(Photo: flickr user Rolands Lakis)
By Kate Kooyman
When I was a kid, my aunt was babysitting me while my parents went out of town. She must have said something about God that piqued my interest, and I asked her, “Is God a boy or a girl?” She pulled her Bible off the shelf, and showed me a place where God was referred to as Father, pointed out the pronoun “he” in another passage, turned to Matthew’s account of Jesus being born “a son.” Crystal clear to me: God’s a boy.
I was also taught that I am created in God’s image. So envisioning God as male forced me to be inventive about what parts of me were the God-ish parts. Where my big brother might have been able to take this notion at face value — “I’m like God” — I naturally had to make some accommodations. Was the God-like part of me my mind? My piety? Was I like God when I was creative? When I was strong? And… what parts of me were not like God?
I’ve grown up a bit since then, and I’m working toward a more mature image of God and of myself. I mentioned to a clergy friend that I’ve been using the feminine pronoun “she” when I talk about the Holy Spirit — which I didn’t make up. There’s lots of history in the Christian tradition of calling the Holy Spirit a “her”; the Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine. I confessed that every time I say it I feel a little weird — but good weird, like growing up. She raised her eyebrows, expressing that she’d never dare to call the Spirit a “she” while leading worship. Too risky.
There’s a national dialogue happening right now about consent, assault, and rape culture. As women have shared their stories — and it seems like we all have one to tell — I’ve begun to wonder if these things aren’t related. We have been groped on busses, endured aggressive shouts from strangers, smiled at off-color jokes in the breakroom. We have feared walking through parking lots, feared accepting drinks at parties, feared speaking up to our bosses. We have avoided being rude, avoided “setting him off,” avoided the skepticism of those who would question our story. And those are the stories of the lucky ones. Women are not fully human in this culture, which is a secular way of saying that we aren’t seen as fully bearing God’s image.
I wonder a bit about the men who are the other characters in these stories — how they recall those incidents. I wonder if they’re shrugged off as learning experiences, as the unfortunate (but necessary) means by which a boy in America learns to become a man. Somehow we have normalized sexual harassment, persuasion, and even assault against women as simply part of the sexual development of boys. I wonder if we train our girls to expect this, even coach them to like it, because somewhere deep down we believe our boys have an inherent value that girls do not have. That our boys are made in God’s image. And our girls are too, almost.
I fear that my sons are growing up with a faith that asserts God’s maleness, and insinuates that their own maleness is God-like. I fear that it will create a worldview that sees women as the bearers of less inherent holiness than they bear. I fear that this fuels, rather than extinguishes, the disrespect, commodification, and abuse of women’s bodies that has become so commonplace in this country.
But then again, maybe the Holy Spirit is at work even now — in the midst of Access Hollywood buses and shielding our kids’ ears from the evening news. Maybe the Spirit is moving us toward the courage to name the harm that’s been done and take steps to repair it. Maybe we’ll emerge not only with a healthier perspective about men and women, but with a bigger, more challenging, and mysterious, and more faithful understanding of God, too. Who knows. She moves in mysterious ways, that Holy Spirit.