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Avoiding the "Either-Or" Trap

In November of 1993 women and men from fifteen Christian denominations, and one Buddhist came together at Minneapolis to call attention to a good cause, the Ecumenical decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women, through which the United Nations and the World Council of Churches asked churches throughout 1988-98 “to eliminate teachings and practices that discriminate against women.” The conference theme was “Re-Imagining...God, Community and the Church.”

At this 1993 conference, a variety of speakers addressed different concerns. For instance, Jose Hobday spoke of the importance of interconnection: the body is good, creation is good, gray hair is a sign of wisdom. Anne Primavesi reminded her listeners that the “presence of God has always been in and acknowledged by the whole of creation.” Elizabeth Bettenhausen declared: “Out of pieces women weave a sense of community, making life emerge out of the good-for-nothing.” The church certainly needs to hear these messages.

Unfortunately, however, some at the conference assumed a distorted view of truth, God, the church, and humans. They extended standard history of religion thought to its logical conclusions. In this school of thought, truth is relative, the God of the Hebrews was only one of many ancient deities, the church was established by a community of innovators, and humans are but one stage of the evolutionary process. These beliefs affected some conference leaders’ view of God.

To call God “wisdom” or “sophia” is not necessarily wrong. God is called by many adjectives. The first use of an adjective for God was done by Hagar in the desert when she called God “a God of seeing” because God observed and responded to her destitute state (Gen. 16:13). Christ is called by Paul “God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Cor 1:24, 30). God also uses the adjectives “almighty,” “I will be,” “jealous,” “faithful,” “holy,” among many others for self-description.1

Therefore to call God or Christ “wisdom,” as Paul does, is fine, but to call “wisdom” God is not. For instance, God is love, but love is not God. I John 4:8 declares “God is love” (ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν). Because in Greek the article occurs only with “God,” therefore only God can be the subject of that sentence; “God” and “love” are not convertible.2

Yet one of the litanies at the conference concluded “through the power and guidance of the spirit of wisdom whom we name Sophia.” The “Blessing over milk and honey” was recited to “Our maker Sophia,” “we are women in your image,” “Sophia, Creator God.” If Sophia or Wisdom were simply another name for the God of the Bible that might be acceptable. However, if it is “wisdom” that is called “Sophia,” that becomes blasphemy.

Two of the books cited in the conference’s bibliography are even more explicit. In 1983 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggested that when Jesus referred to “Sophia” in Luke 7:35, he was referring to “Israel’s God in the language and Gestalt of the goddess.” Wisdom theology, she argued, integrated elements of the “goddess cult” and especially of Isis worship into Jewish monotheism. Since Sophia-God was open to all children of Israel, Sophia-God did not need atonement or sacrifices.3

Several Methodist ministers have gone further with this idea in their writings. In Proverbs, rather than considering the personification of wisdom (an attribute of God) as a woman to be a literary device, they treat this personification literally. For them, Sophia is a co-creator with God, an intermediary figure not quite God, but more like an angel, and women reflect this demiurge. These authors suggest a compromise between goddess spirituality and Christianity.4

Thus, in an attempt to make the Gospel more palatable to women, these writers end up worshiping and serving an angelic being or an attribute, a characteristic of God, instead of the one and only Creator (Rom 1:25). The temptation is great, for even the apostle John fell down to worship an angel, and that after seeing first hand God among us! But the angel bellowed: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant...Worship God!” (Rev 22:9).

But once an angel or attribute is praised as only God should be praised, where does one draw the line? In another conference litany called “Honoring the Community of the Talking Circle,” the participants went from immanence to universalism to pantheism. The leader declared “In the name of the Holy One we greet the place of God’s presence in one another.” Admittedly, this phrase could mean that since God is present in and among believers (immanence), we believers are worthy of greeting. Didn’t Jesus declare to Paul: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” when indeed Paul had simply been persecuting Christian men and women? (Acts 9:2,5).

However, the litany then becomes more vague: “I reverence the Presence within you.” If every participant at the conference were a Christian this might be satisfactory. However, if God’s presence is present in every human being that would be universalism. The apostle Paul instead explains that humans live and move within God’s presence, not necessarily that God is present within all humans (Acts 17:28).

But then the litany continues: “I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides.” “The entire universe” could be a euphemism for God, but God is not the “entire universe” (pantheism). God is present in the universe. God created the universe, but God is not the universe. Here the writers of the litany have begun to incorporate some thoughts from goddess spirituality. As Zen Buddhist Mayumi Oda writes: “If you really go deep inside, everything is there.” The Witch Jade describes the “Goddess space” as “the place in each of us where our spark of divinity resides.”5 Isn’t this Stoicism as well? The macrocosm is in the microcosm?

Finally the litany concludes: “Namaste. No less sacred is our naming of ourselves. Whisper the sacred word that is your name.” The only place I have ever seen “Namaste” is by Goddess psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen. She defines “Namaste”: “The Goddess in me beholds and honors the Goddess in you.”6 But our naming of ourselves is less sacred than the naming of God. To equate our name with God’s name is blasphemy.

How should we respond to such attempts to re-imagine God? One way some Christians have responded is by highlighting the very opposite of what these speakers and writers say. If God is not an attribute, then no attribute should ever be used of God. If God is not Sophia, a feminine term, then God must be masculine. If God is not identical with the world, then God has nothing to do with the world. But any of these reactions will lead us to heresies as serious as those espoused in these words. In order to understand God, we must at all times maintain a balance.

Primavesi declares that “Father God” is “the male disembodied voice.” Bettenhausen describes YHWH as “solitary” and “patriarchal” Hobday seems to describe the body of Christ as all of creation. Some conservative scholars actually agree with them, explaining the God is masculine and God has some sort of spirit form.7 Rather, the God of the Bible is Spirit, the invisible God, without any form, neither male nor female John 4:24; Col 1:15; Deut 4:12-20). Although both males and females reflect God’s image (Gen 1:26-27), the God we worship is neither masculine nor feminine.

Furthermore, one advantage of using a variety of biblically based images to help us understand God is that then we will not be tempted to latch on to any one of them as containing all of God’s attributes. As Isaiah so beautifully phrased it:

The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant.

(Isaiah 42:13-14 NRSV).8

Finally, why would anyone who claims to be Christian want to make themselves equal with God (“No less sacred is our naming of ourselves”)? One reason may be that many women do indeed feel badly about themselves because of the discrimination or prejudice they have experienced simply because they are women — a discrimination even experienced in the church. (There is good reason for the need for an ecumenical decade for solidarity with women.) In response, we must reclaim the biblical truth that all human beings are worthwhile and honorable simply because they are created in God’s image (James 3:9; Gen 9:6). How much more then are the members of the body of Christ! We as good-news (“evangelical”) Christians can therefore counteract this negative feeling among some believers by treating women and men as equally valued.

In so doing, however, we should certainly not fall into the “either-or” trap. Is God gracious or truthful? Is God loving or holy? Is God concerned for social justice or individual salvation? Is God present among us or other than us? Does God go forth like a soldier or cry out like a woman? Rather, God has been revealed to us as grace and truth, overflowing generosity and stability (John 1:14). God is one God, one Creator of all “who is over all and through all and among all” (Eph 4:6); sufficient for all our needs — women and men alike.

Notes

  1. Gen 17:1: Ex 3:14:34:14:1 Cor 1:9: Lev 11:44-45.
  2. A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 767-8.
  3. In Memory of Her, A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins; (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 132-6.
  4. Susan Cady, Marian Ronan, Hal Taussig. Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 10,17,19,28,32,103.
  5. “Creativity and Spirituality, “Women of Power 21 (Fall, 1991): 17; “To Know our Goddess-Selves,” Women of Power (Winter, 1991): 15.
  6. “Living in a Liminal Time,” Women of Power 21:25.
  7. H. Wayne House, “Creation and Redemption: A Study of Kingdom Interplay,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (March 1992): 7-8.
  8. Further, see ch.5 Aida Besancon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1985) and Paul R. Smith Is it Okay to Call God “Mother?” Considering the Feminine Face of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993). Forthcoming see my book on Goddess Worship Today by Baker Book House.

 

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