Crises, Tidings, and Revelations: Re-Imagining God

Remember the good old days when the liberation theologians were the bad guys? Now that we’ve got the neo-pagans, not only at the gates but at the altars, I am tempted to look back with some nostalgia. At least the liberationists acknowledged the Triune God of Scripture. True, some liberationists politicized the gospel. But today’s bad guys (or, to be less sexist and more accurate, bad gals) are out to prostitute it. Strong language? Yes. But the analogy between sexual infidelity and spiritual idolatry is not mine, it is an ancient biblical one.

Five years ago, I conducted an informal survey of several mainline Protestant seminary professors, asking them to identify the major social issues on their campuses. Central America and disarmament had already waned as hot-button topics, but each pointed to the rise of doctrinaire feminism — one that censored language in chapels and classrooms. At the time, this manifestation of radical feminism struck me as so narcissistic, arrogant, and silly — and so out of touch with real women — that I predicted it would have little impact across the church. I was wrong.

My misjudgment was most clearly confirmed by a conference called Re-imagining, held last November in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Intended to celebrate the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women, the conference was endorsed and funded by agencies of mainline Protestant denominations and at least three Catholic orders. The conference marked the public linkage between the academic radical feminists, heretofore hidden on seminary campuses, and the leadership of the denominational women’s organizations, responsible for providing programs and study materials for millions of American church women. A new and pernicious movement was born.

With the movement was also born a controversy unlike any seen in the American churches in decades. The Re-imagining conference challenged and ridiculed the major doctrines of the Christian faith. Its fatal flaw is apparent in its title: assuming that male theologians have for thousands of years imagined God, the conference organizers argued that it was time for women to re-imagine God. They missed a most basic truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition — that it is God Who first imagined us. Christianity is a revealed faith, and the supreme revelation of God is Jesus Christ.

The re-imaginers began with a radical diagnosis of the perceived problem: the Christian tradition, and the institutions and culture that tradition has spawned, are unremittingly bad news for women. Chung Hyun Kyung told the conferees, “The Christian church has been very patriarchal. That’s why we are here together to destroy this patriarchal idolatry of Christianity.” Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz said: “‘Church’ is a human construct, the church is oppressive to women.” Lois Wilson asserted: “Christianity as practiced in today’s world demonstrates more a nightmare than a vision.” And on and on.

If the Church and its theology are so diseased and dangerous, the re- imaginers concluded, surely radical treatment is required. Indeed, what they proposed was a new faith to replace the transcendent Creator God of the Judeo-Christian faith with a neopagan immanent god within creation. Transcendence was dismissed as “that orgy of self-alienation beloved of the fathers,” to be replaced with “immanence, god working out god’s self in everything.”

This immanent god is not just within creation. The re-imaginers find their god’s ultimate expression within women themselves. Carla DeSola explained: “When we are in touch with our deep self, we release the spirit into the world. We become like Sophia, a tree of life for the healing of ourselves and the nations.” Virginia Ramey Mollenkott said simply, “Like Jesus, we and the source are one.” Aruna Gnanadason explained the India-derived “red dot ritual” as a “symbol of how we always are conscious of the divine in each other. . . . a symbol of bowing to the divine in the other person.”

Obviously, all this makes it necessary for the re-imaginers to jettison Jesus Christ as the unique and primary revelation of God. Speakers at the Re-imagining conference distorted the Incarnation and denigrated the Atonement. Kyung explained her bottom- up incarnation: “In Asia, incarnation always comes from the bottom to the top. Never god’s son or daughter just drops here and becomes god. Rather it is a very organic process. You come and you experience all the things in this world and because of the way you lived, the way you shared your life, you become god and goddess one day. So Korean Asian feminist theologians say, ‘We don’t believe in Christology from above. It doesn’t click. We only believe in Christology from below.”

Gnanadason twists humankind’s greatest hope — the atoning work of Christ on the Cross — into a kind of curse: “[The Church] centered its faith around the cruel and violent death of Christ on the Cross, sanctioning violence against the powerless in society.” Mollenkott endorses this view: “I can no longer worship in a theological context that depicts God as an abusive parent and Jesus as the obedient trusting child. . . . This violent theology encourages the violence of our streets and our nations.”

Then there is the now-notorious statement by Dolores Williams: “We don’t need a theory of atonement at all. . . . Atonement has to do so much with death. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” However, if salvation is not the sacrificial gift of the incarnate God, how is it to be obtained? Fear not, it is within. “If you bring out what is within you, what is within you will save you,” Kyung reassured the re-imaginers.

Virginia Mollenkott explained: “Jesus is our elder brother, the trailblazer and constant companion for us who are here in time and space, but ultimately one among many brothers and sisters in an eternally, equally worthy siblinghood. First born only in the sense that he was the first to show us that it is possible to live in oneness with the divine source while we are here on this planet.”

But the Re-imagining conference went beyond this inventive theology. Indeed, it may have been the spectacularly creative and subtly coercive accoutrements of the conference that so blinded many of the well-meaning participants to the obviously heretical teachings coming from the podium. The re-imaginers sang, and danced, and chanted, and drummed, and scribbled. They engaged in Native American tobacco rituals, and Indian red dot rituals, and milk and honey rituals. If some of the participants felt a bit uncomfortable with these new experiences, they were told, “If you feel goose bumps, you don’t have to do it. But, you know, it’s wonderful sometimes to stretch yourself so you grow more than you think you can. . . . Because Jesus said, ‘When the Holy Spirit comes you will do greater things than what I did.’ This is the way of growing into God’s holiness. It’s one small way.” In other words, beware the small niggling voice of conscience that may get in the way of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Re-imagining conference participants spent the entire conference in “talking tables” of ten persons each — generally other participants they had not known before who were from different denominational backgrounds. Most defenders of the conference seemed to emphasize the “bonding” friendships formed at these tables, as if tolerating criticisms of the conference would be an act of disloyalty to these intimate and precious relationships.

The pinnacle of all of this non-patriarchal, non-rational, right-brain activity was the worship of Sophia — or perhaps Sophias, because there seem to be two. The Sophia of the post-conference defenses seems innocent enough. This “Sophia” is merely the Greek word for wisdom, God’s wisdom, as personified in Proverbs, discussed in early Church writings, and revered in Eastern Orthodoxy. But the Sophia invoked at the conference itself was a more powerful and distinct personality and presence. She was much closer to the Sophia described in Wisdom’s Feast, a book by two United Methodist pastors which was cited in the conference newsletter explanations of Sophia. Wisdom’s Feast admits, “For most of us, thinking about God in the language and configuration of the goddess means a monumental shift.”

This was the Sophia addressed in the opening Re-imagining worship: “It is time to state clearly and dream wildly about who we are as people of God, and who we intend to be in the future through the power and guidance of the spirit of wisdom whom we name Sophia.” This is the Sophia to whom the re-imaginers chanted over and over, “Now Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within.” This was the Sophia to whom hundreds of women’s voices joined in sweet, adoring song: “Sophia Creator God, Let your milk and honey flow. Sophia, Creator God, shower us with your love.”

This chorus was repeated throughout a litany which portrayed not the post-conference “sophia” or wisdom of God, but the fertile and sensual goddess Sophia: “Our maker Sophia, we are women in your image: With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life. . . . Our mother Sophia . . . With the milk of our breasts we suckle the children. . . . Our sweet Sophia . . . With nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child . . . With our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations. . . . Our guide, Sophia . . . With the honey of wisdom in our mouths, we prophecy a full humanity to all the peoples.” Finally, the “Thanksgiving for the Shared Milk and Honey” was offered; “Sophia, we celebrate your life-giving energy which pulses through our veins. . . . We celebrate the sensual life you give us. . . . We celebrate our bodiliness, our physicality, the sensations of pleasure, our oneness with earth and water.”

The Re-imagining conference was considerably weaker in the social action (or praxis) side that we’ve come to expect from the typical religious conference these days. But one thing was clear, if not surprising: Sophia requires a somewhat different sexual ethic than the God of the Old and New Testaments. Elizabeth Bettenhausen warned against the doctrine of creation that “is downright dangerous for women’s lives,” a doctrine of creation that teaches that “This is the way God created us to be, perfectly heterosexual and monogamous.” When asked what could and should be given up, Bettenhausen replied, “Racism and homophobia. I’ll be more specific than that. How many of you have actually talked to girls under the age of 12 about the specifics of the erotic pleasures of their bodies? Let me see your hands. Okay, would you talk to those that didn’t raise their hands?”

Francis Wood denounced the traditional emphasis on sexual fidelity as a form of “idolatry.” Gnanadason proclaimed, “Patriarchy polluted all it touched. Woman, her soft body programmed into becoming a baby-making machine was treated by man as an object for his use and abuse. Her womb was colonized, and her reproductive rights were taken away from her. Patriarchy ensured that she had no power to make her own choices. [The Bible was] written from a particular vantage point that excluded women and all those in margins of societies.” Mary Hunt suggested: “Imagine sex among friends as the norm, young people learning to make friends rather than to date. Imagine valuing genital sexual interaction in terms of whether and how it fosters friendship and pleasure. . . . Pleasure is our birthright of which we have been robbed in religious patriarchy. It is time to claim it anew with our friends.”

Sophia’s sexual ethic requires relatively little imagination in our society. There clearly are vast segments of our society that have already adapted to her standards of behavior, if they have not yet learned to name her in their prayers and hymns.

Seven months after the Re-imagining conference, I attended the triennial Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women in Ames, Iowa. One afternoon, several hundred women packed themselves into an auditorium for a forum on “Talking about Difficult Issues in the Church: The Re-Imagining Conference.” Three Presbyterian women and one United Methodist who had attended the conference defended it and their participation. Unlike the other forums at the Iowa gathering, this one made no provision for audience questions or comments, until frustrated observers erupted as the session was being adjourned and demanded microphone time for their concerns.

The re-imagining debate is far from over. It is therefore important to understand what the debate is not about and what it is about: (1) The debate is not about the ordination of women in the oldline Protestant churches. This is largely a settled question. Many of the most vocal (and embarrassed) critics of re-imagining are clergywomen. (2) The debate is not over equal rights for women or whether women may serve in non-traditional roles. (3) The debate is not about phobic and defensive reactions to social change. Re-imagining critics are able to cope emotionally with change and disagreements— and they are also able to summon the confidence to say “no” to destructive and wrongheaded social and theological innovations. (4) And the debate is not about ecumenism. Among the critics of re-imagining are enthusiastic supporters of the quest for Christian unity.

So what is the debate really about? It is a debate between two very different faiths that worship different gods and offer different solutions to the human dilemma. One worships the triune God, revealed in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. The other finds its god within the created order and finds salvation within a perfectible human nature. So the debate is about which faith — Judeo-Christian orthodoxy or neo-paganism—will be propagated by significant sectors of the church as we enter its third millennium. But as a woman, I see something else at stake. It is the vigorous defense of the very religious tradition that, in world-historical terms, has done the most to assure women liberty and dignity.


  • Diane Knippers

    Diane Knippers was an active Episcopalian and the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She died in 2005.

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