Encountering Mystery

I had spent a very, very long time trapped in a space mentally and emotionally which felt like complete hopelessness and loneliness, clinging to a tiny shred of hope. It was like the glow of a single, twinkling Christmas light in what felt like an otherwise black abyss. I had started going to Crossroads about 10 months before, and a series of events had made me curious enough to begin asking, “Is there a God? And if there is, is God good? Who am I to God?” This ended up with me landing in India, going to some of the darkest places I could imagine, and challenging this God to show up.

I experienced a moment there that I will never forget. Crossroads partners with several homes in Mumbai and Kolkata, India, that rescue girls and women from sex trafficking. I was in the first group that went to Kolkata and we spent one of our days there putting on a day camp for the girls. We sang, we danced, we played, we taught each other songs and we also did some crafts. One of the crafts was to make a beaded bracelet or necklace. The different colored beads stood for things that were important to us or things we wanted. Examples would include hope, friendship, love, wisdom, etc. I was making a bracelet with one of the girls when she noticed the beads I had chosen to use. “No, no, no. More love.” I was confused, and asked her what she meant and she smiled and laughed at me. “You!” She pointed. “More love,” she said as she pointed at my bracelet, which barely included that color at all. She then proceeded to dismantle my entire bracelet and fill it with the color of love.

My heart broke in the most wonderful way possible in that moment, like walls around it were crumbling. It was as if all the darkness I felt like I was covered in turned into a liquid and puddled at the bottom of me and suddenly, the world seemed to be made of color. Of light. This child who had been through so much could see the very thing I felt I lacked but that I so desperately longed for and she piled it on, unabashedly. She taught me to worship as we sung, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, Rejoice!” I was overwhelmed, I was baffled, I was in the process of becoming. If this young girl who had experienced the true darkness of mankind so fully could worship God, could call out for love with a hungry heart, than certainly there was something special happening here. Some kind of extraordinary goodness that could say, “Even in this place I will give you joy. Even in your suffering, you will know love. Loneliness is a lie because there is a God that loves you and is always with you.”

It wasn’t the first time or the last time that I encountered the Mystery of God, but it planted a seed of faith so deep inside of me that it successfully took root. I began a steadfast pursuit of this God that comes close, who moves in our lives today. While I’ll never fully know or understand God, I feel called into this Mystery that is. I get a sense that not only am I welcome to explore the character and nature of my God but that my desire to know God brings joy. When I begin feeling alone or discouraged, I look back on this moment and I remember how God used the ordinary to speak about the extraordinary and I rejoice.

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Being Beings and Discovering Mystery

John Shea’s essay, “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light,” outline four different environments that we all share, best understood as “the basic contours of our existence.” (Shea 2) The environments are made up of the self, loved ones, society and institutions, and universe. Our experience as humans may appear to be summed up by our interactions with these four, but there is a fifth environment which encompasses these: Mystery. Our basic experience can be understood in having two points: ourselves and the environment we encounter (for instance, I (1) eat bread (2)).  When this interaction reveals a dimension of Mystery, we experience sacramental awareness (the addition of the third point). In the instance of eating bread, I might understand it to be not only bread but my personal participation in the account of Christ who gave his followers bread and told them it was his body, broken for them.

There are five primary ways Shea outlines as a means of becoming aware of the ultimate dimension of our experience as humans. First is contingency, “what Kazantzakis calls the luminous interval between two darknesses.” (Shea 13) Sometimes it looks like the gift of living fully and joyfully in the moment, amazed by the very experience of it all. At other times, it can be a reminder of how very fragile and finite out lives on this planet are. The second path is dialogue and communion. Through dialogue people discover who they are and in communion they discover a love and acceptance gifted to them by their community. The third path is collapse. “When order crumbles, Mystery rises.” (Shea 16) This is the falling apart of the beliefs or knowledge we clung to and our reaction to that loss. “A fourth path to Mystery leads through a deepened sense of the ambiguity of our moral activity.” (Shea) While we strive for moral ideals, we most often find ourselves falling substantially short.  Last is disenchantment. Well known throughout history, it refers to an awakening which ultimately calls us into a maturing religious consciousness.

When we read Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike, we see a boys journey to sacramental awareness. The main character, David, experiences these environments in such a way that he becomes disenchanted, one of the five paths mentioned by Shea. David has an encounter with Reverend Dobson over heaven when he didn’t answer David satisfactorily.  “His indignation at being betrayed, at seeing Christianity betrayed, had hardened him. The straight dirt road reflected his hardness.” (Updike 36) He searched and searched for truth, but he was lost in the darkness that can fall when one realizes there is a question but no answer. He saw his classmates and their ill-fated path towards imminent death and eventually lost his desire to read altogether. Although concerned, his parents resolved to give him a gun for his fifteenth birthday. We can see the “universe environment” and it’s influence on David as he practiced shooting, which put fear into his dog who he would sometimes comfort. “Giving this comfort to a degree returned comfort to him.” (Updike 43) Ultimately, David is asked to use his new skills to clear out the pigeons in the barn. Although he didn’t have a desire to, he did as he was asked. As he killed more and more pigeons, he enjoyed it more, feeling the power he held with his gun and his ability to predict the pigeons path. Yet it was when he went to bury them that Mystery entered into his world: “He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair… a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides…And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers….no two alike… designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” (Updike 50) He was startled by the intention behind them and the fact that they were treated like pests. In this encounter, he rediscovered his God, “….that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.” (Updike 50)

References

Shea, John. “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light.” Stories of God. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2006.

Updike, John. “Pigeon Feathers.” Olinger Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Short Story.

 

 

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús: Paying the Cost of Reconciliation (Catalyst Notes)

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús was one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2013. The senior pastor at New Life Covenant Ministries in Chicago, he is a man not only of the Word but of action. He started his talk with Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” This, he said, is why Jesus came. This is what we are called to: to seek and to save the lost.

How do we lead in a drifting culture dominated by fear? First, we must realize that nobody drifts towards holiness. Holiness is intentional. Therefore, a Church that offers transformation in a drifting world must be an engaged, purposeful, responsive Church. Prayer is not a crutch. It is the start of something, not the end of it. Revelation calls for a response. Understanding can wait, obedience to the revelation of God cannot. “When my Father says do something, I do it.”

Remember: God uses unusual people to do extraordinary things. It’s all over the Bible. Wilfredo De Jesús, also known as Pastor Choco, felt called to buy a farm and amazing things took place to make it happen through all sorts of crazy turns. That farm has, to date, rescued 625 girls and women from prostitution. There is a cost to reconciliation, but we, the Church, should be happy to pay it. He told a story of buying five prostitutes for one hour. They brought them to a place where they laid out a beautiful banquet. They spoke truth over them, that they weren’t born a prostitute and they were loved. Those women walked away from their path and, through the sacrifice and support of the church, ended up becoming leaders in the church. It’s just like in the parable of the lost sheep: the sheep is not rebuked for being lost, it is celebrated for being found.

Or the prodigal son. The son who basically told his father, “I don’t care about your status, I wish you were dead.” He demanded an inheritance he wasn’t even owed and his father gave it to him, sacrificing his status for him. Then that son leaves and squanders it all. Eventually he came to his senses and returns humbled. What does the dad do? He RUNS to the boy. Men didn’t run in the first century; children and women ran. But again, the father disregards status and runs to the son. He embraces and covers the boy, showing that his protection is over him. He gives him jewelry which is a symbol that tells the son and others that he has complete authority to negotiate on behalf of the father with the assets of the family. That’s some crazy sacrificial love.

Why is the older brother upset? Well, this was all at a cost to him, in his mind. The inheritance was rightfully his, and already the father had allowed his younger brother to squander half of it. Now, he was paying for this celebration as well as giving the prodigal son his status back. You see, someone always pays the cost of reconciliation. There’s a cost to bringing others to the table, to gather those that Christ calls us to. The question is, what are you willing to pay so others can be reconciled to God? Are you willing to stand in the gap?

Father Edwin Leahy (Catalyst Notes)

Father Edwin Leahy is impressive, although he doesn’t think so. There’s some videos below that explain a lot of what he has done and what his work is. Some of his insights as he spoke:

  1. Racism is America’s original sin.
    1. White people in power knew what they were doing, starting in the 1800’s, to neutralize black males who were now free, and that neutralization continues today.
    2. Most of the students he is responsible for at his all boy school are missing fathers. They need help discovering and amplifying their voice.
  2. Be quiet and listen. Folks in the community will eventually tell you what they need.
  3. Tell people, ‘God loves me to the cross. But also, love others.’
  4. Recognize attitudes versus the vastness and vagueness of “culture.”
    1. Whatever helps or hurt my brothers and sisters helps or hurts me.
    2. Tend to their hearts.
    3. Create community.
    4. Create leadership opportunities.
    5. Accepting the Other and where they are.
  5. Be okay with arguing; sometimes provoke fights. It’s not okay to stay comfortable.
  6. Remember: the orchestra tunes to the first violinist.
  7. Develop listening skills.
    1. People will teach you how you can best be of service to them.

He said, “I wasn’t called to be successful, I was called to be faithful.” A great joy is seeing boys who graduated return as fathers with their kids.  They are designed to be a community that bears one another’s burdens. He told a story of an expelled student who was a Junior and he never left. He sat outside his office for two days and the Father told the other boys, “No, he’s out.” The next morning, the kids hid him. During attendance, they’d call his name as absent when he was there and then stopped. They spent the year avoiding each other and his Senior year the Father welcomed him back.

Why is there a fence around this school in downtown Newark? It marks off holy ground in the middle of a city in struggle. Like Moses, in the middle of the ordinary we encounter the extraordinary. Remember: Not all fires destroy; some fires ignite us.

Just a little bit about Father Edwin Leahy and what he does.

Remember…

Starling Murmuration (Catalyst Notes)

Starlings are startling in their ability to create these beautiful formations. Scientist truly couldn’t begin to understand them until they had the high-tech capabilities to analyze their movements in computers. What they discovered was amazing: the flock transcends biology. Every single starlings movement is influenced by every other starlings movement. Known as scale-free correlation, it can be best understood (although not perfectly) through looking at things like avalanches or crystal formations – on the verge of instantaneous change.

Because there is no LEADER of the formation, any starling has the ability to change the path of all starlings in the flock. Regardless of the size of the flock they remain equally responsive to all other starlings: velocity and orientation remain consistent regardless of the number of birds participating. We still cannot understand how they are able to process and respond to signals of the surrounding birds so quickly.

The most fascinating thing of all, perhaps, is that this is all in response to a predator, and the greater the threat, the more phenomenal the synchronicity. The all have and share the same goal of survival, and this singular goal allows them to create and perform at unfathomable levels.

Dave Ramsey: Building Unity (Notes from Catalyst)

Dave Ramsey is an American entrepreneur whose work brings financial freedom to people in all walks of life. He began his talk by speaking about the Belgian Plow Horse.

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You see, this amazing horse can pull 8,000 lbs. on it’s own. But if you take two of them, who have never met before and team them up, they can pull 24,000 lbs. together. Somehow, through their teamwork, their immediately able to do the work that most people would have assumed would require three horses. The really amazing thing is, when those two horses are a matched pair, they are fairly similarly, know each other, etc. they’re able to pull 32,000 lbs. That’s 4x the work that one can do!

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

The remarkable thing about this verse is that the Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” God says that nothing is impossible for us when we act in uncommon fellowship. In this story, we see that the people who settled in Shinar started worshipping what God gave us (like the ability to build a tower that reaches to the heavens) rather than worship the God who made all things possible for us.

Unity and uncommon fellowship is not a natural occurrence, it is from intentionality. Dave Ramsey outlined 5 enemies of this over his time as an organizational and spiritual leader.

  1. Poor Communication
    1. Learned from Andy Stanley, repetition is key as leader. Tell them until they are annoyed with you telling them, because then you know they know. Then, remind them.
    2. Cast vision, and spend a tremendous amount of time and energy as a leader communicating that vision.
      1. Sit down together, invest in breaking bread with each other (you wouldn’t believe, he said, they amount they spend on people eating together)
      2. Organizations move at the speed of the trust we’ve built
  2. Gossip
    1. Why do people who pee in their cereal gripe about the taste?
    2. Psalm 34:14 “Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit.”
    3. Real complaints have a responsibility to be taken to leadership, but you also have a responsibility to be part of the solution.
  3. Unresolved Disagreement
    1. Leaders pull, bosses push
      1. We don’t push people to where we want to be, we go and pull them to where we are
      2. You might not like each other, but you need to trust each other
      3. Disagreements distract us from the goal
  4. Lack of Shared Purpose
    1. When we drop the ball, anyone on the team can pick up the ball because we all know where we go.
      1. Most of the time, if we have 12 people, we have 12 agendas which creates tension and confused priorities.
  5. Sanctioned Incompetence
    1. If you allow incompetence or non-compliance, you demotivate your whole team.
      1. Whether they are volunteers or employees, excellence is the standard. By not dealing with those who don’t meet the standard, you are encouraging it. Misbehavior then gets worse and hurts everyone.
      2. To be unclear is to be unkind.
        1. Example: A old guy who was being too much of a hugger and was creeping everyone out. As soon as it was brought to his attention, he confronted the issue. “Stop doing that, you’re being a creeper.” “It’s how I am.” His response? “Change.” Why? Because behavior, like being a creeper, is a decision and it’s not okay.

These are spiritual issues. If you adopt these as guides for leadership and enforce them, then your team will adopt it and remind you of it when the team fails to meet those expectations.

Discovering the Feminine in the Triune God

Martin Luther once asked, “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (Migliore 232) At the heart of this and most other theological questions sits these two: ‘Who am I to God?’ and ‘Who is God to me?’ Many of us are compelled by these thoughts to seek within and outside of ourselves for answers that provide clarity and vision for our life and future. In Genesis 1:27 (NAB) it says, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bible 19) Both sexes were created by God in God’s image and yet the female is rarely represented in the triune God when we look within the walls of the church. Mary Daly once said, “if God is male, then the male is God,” (Johnson 99) and while our behavior as an overall faith community reflects this, we need to ask ourselves if this is truth. Women of faith are asked to find themselves in the Bible through the women in it’s narrative, yet men are not only dominantly represented within the stories recorded in the Bible, they see themselves reflected in the very persons of our Triune God. This pneumalogical paper will explore how history shaped our understanding of who the holy Spirit is, identify several key characteristics for who the Bible says the holy Spirit is and reveal how women who were systemically excluded from representation within the Godhead can come to recognize themselves within the holy Spirit.

The importance of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Jesus himself emphasized the tremendous value that such a Helper would have to humanity in John 14:26 (NAB): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Bible 1610) Although Jesus asserted the value of the Holy Spirit, it’s uncontrollable nature made it a challenge to the hierarchy the church eventually formed itself into: often the Spirit was treated more as a problem to solve or a question to answer than an opportunity for deeper relationship with God. In fact, the holy Spirit wasn’t always understood as a person. “It was the Cappadocian Fathers in the fifth century who fortified the notion of the Holy Spirit as a person. Basil the Great became known as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit,’ thanks mostly to a desire to establish the tri-unity of God against attempts at tritheism…” (Clouzet 15) There ought to be a point of clarification around the term person, particularly as we consider the individualistic lens through which Western civilization operates. The personhood of the Spirit does not negate the truth of God as one. “…both mimetic theory and modern psychology teach us is that the “person” is not autonomous — we are in fact interdividuals rather than individuals… non-consciously interconnected far more than we consciously realize. And so, if we are going to even attempt to label the Trinity as three “persons,” we need to acknowledge that the person is a person only because s/he is in relationship with an ‘other.’” (Distefano) Thus, as the Church sought to understand the Godhead, or the triune God, it necessitates that it is not as individual persons but as persons in relation to one another.

This is, in part, the very thing which challenged the inclusion of the person of the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. One major contention was the origin of the Spirit. In fact, the controversy over its origin lead to a division in the Church that is considered by many to be the greatest disagreement in the Church’s history: “…the Eastern Church discovered the now famous filioque clause in 1014. To the Nicene Creed had been added the word filioque-Latin for ‘and the Son’-now stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son.’…leading to the permanent rift between the Eastern and Western Church: the Great Schism of 1054.” (Clouzet 16)

While the holy Spirit was eventually understood by many, through doctrine, as both a person and component of the triune God, the very nature of the Spirit ran against the grain of the rising influence of rationalism. Industrialization further hindered our ability to embrace the unknown that is the Spirit. The world was usually understood to be more like a machine than a wonder, ruled entirely by laws and able to be understood through cause and effect. This left little room for the Spirit to operate in through the 18th and 19th century. “Protestant scholasticism with its ‘rechte Lehre’ (correct doctrine), produced ‘a more mechanical view of the role of Scriptures,’ and ‘as a result the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed.’ The Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis for authority.” (Clouzet 16-17) Those who did focus on the doctrine of the Spirit tended to focus on the work rather than the nature of the holy Spirit’s person.

Regardless, there has been what some might term a revival. “Nowadays, it will not do to speak about the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos- the God about whom no one writes-as did Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” (Clouzet 11) As this revival has occurred though, many tend to focus on what the holy Spirit can do for us rather than who the holy Spirit is to us. The danger of this approach is perceiving the Spirit less as a person who is the triune God and a bearer of wisdom and truth and more as a genie who grants wishes if we ask the right way. Furthermore, “…the doctrine of the Spirit became the concern of individual and corporate praxis, or experience, rather than dogma, or theology.” (Clouzet 17)

Although the nature of the Spirit may seem elusive in the Bible due to the biblical focus on its works, that does not mean we are incapable of discerning its nature through what is given to us. It is as Paul writes in Romans 14:4 (NAB) “For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Bible 1709) We can be assured of three things regarding the Spirit: first, that it is understood to be part of the Godhead. A few examples of how we know this include 2 Corinthians 13:13 (NAB) which frames them together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” (Bible 1765) I Peter 1:2 (NAB) also blesses through the triune God, “…in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Bible 1903)

Second, that the holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son, not a lesser component. Jesus makes this known at the Last Supper, recorded in John 14:15-17 (NAB): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (Bible 1610) Jesus referred to parakletos, (often translated as the Advocate or the Helper) as another parakletos. This means that Jesus, already acting as an advocate for us, would ask the Father to send another like him to us in his absence. He promises not to leave them as orphans. “Just a few minutes earlier Christ had referred to Himself and His Father as equals (vv. 9,10). If the Comforter is equal-or parallel-to the Son, and the Son is equal-or one-with the Father, the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, is equal with the Father.” (Clouzet 20)

Lastly, we know that the holy Spirit is in possession of attributes unique to God. I Corinthians 2:10-11 (NAB) speaks to the intimate relationship and knowledge shared between the Father and the Spirit: “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.” (Bible 1721) The Spirit is not merely a messenger sent by God but one that scrutinizes the depths of God and all God’s creation.

What, though, do we know about God when it comes to gender? It is a popular framing, particularly within modern churches built on the foundations of an androcentric patriarchy spanning back millennia, to understand the relationship of the Godhead as primarily that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (the Spirit being an it or a he). God as a Father serves as the primary means of understanding Elohim or Adonai (or any of the other various other names for God) in churches, most notably because Jesus referred to Elohim as a Father so often (hardly a surprise if one is trying to establish one’s divine origin). The ascribing of exclusive gender to Elohim based upon the words used by Christ rather than the entirety of the Bible is outside the scope of this paper but worth noting, as it indicates a bias towards the masculine. Additionally, I recognize that Jesus was certainly born a man. However, the assertion of the Spirit as a neutral person (it) or a male (he) is highly questionable.

This masculine assumption does not accurately depict the historical language of the books in the Bible and therefore creates the opportunity for a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature: it associates power with an entirely masculine God rather than a Godhead whose power manifests in both the feminine and the masculine. This is a problem not only because it is inaccurate, but it leads to a flawed living-out of the gospel. Rosemary Radford Ruether once wrote, “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as non-redemptive;…what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.” (Johnson 94) Feminist theology isn’t about displacing or minimizing the value of men or the role they play; men are also created in the image of God and the masculine images used to depict the Godhead are accurate and invaluable for providing insight into the character of God. However, equally important is restoring women to the role that that Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit called women into. It works to reveal the places where we lack alignment as a Christ-center community with the will of God. “Sallie McFague summarizes the feminist critique of patriarchy and its legitimating theology by contending that the heart of our most pressing issues today is the misuse of power…exploitation of the natural environment, or of political, economic, racial, cultural, and gender oppressions…the fundamental problem is ‘the question of power; who wields it and what sort it is… Is power always domination?’” (Migliore 68)

This leaves many wondering if the feminine can be found within the Godhead. In most modern translations, the holy Spirit is predominantly referenced in either masculine or neutral terms. But why? When we look back into the grammar of the early languages used, we can see an implied relationship between the rise of the church patriarchy and the disappearance of the feminine holy Spirit. “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, Christianity was born in a Semitic milieu and Jesus himself will have spoken Aramaic (of which Syriac is a dialect).” (Brock) This means that the New Testament was not written in the spoken language of Christ but translated from Aramaic (also the language common to many of the early communities) to Greek. “…when these communities spoke of the Holy Spirit they naturally used the standard Aramaic word for ‘spirit’, ruha (also ‘wind’ as pneuma), which, like Hebrew ruah, is grammatically feminine.” (Brock)

A pronoun in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac languages are necessarily either feminine or masculine, and thus, up until around 400 AD, it was always treated as feminine grammatically. However, in Greek translations a word like pneuma becomes, through its translation, neuter (still not masculine). “From the early fifth century onwards…in defiance of the grammatical rules of the language, they treated the word ruha as masculine whenever it referred to the Holy Spirit.” (Brock) This mattered, because early on it was understood that something truly revolutionary was being taught by God: “an ancient, unassailable truth with new clarity: God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing. When violence is done to women, to their bodies or their spirits, it is an insult to the divine glory.” (Johnson 96) Yet this idea was subversive to all dominant cultures at the time. Some hypothesize that shift from feminine to masculine is the influence of the Greek language but others, particularly considering the Greek translation is still not masculine, hypothesize that it is the disapproval of the Spirit as feminine that causes the shift.  By the 6th century, that practice becomes normalized although occasional outliers can be found in poems or liturgical texts.

A major indicator that these changes were made based on the issues around gender roles is found in the Peshitta, a revision of the Syriac New Testament made in the early fifth century. “Rather surprisingly there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to the masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12.12 and John 14.26).” (Brock) The fact that the feminine was maintained in other parts of the text speaks to their belief that the gender of the holy Spirit was originally only an issue in spaces when the holy Spirit served in a role that was culturally only acceptable for men; She could no longer be a she.

This same shift is visible in the treatment of Logos and mellta and compels us to push beyond the assumption that the gender change was only due to the role the holy Spirit was serving. If the femininity of the holy Spirit were not an issue for the Church what reason would it have had to alter the texts that serve as the foundation and support for their faith? The collective community would be unlikely to systemically shift the holy Spirit from feminine to masculine unless the femininity was considered a problem and/or the shift to masculinity was an opportunity.

“In Syriac Logos, ‘Word’, is translated by another feminine noun, mellta. Accordingly in the Prologue of the Gospel of John the Old Syriac treats Mellta, the Logos, as feminine, and this usage is reflected, not only in the fourth-century writer Ephrem (which is to be expected); but also very occasionally in texts of the fifth, or even later centuries, even though in the Peshitta revision the gender had already been altered to masculine.” (Brock)

When we contrast this change to words we find in verses like Galatians 3:28 (NAB), where an equal, mutual love is held up as the goal, we can see an incongruity begin to reveal itself. The early Church was a body of people who were all one in Christ Jesus, who saw themselves equal in their relationship to the Godhead.   “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Bible 1776) Yet this aspired-to state has a relatively short-lived existence over the lifetime of the Church. “…despite the irreplaceable participation of women in the founding and spreading of the church, women were marginalized once the community became somewhat established…Banned from the pulpit and altar, their wisdom has not been permitted to interpret the word of the gospel nor their spirituality to lead the church assembled in prayer.” (Johnson 91-92)

Rather than maintaining the roles originally given to them, a shift began in the male body of the church on their view of woman. Thinkers of the time began to focus on the female body as a gateway to the enemy rather than a person made in the image of God. Instead of operating as ‘one in Christ,’ women were reframed as temptresses of men and came to represent the reason that men fell from favor with God. “In the third century Tertullian viewed women as a second Eve…and because of their sin the Son of God had to die. Augustine, while affirming that woman is equal to men in her spiritual capacity, taught that in view of her body and social role, ‘she is not the image of God,’ but can be considered so only when taken together with man who is her head.” (Johnson 92) While Augustine could see the image of God in man alone, the feminine was only redeemable through her relationship with the masculine. Thus, man was independent while woman became interdependent: her access to the divine could only be found through the opposite sex, thereby becoming the secondary, less desirable gender not only in church but in society; ironically, this suppression of women was propelled by the very faith that once lifted women beyond the stature of chattel to equal standing with men in relationship with Christ.

To understand the true obstacles faced by Jesus in transforming the world, consider the account in Luke 13:12-16 (NAB) of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath: note the response that religious men in power have for a woman crippled for 18 years and the way that Christ responds not only to her, but to that man:

When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?”

The man in power showed no compassion for the woman, nor did he celebrate the miracle that was her healing. Instead, he focused on the violation of the Law. Jesus points out the man’s hypocrisy and elevates the status of the woman. Unlike the religious man who saw her as a broken Law, Jesus described her as a daughter of Abraham: Jesus’ treatment of her wasn’t because of her actions as an individual but rather because of her general identity as a woman of God’s chosen people. Indeed, the men Jesus addressed had greater compassion for a thirsty ox or ass than they did for a woman crippled for nearly two decades. Jesus asks, “…ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” Jesus takes issue with her bondage and desires freedom, something that honors God more than honoring the Sabbath. There is a tremendous lack of alignment in values between the men and Jesus, particularly regarding the value of women.

Diving into biblical accounts like these and recognizing what they reveal about the society in which Jesus walked, demonstrates how necessary discernment is in recognizing what is of man and what is of God. This discernment given to us by the holy Spirit, who not only scrutinizes everything but also reveals truth to us, can lead us down a path of deep relationship and greater reconciliation between each other and God. This is critical; in fact, the Kingdom of God is not even available to us if the Spirit isn’t with us. It says in John 2:5-8 (NAB)

Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Bible 1588)

This kind of relationship with the holy Spirit can sound weird, but the ramifications are profound. Cath Livesey is a leader within what she calls a prophetic church, which means (in its simplest terms) that they listen to God for each other. Prophecy in this context is understood as something given by the Holy Spirit that points towards Christ. While most churches like hers understand the holy Spirit as a he or an it, the notable difference of a church operating in relationship with the Spirit is a shift of power. The Church is not threatened by their inability to control the Spirit but celebrate operating in its fullness; the gender of the follower being moved by the Spirit is of no consequence. “…prophecy is about hearing God for other people. When we look at the Bible we see that prophecy involves the process by which the thoughts and intentions of God are communicated to his people via a human vessel. It origins are… divine revelation.” (Livesey 35) They see the power given by the Spirit as the primary means by which they can bring freedom and transformation to the church and the community, not as means for domination. This is certainly progress, but it still does not take us to a place where the feminine is inherently recognized in the Godhead. Do communities like this demonstrate that the gender of God doesn’t matter if you operate in the Spirit?

“While language reflects our world, it also shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. As hallowed by tradition and currently used, all-male images of God are hierarchal images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement…Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.” (Johnson 96) We still aren’t knowing God as fully as we could because we limit how God can be understood. And while language and power are neither good nor evil the way those two things are applied and used by humans can be alter our trajectory greatly. When we look at how power is used by what is a vastly androcentric world, we discover a systemic marginalization of women:

While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the worlds illiterate adults. Together with their dependent children, they comprise 75 percent of the worlds starving people and 80 percent of homeless refugees… they are also raped, prostituted, trafficked, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. (Johnson 91)

This same imbalance of power exists within many religious organizations. Within the Catholic Church, only men can serve as priests, and only men have authority over many of the rites Catholics understand as being critical to their entry into the kingdom of God.  “Exercising public authority in the church, men assume the right to speak of God; their own privileged position then served as the chief model for the divine. As a result, verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with visual representations in art, have forged a strong link in the popular mind between divinity and maleness.” (Johnson 98) Human history teaches us that when one group holds all the power, it effectively subjugates or oppresses those that are not of that group (examples include apartheid, ethnic minorities in Europe during WWII, the current crisis in Syria, etc.). While some might consider such comparisons to be dramatic, the point is to emphasize the disparity of power and the inevitable lack of freedom it creates. In effect, the patriarchy becomes a barrier to people better knowing God.

In summary, what the current Church perspective creates is a decision point for women. The first option is to receive relationship with God only through male bodies; that they are her intercessor, her priest, her path to Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit. The second is that, “As Carol Christ astutely observed, a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness. But she can never experience that which is freely available to every man and boy in her culture of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.” (Johnson 99) The risk of these two options is that our community continues moving forward with God as a male icon, resulting in a failure to reconcile relationships between women and God, women and men, and God and men. The Church also continues to limit the triune God: “…it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man.” (Johnson 98) By embracing the holy Spirit in her feminine identity as she was spoken of by Jesus, by remembering that she is equal to the persons who form the Godhead and by walking in the truth that not only does she possesses the attributes of God but that women are made in her image, we gain a richer and deeper answer for the questions we seek as individuals as well as a fulfillment to our calling as the Church. For the Church, “…to call for justice in the world the church must itself first be just. If church structure is in service of mission, then without just internal structures the church’s mission in the world will not be credible.” (Hines 167) Ultimately the femininity of the Spirit expands who God is to us, who we are to God and who we are to one another, thereby transforming the Church.

Works Cited

Bible. Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible. Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications, 2006. Book.

Brock, Sebastian. “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature.” Ed. Soskice, Janet Martin. After Eve. Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990. http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/brock.asp. Electronic.

Clouzet, Ron E. M. “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit and Why It Matters.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2006): 11-32. Electronic.

Distefano, Matthew. “The Holy Spirit is not a Male, Conservative Evangelical.” 25 April 2016. Patheos. Blog. 25 April 2017.

Hines, Mary E. “Community for Liberation.” LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. United States of America: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1993. 161-184. Book.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. United States of America: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. Book.

Livesey, Cath. My Sheep Have Ears: Exploring Prophecy with Discipleship and Mission. United Kingdom: 3DM Publishing, 2015. Book.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. Print.