Sophia, Goddess, and Feminist Spirituality: Imagining the Future by Carol P. Christ


Though represented by its detractors as an incursion of paganism into Christianity, and presented as an integrally and intrinsically Christian phenomenon by its supporters, the truth about the Re-Imagining Conference and movement is that it was a product of a wider feminist awakening. The critique of patriarchal religions that emerged in the academy and in churches and synagogues in the late 1960s and early 1970s was part of the emerging feminist uprising. The feminist movement placed a question mark over all patriarchal texts and traditions, secular and religious, and as such was beholden to none.

In the spring of 1971, Roman Catholic Christian Mary Daly published “After the Death of God the Father” in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. She asserted that the God whose death was touted in the “Death of God” movement was an idol fashioned in the image of male power and authority. She called for “the becoming of new symbols” to express the new becoming of women. In the summer of 1971, a group of nuns from Alverno College convened the first Conference of Women Theologians. Besides sparking dialogue about the role of women in religions, the conference endorsed my call to form a women’s group at the fall meetings of the American Academy of Religion, up until then a gathering of several thousand male scholars of religion, with only a handful of women scholars in attendance. At winter solstice, Z Budapest launched the Susan B. Anthony Coven #1 in Los Angeles publishing a Manifesto calling on women to return to the ancient religion of the Goddess.

In those early and exciting days, women seemed to be joining together in a common critique of patriarchal religions and a common search for alternatives. But cracks in the sisterhood soon emerged. At the 1972 meetings of the American Academy of Religion, Mary Daly resigned her position as the first chair of the Working Group that would become the Women and Religion Section of the American Academy of Religion, stating that she was no longer interested in working with women who wanted to reform patriarchal religions. Her 1973 book Beyond God the Father was not only widely embraced by grass-roots feminists, but also critiqued by Rosemary Radford Ruether and other Christian feminists who felt that Daly was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. At the 1974 celebration at Riverside Church of the irregularly ordained Episcopal priests, patriarchal language for God was on full display. I was told that the group felt it was enough to demand to join the priesthood and that making a fuss about God language would hurt their cause. Only in 2018 did Episcopalians vote to consider whether or not to revise the Book of Common Prayer to become gender inclusive. When the ancient religion of the Goddess was introduced to the New York Feminist Scholars of Religion as a contemporary religious possibility in 1976 by Anne Barstow, Naomi Goldenberg, and myself, all hell broke loose. Almost immediately, Beverly Harrison declared that because there can be no ethics in Goddess religion, Christian feminists should reject the Goddess movement. Lynn Gottlieb, who was a rabbinical student at the time, and who would become a strong advocate of female language for divinity, described the fear of judgment by her tradition evoked in her that night in her book She Who Dwells Within. The lively arguments and conversations that continued in the group for months did not repair the rift that was forming among feminists in religion.

By the time the Re-Imagining Conference was called, Christian feminists were learning to deflect criticisms that they were going too far, by defining boundaries. Thus, the 1993 conference was explicitly called a coming together of Christian women to re-imagine God and tradition. All of the invited speakers were Christian. Mary Daly, Carol P. Christ, Starhawk, Z Budapest, Merlin Stone, Charlene Spretnak, Rita Gross, Naomi Janowitz, Maggie Wenig, and many others who had contributed to the wider dialogue about female God language were not invited to speak. The Goddess was also not invited, but She came anyway, disguised as Sophia.

The conference closed with a ritual in which these words were spoken:

Our mother Sophia, we are women in your image:
With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life.
With the courage of our convictions we pour out our life blood for justice.
Sophia-God, Creator-God
let your milk and honey pour out,
showering us with your nourishment.
Our mother Sophia, we are women in your image:
With the milk of our breasts we suckle the children;
With the knowledge of our hearts we feed humanity.
Sophia-God, Creator-God,
let your milk and honey pour out,
showering us with your nourishment.
Our sweet Sophia, we are women in your image:
With nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child;
With our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasure and sensations.
Sophia-God, Creator-God,
let your milk and honey pour out,
showering us with your nourishment.
Our guide, Sophia, we are women in your image:
With our moist mouths we kiss away a tear, we smile encouragement.
With the honey of wisdom in our mouths, we prophesy a full humanity to all the peoples.
Sophia-God, Creator-God,
let your milk and honey pour out,
showering us with your nourishment.

Those who created the Sophia ritual did not use the word “Goddess” and understood Sophia to be rooted in Biblical traditions.“Sophia” is the Greek word for wisdom and a translation of the Hebrew word “hokmah.” A personification called hokmah is mentioned in Proverbs and Sophia is pictured as the female face of God in the Wisdom of Solomon, written in Greek by Jews in the  second century BCE and included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used by Greek-speaking Jews in the Roman Empire. The Wisdom of Solomon was recognized by early Christian theologians and is considered part of the Bible by Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, but not by Jews and Protestants. Some have argued that Jesus was influenced by the Wisdom tradition and may even have viewed Sophia as the female face of God. The authors of the Re-Imagining liturgy refrained from describing Sophia. The images of breasts flowing with milk and honey-drenched thighs describe women in the image of Sophia, not Sophia herself. Moreover, the poem is careful to pair images referring to the creative powers of the female body with more conventional references to justice, knowledge, and prophesy.

. . .

I was not at the Re-Imagining Conference, but when I read the words of the Sophia liturgy, I recognized the Goddess. This was not the heavenly Sophia of the intertestamental period and Orthodox Christian tradition, nor the Sophia invoked from time to time by Jesus, possibly as the female counterpart to the Father God he spoke of more frequently. This was Great Goddess, She who creates the world through Her body, She whose body is the world. I imagine that participants in the ritual felt this too. And this of course is what worried those who criticized the Sophia ritual.

This blog is excerpted from the beginning of my address for the celebration of twenty-fifth anniversary of the Re-Imagining Conference at Hamline College on November 1. Criticism of the conference led to the firing of its organizer and created a climate of fear that more or less ended experimentation with female language for divinity in the churches. At the end of my speech I urge Christian women to “sin boldly” and to affirm that yes they are Christians and yes they are invoking divinity as Goddess and then to let the chips fall where they may. To hear the rest of what I have to say, join us at Hamline.

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator currently living in Greece. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Bakas. Carol will be speaking at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Re-Imagining Conference at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota on November 1 and 3; on “Religions and the Abuse of Women and Girls” at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, Canada on November 5; and at Memorial University of Newfoundland on November 7-10.

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Categories: Christianity, Divine Feminine, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Goddess

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19 replies

  1. I hope that Beverly Harrison and other Christian feminists who believe(d) that there can be no ethics in Goddess religion have now read or will read your Nine Touchstones. Do you know who wrote the beautiful prayer to Sophia? I wonder if it continues to be used liturgically. All the best at Hamline. I look forward to hearing about your experience there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Starhawk’s “Ethics of Goddess Religion” was possibly the first written response to this charge. However in Gaia and God, Rosemary Radford Ruether argued that Gaia (immanent) encourages us to affirm our embodiment but that God (transcendent) is the source of ethics.

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  2. HOORAY FOR MARY DALY! Reading her books–plus Susan Griffin, Vicki Noble, Starhawk, Patricia Monaghan, Merlin Stone, Z. Budapest, and your books (Carol)–brought me to the Goddess. I’ve never looked back and have no interest in Christian feminists, though I wish them (especially nuns) well in their journeys.

    On my bookshelves, I have five of Daly’s books on the shelf directly beneath my two Bibles (which I use to look things up when I’m editing): an Authorized Version and the Lamsa translation from the Aramaic. Sitting on top of the two Bibles are a stuffed Cheshire Cat, a one-inch-tall witch (part of my collection of 350+ witches), and a tiny book (under two inches tall) titled Witches. Sometimes people get the joke that Daly’s books are a kind of ground under the Judeo-Christian religion.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Wow, I learned a lot by reading this post. Coming to feminism at mid-life I was ignorant with regard to the context around feminism its relationship to the goddess as it developed. I had no idea that the concept itself was rejected by so many, or that you were barred from participating in such an important dialogue.

    What I hope is that the entire content of your speech will become available to those of us at FAR.

    Gosh, I never realized before now how christianized these mainstream feminists were… probably because my context up until that point was undeniably Christian…

    Oh, I do admire your perseverance Carol…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Do you think that those of us who acknowledge the goddess are still considered radical? The goddess is so REAL to me and seems so NATURAL that I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that SHE could still be rejected by so many.

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    • Unfortunately yes. And of course the backlash against Gimbutas is a big part of it. There is also a trend among younger pagans to affirm pagan traditions from Europe without feminist critique.

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      • Carol, I thought you would say this – and yes the backlash against Gimbutas is sort of like a modern day witch hunt… her scholarship is simply too threatening, but it still infuriates me that she is dismissed…

        I am ignorant about the specifics of pagan tradition but I do know that its apparent dualistic nature disturbs me.

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  5. Wonderful, delightful insight, thanks Carol. I love where you say: “The Goddess was also not invited, but She came anyway, disguised as Sophia.”

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Carol, while I fully embrace your ideas, at the same time, the lines, “This was Great Goddess, She who creates the world through Her body, She whose body is the world” gave me the same glitch that God Father created the world does. I.E. all of the natural world, including animals, plants etc is a combination of masculine and feminine energy. We are combinations of masculine and feminine energy. By saying, as my husband and I do in services, “In the name of God Mother/Father” we are recognizing the multiplicity of the natural world. The Great Goddess could no more have created the world on her own any more than the Great God could have created it on his own.

    When we finally stop arguing over whether the great creative energy is masculine OR feminine and instead see them as complementary energies, as they are in the great Kabbalah, we will continue to fight over equality.

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    • Sorry, in rereading I see I misspoke. The first lin should read, Unless we stop arguing…

      So goes writing on my phone! LOL…

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    • Janet, As I understand the Re-Imagining movement, they were advocating female imagery for divinity, but assumed the Bible and Biblical imagery would still exist and be used. So they were not advocating replacing God with Sophia, but rather wanted a multiplicity of images.

      Personally I do not believe in male and female energies, I believe we all should be socialized to become roughly the same: loving, kind, and generous, whether we are male or female. There may be slight differences between the sexes, but these can and are be shaped by culture. We do however have male and female bodies and so I would argue we need male and female images, as well as intersex images and every other image, including wind, rock, hawk, etc etc, as many as are needed to express the diversity and difference in the world.

      However, I think most articulations of masculine and feminine energies are themselves rooted in sex role stereotyping. As I continue to say I do not view my mind and intelligence as “masculine,” nor do I see love and generosity as “feminine” qualities. We all are intelligent and we all have the capacity to love and we should not divide human abilities into a sex binary.

      The Kabbala is a resource for some, but it too is shaped by sex role stereotyping and needs to be criticized from a feminist point of view: as you know God Himself is the ineffable and the transcendent one, while Shekina is God with us, the immanental aspect of divinity. She comforts, He judges, do we need those divisions by gender? I see those stereotypes being played out today in a modern Greek family I know, but I think the mother should also judge (affirm boundaries of good and bad behavior) and not “wait till father gets home” as is standard in many patriarchal cultures. This is also not fair to the father.

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      • Carol – I don’t have any problem with the metaphor of masculine and feminine energies, nevertheless, I really like how you phrased this paragraph “Personally I do not believe in male and female energies, I believe we all should be socialized to become roughly the same: loving, kind, and generous, whether we are male or female. There may be slight differences between the sexes, but these can and are be shaped by culture. We do however have male and female bodies and so I would argue we need male and female images, as well as intersex images and every other image, including wind, rock, hawk, etc etc, as many as are needed to express the diversity and difference in the world.” Quite clarifying. And, as I said, while I’m okay with M/F as metaphor, I find myself, as I get older, using instead more often nature metaphors, whether “wind, rock, hawk” as you said, or, from my Ayurvedic schooling, I fall into using the ancient elements as a framework: ether, air, fire, water, earth – and try not to force an element into a preconceived idea of M/F. Thank you for all you do! Love and Blessings!

        Liked by 1 person

      • “We do however have male and female bodies and so I would argue we need male and female images, as well as intersex images and every other image, including wind, rock, hawk, etc etc, as many as are needed to express the diversity and difference in the world.”

        Oh, I could not agree more Carol. I know that personally I need female images because I was inculcated into the male dominated christian tradition. God was MALE…. all that was left for me was Mary…

        And as an eco-feminist I know from personal experience that animals also have this ability to appear in divine form as both female and male energies… and for me at least these shift identities!

        ” I think most articulations of masculine and feminine energies are themselves rooted in sex role stereotyping.” Agreed!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating, Carol. Thank you for all that you have done, and are doing, to teach us about the Goddess. I wish I could go to your upcoming conference, but it is not possible. I too hope you will post the rest of your address.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this. I’m disappointed that I’ll be missing the PWR this year; going to AAR instead. It would have been fun to schmooze. May Sophia smile upon you. ~ Macha

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I, too, so resonate with your phrase — “The Goddess was also not invited, but She came anyway…” I think that reflects the lives of so many of us, and it is also so true that “The Goddess was not invited, but She was always here anyway…”

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