After two thousand years of theological debate, the work and dynamism of Holy Spirit in people’s lives remains enigmatic, as I suppose spiritual issues always should be. But let us celebrate one step forward in understanding and imagining. It comes from a study of languages at a time when gender equality-with-diversity is growing in importance around the world.
Holy Spirit as the feminine principle of the Godhead
In Middle Eastern languages, including Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic, ‘spirit’ is a female noun. In Greek, into which the news of the life of a miracle worker and teacher from Nazareth was first translated for Gentiles, spirit is a neutral noun. In Latin, accompanying the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, spirit is a masculine noun. At around 1000 CE the Eastern and Western Churches excommunicated each other over various differences of opinion. The Roman See spread its Latin translation of theology around the world, breaking through its former geographical borders when it had formerly been part of the united (but geographically boundaried) First Millennium Church.
In Western theology, therefore, the entire Trinity of the One living Godhead can be imagined in a masculine frame of mind. In much of the rest of the world, however, people naturally imagine spirit to have feminine characterisation within the Godhead. This type of femininity is considered especially as mother, partner, nurturer, carer, and home-maker, all of which have an abiding relational aspect with mutual feedback cycles as their life-enhancing dynamic. Home-making and home dismantling at the appropriate time include elements of teacher and boundary-setter in cultivating self-discipline and maturity in the growing offspring of the partner liaison with a male. Worldwide these are all traditionally well-recognised features of a diversely feminine approach to qualities of relatedness.
For people grown in the cultural inheritance of the Western Church, the Christmas message of a virgin birth raises all sorts of intellectual conundrums, resolved mainly into a euphoric denial for a week or two of thinking about peace and harmony while binge celebrating a mid-winter festival. The Scriptural references to the miraculous conception in Luke 1:30-38 and Matthew 1:18-23, in English translations, talk of the Holy Spirit ‘coming over you’ or ‘coming to you’; and ‘the power of the Most High will cover you’. In Westernised thought, this process is most likely to be imagined as a miraculous male-type penetration and seeding of a physical DNA that has materialised out of nothing…
The feminine creating an environment nurturing growth and maturity
But that is not the case at all for people brought up in a Middle or Far Eastern frame of mind, whose natural linguistic interpretation would be far more feminine and relational, and far less materialistic. The ‘coming upon’ by a feminine spirit could be imagined more as the relational warmth of a nurturing and caring Holy Spirit descended upon the young virgin, who is engaged to be married, mentoring the girl as she develops physically into a new and mature mothering role. Mary’s embodiment thus becomes a miraculously matured relational environment in which the creative Word spoken by a masculine (Father) principle in the Godhead is the seed alongside Mary’s existing DNA. The obedient Son thus develops with both human and divine natures, and is born from a masculine Father and a feminine Holy Spirit in a way that ‘informationally’ or transactionally matches that which occurs for all species in nature. Creative word needs a fertile environment to transfigure into living forms that communicate with each other.
The feminine Holy Spirit as Wisdom (Sophia) in the Old Testament
Proverbs 8 is Wisdom calling all men who are prone to going astray, as the inspired King Solomon wrote for posterity. Verses 12 to the end at verse 36 are a particularly beautiful love poem between ‘The Lord – Adonai’ and the Holy Spirit (Wisdom) in which a remarkable claim is made in verses 22-31. Taken from the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) this starts, “Adonai made me as the beginning of his way, the first of his ancient works. I was appointed before the world, before the start, before the earth’s beginnings.” It goes on to say (vv30-31), “I was with him as someone he could trust. For me, every day was pure delight, as I played in his presence all the time, playing everywhere on his earth, and delighting to be with humankind.”
This is a remarkable and astonishing reversal of the teaching that abounds in many Westernised churches that teach a paternalistic view of the Father-Son dipole as Godhead, with Holy Spirit relegated in many traditions to a boundaried role within the sacraments channelled through the priesthood to develop character as ‘Fruits of the Spirit’. The time has come for a rebalancing and re-diversification of this Westernised teaching that perceives Holy Spirit as some sort of neutral or male power that is too hot for anyone else to handle. The Holy Spirit is best thought of as relationality itself, as the power of environmental patterning to nurture the growth and reseeding of maturing and ever-renewed life.
Support for this view comes from the first three verses of the Bible. The famous Genesis 1:1-3 reads: ‘In beginning (a verb that is unfinished and therefore eternally active, not ‘in the beginning’ as if a past noun no longer relevant!) God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unformed and void, darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ (CJB). The feminine Spirit was and is a partner in the Word’s power to create out of the movement – the waters – between them.
Speaking light, and speaking ever-renewed life.
The inspiration that led to the Proverbs 8 love poem is reflected from that process creating light first out of playful and delighted mutual relatedness. All the photons and fields of light that we now describe, and all the subatomic particles and quantum fields of electromagnetic waves, gravitational waves, and thermodynamic waves that we now measure as the spreading movements of that Genesis relational ‘water’, are spoken, received, and reflected back in delighted trust! We speak our words into the ongoing mutuality of that process. Words are deeper than our cognition. They are the vibrational reality. ‘Logoi’ are patterning and repatterning into the life and ecologies we share. But commonly, as Celtic spirituality reminds us, we so easily forget that this all was birthed in pure and playful and trusting delight.
And so, that prophesied baby in a manger… Word is moving and transforming an environment into embodiment. That life is light shared with us, for us to respond in playful delight with our words to each other…
In an era of growing equality-with-diversity, genders can be valuing each other because of their differences when in playful unity. Masculine identities may need to accept that much of the justification for their former assertions of power has been claimed through a significant loss in translation. But masculine identity and life can be regained in more humble delight, in the playfulness that could arise between equals on becoming conscious of the strength and gentle power of unity that is achieved through valuing diversity. That is ever-renewed life, born in our midst.