Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Sex, Grammar and the Holy Spirit

Fr. James Martin S.J. has become a sort of theological man about town on the media circuit. This brings with it the temptation to get attention by playing simply for controversy, especially the kind of controversy which comes from being too trendy by half. He seems to have headed in this direction the other day with a couple of tweets about referring to the Holy Spirit as female:





Leave aside the controversy baiting, which he so coyly engages in by first dropping the "her" and then explaining himself in his follow up. It's a low road to take, for certain.

What I think is more worth looking at here is the way that he attempts to make his argument, which is typical of the person trying to claim expertise before a general audience.

Fr. Martin immediately attempts to wrap himself in the mantle of scholarship by telling us what term Jesus would have learned in first century Hebrew for "Holy Spirit". But, of course, we have not a word of Jesus's own writing or speaking in Hebrew. We have Gospels written in Greek, which tell us (in Greek) what Jesus said. Occasionally the Gospels tell us what a word or phrase is in Hebrew, as when Jesus calls out "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" before dying on the cross. Additionally, the Holy Spirit, as a member of the Trinity, is not a name that was in common usage prior to Christ, since the concept of the Trinity did not exist in Judaism. So talking about what word Jesus would have learned for the Holy Spirit is a bit odd. Further, it's not clear how much Jesus spoke in Hebrew anyway. The everyday language of Judea was Aramaic, and the language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire was Greek, while Hebrew served as a Jewish sacred language. So while it sounds terribly knowledgeable to talk about what Hebrew word Jesus used to refer to the Holy Spirit, the fact of the matter is that in virtually no case do we know what Hebrew word Jesus used to refer to anything, or indeed if He used Hebrew much at all except to read the scriptures.

Now, Fr. Martin is right that the Hebrew word רוח (ruacḥ) meaning wind or breath is a feminine noun, and to our English-speaking ears that sounds significant, since we don't have noun genders in our language. Saying that the term Jesus used for the Holy Spirit is feminine seems like it means Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as "her" or perhaps as the Holy Spirit-ette. However, gramatical gender is simply a type of noun declension which our fairly un-inflected language doesn't have.

What is grammatical gender? I'll borrow from Wikipedia:
In linguistics, grammatical gender is a specific form of noun-class system in which the division of noun classes forms an agreement system with another aspect of the language, such as adjectives, articles, or verbs. This system is used in approximately one quarter of the world's languages. In these languages, every noun inherently carries one value of the grammatical category called gender; the values present in a given language (of which there are usually two or three) are called the genders of that language. According to one definition: "Genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behaviour of associated words."

Common gender divisions include masculine and feminine; masculine, feminine and neuter; or animate and inanimate. In a few languages, the gender assignation of nouns is solely determined by their meaning or attributes, like biological sex, humanness, animacy. However, in most languages, this semantic division is only partially valid, and many nouns may belong to a gender category that contrasts with their meaning (e.g. the word "manliness" could be of feminine gender).
This last example is not a hypothetical. The reason Fr. Martin's explanation sounded wrong to me is that one of the quirky vocabulary facts I remembered from all my years of taking Latin is that the Latin word for manliness and virility, virtus, is a noun with a feminine grammatical gender. Obviously, the Romans didn't think that masculinity was feminine, it's that grammatical gender does not necessarily align with sex. Hebrew is apparently the same way. A quick search brought up Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar with this to say on the topic:
It is important to understand that feminine nouns (grammatical gender) do not refer only to feminine things (natural gender) or masculine nouns only to masculine things. For example, the Hebrew word for "law" ... is feminine. This does not mean, however, that laws apply only to women. What the gender of a Hebrew noun indicates is the patter of inflection it will usually follow. In other words, masculine nouns take one set of endings for pluralization and feminine nouns take another.
So yes, the Hebrew word רוח (breath or wind) is a feminine noun. The Greek word πνεῦμα (air, wind, breath) which is used in the proper name for the third person of the Trinity (Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον) is neuter. And the Latin word spiritus, which we all know from hearing Spiritus Sanctus in the mass and elsewhere, is masculine. And all of that means only a little bit more than if Fr. Martin had said, "I refer to the Spirit as "she" because they both start with 's'."

I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether this means Fr. Martin picked up this little factoid and was too ignorant of linguistics to realize that it didn't mean anything, or if he found it a useful way to grab attention while assuming that most of his audience wouldn't know the difference. But now you do know, be assured that this argument isn't worth the pixels it's printed on.

6 comments:

Paul Zummo said...

Leave aside the controversy baiting, which he so coyly engages in

It's his m.o. He's unwilling to openly embrace heterodoxy, so as usual he presents his dissent in a manner that allows just enough plausible deniability in case he's called on it. Say what you will, but at least the Father Radcliffes of the world are unafraid to dissent openly and cleaerly.

Bill Burns said...

I had an interesting discussion with my Hebrew teacher last night, and although I was aware that grammatical gender doesn't necessarily align with biological gender, he pointed out something that sort of takes the wind (no pun intended) out of Fr. Martin's sails: the word for womb (רחם) in Hebrew is masculine. SO much for grammatical gender and biology.

Banshee said...

I don't think Fr. Martin is trying to be heterodox. I think he's trying to play and attract people to Christ, but he's having taste problems. I went through the stage of thinking it was cool to call God "Her," but I got over it once I knew more. Shrug.

Anyway, I like the womb info.

And pens are feminine when they're la pluma, but male when they're el boligrafo. So obviously ballpoints are somehow more manly than quill pens.

John said...

Grammatically gender ≠ sex. Sure. But if your "Spirit" is feminine in your language, it's totally appropriate (and grammatically correct) to refer to Spirit as "She."
However, if you're translating a language with grammatical gender into English, you should normally remove the grammatical gender. In English, "Spirit" is neuter, so we would normally refer to a spirit as it. (As in "The spirit of rugged competition is thriving here. You can feel it..." But what do you do for a non-sexual entity that is not "thing" so it's inappropriate to call the entity "it"? Traditionally in English we refer to the Holy Spirit as "he" to emphasize that the Holy Spirit is a person, but I would think Martin is right that "she" is just as accurate. God transcends sex.
As to the Holy Spirit not being referred to in Hebrew, kind of. Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit fairly frequently in the Gospels and nobody blinks an eye. That's because Holy Spirit is just another phrase for "the Spirit of God." And you find references to "the Spirit of God" or "the Spirit of the Lord" throughout the Old Testament. "The Spirit of God was upon the waters" at creation, and "the Spirit of the Lord" came upon the prophets.

John said...

As an example of what I mean by "nobody blinks an eye" at references to the Holy Spirit in the Gospels, Jesus says in Matthew 12 "Whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." Jesus's listeners don't say, "Wait, what are you talking about? What's the Holy Spirit?"
Similarly, Gabriel says to Mary at the Annunciation, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you...." And Mary doesn't say, "What does 'Holy Spirit' mean?" That's because Holy Spirit is just another term for the Spirit of the Lord, used in the first century because people were tried to avoid saying "God" or "Lord" to prevent taking the Lord's name in vain.

Darwin said...

John,

Grammatically gender ≠ sex. Sure. But if your "Spirit" is feminine in your language, it's totally appropriate (and grammatically correct) to refer to Spirit as "She."

Well, yes, in the sense that pronoun and noun should agree in grammatical gender just as they should agree in number and case.

In English, "Spirit" is neuter, so we would normally refer to a spirit as it. (As in "The spirit of rugged competition is thriving here. You can feel it..." But what do you do for a non-sexual entity that is not "thing" so it's inappropriate to call the entity "it"? Traditionally in English we refer to the Holy Spirit as "he" to emphasize that the Holy Spirit is a person, but I would think Martin is right that "she" is just as accurate. God transcends sex.

I'm not sure I'd say that "spirit" is necessarily neuter in English, so much as that since we don't have grammatical gender anymore in English, the gender imputed to a spirit depends on what we're talking about. For instance, "the spirit of Jane Austen no doubt looks with mild chagrin at the antics of her modern day followers" sounds perfectly reasonable with a feminine pronoun, because Jane Austen is a woman and so it seems perfectly reasonable for her spirit to be feminine.

What I would say is that in English we tend to use "it" for things, while using "he" or "she" for persons. "He" (sometimes the plural "they") is used as a sort of default, and "she" is used on specifically to refer to someone who is female. Thus the problem with Fr. Martin's usage in this case: In English saying "she" would specifically identify the Holy Spirit as female, and that's certainly not how Christianity had traditionally seen the Holy Spirit or God.

On the use of "spirit" in Hebrew...

Clearly, although the proper name Holy Spirit is not current in the Old Testament, references to God's spirit exist, starting right in Genesis when the Spirit of God is described as being upon the waters.

However, my point is: We don't really know how Jesus himself referred to the Holy Spirit. We know how he is described as referring to the Holy Spirit by the Gospel writers. However, the Gospel writers are already in a new context, that of early Christianity, and it may be that the way they convey Jesus's words is formed by how early Christians, who did have the concept of the Trinity, had come to speak of the third person of the Trinity. Did Jesus say Holy Spirit or Spirit of God or Paraclete or some other term? Honestly, we don't know, nor do we need to know since the tradition conveyed to us through the Church and the Gospels provides us with what we need to know about the Holy Spirit.

Which is why I think that trying to draw linguistic insights out of the words that Jesus might have used is misguided.