By Sheri Hostetler
Proverbs 8 (excerpts), Wisdom of Solomon 7:29-30
I have referenced Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse throughout this sermon. This is the second in an Advent series called “Wings, Wisdom and Womb: Dwelling in our Feminine Divine.”
A few years after I graduated from seminary with a degree in feminist liberation theology, over 2,000 feminist theologians and church folks and ministers gathered in Minneapolis for what turned out to the most controversial ecumenical church event in decades. Unfortunately, I was not there. I do love a good controversy. I wanted to go, but I was still way too in debt paying off seminary. As it turned out, I missed the feminist theological event of the last decade or three. “The Re-Imagining Conference” — held in 1993 — caused tidal waves across the Protestant religious landscape because it did what its title said it would do. It re-imagined Christianity, placing diverse women’s experiences at the center of theology and also placing the Feminine Divine at the center of the worship and ritual life of the conference.
Specifically, worship focused on Sophia, who in both Jewish and Christian scriptures and traditions is the personification of the wisdom of God. A “Bless Sophia” chant was used throughout the conference. When speakers would go to the podium, 2,000 women (and some men) would chant this blessing for them before they spoke: “Bless Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within.” Many people reported having amazing spiritual experiences during and after this conference. The worship and rituals centered around this image of the Feminine Divine named Sophia broke open something in them. They were transformed.
The backlash to the “Re-imagining Conference” was swift and big. “Goddess worship!” “Heretics!” Several women working for the Presbyterian denomination involved in the planning of the conference lost their jobs. Ten years after the event, a female minister said that “we can still get in trouble for talking about Re-imagining.”
So who is this Sophia, who is so frightening? So disruptive? So transformational? Let’s listen to Her, in Her own words. She shows up briefly in the book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures, but she really comes out in Proverbs 8, where She assumes the form of a confrontational street preacher, calling to anyone with ears to hear:
To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right… Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. I have good advice and sound wisdom; I have insight, I have strength.
By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice… whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” (Excerpts from Proverbs 8)
This is not a woman to be trifled with. And let’s be clear, She is female. Hokmah or Wisdom in Hebrew is grammatically feminine, as is the Greek word sophia and the Latin sapientia. More importantly, Wisdom is consistency personified in the Bible in a female role — as “sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, preacher, judge, liberator, establisher of justice and a myriad of other female roles where she symbolizes transcendent power ordering and delighting in the world” — in the words of feminist theological Elizabeth Johnson. She is constantly luring human beings to life, to a way of living that rightfully orders the world such that everyone is able to delight in it. In fact, elsewhere in Proverbs 8, she tells us that that She has been there from the beginning of this world:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. (Excerpts from Proverbs 8)
She shows up many times in the Hebrew Scriptures, in what is — appropriately — called the “wisdom literature” of the Bible. Some of these wisdom literature books are in the Protestant Bible but some are found only in Catholic and Orthodox Church versions of the Bible. In the Wisdom of Solomon, the entire story of Israel’s salvation history — from the creation of the world to the Exodus — is told as the story of Sophia’s redeeming power, attributing to her deeds that elsewhere are attributed to God or “Yahweh.” At the end of human history, this scripture proclaims, her Wisdom will be victorious over all that is foolish and evil…
“For she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:29-30)
As one feminist theologian has said, “anyone approaching the biblical odes to her without preconceptions about Hebrew monotheism would not hesitate to call her a goddess.”
And then, a really interesting thing happens to Sophia once we get to the New Testament. You have a group of Jewish people in the 1st century, Jesus followers, who are trying to find words to describe their experience of this man and the mystical presence that they experience after his death — words to describe how disruptive and transformational he was and is, how he was and is constantly luring them to life, to a way of living that rightfully orders the world such that everyone is able to delight in it. And, you guessed it, they turn to this tradition of Divine Wisdom as personified in Sophia to help them “interpret” Jesus. As Johnson says, “What Judaism said of Sophia, Christian hymn makers and epistle writers now came to say of Jesus: he is the image of the invisible God, the radiant light of God’s glory, the firstborn of all creation, the one through whom all things were made… Jesus was so closely associated with Sophia that by the end of the 1st century, he is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, not only as a child and envoy of Sophia, but ultimately as an embodiment of Sophia herself.” To put it briefly: “Jesus is the human being that Sophia became.”And there’s some pretty cool gender-bendiness for you. It’s why I love this icon of Sophia/Christ that is up front here. I was shocked the first time I saw this icon — those eyes! and Christ as a woman? — but the more I learned of Sophia and Her connection to Christ, the more I saw it as kind of orthodox.
This is not fringe theology, by the way. Raymond Brown, one of the most prominent Scripture scholars of the past few decades, says that “Jesus is personified Wisdom.” Johnson, whose book I am referencing for this series, is a member of a Catholic religious order and one of the most respected theologians of any denomination. I have a special tie to her because she was living in the apartment above Jerome and I while we were both in seminary, and, in fact, she wrote the book I’m quoting from throughout this series while she was living there.
So, this devotion to Sophia as a feminine face of the Divine isn’t heretical. It’s actually squarely within Christian orthodoxy. But, like many liberatory elements of Christianity, Sophia got erased from Christian history and memory over time. The gospel writer John began talking more about logos than sophia — equating Christ more with the Word rather than Wisdom. Logos is a masculine noun, and it’s the Greek word used when John writes in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word (or Logos) and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God.” I think it’s accurate to say — if I understand the scholarship correctly here — that this prologue easily could have read “In the beginning was Sophia/Wisdom, and Sophia was with God and Sophia was God.” John relies heavily upon the wisdom tradition for the writing of his gospel, which leaves many scholars wondering why he chooses to use the word Logos rather than Sophia when describing Jesus in this prologue. Those scholars who came after John continued this equating of Jesus with Logos rather than Sophia. Why? Could it be…. Satan? I mean, sexism? As Johnson says:
“… Christian reflection before John had not found it difficult to associate Jesus Christ with Sophia, including not only the risen and exalted Christ but even the historical Jesus… Insofar as the gender of Sophia was a factor in her replacement by the Logos… it was coherent with the broader shift in the Christian community toward more patriarchal (church) structures and the blocking of women from ministries in which they had earlier participated. In other words, the suppression of Sophia is a function of the growth of sexism in the (early) Christian communities.”
But, here’s the thing. She always rises. She cannot be repressed. Because we need Her, and we know we need Her. Deep in our psyches, despite centuries of sexism and repression, we long for the Feminine Divine, for Sophia. When she is repressed, She emerges somewhere else. Like water, she finds Her way. Like light, we turn toward Her, especially as the darkness deepens.
She is disruptive, and She does transform. For some, She will be frightening because of this. For those held in bondage to fear-based theologies and to patriarchal power structures, She will threaten. But she is still the street preacher, calling from every corner, luring all humans to life, to a way of living that rightfully orders the world such that everyone is able to delight in it. How badly do we need her now, in this time of melting glaciers and rising waters, in this time of unparalleled greed and corruption and ignorance in the highest of places, in this time of darkness and dread? Come, Sophia. Come, Holy Wisdom. Dream the vision. Share Your Wisdom, dwelling deep within. We are all ears. Amen.