5 July 2014

She who is - for me

It doesn't seem like nearly a whole month since I last blogged, but the calendar tells a different tale!

The usual lots going on, but there is one thing that I'm thinking about a lot. In my last post, I talked about some niggles I was experiencing over the naming of God and the location of women's experience in our history and traditions. I have continued to explore those issues. Hubby and I are reading She Who Is: the mystery of God in feminist theological discourse, by the wonderful Sr Elizabeth Johnson. Her book is a comprehensive theological and biblical analysis of images of God, testing the hypothesis that there are images of God that are feminine in our tradition, the biblical text, and classical and contemporary theology, and more importantly, that we need to recover these images because our language defines our experience. Women cannot experience the wholeness of the imago dei, bring made in God's own image, if they cannot find language for God taken from our experience as women.

I was willing to test this hypothesis, and I found, to my surprise and my joy, that the text, history, and theology fully supports images and language for God that is female. Wisdom, the Spirit of God, is consistently spoken of as "she" in the wisdom literature. El Shaddai is an image of God as "the breasted one" (from shad, breast - an alternative extraction can also be from the word for mountain -which looks like a breast!). The Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters like a mother bird. God gathers us under her wings like a mother bird gathers her chicks. We together raised an objection in that Jesus refers to God as "abba" - "father": but in the analysis of the biblical texts, Jesus calling God father is used '4 times in Mark, 15 in Luke, 49 in Matthew, and 109 in John' (Johnson, p.81) - which when you lay these alongside the dates of the creation of the gospels, shows clearly that this usage is reflecting a growing tradition rather than necessarily the actual language of Jesus himself.

We're only halfway through, but already I find a change in me. Finding and using the images of God as mother, as Sophia, as She who Is, is invigorating my prayer and my understanding of myself as being the bearer of God's image and likeness. A flawed mirror I might be, but at least I can reflect, in my whole person and in my essential femaleness, God's wholeness and essential nature as divine, beyond gender and containing the fullness of femaleness and maleness. I am in God as God as in me. God, the Breasted One, Sophia, the creator of all, the one who breathes fresh life into the world and its people, is the ground of my being, and she is the brightness and love and joy and wisdom of this world.

I have moved, too, from my previous version of the Divine Office (Benedictine Daily Prayer, that I had been using since 2012). I found suddenly that I kept getting tripped up in the language and imagery for God, and it was interrupting my prayer. I discovered that the sisters of the Order of St Helena had retranslated and re-imaged their Breviary to find expansive language for God through a process of over 20 years - not just replacing "father" with God or gender-neutral pronouns, but truly looking for the images of God that have always been there but hidden. And bless them, they made their work available to others. The Monastic Breviary (available now only in pdf) even includes their chant tunes, and shows the years and years they spent with the texts, praying and chanting them, trying to find the right words and feelings and expressions for God's grace that does not use masculine pronouns or images for God. And the result is stunning. I haven't felt so joyous in my prayer of the Office for years. I've used many versions of the Divine Office in the last 15 years, but this is probably the most influential and the most beautiful.

I have also found The Inclusive Bible, another 20-year translation project undertaken by scholars of the highest order, seeking to do justly by the text and images of God, male and female. That only arrived yesterday, but again I find myself approaching the texts with joy again. I read through the first 15 chapters of Genesis last night, and I was stunned. I am extremely familiar with ch.1-3, having spent a large chunk of time in my Judaism studies with that text, and another large chunk when I was at theological college studying the Pentateuch. I've read it in Hebrew and in many different English translations, analysed it, pulled it apart, theologised over it, agonised with it, and lived with it in a scholarly and personal way for long enough to recognise when the scholarship is good. And the scholarship as shown in this translation is superb. It captures the wonderful word-play of the Yahwist author in ch.2-3, and shows the grandeur and beauty of the Priestly author of ch.1. All of this, and it reads aloud beautifully. I also dipped into several of my favourite NT passages to compare the translation, and I love it.

What's more, I read some of it aloud to small daughter tonight, and it was amazing to see her eyes light up like stars. She heard her own experiences reflected in the biblical stories for the first time, and it was a beautiful thing to see.

So, can my image of God expand? Can I reflect more of God if I break the patriarchial idol of masculine language for God? Yes, and yes, and yes again. I can find more of God, more of God's nature, more of God's essential goodness and being-with-us, if I allow myself to trust that female images and language for God are essential to allowing myself to see God's fullness of work in the world, in and through us. I only hope I am up to the challenge. Sophia, She who Is, the ground of my being, the source of life and truth, wholeness, healing and challenge for the whole world, the God who holds the universe and continually breathes it into being. It's going to be an interesting journey!

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