Magazine article The Christian Century

Inventing the Goddess: A Study in Ecclesial Backlash

Magazine article The Christian Century

Inventing the Goddess: A Study in Ecclesial Backlash

Article excerpt

BISHOP CALLS 'Sophia' theology worst heresy in 1,500 years of Christianity," reads a January headline in the United Methodist Reporter. This retired bishop is part of a well-coordinated propaganda campaign besieging United Methodism. Under the auspices of the Good News movement, the denomination's radical conservative minority, an expensive public relations campaign has advanced the cause of backlash. Presbyterians are similarly besieged by their conservative caucus, the Presbyterian Lay Committee.

Sending free copies of Good News to every pastor and lay leader in the country, the United Methodist conservatives offer several articles denouncing so-called "worship of the goddess Sophia" along with "Re-Imagining," the ecumenical conference held in Minneapolis last November celebrating the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. Even a tear-out postcard is included: "We call upon the Women's Division to repudiate the radical teachings of the conference and make a public apology to the church for its participation in and financial support of such an event. This is a tragic betrayal of the trust of tens of thousands of faithful UMC women who now need from you a promise of no further involvement in similar feminist/womanist/lesbian gatherings."

This card comes addressed and ready to send to the Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries. Thousands have already been mailed in. Not coincidentally, this board is a longtime target of the right, due to its translation of old-time missionary zeal into a passion for social justice. Bishops have been assigned pieces of the ecumenical conference material to examine for orthodoxy. An enormous amount of energy is being consumed.

This controversy is another chapter in this century's battle of the evangelical right vs. the liberal pluralists. This latest dispute is so intense that those of us in church-centered institutions find it impossible to ignore. I also suspect that the church's moderate majority, who do not themselves identify with or know much about these "heresies," may be tempted to accept the terms set by right-wing extremists.

Such acquiescence in a campaign of disinformation could chill the Spirit we United Methodists want to "catch." "As to all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity," wrote John Wesley, "we think and let think."

Worship by Christians of the goddess Sophia is a heresy that "staggers the religious mind" and "must be eliminated," according to the bishop mentioned earlier. This carefully rehearsed refrain--"worship of the goddess Sophia"--echoes throughout the Good News materials. It is time to ask: what goddess? whose goddess? Certainly goddess worship takes place in ancient religions, other religions and some neopagan and feminist experiments. But where is the "goddess worship" in our denominations?

Intending to provide a neutral clarification, the United Methodist Reporter offers this definition of Sophia: "Greek word for 'wisdom.' Recently the word has been interpreted to mean a goddess whom some early Christians believed essential to understanding God." Certainly there were Gnostic myths about creation by the Goddess Pistis-Sophia; there were even more Gnostic myths of creation by the Father and by the Word as Logos. But what does this have to do with the feminist Christian revival of Sophia?

The strongest feminist theologies of Sophia that I know are those of Elizabeth Johnson, a Roman Catholic nun and a scholarly interpreter of the Sophia tradition, and Susan Cady, a UMC pastor. Neither of these writers seeks to establish Sophia as Goddess, or as any sort of divine feminine being either superseding or replacing the biblical God or Christ. Sophia advocates have chosen to remain within the hermeneutical force field of the Hebrew and Christian texts. However one evaluates various revivals of goddess-language, goddess-worshipers have understandably not felt at home among Christian feminists. …

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