Our words point to God, but do not define him

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

The current controversy over transsexuals has led our society to reflect upon the connection between a person’s sexuality and his or her physical body.

We cannot imagine a person without sexuality. That is because, when we think of a person, we ordinarily think of another human being.

On one hand, when it comes to the divine persons of the Holy Trinity, that is not necessarily the case. They are not also human beings, with the exception of Jesus. Because he was born into the human race, Jesus was definitely a male. He had a body, with all the appropriate parts.

On the other hand, the Holy Spirit, by definition, has no body. Accordingly, he — or it — would have no sexuality. At the same time, to refer to the Holy Spirit as “it” might appear to reduce the Holy Spirit to a thing, rather than a person. We are caught in a dilemma.

Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 14:15-21, resolves the dilemma by referring to the Holy Spirit as “him.” At least, that is how the Lectionary reads. However, a more literal translation would read “it.”

In the original Greek, the word is clearly neuter, as are the corresponding pronouns. That is because the Greek word for “spirit” is in the neuter gender.

Later on, though, John’s Gospel will use a masculine pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit: “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:13).

This going back and forth between words that express a preference for nonsexuality on the one hand, and then for personhood on the other hand, reflects the limitations of language in dealing with the mystery of God.

Neither the English language, nor the Greek language, is capable of adequately formulating it. Human language resorts to metaphors, which fall short of the reality.

There remains one more divine person, whom we ordinarily address as God the Father. In doing so, we follow the practice of Jesus, who called God his father.

The practice of calling God “Father” also reflects the patriarchal society in which Jesus lived and in which the new faith developed. The title of father suggests a strong parent who loves and protects the children, a person who is life-giving.

It is a metaphor and, like all metaphors, it has its limitations. The title of Father does not mean that this divine person has a body or is a sexual being. Our words point to God, but do not define God.

God, as such, is beyond all our comprehension. At the same time, it is through Jesus Christ that God has drawn near to us, to become tangible and within our reach. In Christ, the Word became flesh.

Leave a Reply