“RE-imagining,” a conference “by women for women and men,” marked the midpoint of the World Council of Churches’ “Decade in Solidarity with Women.” Held last November 4-7 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the conference drew 2,200 participants from forty-nine states and twenty-seven countries. RE-imagining was sponsored by the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul Area and the Minnesota Council of Churches, and underwritten by a $65,000 grant from the Presbyterian Church (USA). Among the mainline organizations that lined up to provide additional funding were the National Ministries of the American Baptist Church, the Division of Congregational Ministries of the ELCA, the Board for Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ, the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church, and several orders of Roman Catholic nuns.
The purpose of RE-imagining was nothing if not ambitious. The conference, its organizers proclaimed, signaled the dawn of a “Second Reformation.” “This Second Reformation . . . is much more basic and important to the health of humankind” than the first, declared Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, one of the many feminist theologians who took part. “We’re taking things forward in a way Luther and Calvin couldn’t imagine.” Promotional materials left no doubt about conference goals: “We are serious about reimagining all that has been passed on to us through two thousand years of Christian faith.”
In the preface to the conference program, Mary Ann Lundy and Bishop Forrest Stith—Presbyterian and Methodist cochairs of the U.S. Committee for the Ecumenical Decade—justified the need for radical theological surgery. Our churches, they insisted, must free themselves from the grip of sexism, racism, and classism. Speaker after speaker elaborated on this theme: the Church remains “womanless” because current doctrine and practice stifle women’s voices. Women require a new theology grounded in their uniquely female, everyday experiences of the divine. Rather than pursuing the Truth, then, RE-imagining’s focus was on encouraging each woman to imagine “her own truth.” The new reformation’s aim, in the words of liturgy director Sue Seid-Martin, is to “creat[e] that wonderful space where we are truly free to be ourselves.”
RE-imagining’s Second Reformation unfolded in a variety of forums. Two plenary sessions tackled the central topics: “Re-imagining God” and “Re-imagining Community.” In addition, participants chose among “multi-format option groups,” featuring titles such as “Racism/Sexism/Classism: Linkages?” “Lofa Women from Liberia Doing Moonlight,” “Listening with Our Hearts: The Prophetic Voice of Lesbians in the Church,” “Women and the Song of the Earth,” and “Our Names Are Legion: Clergy Sexual Abuse.” Worship services such as Sunday’s grand finale—billed as the “Living in the Struggle Ritual” and the “Struggle for Transformation Ritual”—evoked a particularly enthusiastic response.
While Reformation No. 2 seemed short on ideas and debate, it appeared to thrive on exotic self-expression. The Meadowlark Singers, representing various South Dakota Indian tribes, kicked things off; as the conference program explained, “The drum is feminine and the drumbeat is the heartbeat of the earth.” Arranged in Native American “talking circles,” participants engaged in “scribble writing” with crayons and pastels, blessed “rainsticks,” danced “holy manna,” and joined in Hawaiian chants and rousing Zulu songs. At the urging of Indian feminist Aruna Gnanadason, they anointed themselves on the forehead with red dots to celebrate “the divine in each other” and to protest the oppression wrought by Christian missionaries.
The multi-format option groups gave participants the opportunity to learn belly dancing, to call out to the divine “from a woman’s body,” and to listen as “educator and retreat leader” Sr. Roseann Giguere shared her wisdom on “the theology of darkness, the goddess, creation spirituality, midlife transitions and dreamwork.” The daily RE-imagining newsletter was larded with solemn announcements—“The women of table 110 have named themselves Women of the Eagle”; “The women of table 60 are Tawonda!”—as well as earnest pleas for social justice. “The shampoos in the rooms at the Hyatt are made with oil of mink,” ran one. “Why not leave a note in your room at checkout time, protesting their choice of shampoo?”
By now, these trappings of secular feminist consciousness-raising and New Age therapies are familiar to those who monitor mainline and WCC-related church events. What was not so familiar—even to RE-imagining participants—was the star of the show: the goddess Sophia, designated as “the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of RE-imagining.” “Sophia is the suppressed part of the biblical tradition, and clearly the female face of the human psyche,” explained Seid-Martin, a former Instructor of Ritual Studies at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Organizers pointed to scriptural passages such as Proverbs 3:16 and 8:30, Luke 11:49, and 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 to justify their worship of Sophia as the eternal feminine. Why “Sophia” and not “Wisdom”? queried the conference newsletter. To “remind us that the Scriptures portray this Wisdom as a someone who walks, talks, plays, cries, eats, creates, and loves.” Though participants never seemed clear how—if at all—to associate Sophia with the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they appeared to flock happily to her altar. The whole assembly prayed to her, blessed every speaker in her name (“Bless Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within”), and invoked her repeatedly as Creator and Mother. In the ritual of “Making Holy Time,” attendees were urged to “dream wildly” about “who we intend to be . . . through the power and guidance of the spirit of wisdom whom we name Sophia.”
Standing guard throughout were fifty monitors who admonished and exhorted attendees whose participation seemed less than heartfelt. Hanging back in Sophia-worship would not be tolerated, the conference newsletter advised: “[P]articipation is intended for ALL in the gathering-rituals are not spectator events . . . We thank you all for your full, active, conscious participation. May Sophia continue to bless your pilgrimage.”
“Naming” Sophia was the central focus of “RE-imagining God,” the first plenary session of the conference. To the sound of the “water drum,” participants gathered in their “talking circles” to ask, “Who is your God? What does your God sound like, taste like, look like? Name God—tell each other at the table! Reimagine your God in name and image!”
Yet despite all the hubbub, Sophia’s identity should have proved a mystery to no one. Participants had only to look in the mirror to find her. The conference program put it succinctly: Sophia is “the place in you where the entire universe resides.” As deity of the Second Reformation, Sophia seemed the answer to the prayers of a multicultural, therapeutic world. She does not judge, nor does she recognize any sin but the corporate transgressions of racism, sexism, and classism. Sophia has only one commandment, as participants learned—“Freely bless your own experience.”
While the four days of RE-imagining left no doubt that Sophia resides in one’s own navel, it became increasingly clear that she is most fully manifest in bodily functions and sexual encounters. At Sunday’s communal “blessing of milk and honey,” for example, two thousand women clinked glasses over rice milk (“found at most health food stores, and safe for people with allergies to milk products”), while repeating the following prayer:
Our maker Sophia, we are women in your image . . . With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life . . . Sophia, creator God, let your milk and honey flow . . . With nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child; with our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations . . . We celebrate the sweat that pours from us during our labors. We celebrate the fingertips vibrating upon the skin of a lover. We celebrate the tongue which licks a wound or wets our lips. We celebrate our bodiliness, our physicality, the sensations of pleasure, our oneness with earth and water.
Not surprisingly, Sophia seemed to reserve a special blessing for lesbian love. The prayer above was read by individual women, except for the “vibrating fingertips” line, which was read by two women together. In delivering the final proclamation, the Rev. Christine Marie Smith of the United Church of Christ envisioned God’s Kingdom as a place where “women will be able to embrace each other and love each other feeling beautiful and unafraid.” Melanie Morrison of Christian Lesbians Out Together (CLOUT) received a standing ovation as she celebrated the “miracle of being lesbian, Christian, and out!” and invited lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual women to join hands and circle the stage.
One looks forward to hearing mainline RE-imagining organizers like Lundy and Stith explain to Christians who pray the Creed every Sunday why their hard-earned dollars financed a conference at which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit didn’t even put in an appearance. How will they defend Christine Marie Smith’s indictment of Jesus as guilty of “violence against women,” or Chung Hyun Kyung’s assertion that God speaks equally “through Buddha, through shamans” and through Christ? How will they justify Delores Williams’ offhand dismissal of Christ’s atonement: “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff . . . We just need to listen to the god within.”
At first blush, it appears paradoxical that people who contemptuously reject Christianity’s most fundamental tenets should persist in calling themselves Christians, and locating powwows like RE-imagining within Christian history. In fact, their behavior is easy to understand. Those who claim to be “reimagining Christianity” get headlines about a new Reformation. They get endowed chairs in seminaries, money, power, legitimacy, and a captive audience that must be the envy of the self-declared followers of Wicca. “Sophia” serves these “reformers” as an invaluable tabula rasa. Their adherents’ ignorance of Sophia—far from being an obstacle—is essential to their project of fashioning a new religion while retaining tenuous links to Christian Scripture and tradition.
What is truly puzzling—even to those familiar with the mainline denominations’ recent self-destructive tendencies—is why the churches would lend their funds and prestige to antics of this sort. The United Methodists’ Division of Women, for example, designated RE-imagining as its staff’s quadrennial spiritual renewal event, and picked up the expenses of the fifty-two directors and staff members who attended.
Far from representing the wave of the future, RE-imagining was a vestige of a movement that seems almost to have run its tired course. Significantly, speakers’ and attendees’ average age appeared about fifty. One wonders whether these women ever seriously considered what it would be like to attain their elusive promised land—a world without rules, limits, or Truth, “that wonderful space where we are truly free to be ourselves.” Humankind’s natural proclivity to greed, lust, injustice, and cruelty suggests that such a space would closely resemble the Christian conception of Hell.
From November 4 to 7, 1993, the Minneapolis Convention Center was home to a spiritual Disneyland. In this fantasy world, well-heeled women with strings of graduate degrees pretended together that they inhabit a dark and oppressive world, a world where “hope burns through the terror.” How odd to pin one’s hopes for salvation in such dire circumstances on a goddess whose chosen milieu seems to be women’s bodily fluids. One wonders how soon Sophia’s eager devotees will discover that she can never sustain those who “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” as we all must.
Kathy Kersten, a new contributor to First Things, is an attorney and a full-time mother. She is a board member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.