By Cathy Norman Peterson
Something bugs me about how we talk about the Holy Spirit.
We evangelicals typically refer to two members of the Trinity as masculine. God the Father, God the Son—both male, both “he.” But when we get to the third Person of the Trinity, we flounder, casting about for the right word. And we come up with—wait for it— well, “it.”
God forbid we use a feminine pronoun.
Sometimes we employ metaphors of God as mother, and there’s plenty of biblical precedent for that. But evangelicals tend to engage that as an interesting exercise before returning to our familiar male descriptors. Of course it’s a challenge to get past the historical fact of Jesus’s gender. Yet the Spirit is described as breath, love, mystery, gentleness, wisdom—all words we use to typify women. If any member of the Godhead could fit within our gendered understanding of the feminine, it’s the Holy Spirit. Yet we just don’t go there.
Not only do we avoid the female pronoun, but we also tend to subjugate the Spirit to a tertiary role. Unless we’re charismatic, the Spirit can become an afterthought. God is Creator, Son is Redeemer. Spirit is…the one telling me to quit my job or helping me find a parking space?
Relegating the Spirit to that third, subordinate place and using the distancing “it” in our references clearly diminishes our understanding of God. If the Spirit is really a full member of the Trinity, maybe reconsidering the nuances of our pneumatology is necessary to reconstructing our entire understanding of the Godhead. In truth, my larger aim is to challenge our androcentric assumptions about God, beginning with an invitation to consider the person and work of the Holy Spirit as a woman’s work.
How might that affect our life in the church? In my congregation we’re in the midst of a Sunday school series on what the Bible says about homosexuality. For the past six weeks, we’ve packed out the room with high school students and adults eager to engage this conversation. Every week we are reminded that we don’t all think the same way, that as a congregation we fall all along the spectrum of belief and values and thinking. Sometimes that’s really hard, especially when I hear people say things that I strongly disagree with. In the midst of those exchanges, I don’t necessarily pay attention to how or whether the Spirit is moving.
Nonetheless we’ve managed to stay in the tension together. We’ve listened to each other—even when the emotions run deep and feelings are passionate. Even when there’s a lot of hurt and pain being expressed.
Today we wrapped up the series with a general conversation about what we’ve learned and where we see ourselves moving next. People said they are learning to see the Bible as a living, breathing word. “I haven’t been in church in a while,” one person said, “but based on the way we’ve had this conversation, it seems relevant to me again.” Another woman said she’d been telling Jewish friends about our discussions, and they said, “That’s the kind of conversation I’d like to be part of.” Suddenly we are talking about inviting our friends to Sunday school.
Leading up to this point, our church has been struggling with how to re-engage young people in our congregation, how to move from our stable existence into a more vital, vibrant community, whether we need to add another worship service that’s more “contemporary.” In the midst of all those questions and uncertainty, somehow we stumbled upon these deeply meaningful conversations, reminding each of us that when the church steps into cultural gaps, it truly embodies the message of the gospel. In those conversations, I saw people hungry for the church to be the church. I felt hungry too. Sitting on a blue folding chair in the back row, I all but saw the Spirit moving.
Often when I call out to God, I don’t hear anything. I seek God but come up empty-handed. Today I imagined the Holy Spirit, She Who Is, moving through a roomful of 75 people who are hopeful and hungry, broken and healing, who love God and love the Holy Scriptures in whatever ways we can manage. She was gathering us up together, even as we held different and difficult perspectives. As brothers and sisters we risked not being understood by each other. We worked really hard to listen to each other. Suddenly the veil moved aside for a moment and I knew we were in a holy place. We all stayed in that space together in a miraculous way. Thanks be to God for her good work.