The Fiery Power, within and without
“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die….I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters; in the sun, the moon, and the stars, I burn. And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all….I, the fiery power, lie hidden to these things and they blaze from me.
- Hildegaard of Bingen
Elizabeth Johnson’s “Spirit-Sophia” paints the Spirit as present in the full-breadth of existence: the beauty and tragedy of creation, the flourishing and ruination of nature, the love and pain of human interpersonal relations, and the impacts of destruction and restoration by culture. This compassionate, liberating power is “everywhere life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain — wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.”
Building on Biblical and historical writings, Johnson links the traditional neglect of theological reflection on pneumatology with the historical marginalization of women, possibly subtly disdained due to the gentle imagery commonly associated with the Spirit. Capturing this femininity in action, Johnson connects the Spirit with such typically-female characteristics as life-giving, vivifying, creative workings of life, renewal and empowerment of earth and humanity, and the act and gift of gracing. Like a blowing wind, this Spirit gift is a mystery liberally gracing all creation, without constraint or determination, free within its own. This image leads to three key insights for a feminist theology of God, namely: the transcendent God’s immanence, divine passion for liberation, and the constitutive nature of relation.
Contributing to the conversation, Sarah Coakley challenges a strict feminine depiction of the Spirit in her work, “‘Femininity’ and the Holy Spirit?” While on the surface the inclusion of femininity in the Trinity appears to appeal to modern thought, Coakley contends that Spirit femininity is often construed uncritically in a way that shores up societal norms by aligning the Spirit with traditional views of the “ever-reliable ‘mum’ permanently tied to the kitchen, or of an ecclesiastically acceptable form of the pin-up girl, accompanied by simpering attendants” where ‘feminine’ qualities are devalued by society at large, while enthusiastically recommended for women by men who fail to share them.
Coakley suggests the consideration of an anthropomorphically-imaged theology in which Divinity is either male or female with the understanding that gender assignment of the Godhead must be fluid. “We need to use both ‘fathering’ and ‘mothering’ images while at the same time transcending them both: ‘The God/ess who is both male and female, and neither male nor female, points us to an unrealized new humanity,’ the ‘Messianic humanity’ of Galatians 3:28.”
In response to these articles, this group feels a genuine connection to the ingrained wrestling of the “he/she” language inherent within theological discussions. While the terminology may be new, the substance is deeply familiar. It appears this quandary of gender characteristic assignment is a response to the suffocating, unbalanced, traditional view of faith through “he” terminology and serves as an attempt to restore the brokenness, dismissal, and invisibility felt by many women in religious circles and experiences. However, while this wrestling may help redeem the heart of women, this group does not necessarily feel the need to pursue male/female constructs in an effort to pursue redemption of God. In fact, viewing God through gender of any sort feels restrictive, cloistering both humanity and God in a box. As such, gender-descriptiveness of the Father, Son, and Spirit feels beside the point.
Instead of assigned femininity or masculinity, we lean into the wonder and mystery of God: the fiery power found in the liberating, healing Spirit within us and the vast, breath-captivating Spirit outside us.
Perhaps the deeper motive behind our quest for a definitive identity of God is a reflection of our own desire to know and be known. Recognizing the instinctive shame present in this need to find ourselves within God’s image, we wonder if this is where God longs to meet and restore us: deep in the midst of our search for belonging and reflection, intimate Spiritualogical connectedness.
As such, why is it we struggle to align ourselves with a God we can easily categorize and understand? Must God be fully conceptualized by human minds? What do we gain when we are able to identify with the masculinity or femininity of Divinity? What do we lose?