The Sophia Wars

April 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Posted in feminism | Leave a comment
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On Saturday (April 9) my colleagues  Hal Taussig and Susan Cole and I joined with a group of friends to celebrate the publication of the thirtieth anniversary edition of our book, Wisdom’s Feast. In the midst of an April snow and sleet storm (!)  it was a rather modest event, more like a family reunion that a commercial book promotion.

One of the subjects we discussed at some length at the gathering was the hostile responses to the book especially by some United Methodist clergy and congregation members back in the 1990s. The discussion reminded me of an article I wrote back in 2000.  I am pasting it below to let you in on some of what we talked about at the book celebration.

Interestingly enough, the preface to the new edition picks up certain parts of the argument we made in 1996, that one of the causes for the attacks on Sophia, and on Susan and Hal for writing about her, was because of the ordination and mandatory placement of women clergy in UMC congregations. The Catholic bishops didn’t attack me for the book, we speculated, and didn’t attack Elizabeth Johnson for her 1992 work on Sophia, because the Catholic Church didn’t have women priests.  But beginning in 2002, an international movement, Roman Catholic WomenPriests did begin ordaining Catholic women, even if it couldn’t place them in parishes, and Johnson’s theology was fiercely criticized by the US Catholic bishops in 2011. We just didn’t wait long enough!

 

Sophia in Struggle and Celebration

SIXTEEN years ago, two colleagues and I set out on something of an adventure. Susan Cole and Hal Taussig, United Methodist pastors in Philadelphia, had been using liturgy, devotions, Bible study, and Christen education activities to introduce Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to their congregation. Now they wanted to enlarge Sophia’s circle by writing a book about her.

Since I had recently co-authored a volume on a related topic, Christian feminist worship, Hal and Sue invited me to join their effort. I was happy enough to come on board, but, to tell the truth, I didn’t grasp what the big deal was at the time. As a Roman Catholic, [ was familiar with Wisdom as a figure of the divine about whom we sang each year in the “O Antiphons” leading up to Christmas: “O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from the beginning to the end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly. Come forth and teach us the way of prudence.” Perhaps even more, for all that I was by then theologically sophisticated enough not to admit it, I had grown up in a tradition in which the Virgin Mary came very close to God in power and importance. Divine and near-divine female figures didn’t strike me as remarkable.

Our first book, Sophia, the Future of Feminist Spirituality, (1986), is an accessible introduction to Sophia in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the post-biblical era, and in her social-historical context. In this material we display the extensive intertextuaI relations between Sophia/Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus in the Christian scriptures. The title “Sophia-Jesus,” later to be used to such effect by Elizabeth A. Johnson and others, comes into focus here. Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration, a paperback edition adding many group activities, Bible studies, meditations, liturgies, and sermons to the original discursive introduction, followed in 1989. At the same time, in twos and threes, Hal, Susan, and I led Sophia courses, retreats, liturgies, and workshops in various locations through-out the country.

 

In all of these contexts we stressed Sophia as a pivotal figure in the feminist, liberation, and ecological spiritualities then emerging. Sophia, we argued, is indispensable for those attempting to experience, express, and effect the radical connectedness of all creation and the radical equality of all human beings. This designation of Sophia as a connective figure of enormous promise within emerging U.S. Christian spiritualities was one of the most significant insights our work made available.

In the months and years that followed, however, it became apparent that though many did welcome Sophia, others by no means experienced her as a facilitator of connectedness. In a second edition o f Wisdom’s Feast that appeared in 1996, we note with some satisfaction the advances in Sophia scholarship and spirituality in the decade since our initial publication. But we also address the bitter Sophia-related strife that emerged within several Christian denominations during that period.

The event that received the widest notice in this regard was the 1993 Re-imagining Conference, the international theological colloquium organized in Minneapolis in response to the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women. During this colloquium, participants invoked Sophia repeatedly as they “re-imagined” their Christian faith. Subsequently, conservative groups in the United Methodist and United Presbyterian churches spearheaded retaliatory moves, some of them successful, against women on the national staffs of both denominations because of their involvement with a conference in which heretical goddess worship had allegedly taken place.

Even before the Minneapolis gathering, my United Methodist friends, Hal and Susan, but Susan most intensely, had come under attack for their theological and pastoral work on Sophia. In 1989, the lay leader of the United Methodist congregation of which Susan was pastor accused her and our books of heresy, ultimately bringing charges against her to the United Methodist conference of which they were both members, and later against the bishop who had dismissed these charges against Susan. It seems likely that this Pennsylvania conflict helped to fuel the outcry against the Minneapolis conference. Within the United Methodist Church, the conflict continued until 1995 when the U. M. Council of Bishops issued a report affirming the importance of Wisdom theology but disapproving the worship of Sophia as a goddess.

In assessing these developments, Hal, Susan, and I found several distinctions significant. First, although my colleagues, both United Methodists, came under serious attack for their work on Sophia, I, a Roman Catholic, suffered no retaliation of any kind. Second, though accusations were leveled at both Hal and Susan, the attacks on Susan were far more virulent than those on Hal. The strong Catholic tradition of honoring the Virgin alluded to earlier may account for some of the “neglect” I suffered.

We concluded, however, that the conflict over Sophia was primarily a reaction to the increasing influence of ordained women within United Methodism. Not only had Susan been appointed pastor of a prominent U. M. congregation during the “heresy” process, the first woman bishop in the history of the diocese had been appointed not long before. And while United Presbyterians as well as United Methodists had reacted to the Sophia movement, we believe that United Methodist polity contributed to the intensity of the United Methodist reaction.

While many Protestant denominations now ordain women, the congregational polity that a number of them practice  means that individual congregations still control whether or not they hire women pastors. United Methodists ordain women, and their bishops decide which clergy will be placed in which congregations. This means that United Methodist clergywomen actually receive appointments, a situation over which United Methodist lay people have little control, even if they are opposed to it. The attacks functioned, then, as a protest – with Sophia being the symbol o f the unwelcome power of women.

It seems to me now that if my colleagues and I made a mistake in this process, it was in underestimating how difficult it is to bring about the “connectedness” that we so joyfully discerned in the figure of Sophia. The baby- boomer generation, of which all three o f us are members, has been criticized more than once for having been unrealistic about what it takes to bring about change. Hal, Susan, and I assumed that because Sophia is an unambiguous part of the biblical tradition, she would be welcomed as a bridge between more traditional ecclesial practices and the feminist, liberation, and ecological spiritualities o f the late 20th century. This proved not always to be the case.

Yet the need for bridge figures is, if anything, even greater than it was 15 years ago. In response to such unambiguous need, Sophia-Jesus continues to cry out, as she has since ancient times, “Come and eat my bread, drink the wine I have prepared…for the one who finds me finds life” (Prov 9:5; 8:35).

 

(This article appeared originally in The Living Pulpit 9:3 (July-September 2000).

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