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Are Men Afraid Of Women?
July 31, 1994


Last November a ReImagining Conference for Christian feminists was held in Minneapolis. 2,000 women and 85 men attended, including national staff members of the Presbyterian and United Methodist denominations. If you subscribe to the conference newspaper, The United Methodist Review, you are familiar with the controversy the event caused. The San Francisco Chronicle headlined, "Feminist Focus Alarms Conservatives." Conservatives in both denominations claim that a pagan goddess by the name of Sophia was worshiped.

According to the reports, they prayed, "Our maker Sophia, we are women in your image." "Heresy and paganism," cried male-dominated conservative newspapers, like the Presbyterian Layman and the Good News magazine for United Methodists. The attacks continue. United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig continues to receive letters that leave her feeling attacked and threatened. "The language is harsh and the suspicions painful to hear," she reports. (1)

What was it all about? What did really happen? And who is Sophia? Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. In the latter part of the Old Testament era, wisdom literature was popular. We see examples in Proverbs. Chapter eight is a poem written about wisdom, or Sophia, in which wisdom is personified as a woman. Sophia is a metaphor. All our language about God is metaphorical. Bishop Craig, defending the ReImagining Conference, said, "The use of Sophia as a name for God was like many other names we give God, seeking to comprehend attributes of a God who is beyond containment in any names or attributes." (1)

We commonly use metaphors to describe God. We call God, king, lord, shepherd, master, father. Feminist theologians add wisdom, and call God Sophia. What's the difference? If you look closely at the common names for God, the names to which we are all accustomed, they are all masculine. Try calling God mother or Sophia, and hysteria erupts. Why such an exaggerated, hostile, hullabaloo? I suspect that what the ReImagining Conference touched was a deep-seated fear men have. Are men afraid of women?

A relatively new woman pastor here in Merced was told by a male pastor here in Merced to keep quiet in the meetings of the Ministerial Association because in his church, women are not allowed in the ministry. A United Methodist woman intern was told by her male senior minister that women can serve, but not be theologians. A recent study in Virginia demonstrated how United Methodist women clergy earn less than their male counterparts. Women clergy in Virginia receive from $1,475 to $10,164 less than male clergy. (2) What's going on? Are men afraid of women, and the women's movement?

It's an ancient fear. Most of the early religions were a ritual and worship associated with the fertility of nature. The predominant figure was a feminine goddess who had a series of male consorts. At that time, humanity identified with nature and worshiped the Great Mother in the rhythms of nature--the cycles of planting, cultivating, and reaping. There were festivals, sacrifices and orgiastic rites. (3) There are remnants of this older feminine religion yet today. For example, we still use the term Mother Nature.

As humanity progressed, developed rational thought and a sense of self distinguished from nature, there was a rebellion against the Great Mother religions. The major religions, including Judaism and Christianity, rejected the feminine nature religions, and as is the case in most rebellions, the pendulum swung too far to the other extreme, and they threw the baby out with the bath. In Greek religion, Zeus, a male god, became supreme ruler of Olympus, and sent Pandora, the gift of woman, as a punishment to man. Pandora creates death, disease, and trouble upon the earth. (3) Women are subtly and not so subtly blamed for all the troubles of men. Remember Eve in the Garden of Eden myth? Eve is blamed by Adam for disobeying God. The serpent, whom Eve blames, is the cultic symbol of the Baal religion, which was a feminist fertility cult. So the Fall of Mankind is the fault of women and the Great Mother nature religions.

The pendulum swung too far. Feminine characteristics of the Creator were rejected. The Great Mother became God the Father, God the Patriarch, God the King, the Sovereign, omnipotent ruler and destroyer of enemies. Women were pounded into submission, denied status, power, and voice. There were some notable exceptions. There are lovely feminine images of God in the Old Testament which the church rarely uses. Isaiah 66:13, As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you. God is like a mother. There were women judges in the Old Testament, like Deborah, as well as heroines like Rahab and Esther. Jesus began a revolution which was quickly squelched. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect. As we sang in the hymn, The First One Ever, the first person to be told of the birth of the Messiah was a woman; the first person to recognize Jesus as the Messiah was a woman; the first witnesses to the resurrection were women.

The early church had women leaders. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a leader of great influence. Paul acknowledged women leaders of churches. Paul knew that God was both male and female, and at the same time, neither male nor female. Paul wrote eloquently about the composition of the church. In the Scripture lesson read today, Paul wrote, Ephesians 4:4-6, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. Even more emphatic is Paul's letter to the Galatians, 3:26-28, For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In Christ, we are one. In Christ, there are no heads and no feet. In Christ, there is no back seat and no second-class.

But, the church quickly squelched such revolutionary talk. By the time 1Timothy was written, women were back in their place! Interesting how the book claims to be written by Paul, but scholars agree, 1 Timothy was written after Paul's death. 2:8-15

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

And so the church rejected women. It was not long in the early church before women were not only refused leadership positions, they were not even allowed to sing in public worship. Even today, if you worship in the Church of England cathedrals, the choir is composed of men and boys. Eventually, in order to serve Christ, women organized their own movements, their own orders. They established convents where they could sing, pray and serve. The United Methodist Women owes its existence to a group of women over 100 years ago, who were denied participation, and, as a result, organized their own missionary movement.

And, even today, when women attempt to reclaim their God-given place, when women attempt to worship God with names that remind us of the feminine characteristics of our Creator, the women are called heretics and pagans. What also amazes me is the number of women who join men in denying themselves. Are they brain-washed?

Bernhard Anderson, noted Old Testament scholar who also happens to be Millie Greenough's brother-in-law, writing about the ReImagining Conference and Sophia as metaphor, concluded, The poem in Proverbs 8 invites biblical interpreters to break out of the masculine metaphors that have dominated theology too long and to explore feminine images that portray metaphorically God's relation to the world and to humankind. (4) We have a remarkable opportunity to be church of Jesus Christ, where there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female. Let us rejoin the ranks of Jesus and Paul. Let us reclaim that part of God's nature which has been denied us. Imagine how our faith has suffered because we have been taught to deny that part of God which is tender, creative, warm, and loving, characteristics we call feminine. Let us not be afraid to use inclusive language, and metaphors like mother and Sophia. Let us overcome ancient fears and barriers between men and women, and together, be God's people.

(1) Newscope, Vol. 22, No. 29/July 22, 1994

(2) Ibid

(3) Dwight H. Judy, Healing the Male Soul, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1992

(4) Bernhard Anderson, "The Personification of Wisdom as a Woman," to be published

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris