Can You Kill the Spirit? What Happened to Female Imagery for God in Christian Worship? by Carol P. Christ


carol at green party 2014 croppedWhen I first began to think about female language and images for God I imagined that changing God-He to God-She and speaking of God as Mother some of the time would be a widespread practice in churches and synagogues by now. I was more worried about whether or not images of God as a dominating Other would remain intact. Would God-She be imaged as a Queen or a Woman of War who at Her whim or will could wreak havoc on Her own people?

Forty years later, very little progress has been made on the question of female imagery for God. I suspect that most people in the pews today have never even had to confront prayers to Sophia, God the Mother, or God-She. Most people consider the issue of female language in the churches to have been resolved with inclusive language liturgies and translations of the Bible that use gender neutral rather than female inclusive language.

In her new book, Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship, Elizabeth Ursic states that one of the reasons that the issue of female language seems less pressing than it once did is because those for whom the issue was important have for the most part left the church. But the question is why. Ursic’s research demonstrates that reactions against feminist experimentation with female language for God in public spaces have been swift and more violent than has generally been recognized.

Early advocates of Sophia, pastors Susan Cady and Hal Taussig were tried for heresy in the Methodist Church for daring to speak of God as She. The way Cady as a young divorced woman pastor became a target for vitriolic attacks is for Ursic more significant than the fact that the two were eventually acquitted of heresy. Cady’s treatment by members of her church sent other women a clear message: leave the church or if you stay, keep your opinions about God to yourself or you will be sorry.

According to Ursic the Re-Imagining Conference in 1993 was a turning point that nipped feminist experimentation with female God language in public spaces in the bud. The liturgy in which the participants welcomed Sophia and celebrated the nourishment of Her milk and honey at the banquet table of Creation was dubbed “theologically aberrant.” Sophia was called a “centuries-old idol with a fresh coat of paint” and the controversy was considered by some to be a “holy war” between “Christians and pagans,” “orthodox vs. heretics.”

In the midst of the controversy United Methodist Bishop Susan Morris wrote: “When over 2000 women and men gather from around the world plus a huge waiting list, it indicates there is a need that hasn’t been met through traditional gatherings.” Despite the truth of Morrison’s statement, the few highly publicized firings of women from positions in Protestant denominations that followed effectively put an end to public exploration of the question of female language in mainline Protestant churches.

Ursic also documents the controversy about the Motherhood of God that nearly tore the Church of Scotland apart. In 1982 Anne Hepburn unwittingly unleashed a storm when she opened a conference of the Women’s Guild (an organization for the wives of ministers) with a prayer to “Almighty God,” “Our Father” followed by a second that began with the words “God Our Mother.” Hepburn was called everything from a “heretic” to a “Roman” (Catholic) and it was even suggested that the “Womanhood of the Devil” be investigated. Though the Church of Scotland has since included a few hymns to God as female in its new hymnal, its ministers seem to have concluded that it is best to stick to familiar male language for God in order to avoid controversy.

Ursic considers two more successful attempts to introduce female language into Christian worship. Members of the Roman Catholic Order the Daughters of Wisdom in Litchfield, Connecticut have been referring to God as Sophia in private and group prayers for several decades. Perhaps because their order was dedicated to Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) at its inception and because the the Sisters do not attempt to lead the mass, the Vatican authorities have not felt the need to chastise them. Ursic documents the power of female imagery in the prayers of the Sisters, while noting that their order has an aging membership. Will their prayers to Sophia even be remembered if their order dies out?

The final chapter of Ursic’s book is dedicated to the work of Stacy Boorn in Ebenezer Lutheran herchurch in San Francisco. Called as a pastor to an elderly Swedish congregation, Boorn found herself in the middle of a controversy with the church’s leadership council when she baptized a child in the name of “God who is both Mother and Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”

Women at herchurch create images of the Divine Feminine

Women at herchurch create images of the Divine Feminine

Boorn not only was vindicated, but went on to convince the San Francisco branch of the denominational hierarchy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to allow Ebenezer Lutheran Church to focus on feminism as its mission. Ebenezer Lutheran herchurch refers to God as “Christ-Sophia” but also as “God/ess” and “Goddess” in public worship, and sponsors a “Goddess Rosary” prayer and meditation in the church sanctuary each week. It has embarked on an ambitious program of decorating the inside and the outside of the church with art work celebrating God as female.

Herchurch appeals to a small but growing group of women and men including families who consider themselves Christian but who are looking for less patriarchal, hierarchical, and heteronormative forms of worship. It is unlikely to make many inroads among those who have already found ways to worship the Goddess through Starhawk’s Reclaiming and other groups in the San Francisco Bay area. Still, I am a-mazed that herchurch continues to thrive under the Lutheran umbrella. Will it continue to grow? Will it come under Lutheran Church scrutiny at some point? Will its experiments with feminism and female imagery affect the denomination as a whole?

I began reading Woman, Ritual, and Power with two main questions in mind. I wondered why Ursic chose to focus on worship of the female God in public spaces, when much creative work is being done in small womanchurch communities. I also wanted to know why God-She has not made more inroads in liberal mainline Protestant churches.

Ursic’s answer to my first question is that she focuses on public spaces, because she believes that private prayer and worship outside the church or “down the hall” in a church meeting rooms—while meaningful to individuals–leave the patriarchal structures of common worship intact.

The answer to my second question became clear as I read Ursic’s chapter on the Sophia controversies and the Re-imagining Conference. Female God language did not die a natural death in the liberal Protestant churches. Rather, a vicious campaign against it succeeded. Only a few Protestant women lost their jobs after the Re-imagining Conference and Cady and Taussig were acquitted of heresy. But what happened was enough to silence a widespread and growing movement.

I am reminded of a lecture I heard years ago on the witch trials in Salem. “Only a few women were killed,” the speaker acknowledged, “ but it was enough to put the fear of being accused of being a witch into every other woman in America.”

I suspect that many of the women who attended the Re-imagining Conference left the church. Others retreated into silence, private prayer, or small groups where they could continue to experiment with female language for God. As Ursic points out, mainline Protestantism is in decline in Europe and America. In this situation, a new generation of priests, ministers, and pastors are not inclined to introduce innovations that will upset the more traditional members of their congregations. Nor are those for whom female language is a crucial issue likely to study for the ministry.

There is a song that says: “You can’t kill the spirit.” In the long run, this may be true. But in the short run, I would say, individuals and groups can do exactly that.

Ursic views the situation positively. She finds reason to hope in the fact that female language for God and its advocates were not declared heretical and that both scholarship and liturgical expressions continue challenge traditional views. I hope she is right.

“And God Created Woman in Her Own Image” by Anne Grifalconi.

Painting the Divine Feminine workshop at herchurch with Shiloh Sohpia McCloud.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.

 

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Categories: Activism, Christianity, Divine Feminine, Feminism and Religion, God-talk

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51 replies

  1. Fascinating and very sobering article, Carol. I’m going to have to read Elizabeth Ursic’s book.

    I’ve met so many progressive Methodists. I had no idea that people were still being tried for heresy in that demonination.

    Sapientia, Divine Wisdom and the feminine face of the Divine, is mentioned explicitly in the Book of Wisdom in the Catholic Old Testament, though not in Protestant Bibles. Maybe this explains why the nuns were able to get away with their prayers to Sophia. But I think you’re right–that if they were actually able to lead the Mass, it would be a lot more contentious. There is a long history of spiritual women calling God Mother–Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich being two famous examples.

    Can you kill the spirit? I do feel there’s very nasty backlash against women’s spirituality and feminism in general taking place.

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  2. Why is Ursic’s book, Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship, selling for $72? Who can afford this?

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  3. Google.com has an extensive preview of Elizabeth Ursic’s book, and having read through some of the clips, I found it fascinating, for instance — “Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century German Dominican priest and theologian, imaged a fertile God who gave birth to the Word in all of us.” (p.10)

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    • Eckhart, Suso and Tauler were three Dominican priests who supported women’s movements at the time. I think Suso and Tauler were students of Eckhart. They got into a bit of a tiff with Rome.

      I think the One we call “god” has been trying for a very long time to broaden our concepts, and to escape our concepts. When we institutionalize “spirit” it tends to get rigid and stagnant. I find myself feeling suffocated in church, not just because of the patriarchal, “top-down”, attitude about women, but the stifling of freely exploring other images and experience of the Divine-neither male or female. Our Scriptures have many ways of describing the Creator, but they have been buried by the warrior, male, judge, father (strict or not). Maybe it’s necessary to have women who live outside the established structures, and, women to stay within those structures, working together to enlarge and free our concepts of the One we call “god”?

      When I look at the struggles and injustice in churches, whether women or LGBTQ, it seems to me to be more about power over others than to be about “god”. On it goes, simply changing the targets.

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      • Barbara, outside and inside working together does seem to be happening successfully here at FAR and maybe there’s a bigger breakthrough in that than we realize. And I think all the mystics, those you name, and Hildegard too and St. Teresa of Avila, for instance, never divide and conquer — if they do they’re not mystics. It would be interesting to look at that intersection of feminism and mysticism historically.

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    • I read (reference lost in deceased computer) that Meister Eckhart was a student of Mechthilde of Magdeburg, a Beguine who was mercilessly hunted down by the Church. The Beguines were hated for freely feeding the hungry without requiring payment or labor, and for preaching in public.

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      • The Beguines, besides having the “nerve” to be female, also didn’t ask Rome permission for anything! They stepped outside the box. My Dominican “story” is full of rather interesting characters. Some were shamefully active in the violence of the Inquisition and other sin, and others suffered for supporting and encouraging “uppity” women and protecting oppressed Native inhabitants of lands stolen by European Monarchies. Family, eh! Always has a few “nuts”! :-)

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  4. Carol – I appreciate the critical edge in your piece because it is so you – clear-eyed and convincing. It is also true that I am more hopeful about the situation. In the book I develop the term “strategic emplacement”, a view where setbacks don’t stop the work, but fuel the passion and purpose for continuing it. Setbacks and conflicts prove that the issues are real and they show where work still needs to happen. I hope readers will see the need for freeing our internal images of God/dess/Divine and our external expressions of it. I describe the communities in my book as the drillbits of the movement, doing the hard work of breaking up the concretized and simplified male notions of God in institutional Christianity. What they have had to go through is difficult, but these communities have not given up and their efforts have contributed to expanding representations of God in Christian worship today. The project of feminism and religion is complex, and we need activists both inside and outside institutional settings to produce change. Clearly, to do this work within established denominations of Christianity is challenging. I see these communities as brave and strong with stories of hope and wisdom – Sophia wisdom.

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  5. I have found it interesting that the churches explore almost every idea they can think of to slow their diminishing numbers –easier music to sing, shorter or more entertaining sermons, special programs, etc. The one thing they don’t look at is how the predominance of male God imagery affirms the holiness of men and ignores that of women. How strange that they can be so blind to the fact that women also need a deep affinity with the Divine. People will go “where they are fed.” Women are finding affirmation in many other places now. Personally, I have found a home within the Sisterhood of Belle Coeur (contemporary version of the Beguines based on the book Ink and Honey by Dana Reynolds). Women are finding or founding their own groups that lift up female imagery for the Sacred and affirm their own holiness. They may continue to attend churches to participate in long established communities of friends, but they are building deeper ties to alternate communities that affirm them at the deepest level. Yes, there’s little protest against the He-God in church now because those most sensitive to this particular idolatry are establishing other places for worship and ministry.

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  6. Your essay brings up so much for me, Carol. Most of all I remember the women in my shamanic classes who, when they journeyed to their images of the Divine Female, had their lives turned around. To have a personal connection with the Divine Female was a major healing event for each of them and continues to be. I see them continuing to heal and strengthen and become strong members of their communities as I sit in circle with them each month. Also, I remember reading “In a Chariot Drawn by Lions” by Asphodel P. Long who documents so well the loss of the Female in sacred texts that got incorporated into the Bible so many years ago. For myself, I have to admit that the lack of inclusion of the female is largely what drove me out of the Lutheran Church. I am now a Quaker where I can hear my own “litergy” in the silence of Meeting every week and participate in the Quaker process which is anything but hierarchical. Thank you for writing, once again. I look forward to our spring tour to Crete!

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  7. I’m familiar with some sort-of-liberal, mainstream Christian churches that use S/He and God/dess from time to time. Trying to be “correct,” they more or less butcher the English language, but I guess their hearts are in the right place. I was Unitarian Universalist after I was Christian but before I became Pagan. I wonder what words the UU’s use for the He-God and the She-God. Baby steps are better than no steps at all, yes?

    Carol, thanks for writing this post. You pay such good attention to what’s going on.

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    • To me the slashes are not the answer, though, pronounced they become She and Goddess. Usually Christians use God/ess following Rosemary Radford Ruether if they use a term other than God at all. I didn’t want to use it in our new book and we won’t be.

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  8. Beyond women and men, divine nature permeates all creation.

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    • Yes and these issues are not being addressed when the God above nature is not challenged–stay tuned for my new book with Judith Plaskow.

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      • If a person has a need for an all-powerful god, maybe in our culture it’s an emotional safety issue to have no entity who can be implored to call down unlimited destruction on those we fear? Women are not usually regarded as capable of the pathological acts desired by many of our historic and current cultures in order to keep us safe. Who wants a Mother Goddess if you think your survival depends on having a nuclear arsenal?

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      • Nancy R, you make a very good point. This is why many feminist theologians understood that female language for God would need to be more than a sex change. Not only the image of God as male but also the ways in which God or Goddess have been shaped on the image of male domination need to be challenged. In his later years, the male philosopher Charles Hartshorne spoke to the traditional God as a “tyrant God.” Mary Daly spoke of an Unholy Trinity of rape, genocide, and war underlying all patriarchal conceptions. These radical criticisms cannot be addressed by simply adding Sophia and stir. As Ursic mentions Sophia has been associated with war in “scriptural” writings. Nor as I said long ago, will it to do translate Exodus 15 to make God She a Woman of War, casting the Pharoah and his horsemen and horses into the sea. Nor is it a solution to imagine the Divine Feminine as caring while leaving the Divine Masculine as judgmental and violent in His judgment.To my mind, there is nothing divine about violence, tyranny, rape, genocide, or war.

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      • Many years ago I attended a public talk at the Process Theology Center, by Carolyn Bohler, on “Coaches and Gods,” given as an example of how the nature of god is constructed by various people. It’s archived in the Process Theology School, somewhere.

        It would have been hilarious as well as profound, if it wasn’t so horribly current and observable in our society now.

        I sat through the talk and then realized that her examples go far beyond the coaches that she used for models, on throughout our culture where everyone creates their God in the image of the allay they believe that they need most. My working class family believed that God was the fair and generous boss who paid on time for work done on time, who didn’t send the believer into the depths of the machinery while it was running, and could keep the plant open for all eternity. Other people spoke of God as if he were the teacher who graded the girls the same and the boys fairly, even if they were coal miners’ boys. I’m not kidding… I’m that old, and besides, it’s still going on.

        As Rev. Bohler discussed, as you climb up the social ladder, God takes on the habits of encouraging your best performance while gently guiding you toward total autonomy (as opposed to highly skilled obedience), and He especially rewarded noble aspirations such as defending your nation against super powerful foes; the reward was being placed above all restraint and above all others in the hierarchy who did not dare to aspire so high.

        So, no room for females there – lesser strength, unreliable when total destruction of a perceived foe would feel really really good right now…

        But far back in prehistory, when we were just another runty little species amongst some far more successful genera, dang if it doesn’t look like we enthusiastically clung to an entity that kept things alive and kept bringing more and more of us.

        I hesitate to think of the conditions that might be in place if our species comes back around to reconsideration of a female deity.

        Nancy Rutherford

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      • Nancy, much to ponder in your post on coaches and gods. Most interesting is that the autonomous view still supports obedience to nation. Sick-o. Siggghhh.

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  9. Several of us who attended the 1993 Reimagining Conference went on to be ordained ministers. We were shocked and devastated when that backlash began and so many blatant lies were published. Of course, we all attended a progressive seminary where one of our first required papers was on inclusive language. It is sadly true, though, how little change has taken place in the churches and in the hierarchies–and we’re more than 20 years past 1993!

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  10. For ten years I was a Quaker (a member of the Religious Society of Friends). I was drawn to silent worship in a circle after having been raised an Episcopalian (and the daughter of a priest). It was in this period of my life that I had a powerful encounter with the divine feminine or goddess, anyway, Her Self. At Yearly Meeting I encountered other women who also wanted to explore the feminine aspect of god. I was eventually asked to serve on the Yearly Meeting’s Women’s Rights committee (or as we sometimes referred to it amongst ourselves, the Women’s Rites committee). Our interest groups on the divine feminine at the Yearly Meeting got us called before the Yearly Meeting Ministry and Counsel. To my lasting shock, we were questioned about demon worship, animal sacrifice, and orgies. (Where? I would joke about the last one. Why was I not invited?). Whether or not it was all right to envision the divine as feminine became a huge controversy in a group that was struggling with existing tensions between those who were Christocentric and those who were more universalist in their approach. Neither end of that spectrum comprehended why some of us hungered and thirsted for images and language that expressed god as a woman. After a couple of years of engaging in this controversy, I asked to be released from membership to pursue a degree in interfaith ministry. I eventually founded my own ecstatic, earth-centered community and wrote The Maeve Chronicles, featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. I am not surprised that many other women left their church communities for similar reasons.

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    • Sounds like a story you should tell somewhere and one that Ursic or someone else should research in depth unless you feel like telling the whole story. This would be appropriate for Living It Out or a regular article in Journal of Feminist Study in Religion or for Feminist Theology. So sad.

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      • Thanks for these suggestions, Carol. It is a sad story. It also has a dimension I did not touch on here. Quakers believe in corporate discernment of divine will. Known as abolitionists, Quakers took 100 years to reach consensus as a corporate body that slavery is wrong, though not every individual Quaker waited that long to oppose slavery. What I discovered about myself, among other things, during that time, is that I could not acknowledge the authority of the corporate body. I was not willing to participate in that process, because I did not believe that the Meeting had any right to approve or disapprove my experience of the divine. I realized I was not a Quaker, though I retain great fondness and respect for Friends. I also realized I wanted ritual–I wanted to sing and dance in a circle, and I could not wait.

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    • Elizabeth, this is a reply to your second reply. Funny, in working on the revisions of my our new book, Judith and I have been debating individual vs communal authority. She argues for the authority of community against the individualism of our society, and I said back, but the only way a community can act is through its individuals. And as you and I know, there is still a problem if an individual feels her experience, conscience, and revelation takes precedence over a community. Despite that we all three probably share a critique of individualism.

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      • Yes, that’s the crux of it, the horns of the dilemma. And Quakers have a very fine-tuned process for working with the individual and corporate. The individual can “stand aside,” that is state reservations but give consent to a decision or “stand in the way” of a decision and stop the action entirely. In the case of the latter, the community will “labor with” the individual until the individual or the group shifts. It can take time, a long time, and requires great patience and faith on the part of all concerned. It is a process I admire tremendously. I felt it was wrongly applied to how we, as individuals, envision the divine and would be more correctly applied to actions that affect the community as a whole. I am still “laboring with” the conundrum within myself. I look forward to what you and Judith have to say.

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  11. You might want to look at Jann Aldrege-Claton’s book http://www.jannaldredgeclanton.com/books.php SHE LIVES. She details the many places/ways that female language about the divine is being used. She did a recent WATER teleconference you might want to access the notes and audio: http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/watertalk-she-lives-sophia-wisdom-works-in-the-world-with-jann-aldredge-clanton/ . Seems there may be more going on than most people are aware of, though as you will hear from my question in the teleconference we’re seeing it as a chapter of church history rather than actual contemporary practice.

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    • I have heard Jann speak but have not read her book. what do you mean when you say that this is a chapter in church history? That it isn’t actually being practiced? But you also say Jann details where it is being used, including Ebenezer Lutheran herchurch I am sure.

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      • Yes, sadly one can find more to study about the HISTORY of inclusive/expansive language than materials for how to do it TODAY. In short, I agree with you and with Jann. My point is that there is still very little being taught or written about it, almost as if “been there done that” in the 70-80s means that the issue is settled. We can attest to the fact that it is not! Thanks for your work. MEH

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    • From an interview with Jann Aldredge-Clanton http://www.eewc.com/articles/jann-aldredge-clanton/

      As we see in the stories of these “liberating ministers,” clergy who work to change the institutional church risk sanction by denominational authorities, loss of opportunities for promotion to larger congregations or to prestigious denominational positions, and often even loss of their jobs. Also, most of these ministers express the ideal of changing from a hierarchical to an egalitarian church structure, breaking down the separation between clergy and laity. But if the church takes this form, will it still support ordained clergy? If not, what will these ministers do to make a living and to fulfill their call?

      Several ministers I approached expressed appreciation and encouragement for the project, but declined to be interviewed for fear of censure or loss of their jobs. One minister I contacted after I read online her powerful liturgy with the image of God as “Mother” responded that she would like to help with the book, but that she feared for her job because her husband had been fired from his pastoral position because of the controversy her liturgy had stirred within their denomination.

      “My vision is for the Divine Feminine to shine forth in all Her glory in multicultural visual imagery and in the language of worship, supporting equal partnership of women and men. My vision is of a church where the Divine Feminine and women ministers don’t have to be defended or marginalized, but are fully and equally included throughout every worship service and every activity of the church. My vision is for the Sacred Feminine to be worshipped not only in Christian congregations, but in every religion all over the world, and for women to share equally in the leadership of every religion. My vision is for girls to believe they are equal to boys because they hear and see the Supreme Being worshipped as ‘She’ as well as ‘He.’”

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  12. Within Unitarian Universalism the use of Goddess language varies from church to church. Not having attended our General Assembly in at least a decade, I can’t really generalize about where we’re at right now. Continentally, our Women and Religion committee is committed to bringing greater recognition of the Goddess into our congregations. In the 1990s a lot of that happened because of the two curricula, “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” and “Rise Up and Call Her Name,” which are still be taught all over the country. In my congregation, just saying “God,” let alone “Goddess” is controversial, because of the large number of secular humanists in it — unless, of course, it’s a workshop or a sermon that I offer. I’ve just been writing an article about Pagan chant in UU circles, where I make a plea for more Goddess language. Since we are a community of seekers that include secular humanists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, a few Muslims, Pagans, agnostics, and more, it’s complicated.

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    • I think a better solution that lowest common denominator (no God or Goddess) is plurality. Some prayers or invocations for some, some for others. Perhaps you can suggest that?

      No doubt about the importance of the UU curricula you mention. Worldchanging.

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  13. Wow, you certainly touched a nerve for me, Carol! I belong to a liberal denomination, United Church of Christ, and my male pastor is openly gay and a feminist. He does use gender-inclusive language sometimes, but still refers to God as Lord often – sigh. Incidentally, our previous minister was a woman and when she referred to Mother God one of my older friends was upset. I lead bible study and I try to raise the consciousness of the mostly elderly women who attend, and the resource I use for bible study does refer to God as Mother and Sophia. So, we are making some progress, but it is definitely baby steps. For example, last week I talked about women in the church and in celebration of Women’s History Month read them Diana Neu’s prayer in celebration of women, which was published on the WATER website. I then told them how much they had influenced me and asked what women had influenced them. To my horror, several of them talked mostly about how their husbands or boyfriends influenced them! Even my mother, who is a feminist, talked about her father and her mother. I had a hard time not screaming! :) It really brought home to me how much we are all daughters of the patriarchy, and how much work there is to be done. My minister has asked me if I wanted to give a sermon on a feminist topic, but I declined because I don’t like public speaking and because I didn’t think it would be well-received, but after reading your post I think I’ll reconsider that.

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    • Linda, I hope you will do it. Let me suggest that if you speak about “this is how it is for me” and “this is what I need” it will be likely to be better received than “this is what we have to do.” Also I would say that the idea that the congregation use some female language once a month or once every two months as a beginning could be heard while “we have to use it every Sunday” might not.

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  14. Perhaps it is time that all our earthlings admits that The Sacred Spirit must, first be defined as disembodied, and then acknowledged in many manifestations on our shared earth.

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  15. About 25 years ago I sat down in a Self Realization Fellowship service (Paramahansa Yoganada). While it is not a Christian church, Christ is one of the seven “gurus” represented on the altar. I didn’t know what to expect. The very first thing that the leader (a man in orange robes) said was something akin to “Divine Mother, Beloved Father”. It truly caught my breath. I thought I had heard it wrong. But no, service after service, that is how every single prayer began. “He” and “She” were used intermittently in the service. It spoiled me rotten. Since then I’ve had a very hard time sitting through services that do not acknowledge the duality of the Deity. Even Paganism tends to acknowledge only the feminine. While understandable, in truth the Deity is both. The Deity is All. Thank you, Carol, for a very thought provoking article.

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  16. .:.

    The Female Holy Spirit in the Early Christian Scriptures

    .:.

    A thoroughly orthodox witness to this tradition is Aphrahat, writing in the middle of the fourth century.

    Aphrahat, or the Persian Sage as he was called, lived within the Sasanid Empire, and so it is no great surprise that his theological language seems archaic when compared with that of his contemporaries writing within the Roman Empire.

    In a work dealing mainly with virginity he has the following interpretation of Genesis 2.24 (‘a man shall leave his father and mother’):(24)

    ___

    Who is it who leaves father and mother to take a wife ?

    The meaning is as follows : as long as a man has not taken a wife, he loves and reveres God his Father and the Holy Spirit his Mother, and he has no other love.

    But when a man takes a wife, then he leaves his (true) Father and his Mother.

    ___

    The seeds for such an interpretation had already been sown by Philo (not that Aphrahat would have read him) in his Allegorical Interpretation (of Gen. 2-3). At 11.49, after quoting Gen. 2.24, he says: (25)

    ___

    For the sake of sense-perception the Mind, when it has become her slave, abandons both God the Father of the universe, and God’s excellence and wisdom, the Mother of all things, and cleaves to and becomes one with sense-perception and is resolved into sense-perception so that the two become one flesh and one experience.
    ___

    Closer to Aphrahat in time, space and spirit, however, are the Macarian Homilies, whose Syrian/Mesopotamian origin in the fourth/fifth century is now generally admitted.

    Here we encounter the following passage, which again reflects Gen.2.24.(26)

    ___

    It is right and-fitting, children, for you to have left all that is temporal and to have gone off to God: instead of an earthly father you are seeking the heavenly Father, and instead of a mother who is subject to corruption, you have as a Mother the excellent Spirit of God, and the heavenly Jerusalem.

    Instead of the brothers you have left you now have the Lord who has allowed himself to be called brother of the faithful.

    ___

    It is important to realise that the image of the Holy Spirit as Mother is by no means confined to Syriac writers or to those working in a Semitic milieu.

    Thus Hippolytus, writing in Greek c.200, describes Isaac as an image of God the Father, his wife Rebecca as an image of the Holy Spirit, and their son Jacob as an image of Christ – or of the Church.

    Most striking in this respect, however, is the second Hymn of the highly cultured Synesios, Bishop of Gyrene from 410-13. After addressing the Father and the Son he turns to the Spirit:(28)I sing of the [Father’s] travail, the fecund will, the intermediary principle, the Holy Breath/Inspiration, the centre point of the Parent, the centre point of the Child: she is mother, she is sister, she is daughter; she has delivered [i.e. as midwife] the hidden root.

    Examples of the same kind of imagery used of the Spirit can also be found in a few Latin writers, most notably in Marius Victorinus (mid fourth century).

    SOURCE :

    The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature

    http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/brock.asp

    .:.

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    • Thanks for posting that Yona. It is true that Protestants and Catholics in Europe and the Americas tend not to know about the eastern churches. Same can be said about Jews in America and not knowing about the Sephardic traditions.

      As you know I live in Greece, here the icon of the Father with a beard, the Son without but clearly male, and the Spirit as a dove is prevalent. I have never spoken with a common person here who considered the Spirit to be female. But most of them consider the Panagia (Mary) to be God or a face of God. There are problems with this too of course, in terms of deifying motherhood. However the mother-whore issue is less relevant here as the word Panagia has nothing to do with Virgin or Virgin Mary, but rather is a general term meaning All Holy in the feminine gender, translating as Divine Feminine or as I prefer She Who Is All Holy. God the Father is referred to in the phrase “Agios o Theos” Holy is He, Holy is (the male) God. The saints are known as Agios Dimitrios, Agia Eleni, etc.

      Images of the Spirit as female can be problematic in my opinion if they leave the primary image of the Godhead as male. It is also problematic if that the holy child and savior is always male. Still these are resources that can be drawn upon.

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  17. Thank you for these awesome resources!

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  18. Thanks for this important writing. I know, without a doubt, that my spirit was crushed, if not murdered, by the male god BS (SUBMISSION by force/doctrine) I grew up with – as well as my 3 sisters. I am still recovering from this – and my sisters don’t seem to have even started, let alone recognized the effect, despite my efforts for the last 20 years. I think this is reflective of the entire world – which makes me so sad. I was born 40 years ago. I have often felt like not enough (or in some ways, anything) has changed, but this cements that thought.

    With love and appreciation for you and your work.

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  19. Thank-you everyone for your insights and personal experiences with female imagery of God in Christian worship. I particularly want to thank those of you who have been working at this for many, many years. One reason I wrote the book was to affirm those of you who have done this work, and to inspire more Christins to take up the banner. I have found that most people at least pause and show some glimmer of understanding when I say, “Christianity teaches that we are all made in God’s image, but most women never get to see it. What message does this send?”

    Also, please check out my response to Majak’s post above. A paperback version will be out in July for $29.99, and less on Amazon. Review copies are also available: http://www.sunypress.edu/l-32-review-copies-publicity-inquiries.aspx.

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  20. Awareness is the first step to change. You give me hope that not everyone on this planet is asleep.
    On the temple in Delphi it is written, “Know thyself” . If your church will not teach about the divine feminine then as Women it is our job to teach our daughters the power of Sophia. It takes both male and female, god and goddess to turn the earth. One does not exist without the other but then again Knowledge is power.

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  21. Fantastic! I’m curious about the quote regarding the witch burnings, it stated that only a few were burned but that it put the fear of being burnt into women, from what I’ve garnered millions were burnt. Was that a quote in regards to a specific trial?

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  22. In studying biblical Hebrew I learned that the word translated God is Elohim, a word that is not only plural, but the rare word in Hebrew that is both masculine and feminine. The names and attributes of God in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and that the feminine names and attributes are largely embodied in the Holy Spirit, who is in Hebrew and Aramaic feminine with feminine verbs, and didn’t become male until the Catholic Church changed Her to male.
    James, the younger brother of Jesus and the author of the Book of James, was the head of the Church in Jerusalem in the first century, and wrote the first gospel, the Gospel of the Hebrews, from which the Gospel of Matthew was largely taken. The Gospel of the Hebrews exists today only in fragments quoted in other writings of the time. In one fragment, Jesus refers to His Mother, the Holy Spirit, lifting Him up.
    For centuries the Bible was studied in Latin and Greek, and little attention was paid to the Hebrew and Aramaic codex. There has been a renewed interest in the original languages in the last few decades. Perhaps this will result in a realization of the Holy Spirit’s femininity.
    I would caution against referring to the femininity of God with the term goddess for two reasons. First, in my opinion, it diminishes Her authority, similar to the titles, stewardess, waitress, and actress. She is fully God. She is not a lesser god, as goddesses sometimes are in some pantheons.
    Secondly, the term goddess is so associated with pagan religions, the mainstream churches would be very reluctant to accept the Holy Spirit as female if She is referred to as goddess. I believe that we can make inroads into Christianity if we cite the authority of original scripture and stress the femininity of the Holy Spirit as God.

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  1. » Can You Kill the Spirit? What Happened to Female Imagery for God in Christian Worship? by Carol P. Christ

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