Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit
Today we celebrate Pentecost, when the breath of the Spirit flowed through Jesus’ friends and empowered them to bring The Way to communities as complicated as ours. Sent forth by the Spirit, disciples preached Christ’s countercultural Reign of radical love and justice to Jews and Gentiles, women and men alike. The movement of the Spirit is God at work in the world, and yet, beyond Pentecost and Confirmation, how often do we hear the Holy Spirit invoked in church?
Each Pentecost since grad school, I return to a lecture by one of my favorite Catholic theologians, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ. Almost 30 years after its publication, the Spirit-centered framework that Johnson presents in Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit continues to offer meaningful insights for individual and collective transformation. She highlights the shared marginalization of women, the earth, and the Creator Spirit—all givers and sustainers of life in some form—who are often ignored, exploited, thrown away, assaulted, and raped. Clearly, this treatment diminishes their lives, as well as their life-giving capacities, without which the world would cease to exist.
Johnson explains that since religious Westerners tend to imagine God as monarchical, transcendent, and removed from the “stuff” of everyday life, Creator Spirit, representing God’s immanence, is usually overlooked. This limited consciousness enables people to view women and the earth as likewise disposable and unworthy of inclusion. Johnson calls for us to rethink these elements in order to discover the wholeness possible for all people. By uplifting the trivialized, by dialoguing about the value of that which traditionally has been devalued, perhaps humanity can become truly life-centered for future generations (Johnson, 2-3).
Johnson explores the impacts of hierarchical dualism—dividing reality into two separate, opposing spheres and assigning one more value than the other—throughout history. The divine, the transcendent, the rational mind, and the ruling class have been viewed as “masculine.” They have been understood as superior to and separate from matter, the fickle flesh, the lower material principle, nature, and the lower class, deemed “feminine”. This unequal system established women’s supposed inferiority to men, nature as something over which men had dominion rather than a gift that required humanity’s care, and God’s image as male, while the “feminine” Spirit has often been forgotten (Ibid., 17-21).
Through the lens of feminist theology, Christianity can offer a sacramental witness to the vocation of the entire world by becoming a community of equal disciples. The gift of feminist thinking for Johnson is mutuality, the understanding of human beings as interconnected. This appreciation for interdependence can offer to the environmental crisis an approach of togetherness that leads not only to stewardship (power over), but to true kinship (mutuality) with the earth (Ibid., 23-28; 47-49).
Johnson defines the Holy Spirit we celebrate at Pentecost as “God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle…the creative origin of all life…the unceasing, dynamic flow of divine power that sustains the universe, bringing life forth” (Ibid., 42). Not only is the Spirit situated at the onset of creation, but in the world today, moving and working in all things. Johnson spotlights the feminine images in the Christian tradition, particularly Woman Wisdom (Gk. Sophia), a personification of the Holy Spirit. Sophia is referred to as “sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice…” (Ibid., 52). These titles offer insight into the creative and redemptive aspects of God as Spirit. They also affirm the giftedness of women and their equal contributions to spirituality (Ibid., 52-55).
Inspired by this Spirit, Johnson suggests contemplative prayer and prophetic witness as meaningful tools to experience true metanoia. On this Pentecost, might we allow the Spirit to draw us in and move us to action for the sake of kinship with God, the earth, women, and people of all genders.