She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World
By Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD
Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014
Paperback, 349 pages.
A review essay by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
A few weeks ago, a taxi driver told me how much he had enjoyed watching astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 television series, “Cosmos.” “But I can’t believe this universe just happened out of nothing!” he said. “There has to be a Creator! And I’m starting to think it might be a woman.”
Listening to him, it occurred to me that thinking of God beyond the familiar male imagery was gradually seeping into the imaginations of everyday people. Not long ago, serious discussions about God and gender took place almost entirely in feminist religious circles and theological seminaries. Maybe more people are becoming open to such ideas because of books like The Shack, or the writings and media appearances of popular writers like Anne Lamott who frequently speaks of God as “She,” or Bobby McFerrin’s use of female pronouns in singing the 23rd Psalm, or simply the wider social world the Internet has opened up.
Even so, such receptivity to inclusive language and female imagery for the Deity is still the exception, whether among the general public or in houses of worship. We’re far more likely to hear someone on TV talking about “the Man upstairs” than we are to hear a prayer that begins. “our Loving Mother God,” in a Sunday service. In some circles, shock and a kind of emotional vertigo— or even anger and charges of heresy— arise at the thought that God could be referred to in female terms.
The writings of Jann Aldredge-Clanton
This is where Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton steps in to calm fears, enlarge our vision, and show the richness of expanding the way we think, sing, and speak about the Divine. Her latest book, She Lives! (the exclamation point is part of the title), helps us move beyond the limited gender binary to see God as both male and female, yet strictly speaking, neither male nor female, and at the same time inclusive of all gender identities.
Jann’s ministries include enlarging our vision by writing new words to hymn tunes and by telling us stories of real people who are traveling a journey much like her own, one in which she has experienced “the sacredness of all and of the dynamic nature of this Divinity—ever living, ever moving, ever growing” (p. x). To tell these stories, Jann has been interviewing a diverse group of people in recent years and writing profiles of them, first for her previous book, Changing Church, and others of them for her weekly blog. Forty profiles, drawn from all of these interviews, are included in this new book.
Among the profiled women and men are nine members of EEWC-Christian Feminism Today: Kendra Weddle Irons, Mark Mattison, Melanie Springer Mock, Mary E. Hunt, Gail Anderson Ricciuti, Rebecca Kiser, Judith Liro, Marg Herder, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Poems and a sermon excerpt written by another member, Shawna R. B. Atteberry, are also included. Jann Aldredge-Clanton herself is a member and serves on the EEWC-CFT Executive Council.
Twelve of the forty persons profiled here were also included in Changing Church.
The Many Ways Sophia Wisdom Works
Jann explains that the subtitle of She Lives!, “Sophia Wisdom Works in the World,” refers to one of her favorite female names for the Deity—Wisdom. “Wisdom is Hokmah in the Hebrew Bible and Sophia in the Greek language of the Christian Scriptures,” she says. “I continually see Wisdom working in our world and the great need for more of Her works” (p.x).
She has organized the sections of her book around eleven of these “works of Wisdom,” with each person’s story placed in the category where Jann felt it would fit best.
With so many outstanding spiritual leaders profiled in the chapters that comprise each section, I found it difficult to choose just a few representative stories. They are all so interesting, and I don’t want to leave anyone out! In some ways, this is many books in one. So I’ve decided to extract a central idea from each of the forty persons profiled to give you a tiny sample from each (and hopefully to entice you to read the book).
Think of each section of the book—each “work of Wisdom”—as a mini-conference where you are hearing several outstanding speakers talk about a specific theme. Or imagine eleven tables set up in a large room, each with a group of wonderful people conversing about an interesting topic and inviting you to pull up a chair and join in.
“Wisdom’s Works of Gender Equality”
Jann begins by telling us about Lutheran pastor Lori Eickmann. Lori felt called to teach about female imagery for God with a special emphasis on the biblical basis for this approach. She developed elective classes for every congregation in which she has served as “intentional interim pastor” (a specially trained category of ministry). One man told her, “When I first heard about this, I thought it was going to be a bunch of hooey—but now you’ve shown that this is in the Bible!” A woman in her eighth or ninth decade marveled at learning these new things so late in life.
I think Jann wisely chose Lori’s profile as her opening chapter because it demonstrates the scriptural basis for both gender equality and inclusive language and imagery for God. This can be reassuring for anxious readers who have been warned by patriarchal conservatives that they may be stepping into dangerous doctrinal territory by considering either one of these ideas— and certainly both!
The next four chapters in this gender-equality section (Part 1) further flesh out its theme. Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross shares the struggles she has had as an African American ordained clergywoman working for transformation in both the church and society. She believes that “exclusively male imagery is a barrier for men as well as for women.” Dr.Kendra Weddle Irons, a university professor of religion, shares her own personal spiritual journey, including the resistance she has met in trying to show others how important inclusive language and feminist theology are and why she believes our understanding of God affects our attitudes and actions toward others. Mark Mattison, who cofounded The Christian Godde Project to produce The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament, believes such a translation could provide balance in view of all the translations that use only masculine terms for the Divine. Rev. Dr. Angela M. Yarber, who is passionate about “embodying the Divine Feminine,” shares her experiences as a dancer, visual artist, lesbian, and ordained Baptist minister. She especially voices her concern for marginalized people. Her closing vision of hope for the future will make you want to get on your feet, turn up the music, and join her in the “dance toward justice.”
“Wisdom’s Works of Racial Equality”
In the second section of She Lives!, Jann points out that “multicultural images of the Divine contribute to racial equality by affirming the equal value of people of all races and ethnicities.” She shows how seminary professor Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim draws upon her South Korean background, pointing out that Korean women who have immigrated to North America are torn between two cultures and are subordinated by both Korean cultural traditions and the teachings of their churches in their new country. Grace believes Sophia Christology offers liberation and healing from racism, sexism, and classism. Rev. Christine A. Smith, as an African American female pastor, knows firsthand what it is to face both racial and gender challenges. She urges the creation of multicultural churches and believes ministering to diverse people also requires gender equality in the pulpit. We hear the voice of Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, an Episcopal priest who founded and directs Tengo Voz (which means “I have a voice”) and who works to empower Latina women to find and use their voice. College professor Melanie Springer Mock, as the mother of two Asian American children, says “they haven’t really encountered many images of God that look like them, and this makes me sad.” She says that we need concrete ways of helping us learn that all of us are made in God’s image, and “gender-inclusive leadership, language, and theology“ are important parts of that learning. Patrick Michaels, a composer and minister of music, says that not only do people of all ages benefit from hymnody that is gender inclusive, while also incorporating multifaith and multicultural language and imagery, but that children are especially responsive to expansive language for God.
“Wisdom’s Works of Marriage Equality”
Introducing her book’s third section categorizing Wisdom’s Works, Jann points out that “male-dominated worship language and imagery contribute to heterosexism and sexism by exalting the traditional ‘masculine’ and devaluing any traits that have been traditionally labeled ‘feminine.’” The section starts with an account of Rev. Dr. Nancy Petty’s unusual way of challenging unjust marriage laws (you’ll be surprised at how she does it —and with congregational approval) and tells of her other courageous stands on social justice issues as well. The next person profiled, Rev, Dr. Susan Newman, as part of her social activism, helped bring about Marriage Equality in Washington, D.C. Rev. Paul Smith admonishes us to “let the Divine out of the male prison.” For him, all justice issues are related to our image of the Divine, including valuing “all people, wherever they are on the scale from homosexual to heterosexual.” Dr. Caryn Riswold, a professor of religion and gender and women’s studies, says she speaks out to inform the world that the religious right-wing definitely does not represent all Christians in their views on political and justice issues. Rev. Stacy Boorn emphasizes the strong interconnectedness between feminism and the gospel in their mutual emphasis on equality and justice in all areas of life.
“Wisdom’s Works of Economic Justice”
In Part 4 of her book, Jann highlights not only the world’s inequality but also the disproportionate degree to which women especially experience economic injustice and oppression. She points out that certain symbols and male terminology for God support ideas of classism and kyriarchy (rule by lords and masters). Seminary professor Rev. Dr. Isabel Docampo, the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Cuba, identifies with families struggling to make a living, having grown up among them. She sees work for economic justice as a crucial part of God’s calling, and female imagery for God has given her strength to heed that calling. Jann’s chapter profiling Roman Catholic feminist theologian Dr. Mary E. Hunt is rich and insightful, highlighting Mary’s views on justice, the church, taking risks, and developing theology that begins with the marginalized. See what gives Mary her courage and inspiration. And read her imaginative creation story, “God Laughing Out Loud,” picturing God’s delight in our joy. Rev. Dr. Gail Anderson Ricciuti, an ordained Presbyterian minister and divinity school professor, says she tries to stretch the “boundaries of biblical and theological assumptions” held by her students. That “stretching” includes challenging them to think of as many names for God as possible as a way of expanding their images of the Divine. Gail is determined to keep justice issues alive, and to “make clear how the ‘ism’ injustices are interrelated: one pulled thread unravels other rights as well.” Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley wants us to be aware of what she calls our “default settings,” a tendency to expect and fall back on what is familiar and habitual. She’d like churches to recognize that “the best pastor for a given church may not be male, or the same race, or from the same socioeconomic background as once was customary for a congregation.” She urges us to be open to God’s surprises.
“Wisdom’s Works of Caring for Creation”
Jann points out that the earth is often spoken of in feminine terms, and “like females, the earth continues to be devalued, exploited, assaulted, and abused.” She suggests that “including female divine names and images in worship connects the revaluing of females to the revaluing of the earth.” The exploitation of the earth is likewise of concern to the Rev. Dr. Genny Rowley, who is devoting her life to doing something about it. She emphasizes that “changing our relationship with the earth from one of mastery over something to one of kinship and respect is vital if we are to flourish spiritually and if we are to physically survive as a species.” This fifth section of Wisdom’s Works continues as Jann introduces us to Rev. Dr. Rebecca Kiser and her concept of a “gender-full God.” Rebecca urges us to experience the Divine “not only through human images, both female and male, but also through nature.” Rev. Daniel Charles Damon, a Methodist pastor also known internationally for his hymn writing and composing, uses music as a way of calling attention to the need to care for creation and see ecology as a social justice issue. How he personally came to embrace female imagery and how he introduces it by startingwhere people are is another important part of his story. “I think the Divine Feminine will, in time, balance with the Divine Masculine,” he predicts. Rev. Connie L. Tuttle reminds us that even if we don’t speak up about caring for creation, the earth itself will speak— “out of deep anguish for justice.” She tells us that “as [her] understandings and experiences of the Divine expanded, the call to peace and justice widened to include women, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay , and transgender folk—and the earth itself.”
“Wisdom’s Works of Nonviolence”
Jann Aldredge-Clanton introduces Part 6 with scripture that reminds us that Wisdom’s ways are pleasantness and “all her paths are peace.” Rev. Judith Liro’s chapter expands on that message. “For me, feminism is about a healthy balance of feminine and masculine,” she says, “and is not anti-male.” She sees inclusive language and liturgy as countering the patriarchal system that is behind wars, economic exploitation, and other evils associated with violence. Next, in introducing readers to the personality and creative work of writer-musician Marg Herder, Jann describes how Marg “illuminates a spirituality of love and nonviolence, a spirituality that all people can share as equals.” She says Marg’s use of female terminology for the Divine in her songs and writings reinforces the message that all people are created in God’s image. We next meet Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman, a theology professor who founded the Dinah project, a program that assists churches in providing healing responses to sexual violence. Dr. Coleman’s vision for this ministry grew out of her own faith struggles after having been raped while a divinity school student. Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, author and retired university professor, talks about changes that gender-diverse language can make in churches. “In the few places where diverse God-language is used regularly,” she says, “women and transgender people are empowered to become more active leaders, and men are empowered to express their emotions and act on their generous desires to serve others. So everything looks and feels more Christlike.” Jann introduces us to Rev. Marcia C. Fleischman, author of Wild Woman Theology: In the Arms of Loving Mother God, which depicts Mother God as “a robust African American woman, holding the world in her hands and wearing a lime green T-shirt with infinity signs on it.” Marcia believes imagining God as “Holy Mama” could draw Her children together and bring peace and healing in the world.
“Wisdom’s Works of Expanding Spiritual Experience”
“Divine Mystery exceeds all our thoughts and words,” Jann reminds us in opening her seventh section. “All our language for divinity must then be metaphorical.” Lay theologian Deborah Hall became aware of women’s oppression in church and society through reading feminist theologians; and the deaths of her mother and a baby son caused her to rethink her ideas about God, leading her to revise her idea of a rescuing God to one of “a nurturing God who suffers along with us.” Longing to explore and use female imagery and language for God with likeminded people, Deborah formed Sophia Sisters as a worshiping community. Larry E. Schultz, composer and church musician, tells how his personal experiences in marriage, friendship, and parenthood have shown him that it’s important to balance male and female images of the Divine. In addition, his own parents’ example inspired him to write hymn texts that counter gender stereotypes and “speak of God in male terms as very gentle and in female terms as very strong.” Rev. Beverly Jane Phillips wrote a book titled Learning a New Language: Speech about Women and God, because she wanted “to bring theology inclusive of the Divine Feminine to the church and to the wider culture.” She says that “worshiping God in God’s fullness as masculine and feminine would transform the world into a place where no one is at the top and no one is at the bottom because the idea and practice of hierarchy would not exist.” Jann also introduces us to Rev. Alice D. Martin who likewise “reclaims the power of multicultural female images to deepen and expand spiritual experience” and is persuaded that connecting to the Feminine Divine will affect the world for good in spite of patriarchy’s “stranglehold” on world power that is “tough to overcome.”
“Wisdom’s Works of Interfaith Collaboration”
In introducing Part 8, Jann urges us to recognize the call of Wisdom for “people of diverse religious and spiritual traditions to work together for justice and peace.” Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung, who grew up in Korea, finds bridges between Christianity and religious traditions of Asia and tells how the “rise of the Divine Feminine” relates to movements centered around ecology, peace, economic justice, and anti-imperialism. Lana Dalberg, author of Birthing God: Women’s Experience of the Divine, tells of her own journey and her perceived need for the new perspectives that can come from direct interaction with women from different faiths and cultural backgrounds. “Multicultural images of the Divine Feminine are vital,” she says. Writer Jeanette Blonigen Clancy asserts that “exclusively male God-talk diminishes God.” She explains that “if we talk about the highest value imaginable with exclusively male terms, we give males the right to act as lords over females—exactly what we experience around the world.” Her chapter is entitled “Cherishing Christianity without Its Exclusive Claims.” Part 8 closes with a chapter on Church music director Orion Pitts, who talks about his Lutheran congregation’s emphasis on interfaith collaboration, including inviting guest speakers from different faiths. He also introduces worship music from different religious traditions, and has even compiled a “Global Mass,” incorporating Buddhist, Sufi, Jewish, and Native American resources.
“Wisdom’s Works of Changing Hierarchies into Circles”
Part 9 reminds us of the importance of forming new kinds of communities built on the idea of circles rather than a vertical image of top-down power. “Circles symbolize the equal value of all,” Jann writes. The people she profiles in this section exemplify that concept. Ann Landaas Smith, director of Circle Connections, calls herself a “circle evangelist.” Her organization is dedicated to bringing “the gift of women’s sacred circles and Circle Leadership worldwide; caring for ourselves, one another, and Mother Earth.” She says a “‘new story’ is being co-created, one that balances the Divine Masculine with the Divine Feminine” and contrasts with the “old story” that has separated us by “ranking white people over people of color, men over women, straight over gay, people over nature.” Dr. Mary Ann Beavis, a professor of religion and culture, who “identifies with both Christianity and spiritual feminism,” similarly emphasizes the circle as being “more conducive to participation, equality, and relationship.” She believes most people are unaware of the many accomplishments that feminist theology has made. Her chapter also introduces readers to some unusual ideas and associations. For example, she observes that the image of God in popular culture (and held by many Christians), which depicts the Divine as a bearded old man in the sky, is really a description of Zeus! And she has recently coauthored a feminist commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, suggesting that “Hebrews is a submerged discourse of Sophia.” Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan, author of Exploring the Feminine Face of God, is a bishop in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and views her numerous excommunications by the Vatican as “badges of honor.” She says she wants to be “an agent of change in solidarity with a vast group of sisters and brothers who are reformers and who love the church and want to restore it to its mystical, Christ-centered, justice-doing focus.” Included in this chapter is a beautiful meditation called, “God, a Nurturing Mother,” excepted from a children’s book Bishop Bridget Mary coauthored that will be meaningful to adults as well. Christina Cavener, another creative leader, is similarly dedicated to empowering people of all ages and groups, including children, teenagers, women, and LGBTQ people. Her influence is gradually bringing about change in the Sunday worship services and youth work of the Methodist church where she serves as minister of education. But in addition, she has initiated Feminine Divine Worship Services scheduled for Saturday mornings, which provide an opportunity for participants “to experience what exclusive male language cannot offer: liberation from a male-dominated tradition and society.”
The Book’s Final Sections
In “Wisdom’s Works of Creative Worship” (Part 10) and “Wisdom’s Works of Feminist Emancipatory Faith Communities” (Part 11), Jann has provided useful, creative liturgical resources, some written by people profiled in the book and some from others; and she also lists feminist faith communities in various locales, along with descriptions and contact information to help you find other people and groups that value diversity, equality, inclusiveness, and an expansive view of the Divine. After the short Epilogue and End Notes, you’ll also find “Additional Inclusive Worship Resources,” including books and online resources.
Some Concluding Thoughts of My Own
I realize that by providing such an extensive overview, I’m risking the possibility that some readers will conclude there’s now no need to read the book for themselves. But that would be like deciding to skip a movie because you’ve seen the trailer and thus assume you already know everything about it! Each of the forty persons profiled here has so much to share through Jann’s telling of their lives, works, and words that the best I could do was offer a tiny glimpse or central idea from each one, hoping you’ll then want to read that person’s chapter in its entirety.
One thing I liked especially about this book is Jann’s awareness that although it’s important to expand our image of the Divine, there is no strict orthodoxy about exactly what that entails. There is no insistence that our journeys be the same in how we come to embrace and express the vision of a “gender-full God”— no strict rules or imposed uniformity.
In the book’s introduction, Jann points out variations in the approaches represented among the persons she has profiled. Some like to use the word “Godde” as a combination of God and Goddess to show the Divine is beyond the gender binary; others might chose some other combination (an example would be Rosemary Ruether’s introduction of the word “God/ess” in some of her writings). At least two of those Jann interviewed had no problem with simply using the word “Goddess” as another name for the Divine. Jann points out that some people “favor abstract over anthropomorphic names for Deity and suggest genderless designations like ‘Friend,’ ‘Spirit,’ and ‘Force.’” For some, this may serve as a first step in moving away from exclusively male terminology for God, even if they don’t feel comfortable using female pronouns. Others believe such a gender neutral approach doesn’t go far enough.
Some, such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott suggest that combining the word “God” (which in many people’s minds suggests male) with “She” (when a pronoun is necessary) can jolt people into seeing that God’s image embraces all genders and therefore includes transgender persons. Some people like to use the term “Divine Feminine,” whereas others, such as Mary E. Hunt, may say, “I do not use ‘feminine’ anything as it seems to play into the sexist trap of dividing people into masculine and feminine.” Masculine and feminine are cultural constructs and can lead to thinking in terms of gender stereotypes. Jann Aldredge-Clanton herself has begun using the term, “Female Divine,” although she has been conscientious in recording the preferred terminology of each individual whose story she tells, with many using “Divine Feminine” or “Feminine Divine.”
I am glad that Jann has included this discussion, because we humans can so easily convince ourselves there is only one right way to view or express something— and that “right way” can too often be defined as “the way I see it (or speak it),” thereby stifling others’ expressions of their views. I’ve not seen such a succinct discussion on the variations in inclusive language for God in quite this way elsewhere, and I commend Jann for including it in this book.
On this overall topic, I think there are a few pitfalls we may need to be aware of and avoid. For example, those of us who feel excited and enriched through expanding our concept of the Divine to include female imagery, names, and language must take care not to look down on those who have not embraced this view at this point in their lives. It’s important not to regard ourselves as more advanced and more “spiritual” than they. Rather, we need to show patience, love, empathy, and respect for the place where individuals are at a given time in their personal spiritual journeys and, from that starting point, we can gradually guide and encourage them to consider new ways of thinking. We may need to reassure them that this new (to them) way of thinking is not a replacement of the God they have known and loved but an expansion of our knowledge of the Holy One, who is, after all, beyond human understanding. Less familiar biblical names for the Deity, such as Sophia or Ruah, do not mean “new gods”!
One person Jann interviewed specifically spoke of starting where people are, and several others spoke of conducting classes for introducing people to what expanding their concept of God can mean in their lives. This is so important. I think we need also to be careful not to unintentionally cause people to feel we are an “in-group” with our own special God-language, while others are consigned to out-group status because they don’t at this point fully grasp or speak that same language. They may even find themselves fearful of talking about their own spiritual experiences of God in our presence lest they slip and say something the “wrong” way and find themselves being judged and “corrected.” (Some of us have had that happen at some point in our lives.)
A considerable number of those who shared their stories with Jann spoke of the resistance they have encountered in introducing female names and imagery for God to their congregations or to other people in different contexts. It would be so tempting to assume that all who resist such ideas are simply close-minded and bound to the patriarchal status quo. No doubt many are—possibly persuaded that the whole idea of including female imagery for the Divine is unbiblical, heretical, and even some sort of “feminist plot” to undermine God’s revelation. But others, I believe, are resistant (at least in the beginning) simply because they come from conservative traditions and are even finding it new and strange to learn that the Bible supports gender equality. They may still be trying to grasp the full significance of knowing that girls, boys, women, and men, and all in between are equally made in the divine image. While still wrapping their mind around those ideas, they may not be ready immediately to see the need for a balance of female and male imagery in speaking of God and that otherwise we don’t see a complete picture. (Many of those Jann writes about took care to specifically emphasize that need for balance as the basis for expanding our concept of God.) Jann gently illustrates that point in her hymnwriting, as well as in these stories of real people telling how they worked out these concepts in their own lives and in their various ways of ministering to others. Reading about their journeys can help those who are just starting out on their own journeys.
If you belong to a book club or study group, She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World would be an excellent selection. Or just enjoy reading it on your own. In any case, I hope you’ll seriously consider purchasing this book. You’ll be glad you did. And after you’ve read it, place it on your bookshelf alongside Elizabeth A. Johnson’s classic She Who Is and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s The Divine Feminine. They’ll all fit together well.
© 2014 by Christian Feminism Today