“Bless Sophia, Dream the Vision, Share the Wisdom Dwelling Deep Within”
by Donna F. G. Hailson
To the sound of gathering chants, pounding drums, rainsticks and tambourines, nearly 700 women and men entered the Minneapolis Convention Center on November 1–2, 1996, for the purpose of “Naming, Claiming and Re-Imagining Power.” This re-imagining was to be developed, over the course of the weekend, under the themes of “Embodied Spirituality” (exploring and celebrating the power of women’s sexuality); “Welcomed Differences” (developing collaborative relationships across racial and class lines) and “Ecclesial Subversion” (brainstorming ways of overturning what Re-Imaginers perceive as the patriarchy that is the institutional church).
Those who gathered represented a still-alive community whose emergence with a controversial conference in November 1993 caught much of the Church off guard with its radical feminist challenge to historic Christian traditions. The idea for the first event came from the Women’s Ministry Unit of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and its desire to promote the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women. The largest amount of financial support for the first conference came from PCUSA, but 24 other organizations also contributed. Among these were the United Methodist Churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the American Baptist Churches/USA, the United Church of Christ, and four religious communities of Roman Catholics. Attendees, as well, came from across the denominational spectrum. The conference subsequently made headlines in publications across the country. Re-Imagining was labeled by the more conservative members of the church as “unorthodox,”1 “reckless”2 and “heretical.”3
The General Assembly of the PCUSA reportedly received more “overtures of protest over Re-Imagining than on any other topic in the denomination’s 200-plus-year history.” Re-Imagining was said to have “awakened various mainline denominations to a state of crisis in theology, and with it the need, in the words of the [PCUSA’s] Wichita general assembly, to assert that ‘theology matters.’”4 Damage control measures were instituted by denominational officials who sought to distance themselves from the more bold and blatant statements and activities attributed to leaders and participants.
Braving the aftershocks and—perhaps—spurred on by them, some of the conference organizers banded together to create the Re-Imagining Community that was incorporated as a non-profit organization in September 1994. Today, the group operates out of offices in Minneapolis, sponsors annual gatherings and “Faith Labs” (for theological exploration), periodically publishes a newsletter and identifies itself as an ecumenical, global community that examines faith issues from mujerista, womanist and feminist perspectives. The group claims to give voice to those “who are called to discipleship but who have been denied full participation by the institutional church.” Further, the community identifies itself as one that “works to challenge the system of patriarchy . . . resists absolutist viewpoints that deny the ongoing revelation of God . . . [and] celebrates the God of history who comes to us in many images with many names as demonstrated throughout scripture, the traditions, and our imaginations.”5 Funding comes from membership fees and contributions.
At the request of the leadership of the American Baptist Evangelicals, I attended the most recent conference to get a sense of the phenomenon that is Re-Imagining. Why are so many women—and men—within the Church turning up this avenue? What is the purpose of Re-Imagining? Why has it appeared at this moment in time and how much is the institutional Church to blame for its appearance? How unorthodox is the theology of Re-Imagining and how should the institutional Church respond to the issues being raised by community members?
Let us begin with a sense of the space because space is key in understanding the theological foundations of Re-Imagining.
Conference participants were welcomed into and assured of “safe space” within which to dream and share and question. At the center of the room was a rectangular stage from which was directed all of the conference activities: “holy play”; round-table discussions; music and movement. Hanging from the ceiling over the stage were seven painted sheets. Four of these offered artist Susan Smith’s representations of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The other three sheets depicted conference themes: eros, the corporate sin of white racism, and ecclesial subversion. In the first of these latter three, Smith depicted Eve embracing the snake. In so doing, she explained, Eve “evokes her erotic and creative powers.” In the second, white racism was “symbolized by a burning cross, a broken apple, and a figure whose eyes are masked by hands. The tears of God flow from above, becoming apple seeds below.” In the third, Eve was presented “freely and eagerly eat(ing) the apple symbolizing her way into freedom, choice and knowledge.”
Clustered around the stage were nearly 70 round tables: “round-table churches.” Those seated at these tables were said to be members of “talking circles.” The idea obviously intended here was that in the round, there is no “head” of the table; there is no leader; there are no ranks. All are equal. All have a voice.
At one end of the room were a series of 19 renderings of post-menopausal nude women’s torsos. Along another wall were a pictorial history of the women’s rights movement and photographs and write-ups on dozens of women who have made their marks on American society.
At four different locations around the room were drawings of trees from which were hung bright red apple ornaments. Printed by each tree were these directions: “Write (on the tree) the name of a person who has committed an act of institutional subversion and take an apple as a reminder to be yourself.”
And then there was the goddess wall—nearly 40 depictions of the goddess in her various guises. Among these: Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt; Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of war; Queen Maya, mother of Buddha; Kali, the Indian goddess of destruction; Ochun, a contemporary, Afrocentric, panerotic goddess; and Lilith, the queen of the demons. On this same wall was Mary, Mother of Jesus, and a photograph of the planet Earth with the caption: “Love your Mother.” Each of these pictorial representations was accompanied by a description of the goddess and details on where she has been worshipped and when. Some included directions on how to approach—how to pray to—the goddesses.
The conference began on Friday evening with a gathering ritual that invoked a blessing on Sophia and called on the Spirit to draw near. Participants chanted: “Bless Sophia/dream the vision/share the wisdom/dwelling deep within,” as they lifted their arms and bowed their heads in praise. Sophia, participants were reminded, is a figure who appears throughout the Scriptures as a female personification of the wisdom of God. The Hebrew word for wisdom, hokmah—found most notably in Proverbs 1, 8 and 9—and the Greek rendering of the same word, sophia, are equated with Jesus. What is said of Sophia in the Bible, Re-Imaginers assert, is said of Jesus. Thus, Sophia-Jesus, on this night, was worshipped by Re-Imaginers as “creator, eternity, healer, earth mother, breath of life, weaver-woman god, hero-within, baker-woman god.”6
The focus then shifted to “holy play,” led by CathyAnn Beaty, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “Holy play” as directed by Beaty, appeared to grow out of her expressed “theology of self-indulgence”: messing one’s hair, rubbing one’s ears and one’s buttocks, shaking one’s spirit down into one’s feet. Later in the weekend, Beaty would encourage participants to pretend they were in possession of “little cosmic vacuum cleaners” and “spiritual dental floss” to be used in ridding their personal spaces of other people’s encroaching energy. Holy play, on this first night, also took the form of interaction with one’s neighbors in a dance of hands in what, Beaty termed, “simple, gentle, erotic touches.” And holy play took the form of interaction with sheets which, participants were reminded, play important roles in human lives from birth to death. One is conceived between sheets, wrapped in sheets at birth, and shrouded in sheets at death. Each Re-Imaginer was provided with a bundled-up sheet and invited to untie that sheet “as erotically as possible.” Over the weekend, the sheets would be decorated and would serve many purposes from blanket to ministerial stole.
Interspersed between moments of holy play, were round-table discussions that led into the milk and honey ritual (the latter has been the most powerful lightning rod for criticism from those outside the community). In this context, key facilitator Letty Russell, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, quoted and affirmed Carter Heyward’s assertion that “the erotic is the most fully embodied experience of God’s love.”7 Russell said she invites her students at Yale to speak of themselves as “panerotic” and bemoaned how society and life experience individualizes people into “more limited palette(s).” Self-pleasure was lifted as being equivalent to God’s pleasure. No limits were imposed. Homosexuality was affirmed as more than acceptable. (Lesbians, in fact, were given special prominence in the program.)
The evening ended with the reverent observance of the milk and honey ritual complete with a responsive reading that lifted the images of “the milk of our breasts,” “nectar between our thighs,” “warm body fluids,” and “the honey of wisdom in our mouths” all offered in the name of “Sophia, Creator God.”
Saturday opened with more holy play, more chants, more Sophia blessings. Then it was time to “unpack white racism.” White privilege—in a narrated dance—was presented as an invisible package of unearned entitlement, unearned advantage. (As this issue was raised, one couldn’t help but take note of how few non-white individuals were in the room.) Further unpacking was done, at the round-table, by Russell and Vivian Jenkins Nelson, an African-American and co-founder of INTER-RACE, a think tank dedicated to improving race relations, and Rene Whiterabbit, a member of the Ho Cak Nation and a Master of Divinity student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Racism, identified as an institutional form of sin, was linked with oppression, sexism, heterosexism, elderism and classism. Few solutions were posited. The emphasis of all was on the personal: salons (tea, coffee and talk in living rooms); combined Thanksgiving celebrations (Indian churches and non-Indian churches); individuals speaking out against racism. I was struck that no one thought of the most obvious solution to racism: extending the unearned advantage to all persons in society, reaching out to all with forgiveness and love and fellowship.
At the close of this segment, participants were given their first opportunity (after more than five hours of conference) to talk in their talking circles. I immediately identified myself as an evangelical woman who had come to the event to try to understand what the Re-Imagining community was all about. I told my tablemates that I would, in all probability, be writing about my experience. The woman seated to my left leapt up from the table and alerted the leadership to my presence. Nancy Berneking and Jo Ringgenberg came to the table and asked the women what they wanted to do with me. Three said they had received “hate mail” after they had been identified as participating in the first Re-Imagining conference. They didn’t want to take a chance with me. Though I assured them I would not share anything I had not been given permission to share, they insisted I be ejected because they would no longer have a “safe space” if I remained. Other women at the table argued for my staying; they wanted to continue the discussion we’d begun. They noted that I had been honest with the table, that I had used the first opportunity to identify myself. But, because there were three who were uncomfortable, I was asked to leave and take a seat in the press section. I must admit I was warmed by the graciousness of Berneking and Ringgenberg, but I was saddened by their betrayal of their own established premise: my “difference” was not welcomed. I alerted them to the fact that they were doing to me what they claim the Church has been doing to women for 2,000 years: shutting me out. Now, I said, they would have to deal with their own consciences.
By this time, my lunch had arrived and my ejection was to be delayed by an hour. I took the opportunity to engage my tablemates in discussion. What I report here are bits of conversations that I have been granted permission to share. I will insert here, as well, later responses contained in correspondence with Jill Hartwell Geoffrion, an ordained American Baptist, who is a member of the Re-Imagining community. Geoffrion served as a co-coordinator of the 1995 Re-Imagining Conference on the Word and identifies herself as a biblical, trinitarian Christian, a born-again believer, a follower of Jesus. She estimated there were at least 20 American Baptists (from the Minneapolis area alone) present at the most recent conference. She and Pamela Carter Joern, editor of the Re-Imagining Community Newsletter and co-editor of the book, Re-Membering and Re-Imagining, are perhaps the two most prominent American Baptists within the movement.
“So,” I asked, “why Re-Imagining?” My tablemates answered: “Partly, for myself to be renewed, to be reempowered . . . for the solidarity and the sisterhood, the recognition of us all struggling together. Here we reclaim theologies that were lost that were faithful, biblical. Now the [invocation of Sophia] is to the point it’s too foreign. . . . Many of us women are called to serve in the church, to serve Christ, and so many institutions are denying us the right to live out our call.”
Geoffrion wrote that she has found the Re-Imagining experience “a breath of fresh air. . . . All of me—my senses, intellect, hurts and hopes—[are] engaged by the process. . . . My real passion is for people who feel they have been alienated from Jesus, who feel the church has somehow alienated them. I am interested in building bridges back to God, honoring the struggle. As in any community, people come from a variety of places. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything that is said and done at Re-Imagining [she would not embrace, for example, the part of the community that is the Goddess Wall] but it is a place where people—especially women—can explore their spirituality.” Many participants insisted that they had not indiscriminately accepted everything said and done at Re-Imagining but, they insisted, they were committed to the exercise of exploration.
The idea of having a safe place where questions may be asked and options explored emerged again and again, in conversation, as the primary drawing card for Re-Imagining. The women who ejected me from the table did so out of an obvious distrust that has been learned at the hands of an institutional church that has, too often, expelled questioners and sinners rather than lovingly calling them to the truth of the Scriptures and new life in Christ. Re-Imaginers only re-entrench when they are attacked. Jesus did not attack seekers; He walked with them and challenged them with the truth.
So I asked, “Who do you say Jesus is?” And out spilled the answers: “Jesus came to reconcile me to God. He didn’t come here to die. He was destroyed in the process. Jesus was a victim.” I couldn’t believe these comments were coming from an ordained woman within the Church of the Brethren and I was struck by the fact that she identified with Jesus as victim.
“What do you believe about salvation?” I asked her friend, also from within the Church of the Brethren. I was stunned by her answer: “You went to seminary. You must have learned the different theories about salvation.”
“No,” I said. “I took my M. Div. at Gordon-Conwell.” I responded in this way because I knew that within Re-Imagining circles, traditional Christian “theories of atonement”—that stress the sacrifice of Jesus—have been criticized. Some of the more radical feminists have raised “the question of divine child abuse in relation to Christian notions that God, the Father, intended the death of his innocent son, Jesus, on the cross in order to redeem humankind from sin.” Others have proffered “surrogacy” as the proper image for understanding Christ’s experience on the cross. This latter view of atonement was shared at the Re-Imagining Conference in 1993 by womanist theologian Delores Williams. “Williams sees Jesus as a surrogate standing in the place of sinful humankind when he died on the cross and was put to the service of someone else’s goal (e.g., God the Father’s). Williams resolves the issue theologically by claiming that Jesus did not come to die for humankind; Jesus came to live for humankind. Thus it was Jesus’ life and his ministerial vision that redeem humans.” Williams’ viewpoint has grown out of her definition of “social-role surrogacy” as black women performing tasks in social roles the society has assigned to someone else: standing in the place of someone else and meeting someone else’s needs and goals. This way of thinking led inevitably to Williams’s pronouncement at the 1993 Re-Imagining: “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff . . . we just need to listen to the God within.”8
As these thoughts flooded my mind, a deep anger began to well within me as I thought about United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities with its booth at Re-Imagining and some of the books it had to offer. Books like Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God Talk and other authors’ When God Becomes Goddess: The Transformation of American Religion and Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America. Cokesbury was there as well with similar offerings. Tears began to well in my eyes as I contemplated what Jesus must think of what is being taught and sold in his Name—albeit obliquely—in many of the seminaries and “Christian” bookstores across this country.
“Why is Jesus’ Name not lifted here?” I asked. “Why have I not once heard his Name?”
“Jesus is always with me,” one woman said, “like the clothes I wear. I talk about him all the time outside of here and in the church. I don’t need to talk about him here.”
“But,” I protested, “this is supposed to be a Christian conference. How can you have a Christian conference and never once mention the name Jesus Christ?”
Geoffrion explained: “The community has not chosen, at this time, to focus on Jesus in an attempt to try to move away from a gender-specific God.” Then, why, one must ask, have a Goddess Wall and offer worship to Sophia? Can we not affirm the words of Genesis 1:27 (“God created humankind in His own image . . . male and female He created them”) and also affirm that Jesus came as Savior?
It was evident—and, in fact, expressed—that the desire of many Re-Imaginers is not simply the overturning of patriarchy; it is the replacement of patriarchy with matriarchy. One man stood, near the close of the conference, to ask what men, who were supportive of the Re-Imagining concept, could do to help the movement. The answer came back quickly from one woman: “. . . you do what people tell you to do.” Another woman softened the blow: “. . . you start by listening and standing with them and working on their issues the way they want. And you don’t start by telling them how to do it. Even if they do it wrong and fall into the holes.”
And yet, Geoffrion told me, “What Re-Imagining is about is choices.” But what choices? Offering as an example the cross, she said, “You will find [in the community] people of every persuasion on the issue, a variety of theories. It’s not about one viewpoint. It’s about Christians with a number of viewpoints. There are no credal statements that the community has identified, no one view of atonement. We are committed to the discussion, not the answer.”
But, again, very definite anti-biblical answers were held up for approval at the Re-Imagining conference. As I’ve already noted, among these were the concepts of “paneroticism,” goddess worship, and the rejection of the name Jesus as being too “gender-specific.” The first justified every expression of sexuality in clear violation of the biblical confines of sex only within heterosexual, monogamous marriage. The second was expressed most visually through the Goddess Wall but was also found couched in the worship of Sophia. Though it may be acknowledged that Sophia was lifted by the early Church as an image of God, when the Goddess Wall accompanies the lifting of Sophia, one is left with the taste of gnosticism, not the Bible-based Christianity of the faithful early Church. As to the third, gender specificity is the order of the day at Re-Imagining: the choice is actually one of feminocentrism over Christocentrism.
I would argue with Re-Imaginers that Jesus and the cross must be central to Christianity and the claims of Jesus must be given an answer. I agree that the journey is important and that people need the freedom to explore but isn’t it the responsibility of the Christian to encourage the questions but to point toward the answer? Re-Imagining, in some ways, seems more like a wander than a journey and in this, as in much of its approach, it may be seen as a signal movement in postmodern culture. Many of the views of the emerging postmodern paradigm are present in Re-Imagining but the movement seems to be teetering between two paradigms.
There was talk, at the conference, of preferring “power with” rather than “power over.” There was talk about “round-table churches,” “talking circles,” “interconnections,” and “resisting authority.” Implied and expressed here was an emphasis on God’s immanence and a de-emphasis on God’s transcendence. This was found most clearly in Beaty who insisted that “spirituality is not otherworldly; it is utterly contextual”: embodied spirituality. Organizers actually violated their own stated principles with an event that was oppressively top-down led and manipulated. Every movement was choreographed; every thought directed. Even the supposedly free-talking circles were led into discussion with highly detailed materials.
There was talk around the rejection of absolute truth, the elevation of relativism, the commitment to choices, many viewpoints, questions. And yet, my ejection demonstrates that a new absolute truth is being elevated and not all viewpoints are welcome in Re-Imagining circles.
I saw an emphasis on an anti-reductionistic wholistic viewpoint and a focus on image. It was suggested to me by more than one Re-Imaginer that I should not look so hard at the details but let the experience flood over me, let the space envelop me. “But,” I protested, “the devil is in the details. You have a Goddess Wall over there.” Several were surprised to hear about the wall. They had overlooked it. They were more focused on taking in the experience, on living in “safe space.”
I was encouraged by the fact that at least one woman at the Re-Imagining conference heard what I was saying. She came to me after all of this and told me I was right: this avenue was leading to a dead end.
The reality of this dead end became most apparent at the climax of the conference: a fresh act of rebellion that is certain to replace the milk-and-honey ritual as the central lightning rod for criticism of the movement. (I will never look at an apple in the same way again.)
From the viewpoint of the press section, I listened to a reading from Genesis chapters 2 and 3 about Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. Then came the reinterpretation of the Fall through a responsive reading. The leader, as Eve, spoke of having been fooled, tricked, seduced, deceived, doing something wrong, feeling ashamed, feeling pain, being willing to be subversive to know the truth. “All” assured Eve that God had created her to be curious, that—by eating the fruit—she was taught, given her body, and delivered. She had reached for the wholeness of God and was beautiful, alive, the image of God. She was affirmed for having reached for wisdom.
Then “All” were invited to honor their mother Eve by biting the apple in celebration. I asked Jill Hartwell Geoffrion what she thought of the apple ritual. She said, “What I think they—the women who find this ritual meaningful—are trying to say is that women have a right to resist those parts of the Christian tradition that they find harmful. I look on it as a symbolic act of resistance.” She agreed that some might see the action as a reinterpretation of the Fall. If that is, indeed, what it is, against whom then, I asked, was this act of resistance really directed? The Bible seems quite clear in its presentation of these acts in Eden as acts of rebellion, disobedience against God, so wasn’t the apple ritual also an act of rebellion against God?
Her answer was not particularly satisfying: “I think those who find it [the ritual] meaningful would not interpret it in this way.”
Two more stories of “power and institutional subversion” were then shared from Scripture: those of Pharaoh’s daughter who was “willing to subvert her father” in order to care for Moses; and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, a woman who had known shame, who is depicted as being a source of healing for Mary in her shame.
Four women then shared stories related to the theme of ecclesial subversion. Their stories rose out of institutional abuse and rejection. They spoke, in varying degrees, of striking back or trying to find a home within the Church. Letty Russell, however, left Re-Imaginers with another thought. She talked about being a trespasser in the Church and, “paraphrasing Paul’s saying [that] we should be in the world, but not of the world,” declared that she had decided, “to be in, but not of, the church.”
“What will we do about trespassing?” she asked. “What is all this subversion for? What do we want in the place of the patriarchal structures of domination and subordination that we try to subvert?” What, indeed?
1. Doug LeBlanc and Paul Carden, “Re-Imagining: Sophia Feathers Her Institutional Nest,” Christian Research Journal, Spring 1995, 6.
2. Timothy C. Morgan, “RE-Imagining Labeled ‘Reckless’: PCUSA says conference pushed ‘beyond the boundaries’,” Christianity Today, July 18, 1994, 49.
3. James R. Edwards, “Earthquake in the Mainline,” Christianity Today, November 14, 1994, 39.
4. Ibid., 39.
5. From the Re-Imagining community brochure.
6. Thomas Finger writes: “. . . the central New Testament texts that affirm the deity of Jesus Christ draw on language about Wisdom/Sophia. Now, if the New Testament authors could employ Sophia imagery to describe the God revealed in Christ, contemporary Christians can surely make some valid use of it in worshiping this same God . . . Wisdom in Proverbs does not seem to be an actual divine being, but rather a personification of one of Yahweh’s attributes (and)… although Sophia terminology was applied to Jesus in ancient times, it also designated non-Christian deities . . . there is no reason why Sophia could not function as a divine title, or a source of imagery enriching Christian awareness of God. Yet any such use must be consistent with our first principle: It should be clear that such worship is being directed to the Triune God alone.” For further treatment of these issues see: Thomas Finger, “In the Name of Sophia: Seeking a Biblical Understanding of Holy Wisdom,” Christianity Today, November 14, 1995, 44–45. And from the radical feminist viewpoint: Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992); Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York: Crossroad, 1985; Sandra Schneider, Women and the Word (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986).
7. Carter Heyward, “Eros,” Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, eds. Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 85.
8. Delores S. Williams. “Atonement.” Dictionary of Feminist Theologies.
This article appeared in a longer form in ABE Journal and is reprinted with permission.
The Rev. Donna F. G. Hailson is a researcher, writer and speaker on contemporary culture, evangelism, and Christian apologetics. She is co-author of The Goddess Revival, a 1996 Christianity Today Book of the Year award winner. She is completing a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland. She is an ordained American Baptist pastor and is active within the church renewal/reform movement as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Baptist Evangelicals and the Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society.