Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Sophia Controversy

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon called Holy Sophia based on the lectionary text for the day, which was Proverbs 1:20-33. I basically reviewed a few different ideas about Sophia and suggested that one way or another, Sophia, and more generally the divine feminine, are a part of the Christian experience of and cannot be ignored if for no other reason than that they are attested in our Holy Scriptures. Of course, I expected it to be a bit controversial, since we very rarely talk about that part of our tradition. I expected people to be skeptical. I expected that some would find it just too unfamiliar and would basically dismiss it. However, what seems to have happened is that this is the first sermon I've preached that has really gotten people upset and angry.

As I was preaching it, I could tell it wasn't going over very well. The congregation seemed completely dead, and they usually give at least some vocal response. And many people seemed have they're faces screwed up in expressions of either distaste or confusion. After the sermon, the response was pretty cold. Usually most people give the obligatory "nice sermon" as they shake my hand on the way out the sanctuary. Not so much on this Sunday. I got one very enthusiastic comment, another of general approval, one comment to the effect of "I'm going to have to think some more about that" and the rest mostly silent.

Now, I'll admit, it wasn't the best sermon I've ever given. It was terribly academic, for one thing, since I had to lay out the history and context of the Sophia tradition, which I assumed would be fairly unfamiliar. So, in that sense it was more lecturish than sermonish. In addition, I probably could have constructed the sermon a bit better, made it more accessible and relevant to everyday life. Still, though, I stand by the subject matter of the sermon. And I stand by the biblical warrant for the sermon.

So, back to the story. In the first week after the sermon, I heard very little about the sermon. I figured that some people probably hadn't liked it too much, but that's true of all sermons. And I figured that that was probably the end of it.

On the Sunday after the sermon, a parishioner asked me, "Are you girding up your loins for battle?" and helpfully warned me that some were upset about the sermon and that there were grumblings about it. The parishioner was just giving me a friendly warning that people were talking about it. (Which, by the way, was part of the point of the sermon, to get people to talk about it.)

Then today I got the first direct negative feedback. It was offered in a quite loving and polite fashion, not directly attacking me or anything. The parishioner said how uncomfortable the sermon had made them feel. They told me that they didn't believe there was warrant in the bible to say what I had said, and they made a very reasonable point: "Jesus called God Father, and I want to be like Jesus."

And that's fine. I certainly didn't expect everyone to agree with what I had to say. And I am very appreciative that this parishioner actually came and talked to me and told me how they felt. If people are concerned about how I'm doing my job, I'd much rather that they actually talk with me than that they grumble amongst themselves until I'm hit unaware at some later point with a whole mess of anger that has been growing and festering beyond my sight.

Still, I find myself a little surprised at the negative reaction, and I find myself taking it a little more personally than I really feel I should. The reason I'm surprised at the reaction that seems to be building is that the argument is purely theological. As far as I can tell, those who are upset (though to be fair, I haven't heard much from them, mostly rumors) have issue with a purely theological point that I made: can God be addressed or thought of as female. That is to say, it's not a social or political issue. I've already made reference in sermons to several controversial social issues, but those aren't the things that stirred up controversy, it's the more sterile, theological concept of Sophia.

Furthermore, I didn't suggest in any way that masculine images of God are invalid or even problematic. A didn't say that referring to God as Father was a problem. We still used Father language throughout the service. So I didn't feel like I was threatening people's strongly held beliefs. I wasn't telling anyone that there image of God was wrong. I was just highlighting another image God, one that is testified in both the biblical and historical traditions. If I had said that referring to God as Father was somehow wrong or oppressive, then I certainly would have understood tremendous resistance. But I didn't. I just lifted up another, often overlooked image of God.

And that's part of the reason that I'm taking it a bit personally. You see, the images of Sophia, of the Divine Mother, of the Bakerwoman God, are images that are very powerful to me. During some of most difficult struggles of life and faith, it was from God the Mother that I received help, sustenance, and healing. So if people are offended by the mere mention or suggestion of Sophia or the Divine Feminine, then it follows that they are offended by my personal experience of faith. It means that they consider my experience of God to be invalid, that the divine healing and forgiveness that I have received are somehow counterfeit. And that's why I'm taking it personally, because I was very careful not to discount any other image of God, even the ones that have very little power for me. But the mere suggestion of a biblical image of God that I have found helpful now seems to be the seed of congregational controversy.

On the other hand, I guess I didn't share anything personal in the sermon. I guess I thought it would be less controversial if I wasn't taking a personal stand for it, if I was just introducing the concept. Or maybe I'm just not very good at sharing my own faith, and it rarely occurs to me to do so.

I want to be clear that I don't expect others to feel any connection to God as Sophia or God as Mother. It's a foreign concept for most Christians. And I should also be clear that no one has accused me of anything. There are only rumblings and rumors, and I could be grossly misrepresenting the folks who are upset with me, if they are even out there. I just hope that we all, as people who some different ideas about God, can at least respect each other's views and experience, and I pray that I will have the grace to do the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, one of the things I found fascinating and alarming at Iliff was finding out-- particularly in the Scripture classes-- just where people would get uncomfortable or feel Attacked. I was often surprised at what was felt to have shaken whose faith.

So I'm not that shocked that folks were troubled about your Sophia sermon-- which I would very much enjoy reading. I didn't preach on that text, because while I'm interested in Sophia, I don't find that particular text awfully rich. Now, after reading this entry, though, I want to, and know how I'd do it if I were doing it this week! Ah, well, Mother's Day, if our church does Mother's Day. :D

I also want to say how valuable I found reading this blog entry. You are terrifically perceptive, and a fine analyst.

Now I'm going to say things you probably already know. :D

This looks like a really good opportunity, if you can take a gulp and grasp the nettle.

Does your church have a newsletter? The pastoral letter would be a fine place to narrate the things you said in this blog entry-- and I'd be personal about it, as you were here. You are exceptionally good at explaining why this is personal to you, and your bruised feelings, without using leverage.

If I were you, I think I'd discuss the many names of God and Jesus in Scripture as well, for framing.

If you don't have a enwsletter, it may well be worth sending out a personal letter to each family in the congregation.

I very much admire your processing of this. Don't forget to breathe. You are a deeply gifted pastor.

Grace and peace,
Mary Ann

9:07 AM  
Blogger david said...

Uh, I've had the hardest time getting this post published. Mary Ann, you must be reading the RSS feed, because it did seem to come in there, but it's now 12 hours after I've written the post that I've finally been able to get it published on the main site.

You're right, the text from Proverbs 1 is not all that rich. In fact, I didn't really use much of it. I relied more heavily on a text from Proverbs 8. And I must a admit, I did not find it all that easy to preach on. It would have made a better class than a sermon, as I mentioned before. The material is just too unfamiliar. It required the laying down of so much background to make any sense. It could have been down much better than I did it, though, I'm sure.

And to clarify a little, I'm not surprised that this sermon was controversial, I'm surprised that out of all of the sermons so far, this is the one that has sparked the most negative reaction. I would have thought that other things I've said would been more threatening to people's way of life. Ah well...

I'm going to have to think a bit more about the letter/article to the congregation. Our newsletter is actually going out today, but I'd feel quite ready to put my words down. It seems that while a well-written response could do so good, an ill-written one could cause more problems than not. In any case, I'll be thinking about it. Thank you.

12:42 PM  
Blogger david said...

PS Thank you for the encouragement.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have to admit you have become my preacher lately. My normal exposure to preaching has become one of boring stories and of little depth. So you have been providing me with spiritual nourishment as I listen to you podcasts.

With that said, I listened to the Sophia sermon and I loved it! It spoke to me in a way that the text hadn't before and I did preach on it. Your most recent sermon on the Gentleness of Wisdom was GREAT!

There are two things I want to say: One, people react to the things that they are unfamilar with. You said this yourself that the church was unfamilar with the idea of Sophia. I wonder how many times they have heard sermons on AIDs, poverty, sex, the death penalty, etc. verses how many sermons have been preached on Sophia. Maybe this is a prime opportunity to have a class on the images of God. You can cover a variety of images with only one of them being Sophia. You might find out why they are so nervous/upset. Also, you might want to think about how you might have shaken up their image of God. You have a personal connection with the image of Sophia and your congegation might have one with the male image of God. I know you aren't trying to change them but many people first react to a challenage by becoming angry rather than admitting that they will have to consider your ideas.

Second, I would want to you ask yourself why you might be taking this so personally. Yes, I know this image has special meaning to you but is there something else? Are you feeling like you haven't been making a difference? Do you need to take a mental break? Are you personally struggling in your spiritual life? Are you feeling like you have no outlet outside of the church? Sometimes what appears to be the main issue is not it at all but it is something that is deeper that we haven't recognized yet.

On another note, you are a great pastor. Keep your head up and know that every church has issues with the pastor. While they don't like your image of God, it really could be worse. TRUST ME! Trust that God has given you a message to speak and don't let this episode scare you into hiding God's message for the world.

May God's peace enfold you,


7:42 PM  
Blogger david said...

Thanks so much, Cara. In answer to your questions, yes, yes, yes, and yes. I'm worried that I haven't been making a difference. I probably need a mental break, though I also feel like I haven't really been doing my job. I am struggling with my personal spiritual life. And I'm feeling that I have very little beyond church. No wonder you take so many pastoral care classes. And yes, I'm sure all of those things have to do with why I'm taking it personally. I'm trying to work on ways to deal with those issues. It's a little hard because I don't really have a lot in the way of peers out here. But I'm starting to find some folks.

And if I've become your preacher of late, then let thank you for being my pastoral counselor.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I thought how pastoral-carey Cara sounded. :) She also gave me one of the greatest insights-- and in fact one of the few insights-- I got in the basic pastoral care class I took with her!

David, something you might consider is electronic community. That's been a strong support for me for so long that I don't even have to think about it as a support, really. But when I do think about it, I know that the diversity of friendship and experience I know with online friends has deeply enriched my understanding and greatly increased my stability.

Plus, you already have online friends you know from flesh life!

Remember, you're not alone. :)

BTW-- I think it's hard for us to truly count all the work we do as pastors. After the first two weeks I realized I was giving myself the guilts constantly because I wasn't counting "the basics" of worship construction, pastoral care, meeting people and learning about the area....

Peace and love,
Mary Ann

7:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In an effort to not so too pastoral-carey, here are some ideas:

You need a mental break right? So take one. In ministry no one is going to give you a vacation, so you'll have to give yourself permission to take one. Take a couple days off, probably in the middle of the week but if you can get a Sunday take it. Sit at the beach or go the the mountains. Just get out of town!

You said that you were feeling like you weren't making a difference. This happened to me a few weeks ago. I had to tell myself over and over that change doesn't happen in a short period of time. It takes years in a church. Give yourself some credit and realize that this church will probably not change in your ministry there. All you can do is hope to plant the seeds!

On the same note, listen to MaryAnn when she says that you have done tons of stuff! You've kept worship going, visited folks, attended committee meetings, built a website, added podcasts, and various other activities. So you have done a lot and you should be proud of yourself.

And finally, your spiritual life which probably should be first on the list. Think of a time when your spiritual life wasn't great. What did you do to get out of it? What has helped in the past? When you decide what it was, don't let anything get in your way of making it happen. If you aren't fed, you won't be able to feed others.

One more thing, :) in the mean time of making friends in Coos Bay. Can you find one of your friends to e-mail you everyday? That way you have an outlet of discussion and feel connected to someone(s) until you create roots in coos bay.

Anyone, I'm probably gone off the pastoral care boat, but I hope it helps.



10:43 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...


You are a gifted individual - in many respects. But I think I understand you're struggle with taking criticism. I think I have similar issues - I take all criticism incredibly personally, no matter how meaningless it is. I know its always going to be a struggle for me and hopefully I'll get better.

My unsolicited advice is to take some credit for the good work you're doing. I know it probably doesn't seem like it, but you are. At the very least you can take some comfort in the fact that your church pays more apportionments than Aloha!

I'd happily email you every day, but I don't want to put more pressure on you by creating an expectation that you feel you need to reply.

My last comment is that I think generally people don't like to hear things that they disagree with or challenge their assumptions. But part of your job is doing just that.

--disclaimer - unkind, cynical comment coming --
Keep paying your apportionments and you could call Jesus a black pro-abortion pro-stem cell homosexual alcoholic buddhist from the pulpit and the district won't care.
-- unkind, cynical comment done --

Not that the district or conference cares in this case, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to hassle them.

Hang in there.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I wasn't dissing pastoral care!


6:05 PM  
Anonymous the-methotaku said...

When I'm stting in the pew, I find that sermons that can combine personal sharing with intillectual teaching are the best ones. People might have been more moved by the notion of the divine feminine if you put in personal testamony about it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Genesis 1:27 (New International Version)
New International Version (NIV)
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

"Male"ness was created in the image of God...
"Female"ness was created in the image of God...

John Eldridge ("Wild at Heart")describes God's masculine and feminine heart. God is a "warrior" who seeks adventure and beauty (masculine). God is beauty. Who desires to be sought after, worth fighting for (feminine). We were designed to complement or complete one another as God is complete/whole.

I dare not pretend to know or say I have studied "Sophia." (However, you have peaked my curiousity.) Having only read the scriptures indicated just moments before my post, I feel that "she/Sophia" could merely be describing the feminine attributes of God. (?)

If you don't challenge your beliefs, how can you grow? Thank you for your challenge and don't let the enemy take your flock!

God bless

2:07 PM  

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