13. Sun and Gold

The book of Wisdom presents the Spirit of God in a female form as wisdom, Sophia the “daughter of God,” and gives a wonderful list of her powers. Later, Paul also teaches about the Spirit of God or “paraclete”–he says the Spirit aids memory, empowers living of non-violent justice, groans with people in their weakness and need, shows them what to hope for, and bears “fruits” in their lives. Whether Paul himself thought of this Spirit as male or female is not known. But when his teachings were later formalized into the doctrine of the trinity, the paraclete was seen as simply male–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A sentient being that ‘bears fruit’ sounds female, and in fact the traits Paul lists in Galatians as fruits of the Spirit are qualities coded in most cultures as feminine rather than masculine. But it seems that many in the list for Sophia, the “daughter of God,” are usually coded masculine. Shall we play with this irony?

“The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustingness, gentleness, and self-control–no law can touch such things as these” (Gal. 5:22-23). Something that bears this fruit not only sounds female, it could even sound a little like Virginia Woolf’s ‘angel in the house,’ that Victorian mother stereotype that she throttled because it would mess with her pen every time she started to write about sex. Of course, Paul needed an ideal of inspiration that wouldn’t offend against Roman law, as some aspects of his movement did, so he wanted something for a sensibility trained in stoicism. He portrayed the Spirit as the power of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and the opposite of something very bodily: “If you go snapping at one another and tearing one another to pieces, take care: you will be eaten up by one another.” Instead, he says, grow these spirit fruits. It’s another wonderful list, and I want to live it without thwarting jouissance—the body’s joy. Too tall an order?

As Sophia, the Spirit evokes a different list. She is “intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, shrewd, irresistible, beneficent, friendly to human beings, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying, penetrating all spirits” (Wisdom 7:22-23). A good list for an administrative job description? Does it add up to interpersonal skills? Being mobile, incisive, lucid, invulnerable, shrewd, penetrating, dependable, and almighty could sound like an agenda for a male candidate. Yet this is the “daughter” of God. The other, the Pauline view is God as the supposedly male paraclete, the force of love, emotion, and affect within believers–but sounding rather like a squabble-settling mother. If the scriptures invert their own cultural gender codes like this, can we achieve much clear patterning with the ones available now?

At a meeting I attended of English Department administrators, a group talked about how we might transform the university if we had a cry room for women administrators, with padded walls, for the impossible moments. One of the three men at the table said, in all earnestness, “Wait, why only for women? We need it too!” Of course, aren’t there moments when someone, by staying calm, saves the day? Someone in a low, calm voice talks bureaucratese a while, recalls precedents, spins hypothetical options, and meanwhile people calm down and some way forward occurs to someone. Aren’t order and self-control highly valuable much of the time? Should we claim them for femaleness rather than, possibly, seeing them as masculinist repression of body and spirit? Maybe the effort to gender-code such traits is useless, but for many men, when they ‘get real,’ they want women to have the gentleness, kindness, patience and self-control, while they claim the incisiveness, invulnerability, irresistibility, beneficence, and almightiness.

Here’s a possible habit that, whether it’s feminine or what, is self-controlled. In talking about people not present whom you and your listeners know, try always talking about them as if they were present. That is, try to speak about them in terms they themselves would find tolerable or at least accessible–try to avoid saying things about them that one wouldn’t say to them if given the right occasion, even if one might then speak more slowly and carefully. (For me, this doesn’t mean never saying anything ‘not nice’ since I’m rather blunt at times.) It is a kind of second-personing of one’s whole community. Of course waging a direct campaign with someone is second-personing too–’hey you, come here and duke it out, till we can figure out what’s wrong between us!’–though if the person hides you’re out of luck. These practices can be taxing and not always possible. They seem to carry an emotional cost similar to that of sexual self-denial, though lesser in degree. That is, ridiculing and dismissing someone not present can be very satisfying, even at times richly deserved by the party. But refraining from it also spares one, to the extent it is achieved, some other costs: petty feuds, bickering, scorn, vulnerability, the pettiness of gossip. There seems to be an economy of “bodily” urges in relation to each other. Satisfy some, you may have to suppress–or be robbed of–the satisfaction of others

What is the good of our passion and aggression, so much maligned in most of the world religions? Rosemary Haughton’s idea in The Passionate God is that passionate love fuels “breakthroughs” at points of human weakness, from the sphere of the divine to that of affect and consciousness. She calls these “exchanges of life,” and fully entering them is her definition of goodness–human and divine. By the same token, “refusal of exchange” is evil. This is intriguing, but how can one base any accounting on it? Since there are various passionate exchanges of life possible in anyone’s immediate scene but one can’t fully enter all (or even many) of them, how can such refusal be evil? Her concept becomes more accessible when she talks about tenderness as opposed to fear (p. 115), and talks, instead of ‘refusal,’ about false exchanges, ones that block the divine. She says the irony of how we live out the divine goodness through exchanges of life is that the very ability we have for entering them in a freedom of love, or conscious and cultivated mutuality–that power is the same one that, if turned to grasping and domination, becomes evil. This would mean that good love will be something one stands ready to lose, whatever the cost. And good power as well. Those two potent equivalents, like matter and energy, are explosive when being transformed into each other, much to be scanned and questioned when being thus traded, as yet they will commonly be. One can give up love or power, or both, sometimes. But not creativity. There most incisively we meet the Spirit. For that one should seek and persist, with the steadfastness of Sophia.

A friend, afraid before surgery, said that religion seems to be about learning to love and learning to die–two sides of the same coin. For her, the gold of the God-experience came sometimes in the light spread over sun-covered hills of soft-white wheat. Religion is about the goodness of God, which stays as open-ended as love and as sure as death—a “flame of Yahweh,” as the Song of Solomon says. How can one wrap thoughts around so vastly diverse a concept as the divine goodness? The Holy Spirit is the divine goodness come into our emotive life as fire and breath, not to be suppressed. The Spirit is also like the wind, moving where it will.

Among the Spirit’s affects and effects, we need to suppose some quality of a blank term, even though we can name some of the wonders that we “taste and see” in “the goodness of the Lord.” We can name the blessed gifts of mothering, the generative song of sex and creativity, and the messianic signs of power, whereby “The hungry are fed, the sick healed, prisoners released, and the good news preached to the poor”–just some of the bounties. But the blank cipher quality would be a participator function in the Spirit, in Sophia–as in a hypertext where the user enters responses that become part of the text. It would be so because value needs to touch the divine goodness through participation–and also because each value system will have its own concreteness. There’s a range of variation in culturally differing senses of ‘the good.’ And “God is not without witness in any nation.” The Spirit always enters ‘exchanges of life’ with us.

It seems telling that faithfulness is not among Paul’s traits inspired in believers by the Paraclete, though mentioned in a sense as “steadfastness” for the Sophia of Wisdom. The Spirit is God-present, God filling some utterly present moment for some person or group, a moment of unhindered flow of self-giving—plenitude, the theorists call it, and “surplus of signified.” Promises and laws are, by contrast, a constraint on present moments, at once from their past and their future. Yet the promises of God are a certain kind of logion–the kind that helps us claim, or enter into, the divine goodness–a participator function: “I will not forget you”; “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”; “Though the mountains may fall, the love of the Lord will stand.” So promise-keeping is part of imitatio Christi.

Promise-keeping, though, can sometimes mean being caught in a dead version of oneself, a version no longer sustaining, for oneself or others. It might mean a “refusal of exchange.” Since we are such brief pulses of growth and light, like the grass that withers in a day, or harvested wheat, our promise-keeping is brief at best, in great contrast to the long faithfulness of God. Is the main thing, then, to be broken and received like grains of wheat falling to the ground? Certainly, a major variant in different cultures is how much weight is given to continuity vs. to change and renewal. At any rate, wherever faithfulness may come into righteousness, it has meaning only as a relational term. Some ‘present’ time is conditioned by its past and future: upholding bargains, maintaining growth–everything the messianic signs do for sustaining community–requires some measure of continuity. Change has its costs; so does continuity. Divine life balances them.

Cultivating faithfulness in relationships to the extent that one is allowed opportunity for it–this would be Haughton’s good exchanging and source of spiritual breakthroughs. What is mutuality? It would mean generosity and support from both parties in relationships. We see part of it in Haughton’s idea of a tenderness fed by knowledge of death, for oneself and those encountered. It would be found in admiring the loved persons in our lives, revering, encouraging, celebrating them, cheering their efforts–acting out the relation within community. In community means with the help and to the benefit of those who commune together, who share in the bounty of each other’s particular loves. In that sense as well as others, communal practices of faith, along with individual ones, are sustaining–through nourishing words, creativity, and ritual. The experience of loving and being loved, in all forms of love, must be the place to keep seeking the Spirit throughout our lives. An image of this shared life, in the Catholic vision, might be artists’ versions of the Pieta, where we see Mary holding up the body of Christ for us on her lap, fully drawn in his manhood. The two of them, as gendered pair imaging self and other-self, express our offerings of self to each other. We her children, gazing on its perennial image, see fullness of life.