Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series
“She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World”
An hour-long teleconference with Jann Aldredge-Clanton
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
1 to 2 p.m. ET
WATER thanks Jann Aldredge-Clanton for her presentation in our teleconference. Following are the notes that Jann provided to her talk, as well as a summary of the question and answer period that followed. These are not meant to be exhaustive, rather to go with the audio version that can be found at goo.gl/3NAO99.
Thank you, Mary, for your kind and generous introduction. And I want to thank you and Diann Neu and others at WATER for the amazing, transformative work you have done for more than 30 years. For many years I’ve drawn from your prophetic work in my writing, teaching, and preaching.
Most recently, Mary, I’m grateful for the gift of your inspiring story on my blog and in my book She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World, and for the gift of Diann’s beautiful “Pentecost Prayer: Come, Sophia-Spirit” in the book.
I’d like to begin with this prayer. Even though Diann wrote it specifically as a blessing of a Pentecost banquet, I want to use it as an invocation for our time together today. Let’s imagine ourselves gathered around a table.
Divine Wisdom, Sophia-Spirit, calls for the liberation of all from patriarchy and kyriarchy. This is what we celebrate today as we bless bread, wine, juice, and food.
Blessed are you, Womb of All Creation, Spirit-Sophia. With joy we give you thanks and praise for creating a diverse world and for creating women in your image.
Come, Sophia-Spirit, come.
Blessed are you, God of our Mothers, Spirit Sophia. You call diverse women to participate in salvation history: Eve, Lilith, Sarah, Hagar, Miriam, Naomi and Ruth, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Tecla, Phoebe, Hildegard of Bingen, Sor Juana, Sojourner Truth, Mother Theodore Guerin, all WATER women, and countless others.
Come, Sophia-Spirit, come.
Blessed are you, Creator of all seasons and all peoples, Spirit-Sophia. You call us to be prophets, teachers, house church leaders, ministers, saints, and to image your loving and challenging presence.
Come, Sophia-Spirit, come.
Blessed are you, Companion on the Journey, Spirit-Sophia. In your abundant love you welcome all to come and dine. You proclaim from the rooftops, “Come and eat my bread, drink the wine which I have drawn.”
Come, Sophia-Spirit, come.
Come, Holy Sister, Spirit-Sophia, upon this bread, wine, juice, and food. Come as breath and breathe your life anew into our aching bones. Come as wind and refresh our weary souls. Come as fire and purge us and our communities of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, and all evils.
Come, Sophia-Spirit, come.
As we eat, drink, and enjoy the Pentecost banquet, may Sophia-Spirit rise within us like a rushing wind. May Sophia-Spirit spark the churches like a revolutionary fire. May Sophia-Spirit flow through the world like a life-giving breath.
Amen. Blessed be. May it be so.
© 2013 Diann L. Neu. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Now a little about my journey. The title of my autobiography is Breaking Free: The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister. And you may be saying to yourself, “Feminist Baptist, what an oxymoron.” Well, yes, but there are many kinds of Baptists, just as there are many kinds of Catholics and many kinds of Presbyterians, and many kinds in all religious traditions.
Both my parents were preachers, but only one was ordained. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s. It was a time in the South when water fountains were labeled “colored” and “white.” My father almost lost his job as pastor of First Baptist Church, Minden, La., because of his stand for integration during the Civil Rights movement. My mother always served as a minister, but she was never ordained or paid. She was always taking care of the underdog, never realizing that she was one. Growing up, I never saw a woman in the pulpit, except a missionary to Nigeria. And what she did was called “speak,” not “preach.”
It was not until I was teaching at Dallas Baptist University that I discovered that anything could or should be any different. On a Sunday evening my friend Raynal Barber and I went to a service at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, partly out of curiosity. Martha Gilmore was being ordained, one of the first women in the South to be ordained by a Baptist church. For the first time in my life, I saw a woman kneeling before the church as a long line of people—women as well as men—passed by to lay hands of blessing on her. Before this night I had seen only men ordaining only men. The message I internalized was that this was a male ritual, from which women were forever excluded. Now something new was happening. A woman was receiving the sacred blessing. From somewhere deep within my soul I felt the rightness of it. It was Epiphany and Pentecost all at once for me—a new revelation. Tears streamed down my face as I made a solemn vow to do all in my power to spread this revelation. After the service Raynal turned to me and said, “Jann, one day we’ll be going to your ordination.” I gave her a shocked look and replied, “Oh no! I’ll research, write, persuade, give chapter and verse to support the ordination of women. But I wouldn’t want all the criticism and struggle Martha’s gone through.”
Eight years later Raynal stood at my ordination service at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, TX, to read these words of the prophet Habakkuk: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.” Martha Gilmore preached the ordination sermon, proclaiming that I was “the vision made flesh, the vision that God indeed calls women to ordained ministry.”
In the years since my ordination, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to see the vision than to live it. Time and time again I’ve faced the challenge of breaking free from limiting cultural traditions. Breaking free to become all we’re created to be in the divine image is a continual challenge. Religious and cultural traditions are constantly trying to stifle our gifts and our voices, to put us back into boxes we’ve broken free from. External and internal forces are formidable.
The more I tried to live my call to pastoral ministry and my call to write in support of women in ministry, the more I realized that the resistance to ordination of women is just part of a larger culture that gives greatest value to white, straight, able-bodied, financially privileged males. Other people are considered “other” and marginalized and oppressed. I was realizing that the ordination issue is just the tip of the patriarchal and kyriarchal iceberg. At the foundation of our kyriarchal culture is an image of a privileged male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. More and more I was understanding that the strongest support imaginable for the dominance of men is this worship of an exclusively male Supreme Being. So my call expanded to writing, preaching, and teaching on the inclusion of multicultural female names and images of the Divine. I tried to persuade people that we need more than white male images of God in our worship if we are to have social justice and equality.
When my first book, In Whose Image? God and Gender, came out, I was a chaplain at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. In my unquenchable idealism and naiveté, I believed people would be convinced of the truth of my words in the book and turn from their patriarchal ways. The picture accompanying an article in the Waco newspaper shows me holding the book up close to my beaming face, as if to say, “Love me and my book! We’ll change your life for the better.” When it became apparent that one book wasn’t changing that much, I wrote more books.
When all my writing, teaching, and preaching didn’t bring the changes I longed for, I realized the missing piece was ritual experience. People who welcomed me to Bible classes to teach on expanding images of God often continued to be the staunchest opponents of inclusive language in their worship services. I discovered that theological reasoning could go only so far, that the resistance to change came from deeply ingrained emotions. For inclusive theology to become the foundation for an egalitarian culture, I realized the need to go beyond biblical and theological explanation to ritual experience. I began with that part of liturgy I love most: hymns. I began writing hymns texts in 1994 in the Advent season when all the male images in traditional carols felt like stones pelting my spirit. From experience I knew that words sung in worship carry great power to shape belief and action because the music embeds the words in our memories. Since then I’ve continued to write hymn lyrics, mostly to traditional hymn tunes. These hymns are collected in two hymnbooks. And because I believe that it’s important to start with children in teaching an expansive theology and an ethic of equality and justice, I’ve also collaborated with composer Larry E. Schultz on a children’s musical, Imagine God! Exploring and Expressing Images of God, and on a preschool song and activity book, Sing and Dance and Play with Joy! Inclusive Songs for Young Children.
For almost 30 years my call has been to expand people’s images of the Divine, to spread the message of the sacred value of all people and all creation in order to contribute to social justice and peace. I have tried to get this message out through my preaching, pastoral care, teaching, and writing—writing of feminist theology for lay audiences, children’s books, hymns and other liturgical resources, and stories. My two most recent books, Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers and She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World, include stories of diverse people who are transforming church and society through reclaiming the power of Divine Wisdom and other biblical female images of God in worship. They’re expanding beyond exclusively male God-language and imagery, which form the foundation of patriarchy and kyriarchy.
In the article “Revolution through Rituals,” published in Feminism and Religion, which you may have read before this talk, I write about how I chose the title for my new book, She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World. As I was growing up in the Baptist tradition, hymns were my favorite part of our worship services. One of the hymns I loved singing was “He Lives,” increasing in volume along with the congregation as we came to the refrain which repeats over and over the words “He lives.” Not until many years later could I even imagine singing or saying, “She lives.” I had learned to worship a God who was named and imaged as male. But while studying in a conservative Baptist seminary, I was surprised to find Her. I discovered female names and images of Deity in scripture and in Christian history. The title of this book comes from continual discoveries of Her, living and working in all creation. She Lives! moves Christian theology away from atonement to resurrection, focusing on abundant life and new creation. The subtitle of the book comes from one of the most powerful female names for the Divine,” Wisdom,” found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and in many other spiritual traditions. I continually see Wisdom, Sophia in the Greek language of the Christian Scriptures, working in our world and the great need for more of Her works. “Wisdom works” then plays on the word “works” as both noun and verb. Wisdom continually works within, around, and among all creation to bring justice, peace, liberation, love, compassion, hope, and joy. Works of Wisdom include gender equality, racial equality, marriage equality, economic justice, care of creation, nonviolence, interfaith collaboration, expansion of spiritual experience, and changing hierarchies to circles—these works of Wisdom are the titles of the sections in the book that I’ve used for organizing the stories of people who are transforming church and society. These categories naturally overlap as they address interlocking oppressions. Thus a diversity of Wisdom’s works can be found in each of the stories. In addition to stories, She Lives! also provides inclusive, expansive, creative worship resources and information on many feminist faith communities in the US and Canada.
The ministers, both lay and clergy, whom I interviewed for She Lives! taught me more about how language can limit as well as expand understanding. For example, I learned that the term “Divine Feminine” is limiting for many people. And I recognize how this term too easily slips into traditional gender stereotypes and binary views of gender. As Mary E. Hunt, co-director of WATER, states, “I never use Divine Feminine language; I do not use ‘feminine’ anything as it seems to play into the sexist trap of dividing people into masculine and feminine for which the latter is almost always on the losing end of the equation.” Professor and author Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, another person featured in She Lives!, comments on choosing language to include all genders: “When we use the male term ‘God’ along with the female pronoun ‘She,’ we are including the people among us who are transgender. Transgender people are often attacked, abused, and even murdered in our society; so including them as sacred beings along with women and men is important to our Christian witness.” Virginia also makes this strong case for including female references to Deity: “As long as our references to God are always to male or else to neutral imagery like ‘rock,’ men will continue to seem more in God’s image than women. And worldwide abuses of women and girls will continue because females will be viewed as less god-like and less human than males.” Some people I interviewed use the term “Godde” as a combination of “God” and “Goddess.” For example, Mark Mattison and Shawna R.B. Atteberry, co-editors of the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament, use “Godde,” along with “Mother” and other female references to Deity. Other people I interviewed embrace the term “Goddess” as a part of biblical and Christian tradition. Rebecca L. Kiser, a Presbyterian pastor, advocates what she calls “gender-full” rather than genderless images of the Divine. The stories in She Lives! illustrate the variety of ways people are changing God-language to include female names and the variety of approaches they use in their varied contexts.
For example, Lutheran pastor Lori Eickmann teaches classes on biblical female divine images to as many congregations as possible through her call as an interim pastor. Another pastor, Stacy Boorn, revived a congregation with a new mission of embodying and voicing the prophetic wisdom of the Female Divine. Her story in She Lives! includes this quote: “Language helps create who we are. Some people say that all the masculine words in worship don’t matter because they don’t believe that God is male. How can they believe that God is gender-neutral if they call God only ‘He’ and refuse to call God ‘She’? I don’t see how the world is going to change until the religious institutions change because they are so much a part of who the world is. The more we can provide church in a different way, the more we can hope things change.” Many others featured in She Lives! also provide church in a different way that includes the Female Divine, for example Judith Liro, Episcopal priest of St. Hildegard’s Community in Austin, Texas, and Bridget Mary Meehan, Bishop in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and Priest of Mary Mother of Jesus Inclusive Catholic Community, Sarasota, Florida.
Others featured in She Lives! work for change through their teaching. Monica A. Coleman, womanist theologian and professor at Claremont School of Theology, states that “womanist theologies of salvation can see Jesus Christ as a black woman” and that “postmodern womanist theology argues that a black woman is often Christ; the savior may be a teenager, a person living with a disability, a lesbian woman.” In teaching God-language, Monica has her students rewrite the 23rd Psalm, using imagery like “God is my Mother.” A religion professor at a Methodist university, Kendra Weddle Irons, talks about the resistance she has met in teaching and writing about the importance of inclusive language and feminist theology; when Kendra tried to bring feminist insights to students in her religion classes at a university where she formerly taught, she was labeled a “feminazi” in a cartoon in the university paper. As an English professor at an evangelical Quaker university, Melanie Springer Mock says she challenges students to see that language and symbolism have great power to shape our beliefs about humanity and divinity; as the mother of two Asian American children, Melanie says she feels sad that they haven’t encountered many images of God that look like them. Religion professor Caryn D. Riswold illuminates the shared values of feminism and Christianity through her teaching, her books, and her blog on the Progressive Christian Patheos. Mary Ann Beavis, a Canadian religion professor talks about the risks she’s taken in teaching expansive theology: “I work for a Catholic college, so supporting women’s ordination, teaching feminist theology and biblical studies, and being involved in Goddess studies have raised eyebrows.” Mary Hunt’s story in She Lives! includes her expression of feelings about working within the Catholic tradition: “Catholic is a language I speak, a symbol and sacramental system that I understand,” she says. “In many ways the institutional church has left me insofar as its structures and doctrines are anathema to so many things I hold dear. On the other hand, I feel a responsibility to do justice in and through my tradition so I have not left it in any formal sense. That the Roman Catholic Church wields so much power in the world motivates me to pay attention to it in a primary way.”
The story of Sheila Sholes-Ross, Baptist pastor and co-chair with me of the ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community, includes the struggles she has had as an African American ordained clergywoman working for transformation in both the church and society. She envisions multicultural churches with multicultural divine female imagery in worship. Christine A. Smith, another Baptist pastor featured in She Lives!, serves on the board of Equity for Women in the Church and also urges the creation of multicultural churches. She talks about the challenges of bringing inclusive language to African American churches, and says she starts with an image that’s used in the African American tradition: “God is a mother for the motherless and a father for the fatherless.”
Other people featured in She Lives! have faced triple “ism” challenges. Episcopal priest Virginia Marie Rincon has faced racism, sexism, and heterosexism. She says that one of the female divine images that has empowered her is the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is always at the forefront of justice. Presbyterian pastor and professor Grace Ji-Sun Kim talks about her experiences of racism, sexism, and classism and how Sophia Christology liberates her and other Korean North American women from oppression. Pastor and professor Isabel Docampo, who has also experienced sexism, racism, and classism, talks about how the Female Divine has given her strength for her economic justice work and all her justice ministry. Professor Chung Hyun Kyung shares a vision that brought her healing from experiences of sexism, racism, and classism. She sees the connection between the Holy Spirit and Kwan Yin as bridging Christianity and Asian religious traditions, and tells how the rise of the Female Divine relates to ecology, peace, economic justice, and anti-imperialism.
She Lives! also features people who are transforming church and society through their music, and provides lyrics to some of their songs that include female images of the Divine. Minister of music and composer Larry Schultz tells how he changes references to God from “He” to “She” in anthems and changes the “Gloria Patri” to the “Gloria Matri”: “Glory be to the Mother and to the Christ and to the Holy Spirit.” Minister of music and composer Patrick Michaels’ story includes a hymn which images Deity as “Her dark gracefulness.” The story of Marg Herder, musician and Director of Public Information for Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today, includes the lyrics to her song “We Can Know Her,” that challenges people who wound others with destructive speech and behavior to come to know the Creative Spirit and Her inclusive love. The story of Methodist pastor and composer Daniel Charles Damon includes lyrics to his hymn “Goddess of Love.” Church music director Orion Pitts talks about ways he not only changes traditional hymns to include female divine names and images, but also includes music from various religious traditions in worship. For example, he combines traditional Christian and Buddhist chants for the congregation to sing during communion.
To conclude this part of our time together, I offer one of my hymns from She Lives! as an invitation to join the adventure of creating rituals that include the Female Divine and to join communities that celebrate Her. Imagine singing this hymn, “Celebrate the Works of Wisdom,” to the tune “Hymn to Joy,” which you may also know from the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”:
Celebrate the works of Wisdom, shining forth in all that’s fair;
Wisdom shows us peaceful pathways, calling us to dream and dare.
Like a vision bright and golden, Wisdom comes to light our way,
bringing us Her gifts most precious, leading to a better day.
Wisdom works in every nation, guiding us to live in peace,
teaching healing care and kindness, She will help all violence cease.
Wisdom works through daring people, prophets bold throughout the years,
speaking up for truth and justice, crying out for all to hear.
Works of Wisdom bring abundance, lovely works beyond compare;
Wisdom opens doors of freedom, calling everyone to share.
Like a Tree of Life She blossoms, spreading beauty through the earth;
we can join the work of Wisdom, new creation now to birth.
Words © 2009 Jann Aldredge-Clanton HYMN TO JOY
You can find Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s excellent, thorough review of She Lives!
published in Christian Feminism Today. Thank you, Letha.
- The first question concerned the terrific work done on inclusive/expansive language in the 1970s and 1980s that is simply not incorporated into regular worship in mainline religious houses. Why do we have to reinvent the wheel on this over and over, generation after generation?
Jann responded that one way we know what is important is what people’s reactions are. They often say that language is a “trivial issue,” but their strong reactions when we call God “She” indicate how important it really is. Unfortunately, many people still find inclusive language difficult because exclusively male God-language has become so deeply ingrained in religion and culture. She later added, “The first book I read that awakened me to issues of gender justice and inclusive language was All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, first published in 1974 (Third Revised Edition, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 1992). The call to work for gender justice first came to me through this book that gives convincing, copious biblical support for gender equality.”
She concluded that she fully expected change in language to take place and is surprised now by even some young women in seminary who think it is unnecessary because women can now get ordained in many churches.
- A caller asked about “feminist emancipatory communities,” a title taken from The Church in Her House by Marjorie Proctor Smith.
Jann said that she is encouraged that She is springing up in new places. One group, New Wineskins, has an “affirmative action” policy in favor of the Divine Female. It is an egalitarian group, a circle with no paid staff and a commitment to dealing with interlocking forms of oppression.
- Another caller described her community’s work on a document entitled “Called to be Midwives of Faith.” See http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/
- A caller spoke of the Sophia Catholic Community in New Jersey as an example of the kind of inclusive group Jann supports.
- A hospital chaplain in a pediatric unit asked Jann about resources for children.
Jann replied about the importance of sharing with young parents books and coloring books that have inclusive/expansive images of the Divine. Admittedly some parents have a hard time with these images, but Jann spoke from experience about praying with people using female images and how successful that can be. She encouraged the caller to do some liturgical writing of her own to bring her experience into the mix.
- Another question had to do with moving beyond gender to look at other aspects of the divine. Gender is one important focus, but what about Anne McGrew Bennett’s sense that the “Father, Lord, Ruler, King” language was problematic as much for its power model (over against) as for its gender exclusion? Whose dream is it, after all, to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent? Not the young woman who does not have tonight’s dinner for her children. So language has a broad link to social justice.
Jann replied that Sallie McFague’s work on the Divine as Partner or Friend can be helpful. She admitted that parental images may not be accessible because of some people’s own experiences with their parents. She spoke of trying to be inclusive around race, for example using images of the Black Madonna. She is still finding ways to express transgender inclusion so the divine images all genders. Images such as Tree of Life, Rock etc. are important to give sacred value to creation. But her fundamental belief is that female imagery is crucial in and of itself since it has been ignored for so long. She drew a useful analogy to the slogan “BLACK lives matter.” All lives matter of course, but in this historical moment Black lives matter in a special way because they have been passed over. So too, with women, it is important to name what has been unnamed/abused. Use of neutral imagery does not help much on this. After all, “God” is a male term (vs. “Goddess”). Jann remarked on how some people mistakenly think “Lord” is neutral. We need to name the female because the female has been unnamed.
- The last question was a broad one about the problematic Doctrine of the Atonement which needs to be re-envisioned. Replacing crucifixes in Christian churches with other symbols would be important. This is properly a topic for another conversation, but a look at Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Beacon Press, 2002) is a good start.
Jann concluded that she uses a dove or a butterfly in her search for life-giving symbols.
The next WATERtalk will be Wednesday, April 15 with Namsoon Kang. We will send out publicity shortly. All are welcome so please join us. For more information, visit www.waterwomensalliance.org.
Mary Hunt and Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland
March 9, 2015