There is a perception that Christianity lacks female characters that are venerated at the same level as Jesus or God the Father. But if you look a little deeper into Christian tradition, you might find that there is a female aspect to God, namely, The Holy Spirit.
Traditional Christians believe God has three aspects: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, aka The Trinity. While the Holy Spirit is normally seen as having no gender, I’m going to make the argument that the Holy Spirit is both feminine and a symbol of divine motherhood and wisdom.
To that end, I think the term The Holy “Mother” Spirit is a more fitting term. I mean, isn’t Father, Son and Mother a more a universal kind of trinity anyway?
Holy “Mother” Spirit Emerges
The entire Judeo/Islamic/Christian tradition gets a lot of flack these days for being too patriarchal.
While Catholics have a tradition of venerating Mary, Mother of God, I generally agree that a lack of a female aspect to God leads to an unbalanced psychology inside the Church. Indeed, some Christian views on women are seen as “repugnant.” That was the characterization made by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2009. He left the Southern Baptist Convention after sixty years, citing Baptist teachings, that women should be “subservient” to men, as the cause.
It’s little wonder. If the feminine has no central place in the divine order of the universe, then what role can women on earth even have, other than that of domestic subordinates?
Fortunately, there is currently some conversation going around that the Holy Spirit is indeed feminine. After all, the word spirit in Hebrew (the same as word for breath) is ruach, which is a feminine noun.
So, if the Holy Spirit is feminine, what kind of female would she be?
The Apostles Creed, an oath taken by many Christians, states that Christians believe that Jesus is God’s “only begotten Son…conceived by the Holy Spirit.” That sounds like mother’s work to me. So, while I think I can lay my argument to rest right there, let’s back all the way up, and get into the weeds.
One God, Many Aspects, Some of Them Girls!
Can you even have a female aspect to God? Can you have divine “characters” in a monotheistic religion? There’s only supposed to be one God, right?
Well, I’m approaching Christianity as what you might call Platonic-style Monotheism [link pending] – one God with component parts. These parts are aspects of The One true god, but they often act in seemingly independent ways or serve specific functions. That’s what the Trinity is, one god in three parts. This is different than polytheism, where you have separate, sometimes competing gods, with control over different aspects of the universe.
To trace how we get to the Holy Mother Spirit, we need to look back at the traditions that preceded present-day Christianity, namely Judaism, European antiquity and early Christian traditions, both conventional and Gnostic.
In the Hebrew Old Testament there is a reference to a divine female principal, Lady Wisdom, in Proverbs 8.
In the Proverbs, Wisdom, or Chokma in Hebrew (another feminine noun), tells a story about her presence at the beginning of the creation of the material universe. She appears to be a distinct divine form, different from the angels.
“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.”
-Lady Wisdom, Proverbs 8
In the Gnostic Religion there was a godform called Sophia, (the Greek word for wisdom). Gnostic Christians went way beyond the Trinity and had lots of divine characters who were aspects of The One. According to Gnostic myth, she is one of the manifestations of God’s thoughts. She lived up in Heaven before the creation of the material world, along with characters like Faith, Love, Bliss and other principals that corresponded to the characteristics of the Soul (psyche in Greek) [link pending].
One day, Sophia conceived (creates, or gives birth to) a godform called the Craftsman or The Creator who goes on to build the material world, and the Garden of Delights (Eden). To Gnostic Christians, The Creator was different than God the Father, the godform that Jesus referred to in the Gospels.
Remember: On this blog, the canonical scriptures are viewed as only part of the whole story.
Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, also has a long history in older Christian traditions as the mother of Hope, Faith and Love (or Charity). Orthodox Christians have venerated this idea of holy wisdom for centuries. The Haga Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Museum in Istanbul was the central church in the Orthodox world until it was captured and converted into a Mosque in 1453.
Some mystics, like 16th-century Christian mystic Jacobe Boehem, believed that Mary, Mother of Christ, is actually the earthly incarnation of Sophia.
A mystical school of thought called Sophology teaches that Sophia, in the form of the Holy Spirit, actually descended into Mary’s body during Pentecost.
In traditional Christianity, Pentecost is the moment in The Book of Acts, Chapter 2, when the Holy Spirit first makes its (uh…her) presence known to the world. Following Christ’s death, the 12 Apostles gather and the Holy Spirit appears above their heads as “tongues of flame.” It is at this moment that the Apostles came to understand all the languages of the world, presumably so they could spread the Gospels (the good news).
What is interesting is that Mary is present at this event, even though she is not considered to be an Apostle. It’s one of the few events in the Gospels, outside of the birth and death of Christ, that mentions Mary, the mother of God.
So in the Sophistic tradition, Pentecost is where Mary, Mother of God (the Son), is fully invested with the Holy Spirit, or with Sophia, Mother of God (the Creator).
Catholic tradition holds that later on, at Mary’s death (August 22), she is “assumed” into heaven. The Assumption of Mary is an act of investment that establishes her as more than a saint, more than an angel, but less than Christ.
Paintings of the Assumption of Mary often show her paired with the Trinity. They show God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (visualized as a dove) triangulating around her.
Once Mary was “assumed” she then received the title Mary Queen of Heaven. That term is taken directly from the old pantheon of antiquity*, where Isis, an Egyptian goddess, was known as the Queen of Heaven. The term was actually used all across the European world and when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, temples to the Queen of Heaven were confiscated by the state and turned into churches dedicated to Mary.
In the ancient worldview of antiquity, Isis corresponded to Athena, the Greek virgin goddess (one of many virgin goddesses)[link pending]. Both Isis and Athena were considered goddesses of wisdom.
The Holy Mother Spirit and Mary “The Comforter”
In modern Catholic tradition, Mary is still a big deal. She is the go-to person for the petitioning of prayers and the providing of comfort. This is pretty similar to how the Holy Spirit is defined.
To many Christians, especially Protestants who do not treat Mary as an important character, the Holy Spirit is the part of God that is most present in everyday life. Many regard the Holy Spirit as “The Comforter” that Christ spoke of in John 14:26, the one that would come after Jesus’ death. Well, what provides more comfort than a mother? And as I stated above, the Holy Spirit comes to Mary after the crucifixion.
Ultimately, we need to distinguish between gender, sex and God (the ultimate nature of reality). Some western mystical traditions maintain that all manifestations, divine and mundane (Earthly), are gendered. But ultimately, God, that which transcends all, has no gender or sex. God is whole and complete. All things are an expression of God’s will, intellect and presence. God is the cause of all effects and lives in all the manifold beings of the world and in all the laws of the universe.
To that end, for religion, it comes down to a symbolic system that, like a language, helps us express and understand reality. For me, a language system that excludes the feminine (and half the human population) is like trying to write in English using only half the alphabet.
* The Queen of Heaven is specifically mentioned in the Old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah as a false idol. This could be a reference to Near East goddesses Ishtar or Inanna. Scholar Joseph Cambell corresponded Ishtar to Isis. Doubtless the Hebrews would view veneration of Mary Queen of Heaven as blasphemy. But then, they also view the veneration of Jesus as the messiah as blasphemy, so there you have it.