The Queer Holy Spirit?

One of the funny things about having an area of specialty is that you can have very specific, and to outside eyes, ridiculous, pet peeves. As someone with a background in linguistics, one of mine is when people read philosophical or theological meaning into the grammatical gender of a noun in languages like French or Hebrew. I remember this particular bugbear once rearing its head for me when I heard a sermon in which someone referred to the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God, justifying this on the feminine grammatical gender of the Hebrew word for ‘spirit’, ruaḥ. Now, I completely understand why someone would want not just to find a place for femininity within our conceptions of God, but a uniquely feminine place within divinity. After all, no matter how much Christian theology might rightly insist that God is beyond categories of gender and sex, the fact that one Person of the Trinity is canonically known as ‘Father’, and another becomes incarnate as a man — and is therefore known as ‘Son’ — has certainly skewed our common conceptions of God towards the masculine. It’s natural for the feminine to want to push back and carve its own place within God. (This is why I think it’s important to be intentional about leaning into the significant feminine imagery for the divine that is in our Scriptures.) But grammatical gender is not the place to go looking for this. Grammatical gender in most languages has more to do with the ways a word is formed than with any sense of biological gender or sex. In Greek for example, for the most part, abstract ideas are formed using the ‘feminine’ –e/a endings, professions using the ‘masculine’ -os ending, and places the ‘neuter’ –on forms. It’s morphology, not psychology or theology. In other languages, it can be based on how the noun is counted, or even in which myth it features prominently. And in other languages, like French, it’s more or less random; as it happens, most parts of the female reproductive system are grammatically masculine in French! So, as a general rule, reading anything philosophical or theological into grammatical gender is silly.

But the example of the Holy Spirit is particularly egregious because while, yes, the Hebrew word for spirit is feminine, its Greek counterpart, pneuma, is grammatically neuter. So, if we insist on reading into the grammatical gender of the Spirit, we’d have to say that between the Old and New Testaments, the AFAB (Assigned-Female-at-Birth) Holy Spirit came out as being non-binary. We could take this even further since in Latin, the traditional ecclesiastical language of the Western Church, the word for spirit, spiritus, is grammatically masculine. So, if you really think grammatical gender has philosophical meaning, it follows that the Holy Spirit is actually gender-fluid: The Holy Spirit is queer.

The day I first had this thought, I was feeling delighted in my snark (far from my most gracious moment), when I realized that all this is actually kind of fitting. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it fits far better than its smug origin story for me might suggest. I’m not, of course, making any comment on the gender or ‘sexuality’ of the Spirit of God. But rather, it seems that the Holy Spirit’s role in the Scriptures is reminiscent in some ways of the role queer people of all stripes play in society. Allow me to explain.

One of the most consistent ways the Holy Spirit is described in the Scriptures is as a force that shakes things up. It is portrayed as ‘tongues of fire’ (Acts 2.3), ‘rivers flowing with living water’ (John 7.38), and as the ‘rush of a violent blast’ (Acts 2.2). All of these are elemental images of transformation. As I put it a couple years ago, they are “the basic stuff of everyday life co-opted by the Power of God to be agents of change in the world.” The Holy Spirit is at times soft and gentle like a dove, but its role in the world is more akin to that of a hurricane, a forest fire, or a raging river. The Holy Spirit leaves nothing unchanged in its wake. In the Pentecost story of Acts 2, the Holy Spirit takes a band of dispirited and fearful disciples and turns them into a people of such joy that they spill out onto the streets and their neighbours think they’re drunk, to the extent that Peter insists it is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the Day of the LORD, that day when God would act to set the world aright. As far as he was concerned, Pentecost was the Revolution. In Acts 10-11, Peter allows the presence of the Holy Spirit to break down the barriers in his heart and mind to the full welcome of Gentiles into the community of faith.

The Spirit of God takes our expectations and conceptions and reveals them to be finite and inadequate to fully express the reality of God and God’s heart for the world. This is why, historically speaking, those groups who have cared most for cultivating life in the Spirit — whether mystics and sages of old, or charismatics today — have always been suspicious of the language of theology. (And, why those who have cared the most about specificity of language often been the most suspicious of the life of the Spirit!)

If we step back, the whole Gospel is about subverting expectations and categories. In the Christmas story, God becomes a baby, a virgin becomes a mother, the armies of heaven proclaim peace, a king is found is a stable. In Jesus’ teaching, it is the poor, the mourning, the meek who are blessed, the losers who are the winners and the winners who are the losers. This is one area that the ancient Church understood far better than we seem to today. Its apophatic theology insisted that we have to unsay everything we say about God, that all of our categories are nothing compared to God. Somehow over the past few hundred years, the West became too satisfied in its categories and boxes. That is not of God.

As we saw in the post on gender in the creation story, God loves the messy margins and boundaries between categories. The in-between people and places are where the most diversity, fruitfulness, and life can be found.

And this is where the connection with queer folk comes in. Like the Holy Spirit, the presence of people who don’t fit into the nice-and-tidy categories of gender our society loves poke aholes in society’s conceptual boxes and reveals them to be inadequate. We are reminders that the world is a far more creative and interesting place than received, fixed notions of gender and sex would lead us to believe. What is drag if not the performance of gender in order to make fun of it and reveal how superficial and silly, not to mention ever-changing, so many of our social conventions around it are? (Something I find hilarious about the current climate of increased antagonism towards drag queens is that many of the elements drag’s opponents fixate on — a man wearing makeup, painted nails, or high heels — were originally used in the West as part of men’s fashion! And we’re only a hundred years distant from the time when the idea of a woman wearing pants was considered shocking.) In the face of social convention, queer folk of all stripes whisper important doubt into the world’s ear: What if I told you that the clothes don’t make a man? What if I told you that being a mother doesn’t make a woman? What If I told you that sex can be about reciprocity? What if I told you that nurturing can be masculine and that power can be feminine? That the male and female archetypes don’t grow more distant in their mature forms, but actually meet? The more we interrogate our social conventions around gender, the more we come to realize just how flimsy and unnecessary they are, both socially and theologically.

And so, what do the Spirit and queer folk have in common? We shake things up. We break up stodgy conventions and the status quo, we question assumptions masquerading as eternal truths. We reveal the world as it is, not as society wishes it to be.

And in that way, at least, we can say with all honesty and in all truth, that the Holy Spirit is queer.

“The Refiner’s Fire is kindled.

The Mighty River of God’s justice is flowing.

The Winds of Change are blowing.

Are we ready?

Are we ready to be broken? To be melted? To be molded? To be filled by God’s Holy, Good, and Life-Giving Spirit?

Are we ready to be changed?”