One year ago this Sunday, on Mother’s Day, I stood in this pulpit for the first time while watching snow accumulate on the trees and the ground through the sanctuary window. It was the Candidate Sunday that resulted in my call to be pastor here. The pressure was on, and that was a pretty challenging sermon to present. I prepared for days in advance to find just the right words. This week’s topic, given to me by those who successfully bid on the opportunity to select that topic, was perhaps an even greater challenge. But the sermon ideas were eventually conceived and after a time of gestation and some laboring, it is time to hope for a safe delivery! Those are not typical male images, but maybe that’s appropriate since today we are considering the intersections of gender and spirituality in the ways we talk about God.
Yesterday would have been my mother’s 91st birthday. She often had to share her birthday with the celebration of Mother’s Day, which is sort of like having your birthday land on Christmas: it’s not really fair, and it undoubtedly resulted in fewer gifts. She was always gracious about it, though. Ten years ago, I was assigned the task of delivering her eulogy when she passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer. On the night before the funeral, our family gathered and talked about my mother’s life and what she meant to each of us. As I took notes, I realized that two ideas emerged that summarized the primary gifts she shared with her children: Calmness and Wisdom. In our frenetic, often anxious family, she was a calming presence. And from her calm, quiet center she shared wisdom.
In the center of Istanbul, Turkey, formerly known as Constantinople, formerly known as Byzantium is an ancient landmark known as Hagia Sophia, which means “Holy Wisdom.” It is a cavernous structure, built as a Christian Church in the year 537. After the 15th century, it was converted to a mosque before eventually becoming a museum in 1935. Today tourists entering the spectacular domed structure can see ancient artwork and symbols of Christianity and Islam side by side. (By the way, I have a large Persian carpet in my home, thanks to the Hagia Sophia. I was standing with Leroy in a ridiculously long line to get inside, when a kindly man shared the helpful information that the line would be much shorter the next day when the cruise ships weren’t in port. That sounded good to us, and we accepted his invitation to visit his store and left two hours later as proud owners of a beautiful carpet. The next day we were back at Hagia Sophia and the line was even longer. Cruise ships come in to the port every day. We fell for the carpet salesman’s trick.) Hagia Sophia was worth the wait, and we were amazed by stunning mosaics depicting Jesus and his mother. For one and a half millennia, the church has stood as a monument to Sophia.
The reading from Proverbs is written the perspective of wisdom personified. The Hebrew word “Chokmah” becomes “Sophia” in Greek, both of which mean wisdom and notably use the feminine form of the word. Proverbs speaks of wisdom’s urgency this way: “Does she not raise her voice?” “At the crossroads she takes her stand.” “At the town gate she cries out.” “I walk in the way of righteousness, blessing those who love me.” That sounds like a person talking. Not just wisdom as an impersonal noun, but wisdom as a being who can be known and loved and trusted.
In 1993, several mainline denominations were scandalized by news of an event attended by over two thousand women. The “Re-imagining Conference” focused on Sophia, the wisdom of God brought to life in female imagery. Those present celebrated that aspect of God in creative ways that many found life-changing. Others quickly denounced it as heresy. In the Presbyterian Church, two top executives, both women, were fired for their participation in the conference. Many claimed that those who attended engaged in goddess worship, that their rituals were pagan, and that they had wandered far from the Christian faith. Perhaps critics were confusing the goddess Sophia who does exist in pagan literature with the biblical concept of Sophia that has been honored throughout much of Christian history. Or perhaps the idea that God could be understood in ways that are other than male was just too difficult or too threatening for those trying their best to hold on to power.
On the first page of the Bible are these words: “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created. Male and female God created them.”
That is a pretty important and telling statement, I think. A mirror reflects an accurate image. A person made in the image of God is an accurate reflection of God. A man and a woman made in God’s image each convey important aspects of God. What is specifically feminine in a woman must therefore accurately depict something important about God. Most of us here are likely to see the Genesis accounts of creation as metaphorical, not literal. Many others take such words at face value. Regardless of how Scripture is viewed, I wonder why so many struggle with or reject the possibility that God’s nature is essentially female as well as male? That idea comes right out of Genesis.
From the earliest days of Christianity, there were those who sought to understand the Feminine Divine and wrote about their beliefs. The Gospel of Mary was discovered at the end of the 19th century. It describes Mary Magdalene in greater detail than the canonical gospels, and it, along with other agnostic writings, associates Mary with Sophia, the wisdom of God. That concept was rejected by early church fathers but is receiving renewed interest as study of ancient writings reveals more about Mary Magdalene and the reverence given to her within the gnostic Christian communities.
In our study of Marcus Borg’s final book titled “Convictions,” we have been discussing mystical experiences and sharing our own encounters with the holy that have surprised us and which go beyond rational thought process. For most, those have been rare occurrences, but they have shaped our understanding of God in powerful ways. The tradition of mysticism is deeply rooted in Christianity as well as other religious traditions.
Within the ancient Christian mystic tradition, we read about Sophia as a feminine expression of God. For example, Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the eleventh century:
“You of the whirling wings,
circling, encompassing energy of God:
you quicken the world in your clasp.
One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.
Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!”
Sergie Bulgokov was an early nineteenth century Russian Orthodox priest who prompted much discussion of the Divine Feminine. He believed that Sophia – the wisdom of God – is a powerful, personal, feminine aspect of God that interacts with the Godhead, the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit and counterbalances the male dominance associated with God. Bulgokov was widely criticized and was subjected to an investigation after charges were leveled that his ideas were heretical. The official conclusion of the investigation was that Bulgokov was not a heretic but should probably be more careful about what he said!
Years later, Christian mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote this: “God’s light is diffused in the air and the light of God is diffused by Hagia Sophia… The Diffuse shining of God is Hagia Sophia. We call her God’s "glory." In Sophia God’s power is experienced only as mercy and as love.”
Why bother to embrace the Divine in its feminine expressions? Maybe because our understanding and experience of God will always be incomplete, or limited, if we don’t. For men, valuing women includes being willing to see Scripture through eyes that are not just male. For women, the Feminine Divine affirms that they are a reflection of God’s nature simply by being who they are.
I’ve had to ask myself this week: How do I as a man reflect the feminine aspect of God? I am made in God’s image, so that part of God must also be imprinted in me. I guess I need to start by continuing the exploration of Sophia and consciously opening myself to receive that wisdom. I’m grateful that I’ve been prompted to do so through the assignment of this challenging topic.
During the past few months I have visited numerous local schools to talk with students as part of a panel of LGBT Boulderites. One of the frequent presenters is a mother of two children, one of whom is transgender. Even though born with outward male characteristics, it became clear at a very early age that the child identified as a girl. Her interests were those we most often think of as feminine, and she refused to stop wearing dresses despite enormous peer pressure. The other child is rough and tumble and exhibits interests that are stereotypically male. He is also fiercely protective of his transgender sister. Out of the blue recently, he announced to his parents that he had not yet decided whether he will identify as male or female. He is open to possibilities beyond what others tell him or expect of him.
Is God male or female? No. And yes. God is not limited to the categories that we in our humanness assume and assign. But God is revealed to us in feminine as well as male images. Embracing the Feminine Divine is not only faithful to Christian tradition but it is a path that leads to a broader and fuller experience of what is ultimately a mystery.
Thanks be to God for the wisdom of God revealed through the Feminine Divine. Amen.