Christ Sophia - feminine images of God-ess in the Christian tradition.
Today is Mother’s Day. It is also the commemoration day for Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, famous for her visions of Christ, and her perspective of Christ as mother. Here’s a quote from her writings:
“Yet sin must not make us fearful…But we must cry out humbly to our beloved Mother and he will sprinkle us with his precious blood. He will make our soul tender and gentle, and as time passes will perfectly heal us in exactly the way that brings him most glory and brings us endless joy. He will never leave nor neglect this sweet and lovely work until all his beloved children are born and delivered…So our life is grounded in Jesus, our true Mother, through his eternal wisdom and foreknowledge, with the almighty power of the Father and the supreme goodness of the Holy Spirit…he feeds us and helps us – he does everything that his wonderful mother’s nature and the natural needs of a child require.”
Over the last two weeks we have spent time considering images of Jesus –images that come to us through the gospels of the New Testament, and images drawn from nature that are brought out in poetry.
Today I want to continue on that thread, but to broaden out a bit to think of images of God. Specifically I want to reflect on the gendered nature of most traditional imagery, and to consider the rich vein of scriptural texts that point to God not only as having a masculine identity, but also a feminine one.
I will assume that we can all accept the idea that God is neither male nor female. That any time we use a name, an image, or a pronoun – he or she – to refer to God, we’re importing a language symbol that is exceedingly limited in approaching the reality of what the source of all life really is in ‘its’-self. However, it does seem that the Christian tradition, rather than offering a great smorgasbord of images, male and female, human and natural and elemental, when referring to the Divine, has restricted its interest to a recurring few, mostly masculine images – king, lord, Father, God.
I will explore more later what the consequences of this practice are, or can be. But beforehand, I’d like to follow up a few scriptural threads – some feminine faces of the Divine – that might not be familiar to everyone. And I don’t just mean metaphors where an essentially masculine God is seen to act with feminine feelings or behaviours. By that I mean the many images of God as a female bird, sheltering her children under her wings, or images that speak of God birthing, or being in labour. Those images are helpful because they tell us that Yahweh, or Christ - male faces of God - felt and acted and spoke of themselves in ways that we might identify as feminine.
But what I mean by feminine faces of the Divine are images where God herself takes on a feminine pronoun, a feminine identity or expression in the physical world.
Firstly, two words, ‘ruach’ and ‘shekinah’
The Shekinah is a Hebrew word used throughout the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, to refer to God’s presence – the light of the invisible - particularly around the Tabernacle in the wilderness, but also resting on people, and dwelling among the Israelites. Some commentators see Shekinah and Yahweh as virtually interchangeable – that is, where God’s presence is, God is. Others see the Shekinah as a kind of ‘emanation’ from God, something akin to the ‘Logos’: of God and from God, but also separate from God. The thing to note for our purposes, that we can’t access through our English word ‘presence’, is that Shekinah is a feminine noun. The Hebrew language inflects its nouns to be either masculine or feminine…and this one is feminine. One wouldn’t say ‘he’ of Shekinah.
The same goes for ‘Ruach’, which is a feminine Hebrew noun for God’s Spirit – also seen as God’s power, or active energy – used throughout the Hebrew Bible. The Spirit that hovered over the waters of Creation, the Spirit that came on various individuals to inspire them to act in certain ways, the Spirit that behaved in fairly wild, unpredictable, and forceful ways through the story of Israel, this Spirit is a feminine presence. The essence through which the Divine life acts in the physical world wears a feminine face, in language.
It’s hard to grasp how this might read in a culture that actually inflects their nouns in this way. Because in English we identify something male or female by use of our pronouns – he and she - it’s hard to experience what it might be like to hear or read of God acting in a feminine aspect. And in English, because we have come to use the pronoun ‘he’ for all things concerning God, it’s rare for us to have the experience of imagining God’s activity in the world in a female guise – rarer than it would have been for the people of Israel, who had these feminine nouns at their disposal.
I’d like to read to you now from two biblical texts – one from the canon we’re familiar with…the book of Proverbs, and one from a deutero-canonical book, the Wisdom of Solomon. The deuteron-canonical texts got turfed from Protestant Bibles at the Reformation but have always been part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern (Greek and Russian) Bible.
Read Proverbs 8:22-31, and Wisdom 7:22-28, 10:17.
I hear these texts as more than mere personification. In them I hear Wisdom, which is Hokhmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek, having an active role alongside God in creation and redemption. I hear of her being co-existent with God before the physical creation, of being involved in revealing the will of God and being an agent bringing humanity to God, and being God’s immanent presence and image in the world. She is a co-creator of the world, she orders all things, she permeates and indwells all things, and she mediates God’s love and work in the world.
In fact, I hear in these texts a parallel to the beginning of the gospel of John, and the first chapter of Colossians. Let me remind you of what those texts say:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…
Let me just repeat some phrases regarding Wisdom (or Sophia /Hokhmah):
Ages ago I was set up, at the first before the beginning of the earth…When he established the heavens I was there…then I was beside him as a master worker; and I was daily his delight…
She pervades and penetrates all things. …For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things.
It is possible to argue that Logos, or ‘the Word’ capital W used in the beginning of John, is another way of saying ‘Sophia’ – that basically they refer to this same phenomenon, from the Hebrew tradition of Hokhmah, or Wisdom. That is, Christ is Sophia, the incarnation of the feminine emanation of God. It makes sense to me that the gospel of John would draw from imagery already in the Israelite tradition in trying to explain how Jesus of Nazareth was also the presence of God dwelling among us. I am not saying that Christ was a woman! But that the imagery that supports his being an incarnation of God is the same imagery that is personified in female terms in the Jewish tradition.
Here’s a couple of other verses in the New Testament that bring out what is known as a ‘Sophia Christology’.
Matthew 11:19, and Luke 7.35 – basically the same verse in the two gospels. Jesus says that the people complained when John came and fasted, and then they complained when he came and feasted. But he assures them ‘Yet wisdom (Sophia) is vindicated by her deeds.’ that’s Matthew, or in Luke - ‘nevertheless, wisdom (Sophia) is vindicated by all her children’
In 1 Corinthians, one of the early letters of Paul we read:
‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom (Sophia) of God.’… ‘…Among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom (Sophia), secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’
(1Cor 1:23-24, 2:6-8)
So, what are we to make of all this?
Firstly, I think it helps us to ensure that the story of Christ, as the presence of God in the world, is an inclusive story, that affirms that Christ is able to be made presence in women and men and also in all creation. Yes, Jesus Christ the man is the image of the invisible God, but that doesn’t mean that the invisible God can only, or even primarily, be depicted in masculine terms. There is a genuine thread in the Judeo-Christian tradition that links the person and work of Jesus to the feminine expression of God found in the Wisdom tradition.
This might not seem enormously relevant, but there are generations of Christian women in some parts of the church who have been barred from ordination, from leadership or from serving the bread and wine of communion, because it is felt that a woman cannot properly mediate Christ to his disciples. Only a male can be a priest, because only men, in the end, carry the stamp of the divine, as expressed in Jesus. That way of thinking denies that Christ can be the image of a God who is both male and female, and in fact may well be more closely linked with the feminine tradition of ruach, shekinah, and hokhmah/Sophia than with the masculine tradition of Jehovah and Yahweh.
Secondly, and on a more personal level, our image of ourselves has everything to do with our image of God, and our image of God has everything to do with our image of ourselves. If our image of God is too limited, or skewed towards the masculine, then women in the church will never have a sense of ourselves as fully bearing the divine image. And men will always carry power in the church by the mere fact of being more like God than women are.
For a long time, I have believed that I have not been affected by the dominance of masculine imagery and the constant use of the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to God. I mean, here I am, a pastor of a church. I have only infrequently felt oppressed, limited, or damaged by theologies that put women down. I don’t feel as though there are areas of life that are barred to me because I am a woman.
For the past many years I have been working quite hard to gender neutralise my God language. I no longer use the pronoun ‘he’ (if I remember) to refer to God. I just say ‘God’ lots of times in the same sentence. But what I have come to realise, is that by doing that, I have neutered God. I have struggled to connect to God. By refusing to relate to God as ‘he’, I have ceased relating to God at all. Because for me, the word God cannot be unshackled from all those silent ‘he’s’, and the masculine images that have built up around God. And I haven’t replaced my images…except with the odd non-gendered metaphor here and there, that does little to break the power of the habitual ‘Lord’, and the faint residue of a ‘man in the sky’ that goes with the use of the masculine terms.
I’ve decided that I have to relate to God both as male and female, and not as neither – otherwise God just vanishes. And that to balance out years of relating to God as male, I might need to spend some time focusing on the female side of that equation. And I don’t think this is a practice just for women – I’m not advocating this balancing out just for those people who struggle with relating to masculine images of God. I think that the entire Christian church needs to undergo a reformation or our religious imagination. Otherwise we will continue to have a church with a lopsided, narrow and limited vision of the nature of the Divine One, the invisible God.
So, remembering that all our words and images for the Divine are symbols…how about trying out Goddess as well as God? Not ‘a’ goddess – I’m not talking about worshipping little statues – I mean Goddess as a name for the one we worship, at least as adequate as the three letter version. How about Sophia as an image – that wonderful feminine entity that delights in the inhabited world and delights in the human race? Or the Ruach of God, that blows wildly through the stories of Goddess interacting with her people. Or, coming back to our Mother’s Day beginning, El Shaddai, the breasted one, the Mother Christ who can make my soul tender and gentle. And Goddess knows, I could do with some more tenderness and gentleness in my soul.
To conclude, I’d like to reaffirm that as always this is my perspective and the voice of just one among our community. I’m sharing with you something of the process I’m engaged in, and what I’m thinking about. But I’d hate for anyone to feel like they’re not allowed to stand up here and address God using masculine language, if that is what they want to do. And I don’t want us all tripping over our tongues to make sure we’ve got our gender correctness straight. What I have said is about having more, not less language at our disposal to enable us to talk about, and connect with, our loving Creator.