Hagia Sophia is No Lady

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.

John Zmirak

By

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • poetcomic1

      I have always best understood the Trinity as God’s ‘Personhood’ just as I am a person.  The logos is as a ‘thought’ in the mind of God.  The thought and the mind are ‘one in substance’ yet the thought is not the mind it has its distinct modality.  The Holy Spirit is the will of God that precedes both from the mind of God the Father and from the Logos, the Son.  I have always loved the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky but when he began to speak of Son and Holy Spirit as ‘the two hands of God’ or effective agents of God the Father, the much-maligned Catholic ‘filioque’  came alive for me and I began to understand why we Catholics would fight so fiercely this Orthodox distortion of the sublime Trinity. He had fallen into the same old error of diminishing persons of the Trinity into activities of the Father and intellectualizing the ultimate mystery of Trinitarian love.

  • Howard Richards

     I have heard a distinction made between created wisdom, which is most perfectly embodied in the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Uncreated Wisdom, which is a term referring to the Holy Spirit.  The feminine characterizations of wisdom in the Old Testament can thus be seen as being Marian hymns.

  • Tom B

    Isn’t Divine Wisdom a title of Christ rather than teh Holy Spirit?

    • Bpbasilphx

      Quite right, Tom B.

      Agia Sophia in Constantinople was not named for St. Sophai, but for Christ as the enpersonned Wisdom of the Father. Another church, Agia Eirene, was named for Christ as Holy Peace.

      Agio Pnevmate is actually NEUTER in Greek.

  • http://tpsaye.wordpress.com/ Robbo

    So now I have an image in my head of the Holy Ghost “accidentally” burning my sinful white mess jacket with the brass buttons with an iron.

  • Quid est Veritas?

    And we all know what happens when Bertie tries to take charge.

  • Jkjoseph11

    You should read Scott Hahn’s First Comes Love. It is perfectly legitimate to posit the Holy Spirit as feminine. I am an Eastern Catholic and the Holy Spirit is referred to as “she” in Syriac, our liturgical language. Read St. Ephrem, a Doctor of the Church. However, since it is not in the Latin tradition, then it may not be appropriate for Latin Catholics to do so.

  • hombre111

    I think Jesuit Donal Gelpi’s “The Divine Mother” offers an excellent rationale for: 1) Applying the feminine pronoun to the Third Person the Trinity.  2)  Abandoning the word “Spirit” in favor of the more ancient Hebrew term, “Holy Breath.” 

  • Brian

    Thanks for this insightful article. I am in wholehearted agreement regarding the ancient and orthodox nomenclature and male-associated character of the Holy Spirit. Well done.

    However, the article touches on a major thread of theology that I do honestly struggle with. I speak of the tacit and more-or-less wholesale feminization of the the human person, male and female, with regard to God we find in Catholic Theology. As you rightly note, the Bride of Christ is the central image by which we are to understand our receptive role in regard to God’s super-abundant initiative. While I acknowledge this intellectually, it does become difficult when people start talking about “falling in love” with Jesus, Jesus “impregnating us” with his Divine Life, etc. Christopher West and other recent popularizers of the Theology of the Body have emphasized this typology almost to the exclusion of anything other way of understanding our relationship with God. 

    All this is wonderful and very natural if you are a woman, but as a man–let’s just be honest–it sounds like a homosexual image. Allow me to approach the problem from another angle, hopefully bringing it down to the level of day to day. A friend of mine recently summed it u this way, “Women are naturally better at the things that matter to God.” Now, I think any, even moderately active Christian instinctively knows what this means: Women nurture, forgive, are more patient by nature, are naturally more receptive to God’s leading, etc., etc.  In short, they are more like the Bride of Christ is called to be. Again, this is great if you are a woman. But if one is a man, the conclusion seems almost self evident: seek to be more like a woman so you can be closer to God. Again, a homosexual image…It it any coincidence then, that women are so much more numerous in the pews and so active in the Church in comparison to men? For the woman, drawing close to God in his infinite potency is a fulfillment of their womanhood. For men–by this logic–drawing close to God is a setting aside of one’s masculinity. Our sex as men become ancillary to our Christian vocation.In my own thinking about this, I think the solution is to focus on men as Friends of the Bride Groom, if you will; co-workers with Christ as men. If its all about being like women to draw close to God, how can we expect to bring men to the Faith?Thanks for your thoughts as sincerely work through this issue in my Catholic
    vocation as a man.

    • http://crisismagazine.com/ John Zmirak

      Dear Brian,
      You make some excellent points. I have always accepted this “bridal theology” under protest, and completely avoided trying to internalize it. You give a good explanation of why.  Here’s a wonderful piece by Frederica Matthewes Green on why this theology is NOT a problem in the Christian East:
      http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/42390.htm

      I will revise this section accordingly before the book appears.

      • hombre111

        I think the Bride of Christ theology goes almost to the beginning of the Church and played a major role in the lives of deeply religious women who chose to belong only to Christ.  As I understand it, pagan suitors rejected by a young woman were able to accuse her of being a Christian.   St. Agnes?   St. Catherine of Alexandria? 

        But as an old priest, I have felt frustrated by the Bride of Christ image.  However, I have found it interesting to ponder “spouse of the Spirit” as an interesting approach to some dynamic prayer and a profound sense of the closeness of God. 

    • Rebecca

      You’re not alone.  I am a woman, and the whole idea of  “Jesus impregnating me with his Divine Life” is BEYOND creepy.  Brings to mind Leda and Europa, among others. 

      • John

        Rebecca,
        I understand your response.  Perhaps you’d be more edified by the way Fr. Robert Barron describes a real live God-woman encounter (the Annunciation) in the “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast” episode of the outstanding “Catholicism” series that aired recently on PBS and EWTN.  In other words, God, through the angel, requests in the most humble way that Mary accept him.  Fr. Barron specifically contrasts that to the divine rape narratives of pagan myth, and I think he does it beautifully.  Cheers

  • Brian

    (minus the typos….)

    Thanks for this insightful article. I am in
    wholehearted agreement regarding the ancient and orthodox nomenclature and
    male-associated character of the Holy Spirit. Well done.

    However, the article touches on a major thread of
    theology that I do honestly struggle with. I speak of the tacit and
    more-or-less wholesale feminization of the human person, male and female, with
    regard to God we find in Catholic Theology. As you rightly note, the Bride of
    Christ is the central image by which we are to understand our receptive role in
    regard to God’s super-abundant initiative. While I acknowledge this
    intellectually, it does become difficult when people start talking about
    “falling in love” with Jesus, Jesus “impregnating us”
    with his Divine Life, etc. Christopher West and other recent popularizers of
    the Theology of the Body have emphasized this typology almost to the exclusion
    of anything other way of understanding our relationship with God. 

    All this is wonderful and very natural if you
    are a woman, but as a man–let’s just be honest–it sounds like a homosexual
    image. 

    Allow me to approach the problem from another
    angle, hopefully bringing it down to the level of day to day. A
    friend of mine recently summed it u this way, “Women are
    naturally better at the things that matter to God.” Now, I think any, even
    moderately active Christian instinctively knows what this means: Women
    nurture, forgive, are more patient by nature, are naturally more receptive to
    God’s leading, etc., etc.  In short, they are more like the Bride of
    Christ is called to be. Again, this is great if you are a woman. But if one is
    a man, the conclusion seems almost self evident: seek to be more like a woman
    so you can be closer to God. Again, a homosexual image…Is it any coincidence
    then, that women are so much more numerous in the pews and so active in the
    Church in comparison to men? For the woman, drawing close to God in his
    infinite potency is a fulfillment of their womanhood.

     

    For men–by this logic–drawing close to God is
    a setting aside of one’s masculinity. Our sex as men becomes ancillary to our
    Christian vocation. In my own thinking about this, I think the solution is to
    focus on men as Friends of the Bride Groom, if you will; co-workers with Christ
    as men. If its all about being like
    women to draw close to God, how can we expect to bring men to the Faith? Thanks
    for your thoughts as I sincerely work through this issue in my Catholic vocation as a man.

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