box. The Holy Spirit Is Who the Holy Spirit Is, and all we can do is come along for the ride of discovering Her. Try and put the Spirit in a box, and She will burst it open and burn it down. The Spirit is wild and powerful, yet She accomplishes the slow, gradual work of transforming our lives. Gently cradles our hearts each day, the Spirit knows us so well that She "intercedes with sighs too deep for words" at the throne of God during the times when we have no strength left to pray (Rom. 8:26).
So many women I know hold together strength and fragility, power and vulnerability, fierceness and gentleness, Otherness and intimacy. Somehow the Holy Spirit holds all of those things together too. One can't take some of these attributes by themselves and say that the Holy Spirit is either always masculine or always feminine. That's because gender stereotypes don't accurately represent who we are, let alone accurately represent who God is. For centuries, Christians have worshiped the feminine divine in the Holy Spirit, in all of Her untamed, unpredictable, stereotype-defying glory. In Western culture, we tend to elide the Spirit into the other two (usually presumed masculine) Persons of the Trinity because our culture erases women's voices. But our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers remind us that to do so is a spiritual loss... likewise, it is a loss to discount women's voices and contributions in the Church.
Reverencing the Holy Spirit the same way we reverence God the Creator and Jesus Christ teaches women to value ourselves and teaches men to value women. And it is an ancient practice that we do well to observe: praying in and through and with the Spirit draws us closer to into the heart of God.