Sister Elizabeth Johnson maintains that we have forgotten the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whose presence “is consistently linked with the power to denounce social wrongdoing, announce comfort for those who are suffering and bring about justice for the poor.”
Even when the Spirit is remembered, we tend to water down the full power and meaning of her presence, Johnson wrote in her 1992 feminist treatise on the nature of God, She Who Is.
The Spirit is compassionate; the Spirit is a giver of life, she said. The Spirit enables us to experience righteous anger, to resist evil, “to utter the prophetic word.” She can be seen in acts of giving and receiving forgiveness, in caring for the helpless, “in hoping against hope in the face of overwhelming oppression, suffering or death or, in the absence of felt hope, in the sheer grit to go on.”
The Protestant tradition has tended to privatize the Holy Spirit, the Catholic tradition to institutionalize her, “tying the Spirit’s activity very tightly to ecclesiastical office and ordained ministry.”
Johnson critiques the use of male language to describe God. The way the faith community uses language reflects what it views as the highest good. No language is adequate to God.
“The reality of God is mystery beyond all imagining.” By talking about God exclusively in masculine language, she says, we perpetuate an oppressive, patriarchal system.
But she also resists talking about God as mother or talking about God as having feminine features. Such attempted correctives only mean that God can still be spoken of as “him.”
“In the light of the Gospel, by what right are compassionate love, reverence and nurturing predicated as primordially feminine characteristics, rather than human ones?” she asks. “Why are strength, sovereignty and rationality exclusively masculine properties?”
If the Holy Spirit is considered the feminine aspect or person of the Trinity, other problems ensue.
“For all practical purposes, we end up with two clear masculine images and an amorphous feminine third,” she says. “The Spirit even as God remains the ‘third’ person, easily subordinated to the other two since she proceeds from them and is sent by them to mediate their presence and bring to completion what they have initiated.”
We must correct our language about God. We must also see the Spirit as the Paraclete, the one who advocates in court “against the powers of the world” and then hands down a sentence against those who do not help their neighbour in need.
“Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening liberating compassion.”
We need to recover the sense of the Spirit as gift, the one who is given with no intention that the gift be repaid. To understand the Spirit as love and as gift is to understand God’s power as quickening and renewing creation and relationships.
Spoken of in this manner, “God’s Spirit cannot be used to legitimize patriarchal structures but signals a migration toward reciprocity in community as the highest good.”
While there are points at which Johnson’s analysis can be questioned, I maintain she is correct in asserting that the God of love is on the side of the poor and oppressed. Her challenge to recover the notion of Spirit-filled prophecy that denounces evil oppressive systems and announces liberty for captives and comfort for those who mourn ought to be taken seriously.
Finding the Spirit means living in the fruit of the Holy Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22). That fruit is not only a sign of a Spirit-filled individual, but is, more basically, a sign of a Spirit-filled community.
The Spirit is the giver of the kingdom where the Lamb guides God’s people “to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7.17). Johnson’s reflections should spur us to move with God to the place where such prophecy is fully realized.