He? She? It?

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.


9 thoughts on “He? She? It?

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  1. Cathy,
    Love the post, especially the line about the Holy Spirit helping find a parking space. 🙂 It seems that the movement of the Spirit is often easier to see in hindsight (“Wow, the Spirit did move in this place!) then in the present working hope out in the present.

    One thing that I wrestle with in the discussion of gender and God language is how to avoid an essentialist view where strong, bold, angry = male and gentle, kind, warm = female while also honoring different women’s experiences. I like two stanzas of Brian Wren’s “Bring Many Names” that tries to blur the lines a bit:

    Strong mother God, working night and day,
    Planning all the wonders of creation,
    Setting each equation, genius at play:
    Hail and Hosanna, strong mother God!

    Warm father God, hugging every child,
    Feeling all the strains of human living,
    Caring and forgiving, till we’re reconciled:
    Hail and Hosanna, warm father God!

    Thanks for the great post, Cathy!

    1. David, a huge amen on our tendency to see evidence of the Spirit in hindsight. Almost never happens that I can actually notice her in the present.

      An even bigger AMEN to the essentialist critique. Even as I engaged in them a bit in this post, I hate those reductionist tendencies!

  2. Interesting prod here, Cathy. When you stated that “Yet the Spirit is described as breath, love, mystery, gentleness, wisdom,” I would ask why those are the only descriptors evangelicals use? If those were the only attributes of the HS, I would stick with the masculine, actually.

    When I think about Jesus, I love his transgressive nature as gentle, slave, kind, warm, love, empathetic, etc.
    In similar ways, I would not describe myself as a stereotypically warm, kind, and gentle woman. I’ve grown to love referring to the HS as “she” because the HS is actually powerful, mysterious, disrupter, guider, discerner, FIRE, empowering, and the breath of LIFE! That may also be the pentecostal in me, but nonetheless, these are the attributes I witness throughout the narrative of Scripture.

    1. Gail, I’m intrigued by the differences in our perspectives. While I flinch at the assumption that gentleness has to mean feminine, that list definitely wouldn’t make me default to the male pronouns. That said, approaching the Spirit as She because she is powerful, disruptive, life…what an awesome way to re-frame the stereotypes.

  3. The “image of God” that we are created in is the image of community. The community of men and women, not just in marrige but in the church, mirrors the community of the trinity. You’re correct that the traits (or fruits) of the spirit are characteristics we often attribute to women (tho of course men exhibit them as well)–kindness, gentleness, patience, etc. Read Proverbs 8, which talks about Lady Wisdom, who was there with the “LORD” (Yaweh, God the creator). It quotes her as saying: “I was there when he set the heavens in place,
    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
    28 when he established the clouds above
    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
    29 when he gave the sea its boundary
    so the waters would not overstep his command,
    and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
    30 Then I was constantly[e] at his side.
    I was filled with delight day after day,
    rejoicing always in his presence,
    31 rejoicing in his whole world
    and delighting in mankind.

    Doesn’t this echo the creation narrative which says that the Spirit hovered over the waters?

    1. In my experience we skip over these scriptural places that include and invite women, specifically. Thanks for reminding us of this one, Keri. And re: the community, at our best, yes, the body of Christ mirrors the community of God. Yet at our not-so-best, sometimes we make it much much harder for many of our members to see God or participate in God’s goodness.

  4. I love this piece, even as I feel it raising the hairs on the back of the neck of my mind. (I love a good mixed metaphor.)

    I am instinctively resistant to female language describing God, in part, because of the political and cultural climate in which I live. It makes me think of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s feminist bookstore sketch protagonists, who are caricatures of a real phenomenon of women trying to claim a space in public discourse by overtly feminizing anything that is perceived to be a part of the establishment … actively trying to disrupt and dismantle the patriarchy by spelling it “womyn” … etc. The knee-jerk male response in me is oh-give-it-a-rest-already, but then I realize how similar that is to white people calling any mention of race and ethnicity as “race baiting” … and so I kept reading, thankfully hopeful that I can continue to not be led only by my first impressions and most visceral biases.

    What I appreciated about this post is that, Cathy, is that in both the OP and in Gail’s comment afterwords, the descriptors of “breath, love, mystery, gentleness, wisdom” and “powerful, mysterious, disrupter, guider, discerner, FIRE, empowering, and the breath of LIFE” are both not only great descriptors of the primary woman in my life (a woman who, not coincidentally, tends to echo many of those Spirit murmurings that I overlook or try to ignore), but also a great example of the community inherent in Trinitarianism. That God could embody all of these great qualities simultaneously is not simply a description of his supremacy (A Swiss Army God, capable of handling any circumstance!) but a macrocosm of what true authentic community looks like, celebrating, observing, calling forth and relying upon those complementary qualities that provide balance, meaning and richness in our lives.

    I wish I were not so threatened by the expression of God as a woman, because such a resistance not only has the potential to devalue the image dei in every woman, but it has the potential to rob me of a greater God-awareness in my life, an awareness that I so desperately need on a day by day basis.

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