Before I became Christian in university, one of the biggest things that bothered me was that God and Jesus were always presented as explicitly male–even C. S. Lewis, who often has a more nuanced understanding as a lay person falls into this trap using some very culturally specific logic to portray God as inherently masculine. As for the Holy Spirit–truth be told, the Holy Spirit wasn’t really talked about much, and I often just lumped the Holy Spirit into God by another name, not really understanding the difference between the two (to be fair, I sometimes still struggle with that particular divide of Persons in the Trinity).
This may very well be why I was Wiccan for years before becoming Christian–the Divine Feminine was a lot more my speed than the Divine Masculine. Since becoming Christian, I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of faith, gender, sex, and sexuality–how the Divine plays into all of that is certainly worth investigating. So, let’s take a look at each of the persons in the Trinity, and I’ll share some reflections on each. Jesus will be saved for last, since that is where the biggest counterclaims in Christian circles tend to rally.
It has been a huge relief to realize that God has been seen as beyond gender differences far more often than most folks realize. There’s a strong tradition in Judaism of recognizing God as not bound by a specific gender. For Christianity, the story is a little more complex, but there has always been a strong strain of God as both Mother and Father to us all. Throughout the Bible, in both what Christians have deemed the Old and New Testaments, God is spoken of using metaphors of feminine and masculine. While the He/Him pronoun is consistent in English translations, the metaphors people use make clear that the pronouns could just as easily be She/Her.
Some point to Genesis and the creation male and female in the image of God as a counter-argument; but that belies are modern Westernized thinking. The pairs in Genesis, light/day, earth/sky, etc., culminating in male and female, were not understood as binaries. They were understood as poles representing either end of a spectrum–when such “poles” are mentioned throughout Scripture, they are meant to sum up the entire spectrum between them; not to divide the world into binaries. God’s world, contrary to what many have claimed, has never been divided into black and white–it has always been an entire rainbow.
Christian mystics have recognized this for some time–Julian of Norwich is perhaps most famous, in her Revelations of Divine Love for making the case of God as Mother of us all.
The Holy Spirit
The Spirit is, contrary to many Christians’ assumptions, present in the Scriptures through the entire Bible. Some later writers tried to separate the spirit in the “Old Testament” from the Spirit in the “New Testament”, but that is largely a false distinction. There does seem to be a change in the Spirit after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, as Pentecost demonstrates, but that is to be expected if the three Persons of the Trinity are in constant dance with each other, as some have speculated.
What is clear is that the Spirit is often described using feminine words; perhaps this is most fitting, as the Spirit seems to be the most expansive member of the Trinity, the one who breaks all the rules and reaches both wide and deep. The Spirit may partially explain why so much of the church in the first few centuries consisted of female membership; theologian Grace Si-Jun Kim also makes a strong argument for the Spirit as a promising avenue for multi-faith dialogue and engagement–an avenue the United Church of Canada seems to embrace in its creeds and faith statements.
One of the most contentious figures in this whole debate among Christians is, unsurprisingly Jesus. Disagreements about the nature of Jesus have been a staple of Christianity since the beginning so this really shouldn’t be surprising–however, it IS crucial to determine what one thinks and to try to get it as right as possible.
Those who defend God as wholly masculine like to appeal to Jesus. Surely, they say, if Jesus and God were one as the early church eventually agreed, then God must be inherently male. After all, Jesus was male and he called God “Father”. So case closed, right?
To which I respond, by no means! First, let’s address calling God, “Father”. In modern debates with gender and sexuality such a hot topic, we get caught up on the gender Jesus chose–rather than realizing that the nature of the relationship was the point here. Jesus’ address of God as “Father” or “Abba”, and his command to his followers to do the same, was a statement about the personal relationship with and access to God. God was not distant and abstract; nor did God require deference–rather, God craved an intimacy, marked by vulnerability, authenticity, and complete honesty. This was the point of that address, and while “Father” may work for some in that regard, “Mother” works better for others; the difference in the pronoun used would not matter to Jesus, a first century Israelite with an understanding of God drawn from Hebrew scriptures.
Second, let’s look at Jesus embodied. Jesus certainly appeared as male–but we know, from the perspective of the 21st century that despite outward appearances, even of genitalia, sex, gender and sexuality are far more complicated and nuanced than that.
This is where listening to LGBTQ+ voices in the church can be incredibly helpful. One of the things that becomes clear in the Scriptures, when one has knowledge of the culture Jesus was residing in, is that Jesus broke gender conventions left and right. Jesus had no problem interacting with women alone; with Samaritan women; dining with adulterous women and prostitutes; and having contact with “unclean” women by the standards of the day. Jesus also mixed in metaphors from the life of women in his parables about the kingdom of heaven–metaphors that have astonished some scholars with the depth of his knowledge of what was traditionally “women’s work”.
In addition to this, we face real problems in the person of Jesus himself. Granted, there is not much to tell us what Jesus was up to between the age of 12 and 30–but despite a tendency going back to at least medieval France (and possibly the gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene) to romanticize about Jesus having a wife and possible heirs, there is no mention of a wife or heirs of Jesus in any extant gospels or the epistles–the possible exception again being the gnostic Gospel of Mary, but it’s a stretch and the crucial verses in this regard are lost to us. While inferring too much from silence of a text is a mistake, it does certainly seem like if Jesus had a wife and/or children that would have been attested to, as its likely Christianity would have watched such wife and children closely, and certainly celebrated them.
It may surprise some to learn that the rise of the conservative white evangelical church in the USA in the 20th century was partially in response to Christianity in the late 19th century largely being a faith of women membership. Some very insecure white men were bothered by this, and by the Jesus they found as too “wimpy”, too soft-hearted, too loving. So one of their masterful PR projects was to build up the idea of Jesus as a burly, working man, who talked tough, and would be returning as an avenging warrior. At the heart of this total makeover of Jesus was a recognition that the Jesus we see in the Scriptures and know in our hearts did NOT live up to their gendered ideal.
There’s a curious tradition that says Jesus was a carpenter, used to working with his hands–but the text is actually largely silent on this. Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father for lack of a better term, was a carpenter, though likely not as we understood it–it’s more likely, from what we’ve learned of first century Nazareth, that he was more of a builder and keeper of the simple mud huts folks lived in. While it would certainly be traditional for Jesus to learn the trade from Joseph and follow him, we actually don’t know how long Joseph was around; while Joseph is mentioned as being involved when Jesus is 12, he essentially disappears as a presence when Jesus is an adult in his 30s–it’s always Mary his mother, and her sons and daughters (Jesus’ siblings), who are following him around, or trying to get him to stop riling folks up.
So we honestly have very little idea of what Jesus’ life looked like between the ages of 12 and 30. There is room in those “lost years” for Jesus to take up work as a carpenter, be married, and perhaps even become a widower–but he may not have done any of those things.
While we can’t be certain of what Jesus did in the “lost years” of his life, we do also have to recognize another aspect of his teachings. Contrary to many at the time, he actually praised eunuchs and the celibate lifestyle. This trend continued into the early church–one of the stories in the Book of Acts tells of the apostle Phillip coming across an Ethiopian eunuch and baptizing him. The Pauline epistles also abound–Paul does not have a wife, as Peter does; Paul praises celibacy and in fact even seems to prefer it (though he does consent to marriage a practicality). In one of the most tantalizing and controversial lines in his epistles, Paul, in a discussion on merits of celibacy vs. marriage, says that he “wishes all could be as I am”. Interpretations on what this means differs–some argue Paul was an early widower; other suggest a low libido–or even full out asexuality.
There is no simple answer to the mysteries of where Jesus was on the sex, gender, and sexuality spectrum. He appeared outwardly male so far as we know, but even folks who are externally male can be internally female due to a host of different factors. What is clear is that Jesus broke long-standing norms around gender, sex, and sexuality left and right; and that the early churches founded in his names continued to do the same. And that should warn us all against assuming too much about any inherent or universal gender or sex, in Creation as well as in the Trinity.