Q. This stuff about the Holy Spirit is so vague and intangible, it seems to me like we’re talking about the Ladies Auxiliary of the Trinity.
You have stumbled (and I do mean stumbled) upon a widespread theological error, which feminists have used to smuggle androgyny into the Godhead: They point out that in Hebrew and Aramaic, the word “Spirit’s” gender is feminine, and tried to argue that the Spirit can be seen as a kind of Goddess-figure. The problem is that the Apostles seem to have given zero credence to such a theory. The Gospels use the masculine word “Paraclete,” and masculine pronouns, in referring to the Spirit—whose gender was never questioned again in Christian circles until the appearance of Ms. Magazine. After that, the notion of casting the Holy Spirit as feminine became quite popular among groups of nuns who now practiced Wicca, and (no kidding) the Branch Davidians. Not that this should discredit this theological innovation, of course. Not at all.
A more significant problem with conceiving of any person of the Trinity as feminine is this: The primary use of sexual metaphors in Christianity is to convey the balance of activity and passivity, initiative and response, between the Lord and a human soul. We call the Church the “bride” of Christ, and Jesus the “bridegroom” of the soul precisely because of what these terms convey to psychologically normal people with conventional sexual expectations. To be a bit more blunt, it is God who picks us up and carries us over the threshold, who overwhelms us like the bride in the Song of Songs, who plants the seeds which we must nurture. Those people who want to make God feminine are really trying (whether they admit this themselves or not) to make themselves the dominant partner in the relationship, to flip things over and make the soul the master. In this context only, the Church insists on the missionary position.
Of course, in other linguistic contexts that don’t connect to the marital act, there are places in the Bible where God’s love is compared to maternal solicitude and tenderness—which believe me is quite a relief after reading stories like Sodom’s. But the primary use of sex metaphors in scripture is yoked to the sharp distinction between transcendence and immanence we discussed when I explained why we call God “father,” and for that reason the entire orthodox Christian tradition has spoken of God (metaphorically) as male. If it’s any consolation to outraged readers, that means that the whole of the human race (the pope included) is theologically female. We’re all in this together, girls, and sisterhood is powerless.
Q. No, that doesn’t help at all. In fact, it just makes matters worse.
It sure does, if you are intent (as Descartes was) on making human beings “the masters and possessors” of Creation—an ambition that the misogynist Simone de Beauvoir extended to include women, too. Read Karl Stern’s The Flight from Woman to learn how it was her contempt for women’s work (especially nurturance) and her loathing for submissiveness, humility, and a long list of other Christian virtues that led her to pioneer the ideology of modern, pro-choice Feminism, which is essentially atheist existentialism in drag. For a wholesome response by a more balanced woman whose husband actually loves her, read Carolyn Graglia’s Domestic Tranquillity: A Brief Against Feminism, which (besides being a raucous read and a brilliant intellectual history) boils down to a rapturous essay on the joys of surrender. That’s a theme which recurs with great regularity in the writing of Christian mystics, male and female. You know a motif that doesn’t pop up in the works of a single saint? The importance of asserting our equality with God, demanding equal rights or autonomy. You’ll find much more along those lines in Paradise Lost, or The Inferno.
Q. Okay, okay. Back to the Holy Spirit. How would you characterize his role?
He is the motive force, the breath that moves our limbs, the gasoline that runs the ambulance…. He is, to return to the Hebrew image of the Shekhinah, the immanent presence of the transcendent God. We are shown the Father through the person of Christ, but we don’t encounter Him directly on this earth. We encounter Christ primarily through the Eucharist, though He’s also present in a more diluted way in the Church itself, which makes up His “mystical body” (to which His spirit is wedded, as bridegroom). We can even see Him in the face of other human beings, if we remember that they are images of God, and we try really, really hard. But most of us don’t. However, the Holy Spirit, as I indicated above, is present whenever we follow the promptings of Grace, do some act of kindness with God in mind, or settle down to pray. Which is to say, for most of us, not very often. But He’s always waiting for us, right at our elbow, ready to come when called. Think of the spirit, if you will, as the butler Jeeves, while each of us is Bertie Wooster. We are technically in charge, but Jeeves is the brains of the operation and all the best decisions come from him.
Q. And all your best theological arguments come from P.G. Wodehouse?
Just as Aquinas’ came from Aristotle.