“Then do not be faint-hearted. I am with you always. I am [the father], I am the mother, I am the child.” ~ The Secret Gospel of John
We have been led to believe that for the entirety of Christianity, and even before that – the entirety of Judaism, God was one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Sure, in the official, canonized Bible, there is a metaphor or two here and there alluding to feminine qualities of God (God is like a mother comforting her child; God is like a woman who has lost a coin; Jesus wanted to gather Jerusalem as “a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”). But a masculine God occasionally letting his feminine side out comes no where close to a Goddess, a fully feminine Divine figure.
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What we haven’t been told is that many, many Christians esteemed a Mother God, Sophia Wisdom, the Feminine Holy Spirit, even the Mother-Father God at the very beginning of Christianity. But these images were effectively exiled from orthodox Christianity by the year 200 CE. Who was she and why was she lost?
To find her we need to once again explore the depths of the Gnostic Gospels, the texts from those early Christian sects that were eventually deemed heretical and destroyed or lost until about 60 years ago. In the Gnostic tradition (those who felt they had experienced – first hand – the Divine), almost without fail, and unapologetically, spoke of a Divine Feminine in some way shape or form. After reading through many of the Gnostic gospels, I wouldn’t say she is as prominent as the male God, but she is clearly present.
Our scripture this morning from the Secret Book of John shows us one way they named and claimed the Divine Feminine, and that was as part of a Divine Couple – Mother God and Father God. Both genders are present. Sometimes they are present in a dyad (a god consisting of both elements), the mother-father, masculo-feminine God.
Another way they speak of her is as the Holy Spirit. This should come as no surprise since the Holy Spirit is feminine throughout the Old Testament. Sadly in her translation into Greek, she becomes a neutral figure (pneuma) and then becomes male when translated into Latin and German. The Apocryphon of John slips her into the traditionally Holy Spirit spot of the trinity: “I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son.” And Jesus, in the Gospel to Hebrews, is heard to proclaim, “My Mother, My Spirit”
A third way the Gnostics spoke of a feminine Divine was as Wisdom (Sophia in Greek, Hokmah in Hebrew). Divine Wisdom was the “first universal creator”, “mystical, eternal silence”, “She who is before all things.” We don’t even have to look any further than Proverbs 8 to read all about her. No to mention she is the fourth major presence in the Old Testament.
While upper class women in Roman and Greek societies were making strides in the area of gender equality, Jewish culture, and the typical Roman and Greek middle class, treated women as property. It isn’t surprising that many women were drawn to Gnostic groups because they used feminine imagery when they prayed, they encouraged women to prophesy and they allowed women to serve the Eucharist, essentially acting as priests.
But the orthodox church went with the majority of the middle class in opposing the move toward equality, so that by the year 200, any female imagery that had existed in Orthodox Christianity, and any privileges women had, had disappeared. All secret texts revered by the Gnostics were omitted from the Orthodox canon and deemed heretical. By the time of Constantine, it was a criminal offense to be in possession of Gnostic texts.
Fast Forward 2,000 years:
We have had 2,000 years of a male savior. 2,000 years of a primarily male imaged God. He is ingrained in our psyches and in our language. He has become cellular. It has shaped our churches, our religion, our homes and our society. In 1977 Pope Paul VI stated that women can’t be priests because “our Lord [Jesus] was a man.”
Sue Monk Kidd, in Dance of the Dissident Daughter, tells a story about a woman and her 6-year-old daughter. The child, freshly home from Sunday school, was reporting to her mother what she’d learned that day about God. Over and over she referred to God as “he.” Her mother asked, “Why do you say ‘he,’ Ashley?”
“Because God is a man, Mommy.”
“But why is God a man?”
Ashley thought a moment. “I guess because God thought that was the best thing to be.”
There is something wrong about girls growing up understanding, consciously or unconsciously, that God is male because that is the most valuable thing to be.
Early on in my clergy career, I found that the young male clergy were the ones most desired by the conferences and churches. I watched them consistently receive better churches and nicer parsonages, than women who had much more experience.
I have had people refuse to let me do a funeral because I was a woman. More than once I heard, “that was a pretty good sermon, for a woman.” I was the first woman pastor at Franksville United Methodist Church. The knocks against me, named by their interviewing committee, were that I was young (I was 35) and a woman.
Judith Duerk, in her book Circle of Stones, asks a profound question, “How might our lives have been different, if deep within, we carried an image of the Great Mother? And when things seemed very, very bad, we could imagine that e were sitting in the lap of the Goddess, held tightly embraced, at last. And, that we could hear Her saying to us, “I love you… I love you and I need you to bring forth yourself.”
How might our lives have been different, if the Gnostic text hadn’t been banned? How might our lives have been different if Divine Feminine had been honored and revered as the Divine Masculine had? If women had been encouraged to prophesy, to be priests?
How might our lives have been different if women’s experience of the Divine had been valued? If women were validated in hearing that they were created in the Divine image?
We are no longer trying to turn the ocean liner to avoid the iceberg. We’ve hit it and we’re taking on water… fast. Women are being dismissed, marginalized, abused, oppressed, killed all over the world, and it will not change until religion changes. It will not change until there is gender equality in the divine image. Perhaps it’s time for a new boat… one called Yahweh Sophia.