The primary issue in relating God and gender pertains to God’s engendering qualities, which necessarily refers to both male and female characteristics. The issue is not God’s gender but whether God begets, brings about, catalyzes, creates, effectuates, generates, produces, spawns, or breeds or whether he primarily impedes, limits, restricts, squelches, quashes, represses, smothers, stifles, punishes, and arrests. There is a gendered quality to the two sets of actions but the word is deployed differently in each instance. Gender in the first instance refers literally to producing and propagating and in the second instance the words are metaphorically gendered masculine as these are connected to qualities associated with a father or with God perceived primarily as lawgiver.
The problem in trying to speak of God without gender or in terms of a singular gender is that the engendering quality of God tends to be traded for what is death dealing rather than life giving. That is, God viewed simply as Father or as law giver will be primarily perceived in negative terms of punishing and restricting. God perceived as female, apart from the masculine, does not engender in others but enfolds all multiplication and propagation within herself. In the first instance (God as male), God might be perceived as absolutely transcendent on the order of the Aristotelian unmoved mover. In the second instance (God as female), God is completely immanent and perceived in a pantheistic monism as the womb and consumer of all things. God as purely male or female loses engendering power.
The contrast between Romans 7 and 8 might be characterized, as I have pointed out (here), as a contrast between male and female but this is not entirely accurate. Romans 7:7-25 is about sin and the law and the implication is that God perceived through the law will take on masculine characteristics of dividing, punishing, alienating, and ultimately of being a cold, inaccessible, transcendent figure. Of course, this is not God in reality but God misperceived (due to the deception of sin) as equated with the law. Romans 8 displaces this law of sin and death or this false understanding of God (the law of sin and death) with the reality of God (the law of life in the Spirit). The feminine qualities of the Spirit are accentuated in this exchange, but it is only with this accentuation that the proper role of God as Abba – Father is realized.
The real issue is the receptivity and openness of those who are the objects of God’s engendering activity. Should they take the law as the orienting factor in their relationship to God, then theirs will be a Romans 7, and not an engendering, sort of experience. To conceive this as an experience of God is to miss Paul’s point, as experience of the self is the focus. Where God is presumed to be known through the law what occurs is a relationship to the law which alienates, proscribes, and punishes – God does not really enter into the picture. It is not simply that God is excluded or that the law is felt as an outside and oppressive force, but the force of the law excludes one part of the self from another part of the self. The “I” experiences his own body as if he has a body rather than as if he is his body. The opposite of engendering occurs.
Where God’s birthing, engendering, fructifying activity is realized, the recipient of this activity takes on a feminine openness. Christians become metaphorically female as the bride of Christ, as they become impregnated with life from God and give birth to the fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23). The indwelling Spirit engenders life and peace (8:6), and is equated with the indwelling of the Son (vs.9-11). The Spirit incorporates into the familial relation with the Father and Son (vs.15-17), and the believer becomes womb-like in bearing fruit for God (v. 23). As each of the persons of the Trinity converge upon her, with the Father searching the mind of the Spirit who has interpenetrated the mind of the believer (vs. 26-27) as it is being conformed to Christ (v. 29), the believer groans in the Spirit in the pangs of childbirth (v. 23).
I am not sure we need go so far as Gregory of Nyssa who imagines that prior to the fall humans were non-sexed and angelic like, and that in redemption they will no longer bear sexualized bodies but will all become quasi-female in relation to God. The imagery of becoming the bride of Christ, of bearing fruit for Christ, of being the subjects of the incorporating activity of God, may not literally involve the sexual organs but it does refer to a feminine receptivity. This receptivity however, may simply contrast with the impenetrability of one oriented to the law. This masculine sort of orientation is not subject to being conformed, shaped, or reoriented or re-conceptualized. The possibility of being conformed to Christ and of receiving the indwelling of the Spirit may simply reference gender in that there is a feminine receptivity to the character of Christ.
In both Romans and Thessalonians, the shape of this reception is described in terms of a reversal of the way in which we may conceive of prayer. We often picture prayer as an articulation, originating in our own minds, directed at a distant deity, who may or may not hear or answer. Paul pictures prayer as a dynamic exchange in which the persons of the Trinity intermingle, converge, and bring about the incorporation of the believer into the life of God. Even this imagery may be too weak, if we are simply thinking of the cold breath of speech. Prayer, for Paul, is a constant, which already indicates it is not a constant articulation but a constant openness giving rise to a characteristic emotion calling for and flowing out of a continual gratitude.
In I Thessalonians (5:16-18) Paul describes the Spirit as a flame which is not to be quenched, but if allowed to burn, rather than consuming oxygen, produces the breath of life. If the flame is not quenched or suppressed, or stilled, or restrained – that is if the flame of life is not doused by the death dealing law – it lights up the various seats of human personality – the will, the mind, the emotions, the character. Paul aligns a series of exhortations regarding one’s continual state of mind which fold into a singular command, not to quench the Spirit. The way to let the Spirit flow in life is to “rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.” The engendering reality of life in the Spirit shows itself as one is caught up in a continual dynamic of life flowing through the individual – receiving and gratefully acknowledging life.
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