Voices of Sophia breakfast tomorrow morning at General Assembly

If you are at General Assembly, don’t miss the fantastic Christine Smith tomorrow morning at the Voices breakfast.

Christine Smith photo

I have always believed that the church could be a redemptive, transformative body of people working for a world where all creation would share in God’s abundant life. This means that the church as God’s people in the world would not stop our work of resistance and hope until all people experience dignity and justice, and the larger creation has ceased to be constantly violated and exploited.

I am interested in talking with people who are trying to think through some of the most difficult and challenging issues of our day, including global economic justice, the flourishing of the earth and its creatures, immigration issues, and what it means to build solidarity with oppressed people in the two thirds world.”

from Christine Smith’s faculty page at the United Seminary of the Twin Cities

Among many other publications, Smith is the author of Risking the Terror: Resurrection in This Life (Pilgrim, 2001) and editor of Preaching Justice: Ethnic and Cultural Perspectives (United Church Press, 1998).

7:00 am – 8:15 am in the Hyatt—Lake Superior AB room

ReImagining Church: De-Centering Privilege as an Act of Global Citizenship.

(Ticket is $27, but if we know these people, you might be able to get sneaked in if you can’t afford a ticket or if the breakfast sells out.)

Speaker: Christine Smith (UCC),
professor of preaching, United Seminary of the Twin Cities and preacher
at the first “Re-Imagining” in 1993. What is social privilege? How might
Christians “de-center” (relocate) themselves socially? How is de-
centering a prophetic act of justice in our world? Dr. Smith will challenge
us to look at the complex language of margin and center. She will also
discuss actions and spiritual disciplines that all of us, as privileged
citizens, can adopt in order to live more justice-loving lives. Christine
Smith is eminently qualified to re-imagine a just church in a global world.

Feminist theology basics: What is gender?

by Heather W. Reichgott

“One is not born, but becomes, a woman.” — Simone de Beauvoir

I’m posting a few articles on what we might call the “basics” of feminist theology: what gender is, why it matters theologically, and some examples of where feminists have frequently challenged sexism in the Christian theological tradition.  I hope these articles will be useful (particularly to people who are relatively new to feminist theology), and I hope they will prompt discussion.

These articles are also a close reading of a particularly wonderful introduction to feminist theology: Feminist Theory and Christian Theology by Serene Jones. If you’re only going to read one book about feminist theology, this is a good one–it’s interesting, readable, refers frequently to Jones’ parish ministry as well as to highly intellectual theory, and the chapters stand alone fairly well, for those who are interested in some topics but not in others.

What is gender? (working with Feminist Theory and Christian Theology chapter 2)

The automatic response is: well, there are male people and female people, and you can tell which a person is upon birth.  God made a world full of boys and girls, men and women.  We are to live according to our prescribed gender role.  End of discussion?

When we start thinking about those gender roles, things get more complicated.  Where do the gender roles come from?  How do we learn them?  How do they differ across different cultures and historical periods?  Why do they differ at all?  We notice that all kinds of things go into a gender identity that have to be learned: clothing, hairstyle, manner of speaking in a group, name and nickname, hobbies, work habits, acceptable and unacceptable friendships, etc.  Furthermore, transgender and intersex people don’t fit either of the traditional male/female categories.  Could it be that gender itself is learned?

Serene Jones tells the story of sitting on a search committee that was debating whether a woman should be called as the church’s next pastor.  Some members said women are more nurturing than men, therefore more pastoral and better listeners.  Some thought a woman minister would be better with the children in the congregation.  Others said having a woman as a minister would make a difference in a negative way, although they couldn’t really articulate how; one member said “It’s just not the same.” (p. 22-23)

Do women have these traits by nature, or are they learned; and is it accurate or inaccurate to make general statements about what women are?

Feminist theory defines essentialism as the view that women have certain traits by nature, although it’s very much open for discussion what those traits are, what makes them good or bad, and how they ought to be deployed in the world.  Theologically, this means God made two genders and each gender was created in a certain way, although it’s very much open for discussion whether or not that implies a hierarchy of genders.

Feminist theory defines constructivism (or constructionism) as the view that gender is created by culture.  That does not mean gender does not exist, although that is a common misunderstanding of constructivism.  Things created by culture are very real, and cannot easily be changed: buildings, books, economies, laws, prisons, prizes, even our own names.  Theologically, this can mean we are to learn and grow into a predefined godly gender role, or it can mean gender roles are open to debate, criticism and change.  A constructivist might stress Genesis 1.26-27 and Galatians 3.28: God made humanity male and female, not male or female, implying a combination or continuum of genders–and even our created gender can be altered by who we become in Jesus Christ.

Feminist essentialists celebrate women’s characteristics. For example, the search committee members who said women are more pastoral than men because of their superior listening skills.  Helene Cixous wrote in “The Laugh of the Medusa” that women’s writing needs to break free of male forms and become more like the process of childbirth, writing from their own “mother nature.” (p. 24)

The philosophical and theological tradition too often places discussion of “women’s nature” in a completely different category from “human nature.”  Human nature (or theological anthropology) is explicitly or implicitly discussed as if humans are only male.  Then, a separate section on women may appear, describing mostly women’s nature as mothers and wives.  (p. 25-29)

Constructivism claims both that gender is learned in a regulated and predetermined way from culture (which is kind of fatalistic) and that, since the messages we receive from culture end up conflicting a lot of the time, we can ask questions about them, choose between them, and argue with them (which is kind of individualistic).  Constructivism lifts up Margaret Mead’s famous observation that, while every culture has gender roles, every culture’s gender roles are different.  Jones discusses Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, in which Butler argues that gender is entirely learned and regulated, not naturally inborn. (p. 31-36)

One difficulty with constructivism is that it’s hard to take gender apart and then try to make some definitive political statement.  Constructivism does not lend itself to manifestos, legislation or mission statements.  Many people who seek social change point out that at some point, you need clear standards of right and wrong and a clear idea of what a woman is, in order to bring about change on women’s behalf.

Jones defines her own position as “strategic essentialism.”  This is really the only glaring flaw in an otherwise wonderful chapter: the term “strategic essentialism” was coined by Gayatri Spivak in her work with other intellectual women of color, and Jones oddly does not mention Spivak at all.  The Jones and Spivak versions of strategic essentialism are related but different.  For Spivak, strategic essentialism is the decision by a group to claim a common identity (“We are women of color”) and advocate on behalf of that identity, while understanding that there are differences within the group (womanhood in South Korea is not the same thing as womanhood in Nicaragua).  For Jones, strategic essentialism is an in-between place with very pragmatic goals, doing essentialist things when it is useful, and doing constructivist things when it is useful.  Useful for what?  After so much examination of social norms we can’t just randomly throw in our favorite set of ethical standards to measure the universe by.  Rather, we have ethical standards that matter a lot to us, but we exist in a world with a lot of sets of ethical standards.  It’s the places where they conflict with one another that give us a chance to examine them–ours included.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Women Are People, the 1792 version

A Books post by Heather W. Reichgott

Men have increased the apparent inferiority of women till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale.
— Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 119

Wollstonecraft’s brilliant manifesto Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published a scant three years after the beginning of the French Revolution, five years after the new United States of America adopted its Constitution. Philosophically and theologically, Wollstonecraft stands squarely on the principles of the Enlightenment era. Lest anyone think that 1792 was somehow too early for anyone to have a feminist consciousness, Mary Wollstonecraft demonstrates that the inalienable rights with which we are endowed by our Creator could quite easily be understood as extending to women as well as to men.

The book begins with a few general principles which will come as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the prevailing ideas of the time: Reason is the salient human trait separating us from animals; Virtue is a sign of merit in human beings; people should strive for reason, virtue, and knowledge. Everyone should be free to pursue these goals. That freedom implies the necessity of democracy and equality before the law. Whenever artificial divisions of rank are introduced, the higher-up become tyrannical and the lower-down become resentful (and have no motive to refrain from vice when the authority figure is not around). Hierarchy inhibits the moral development of the whole human race.

Then Wollstonecraft applies these basic human-rights principles to the situation of women. She argues that there are no differences between men’s and women’s personalities and abilities. The only differences that seem to exist have been introduced by men in order to keep women in an inferior position, and women have (thus far) accepted them, because of the temporary and token benefits they receive.

“To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character; or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” (100)

An artificial division exists between “virtue” in general and a separate set of female “virtues” which, far from being a separate path to virtue in general, lead to the development of an indolent, superficial and vain character.

“Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; … She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.” (118)

And this, really, is the target of Wollstonecraft’s greatest opprobrium: the construction of womanhood in which women are taught only to be beautiful, coquettish, amusing to men, with the one goal of landing the best man possible in marriage. The irony is that these skills can only even be used during a comparatively brief period in a woman’s life. Presumably she will not spend her entire life span husband-hunting. Why then make it the goal of her existence? More on this in a moment.

Wollstonecraft is arguing against a few other opponents: the contingent of writers in favor of the English aristocracy, particularly Burke; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was greatly respected at the time but viewed women as beautiful appendages to men; and a few writers of very silly essays on the education of young women, including a very silly Scots Presbyterian minister named James Fordyce. Reading Vindication in isolation from its context, one wonders how people could ever possibly have espoused Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality without also espousing the liberty and equality of women. To Wollstonecraft, at least, it’s obvious.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born to a family of poor English farmers and worked her whole life, first on the farm, then as a teacher, school director, governess for a rich family, and finally was able to support herself by writing. She was part of Thomas Paine and William Godwin’s circle in London before becoming an expatriate living and working in France. Although the life of upper-class women gets the most criticism in her book (perhaps influenced heavily by the reportedly beautiful and lazy mother Wollstonecraft worked for as a governess) there is a great deal of insight into the lives of women from all class backgrounds. For women of every class are considered inferior, and barred by tyrannical hierarchies from the development of their natural abilities.

Wollstonecraft had two long-term relationships with men. The first (with Gilbert Imlay) produced a daughter, Fanny Imlay, who committed suicide as a young adult. The second (with William Godwin) produced another daughter. She died in childbirth at age 38, giving birth to this daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.)

Wollstonecraft herself was extremely reluctant to marry; she eventually did marry William Godwin after some years. Regardless, she has a very high view of marriage. Indeed, her treatment of (heterosexual) marriage is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Rather than critique the institution, she critiques the way in which the current construction of womanhood actually inhibits women’s ability to be good wives.

Beauty and flirtation matter most in the early stages of marriage, maybe only during courtship in Wollstonecraft’s estimation, and they affect only a superficial level of human relationship. Once married, a woman who is still obsessed with her own beauty and her husband’s superficial admiration will not develop the character to be a hard worker, a loving caretaker of children, or an intellectual companion and friend to her husband. Indeed, a woman brought up according to prevailing standards of womanhood will not even understand most of what her husband thinks, does or cares about. Husband and wife will become bored and frustrated by one another. Meanwhile, the wife yearns for a way to exercise the only skills she knows, attracting men–and so her careful societal education has taught her to seek out affairs. Thus, the current construction of womanhood fails even at its own stated goal: to produce good wives.

Although brilliant, articulate, and well-connected, Wollstonecraft did not manage to begin or inspire any kind of women’s movement in her own time. She was rediscovered, to some extent, by women’s movements in Europe and North America in the mid-nineteenth century. However, even those groups did not fully grasp the import of her argument. American suffragettes were more likely to claim that women needed the vote because their “feminine gentleness” would make society less harsh and violent, not because women are citizens and deserve the same rights as any other citizens.

Why did Wollstonecraft’s argument fail to find traction, especially at a time when universal rights of liberty and equality made perfect sense to all those successful revolutionaries? Sadly, the only reason seems to be her unusual love life. Wollstonecraft was known in her own time, but mostly, she was known in the way that we know celebrities who appear on the front pages of supermarket tabloids. Ordinary people could give the names of her lovers and children, but no one seemed to care about the content of her book.

Today, Vindication of the Rights of Woman is partly a historical window into the conditions of eighteenth-century women, and partly an argument that continues to be relevant. Women can now vote and enjoy full civil rights, although the ERA, an employment nondiscrimination amendment proposed by the suffragettes, has still not been passed. (It will be re-introduced into Congress for this year’s go-round on Tuesday.) Girls and boys now receive the same education; the supposed discrepancy between girls’ and boys’ math and science abilities completely disappeared in the very first year that girls and boys were given equal math and science education.

However, the myth of woman as beautiful useless coquette lingers on. Media images are full of women who are beautiful, attract attention, and are good for absolutely nothing. Even women who achieve tremendous success in career and/or family life still must fight against self-doubt and humiliation if they don’t look like sex objects. Clothing marketed to six-year-old girls and fifty-year-old matrons mimics that of twenty-year-olds on the hunt for male partners. As Wollstonecraft argued over two hundred years ago, we must let women’s abilities unfold unhindered, and treat ourselves and one another as people, if we as a society are truly to benefit by the contributions of all citizens.

Karl Barth: Woman’s purpose is to be a wife

By Heather W. Reichgott

It’s safe to say that Karl Barth is one of the most respected Protestant theologians today. Theology curricula regularly give Barth pride of place.

Barth is known for rehabilitating Reformed theology’s emphasis on the transcendent otherness of God, God’s initiative in relation to human beings, and Jesus Christ as the representative of humanity in salvation and election. People from hard-line Calvinists to mystics have been profoundly influenced by his theology. In addition to an influential Commentary on Romans and books of essays, Barth published the multivolume Church Dogmatics, which sets out in exacting and sometimes repetitive detail his beliefs on each and every one of the traditional theological topics.

Given Barth’s intelligence, depth of thought and verbose style, one might be surprised by his theology of gender. In the 387-page volume of the Dogmatics, which comprises part one of Barth’s doctrine of creation, gender takes up just 29 pages. Barth’s doctrine of creation describes God’s free gift of existence to humanity, and our fitting response which is faith in Jesus Christ; the ongoing relationship between God and humanity takes place in the form of covenant.

This is the meaning of God’s creation of humanity in general, that is. When discussing women in particular, though, Barth says some very different things. Using Genesis 2 with occasional reference to the Song of Songs, Barth presents an argument that while humanity is created for relationship with God, women are created for marriage to men. God creates women because man as a solitary creature is not a fitting covenant partner for God. (Dogmatics III.1.290-298) Woman is “the part of him [man] that is lost and found again”. (III.1.301) She is made to be man’s crowning glory “and it is her glory to be his glory.” (III.1.302) While Barth says this is without detriment to her independence, he also says she has no choice in whether to be the sexual counterpart of man. (III.1.303)

Women have no purpose as human beings outside of their marriages. “Being herself the completion of man’s humanity, she has no need of a further completion of her own. … His recognition and acknowledgment imply hers as well.” She is the “elect” of man (of man! not of God!) and does not exercise choice. (III.1.303) “The only real humanity is that which for the woman consists in being the wife of a male and therefore the wife of man.” (III.1.309)

When this lovely harmony is disturbed Barth envisions the problem as both an excess of male domination and an excess of female emancipation. It is wrong for women to try to seek selfhood outside of sexual relationships with men. (III.1.310)

Why does Barth back off from his usual definition of humanity as represented in Christ when it comes to women, and instead offer this view of women as sexual appendages to men? Why go counter to his usual argument about the complete otherness of God to humanity, in favor of a Roman Catholic-style analogy between divine-human hierarchy and a male-female hierarchy?

We cannot even excuse Barth by his place and time. This volume of the Dogmatics was published in 1958. While women’s suffrage would not become national law in Barth’s native Switzerland until 1971 (more about that process here), in Germany, where Barth spent much of his academic career, women had had the right to vote since 1919, and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights had called for universal suffrage in 1948. Women’s “emancipation” was hardly a strange and exotic thing in Barth’s world.

What do you think, readers? Is this a fair assessment of the humanity of women? If not, does it sour you on Karl Barth altogether, or do you have a way to explain his sexism, or do you find a way to work with the ideas of Barth that are helpful and to jettison the rest?

Celebrating the Life and Witness of Mary Jane Patterson

Introductory article by Sylvia Thorson-Smith
PCUSAnews article by Jerry L. Van Marter
Mary Jane Patterson
With both grief over her loss and immense gratitude for her life, we mark the death of one of the great women — one of the great SHEROS — of the Presbyterian Church, Mary Jane Patterson. I invite those of us who knew and loved Mary Jane to share anything of what she has meant to you and all of us.

I’ll begin with one of my favorite sayings that Mary Jane used often (she actually credited Karl Barth for this one, I believe): we need to face life with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

As director of the Washington Office of the PCUSA for years, Mary Jane understood the relationship between Christian faith and social justice. She connected the dots between all issues of injustice and worked tirelessly to empower the church’s witness to Gospel love.

Mary Jane was a mentor to many of us, and I am particularly grateful for her unwavering support for feminist and racial ethnic advocacy in the PCUSA. We have lost one of our most influential and inspiring foremothers, and we must honor her by a more resolute struggle for peace and justice.

“Mary Jane Patterson dies
Presbyerian elder led Washington Office for 13 years”
by Jerry L. Van Marter
Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE ― Mary Jane Patterson, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elder who served as a social worker and missionary to Africa before enlivening the corridors of power in the nation’s capital as director of the Presbyterian Washington Office for 13 years, died April 8 in Washington.

A native of Marietta, OH, Patterson graduated from the Ohio State University, where she majored in philosophy and accounting before earning a master’s degree in social work. She worked in the business world for a few years before church work beckoned.

Her first assignment for the PC(USA), in 1966, was as a community developer and consultant on social work for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya. Returning to the U.S. two years later, Patterson took on urban social work as staff for the National Council of Churches’ “Crisis in the Nation” program in Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1969, she accepted a post with Protestant Community Services of the Los Angeles Council of Churches as a community organizer and ombudsperson.

Patterson was appointed associate director of the PC(USA)’s Washington Office in 1971 and in 1976 was appointed director. For the next 13 years ― until her “retirement” in 1989 ― she was a fixture on Capitol Hill, pressing the church’s case on such issues as peace, human rights, development assistance, food policy, support for the United Nations and the entire range of foreign and domestic policy issues addressed by the PC(USA) General Assembly.

Throughout her life, Patterson was a staunch advocate of civil and human rights in the U.S. and around the world and earned the trust and respect of politicians of all stripes. She served on the Presidential Advisory Board for Ambassadorial Appointments under the Carter administration and was frequently called upon for advice by President Ronald Reagan despite their disagreements on many issues.

No one ignored Mary Jane Patterson.

She was named winner of the Peaceseeker Award by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in 1988 and was honored as a PC(USA) Woman of Faith in 1998.

Services are pending at Sargent Memorial Presbyterian Church in Washington, where Patterson served as an elder for many years.

Resurrection and natural law: a feminist perspective

By Heather W. Reichgott

As Easter approaches, here is a feminist perspective on the resurrection.

Plenty of feminist theologians take a dim view of miracles, for a variety of reasons. Some feminists react against the authoritarian/literalist(1) view of the Bible that insists at the same time on miracles and on the superiority of men over women. Others are closely aligned with academic and other communities that prefer a scientific view of the world, or rather, one form of science in which miracles are not considered a possibility. While I respect these positions, I am a feminist who takes a strong view of miracles, especially the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection, a gracious act of God subverting the normal processes of nature, has crucial implications for theologies of gender that base themselves in natural law.

In her article “Queering Death,” Elizabeth Stuart reaches back to the ancient linkage of death and reproduction. Male and female cleave together in intercourse to produce children; the parents die; the children live on and produce more children. Meditating on the resurrection account in the gospel of John, Stuart claims that the resurrection undoes the necessity of this pattern, for it undoes the finality of death.

The natural law tradition in theology, which argues from evidence in the created world to make propositions about what should be, holds to a theology of gender that is based on the physical events of heterosexual intercourse and reproduction. Since heterosexual genitals can be made to fit together, and since this activity sometimes produces children who grow in the womb of the woman and nurse from her breasts, the argument claims that therefore procreative heterosexual intercourse is the only legitimate context for human sexuality, and that women’s existence is ineluctably tied to their responsibility to bear children in a way that men’s existence is not.

The problem with this argument is that the link between natural process and ethical necessity has been broken completely by the resurrection. In the resurrection God demonstrates that She is beyond death. Jesus, who had been killed, is restored to Mary Magdalene and Peter and Thomas, all those who loved him and all those who hated him. The work of God that Jesus was doing was not stopped by the resurrection. Jesus rose from the grave, undoing death once and for all, giving us reason to hope even in the midst of the tombs.

If this is what God can do with such a natural process of death, what does that mean for gender?

Clearly we cannot look merely at the world we see in front of us to understand what God wishes us to be. This is not all there is. That is the basis for Christian hope, whether such hopes are directed at survival, healing, social change or life after death.

Stuart writes, “It was not just that God defeated death, but that God did so in human flesh, and this has profound implications for flesh itself. It bursts from the tomb, the same but different: a flesh no longer made for cleaving nor for oblivion. … For a Christian, death does not even threaten the end of bodiliness, but rather becomes a physical experience/encounter with the divine.” (2)

If God’s plan for life and death is not limited by the grave, then there is no reason to believe God’s plan for gender is limited by the natural process of heterosexual reproduction. And in fact, a thorough reading of the Bible presents us with numerous women whose importance to the work of God far outstrips their reproductive roles. Women in God’s eyes are much more than wives and mothers; indeed, they need not be wives and mothers in order to be pivotal figures in Biblical narrative, or to be pivotal figures in God’s work in the world today.

In the resurrection God takes a natural process and subverts it completely. As people of the resurrection, Christian women may be confident that God has completely subverted the “natural” rules of gender once and for all.

(1) No one can really be a literalist, since it is impossible to obey the entire Bible at the same time; however, I use the term since it points to a frame of mind which readers will recognize.
(2) “Queering Death” in The Sexual Theologian, eds. Althaus-Reid and Isherwood (T&T Clark, 2004), p. 62-63.

A blog for the Voices of Sophia

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made.

Voices of Sophia is a community of women and men in the larger community of the Presbyterian Church (USA) being reformed by God through the Spirit of the living Christ, and working toward the transformation of the church into a discipleship of equals.  While we find our home in the Reformed tradition interpreted with a feminist critique, we welcome articles and conversation with those of many traditions, as well as those who may not consistently espouse the label “feminist.”

This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.

We invite contributions of articles that meet one of the following criteria:

1) Well-researched original work in feminist theology, including book reviews;
2) Feminist reflections on Scripture;
3) Feminist reflections on ministry, activism, and other aspects of life and work;
4) Artwork, prayers and music.

Please submit articles by email to voicesofsophia@gmail.com.

Submissions from women outside the “normal channels” of the institutional church and academy are especially welcome.

This blog is published in English. Submissions in Spanish or German are welcome, and will be translated into English prior to publication. We would appreciate the ability to translate from Korean, and seek a volunteer who would be able to do so.

Voices of Sophia may edit submissions for brevity or clarity. Submissions over 500 words may be published as a series instead of a single post.

Thanks for visiting, and please join our community’s conversation by leaving a comment!

Announcement of a Holy Union: Voices of Sophia and the Witherspoon Society Merge, by Sylvia Thorson-Smith

For about a year, the idea of a merger between the Witherspoon Society and Voices of Sophia has been in the works. Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated people in both groups, we are now happy to announce that this union is a reality.

It might be helpful to review a bit of the history of Voices of Sophia. VOS was organized in 1995 in response to the backlash against the 1993 feminist theological event known as “Re-Imagining.” It was felt by many who were active in the PCUSA at the time that those who advocated feminist values, particularly women staff, were under siege and needed a critical mass of support outside the structures of the church. For 13 years, Voices of Sophia has been an untamed witness on behalf of women and women’s issues, working in partnership with other progressive justice-loving groups in the Presbyterian Church, like the Witherspoon Society.

Discussions between these two groups began in conversations at General Assembly in 2008, and the serious work of exploring a merger commenced in the fall and early 2009. I came on the Witherspoon Board in part as a liaison between the groups. Basic agreement was reached between the leadership of WS and VOS on steps that would be taken, including the following:

1) four new members would join
the WS board as a VOS
caucus, participating fully in
decisions of the board and
providing a particularly feminist
perspective to its work;
2) the VOS caucus would be
responsible for continuing some
previous VOS work, such as
breakfasts that feature women
theologians at General Assembly;
3) at least for now, the balance of
VOS monies would be (and have
been) kept in a separate account,
managed by the WS budget
officer, and available for GA
breakfasts and other particularly
VOS/feminist-related needs; and
4) other details of the merger would
be worked out by the newly
enlarged board.

An email was sent to VOS members seeking three interested persons to join me in forming the VOS caucus of the board, and the following women enthusiastically offered to serve: Colleen Bowers, a nurse who lives in Baltimore, MD; Sylvia Carlson, a retired minister in Redstone Presbytery; and Molly Casteel, who until recently held a position as staff for women’s advocacy in the Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministry Program of the church.

In addition, Heather Reichgott (former board member of More Light Presbyterians) will be an adjunct member of the caucus and will manage a new feminist blog on the Witherspoon website. Heather is working with Doug King and her blog is now operational (check it out at https://voicesofsophia.wordpress.com).

There are still issues to address regarding this merger, and these will be discussed at a board meeting in Minneapolis in May. For now, though, we are moving forward with energy and enthusiasm in this (hopefully) holy, justice-seeking union. It’s exciting to see it actually become a reality, because we all agree on the importance of maintaining a progressive/feminist voice in the PCUSA – even from the margins. We’ll want to keep communication flowing with the members of both groups, so this unified group can become an even stronger witness for peace and justice than we were separately. We hope that current members of WS and VOS will want to maintain your ties and new members will want to join.

We ask for prayers and all forms of support as we re-imagine a united Voices of Sophia/Witherspoon Society. Feel free to ask questions, give us input, and share ideas about how to strengthen our work together. I welcome emails regarding this merger (sylviats@cox.net), and you may direct them to other board members as well. We look forward to reporting more progress in upcom- ing issues of Network News and on the website.

Everydayness by Emilie Townes

by Emilie M. Townes
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology
Yale Divinity School

given at the Voices of Sophia breakfast, July 9, 2006

Presbyterian Women triennium in Louisville, KY

(reprinted here by verbal permission from the author)

in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth
there was light
there was goodness
there was creation
in the beginning was the word
with God
was God
was life
was the light
and so we gather: creation! celebration! god’s word—light for the journey
early on a sunday morning
in the midst of a churchwide gathering of presbyterian women (and their
for some of us gathered here
we have done this before
we come expecting to see friends we’ve not yet had a chance to connect
we come hoping the speaker will not lull us back into a catnap before the
rest of the events of the day sweep up us into a whirlwind
we come perhaps out of habit or loyalty or deep and abiding belief and
for some of us gathered here
this is all new

we may come from other countries, other languages, other cultures, other
ways of being presbyterian

we are excited to be here, but weary from trying to understand this new
place and a language that may not be our native tongue

we come perhaps out of solidarity or seeking respite or deep and abiding
belief and faith

for others of us gathered here
we’re just happy to be here
we have no expectations
no history, no baggage, no agenda, just here

there are other ways in which we sit here this morning
and i want to suggest that given the worlds we live in these days
however we are, as we sit here this morning
it’s normal
the challenge, i think for all of us is this:
what will we to do with the fullness and incompleteness of what we have
brought to this time and place
as we remember that we are in a world
that we have helped make
that needs a new, or perhaps ancient vision
molded by justice and peace
rather than winning and loosing

so i want to talk with you this morning about a few of the things that are behind
holding on to justice and peace in the midst of myriad injustices and a world that
is a spinning top of wars

and give you some sense of why i think that what we do as women of
faith has a profound effect on the worlds we live in

if we take seriously the theme of this gathering: creation!
celebration! God’s word—light for the journey

it is for me to respond to the call by the black mystic and theologian, Howard
who joined others
n encouraging us to blend head and heart


one of my sources of sustenance for this challenge is found in the speeches of the
late former congresswoman from texas, Barbara Jordan

Jordan was a woman of firsts:
1st black woman to serve as administrative assistant to the county

judge of Harris County, TX

1st black elected to the TX state senate since 1883

1st black woman to deliver the keynote address at the democratic
party convention in 1976

first black person to be buried in the State Cemetery in Austin, TX
on january 20, 1996

and those of us who remember or have heard the recording of the crisp
bell tones of her perfect diction and impeccable cadence will never forget
her testimony before the house judiciary committee during Watergate
during prime time television on july 25, 1974:

“Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the
Constitution of the United States, “We, the people.” It is a very
eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the
seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the
people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington
and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through
the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have
finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be
fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right

now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is
total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the
diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

i am struck, by the profound trust she had in the notion “we the people”

Jordan was the daughter of a baptist preacher and a devout practicing baptist her
whole life
one of the bedrock principles she lived her life by was that human
equality under God is absolute, unconditional, and universally applicable

so when she said “we the people” she really did mean all of us
now because she was a public servant, she did not do much god-talk in her
public addresses

but i think she can be a window into how we can think about how we lean
into, live into God’s word as light for our journeys

i think that the only way we can faithfully look at who we are
as a nation

and the roles we should and must play as women of faith who hold deep
values of respect for others and the rest of creation

means that we refuse to give up uncovering and working through
how we can build faith-filled responses

to meet the needs of those who may be the least of these

or folks just like many of us—blessed with resources and
abilities and a divine mandate to use them

with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless
justice that can only come from a rock-steady God

we must be about these things because

we are living in a time in which imperialism is being dwarfed by empire

from the beginning of this country as a republic

the myth of universal uninhibited freedom has always had its evil twins–
studied sadistic subordination and anal-retentive annihilation

our history is one of that cast native americans outside of the constitution
and black folk barely in it

this has, to my mind, always been a great problematic in our self-understanding
as a nation
we have not always been the land of unfettered liberty, equal access, and
open markets for all peoples and on a truly equal playing field

we have, domestically and globally, been a nation that has practiced—far
too many times–imperialistic domestic and global outrages that carry
kinder and gentler names such as

usa patriot act

economic growth and tax relief reconciliation act

free trade area of the americas

operation shock and awe

you and i are drawing breath in a country, which is for most of us gathered here,
our country

one that possesses an incredible concentration of financial, diplomatic and
military power

and is rather disingenuous not to admit the tremendous power and
influence we have on a global scale

and also recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with this

because we have the power to do incredible good—and have done

and must continue to grow this side of who we are as a
nation larger and stronger

on the global stage and here at home

because a bully, whether dressed in religious drag or
patriotic drag, is still a bully

but you know, empire and permanent war do not count on women of faith and
their allies living out of our commitment to telling the truth

that not only does the emperor have no clothes, the emperor is, as my
grandmother used to say: naked butt

if we can hold on to proclaiming truth when it gets buried in political and
religious cat fights and mud-wrestling contests, i think we will be able to bring
together justice making and peace-keeping

but only if we take seriously the challenges living into what it means to
believe each person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect

because we are responsible for each other and ourselves

we may not always agree, nor should we expect to

we have to give an accounting of our actions and inactions

we may get tired and need a break, but we must always come back
because we do not get out of this life alone

and we are responsible for what goes on in our names


to be sure, this can be a demanding or difficult task, but we must live into this

we must have dreams that are more powerful than nightmares

possibilities more radical than realities

and a hope that does more than cling to a wish

or wish on a star

or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth

after dining on a meal of disaster and violence

no, the hope we have before us

comes from folk like miss nora
brother hemphill
ms. montez
mr. press

miss rosie
and mr. waddell

and this hope rests on the rimbones of glory

And my, oh my, it is powerful. It enables us to press onward when we
feel like giving up; to draw strength from the future to live in a discouraging
present. Hope, the hope that fueled the faith of King and sustained a movement,
makes it possible for us to see the world, not only as it is, but also as it can be; to
move us to new places and turn us into a new people.

But it is frightening because we know that loving and caring for others
and ourselves interrupts the mundane and comfortable in us, and calls to us to
move beyond ourselves and accept a new agenda for living. Hope cannot simply
be given a nod of recognition, for it demands not only a contract from us; but
covenant and commitment. When we truly live in this deep-walking hope, then
we must order and shape our lives in ways that are not always predictable, not
always safe, rarely conventional, and protests with prophetic fury the sins of a
world (that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from
our hearts, our beliefs from our action.

Live out of a hope that let’s folk know that justice and peace mean
something, and are more than rhetorical ruffles and flourishes. None of us can
hide from any of the “isms,” obscene wars declared in our name, but without our
permission or consent; the economy, natural disasters that then turn into obscene
governmental neglect and cronyism, rising oil prices, conservative christian
leaders who believe strokes are signs of God’s judgment on attempts at peacemaking, HIV/AIDS, terrorism, and the wicked mixing of jingoism with the death
of innocents in our national mourning.

No, we cannot hide from responsibility or accountability. We can wring
our hands, or declare we are too busy, or worse, turn our backs in indifference
and callus disregard to the erosion of human rights. But this never relieves any

of us, no matter how young or how old, of the responsibility that we have to our
generation and future generations to keep justice, peace, and hope alive and
vibrant. To put it more bluntly, we are not called to be poster-children for the
status quo.

ultimately, i believe that somewhere deep inside each of us

we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult answer to the

challenge of “what will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of

what we have brought to this time and place? is: live your life and faith

with a deep love and respect for others and yourself.

now i am not talking about perfection—i’m an american baptist

i’m talking about what we call in christian ethics, the everydayness of
moral acts

it’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than
those grand moments of righteous indignation and action

the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk to hear
what they are saying

the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us
through prayer or meditation

the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is
that is coming out of our mouths

the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives

the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or
writing or thinking

the everydayness of sharing a meal

the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment

the everydayness of joy and laughter

the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere
or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them

the everydayness of blending head and heart

the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living

it is in this everydayness that “we the people” are formed

and we, the people of faith, live and must witness to a justice wrapped in
a love that will not let us go

and a peace that is simply too ornery to give up on us

won’t you join in this celebration?


Dr. Townes is a pivotal player in the construction of the field of “womanist theology.” Broadly defined, “womanist theology” is a field of theological and ethical reflection in what historic and present-day insights of African American women are brought into critical engagement with the traditions of Christian theology. Her first two major works, Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope 1993 and In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness 1995 were seminal texts in the field.


Re-Imagining Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock

By Rita Nakashima Brock
Voices of Sophia Breakfast, Presbyterian General Assembly
June 19, 2006
Birmingham, AL

printed here by verbal permission of the author)


In 1993, at Re-Imagining, we celebrated women’s life-affirming theologies and put our experiences and knowledge at the center of the church and its future. When we stepped out toward that future, we were making a path as we walked, and we didn’t know what we would find, but our determination to keep on moving forward cost some of us a great deal; some of us even lost jobs. But I am here to tell you today, that, while it may have seemed like we were making a totally new path, there were others long ago who have walked this way and left a trail of crumbs. Their traces were nearly covered up by a death-worshipping, imperial form of Christianity, but those nourishing morsels are still there”bread for our journey. Imperial theologians went down a different road that has worn a long deep rut, a rut is a grave without an end. We, on the other hand, are forging the road for a life-affirming Christianity.

One of the great controversies to emerge from Re-Imagining was our rejection of the atonement, the idea that the torture and execution of Jesus Christ saved the world. My theological career has been spent dismantling that doctrine. I want to tell you today that I am convinced that atonement theology is the deepest betrayal of Christianity ever perpetrated. It is not just one way to understand salvation, but a betrayal of salvation, a doctrine that abandoned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for loyalty to Caesar and his legions.

I base this conclusion on research Rebecca Parker and I have been doing for half a decade. This research began with a simple fact: For the first thousand years of Christian art, Jesus Christ was not depicted dead. It literally takes him a thousand years to die. We are so used to gory images of crucifixion, it is hard to imagine the kind of faith and spirituality that was celebrated by first millennium Christians. But we decided to try to imagine such a faith.

In July 2002, we set out on a pilgrimage to the Mediterranean world to understand what the visual world of early churches could tell us. We knew that visual images, like other arts such as poetry, music, and dance, imprint faith more deeply than discursive words and ideas (a hard thing for a theologian to admit!), and the visual world of the early church was the primary text for a culture in which literacy was a specialized skill for a privileged few who could afford books.

We began our pilgrimage in Rome, in the catacombs. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw Jesus as a shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus or held in the lap of his mother Mary. Many images captured the story of rescue from danger, like Jonah, Susanna, Daniel, and Meshak, Shadrak, and Abednego,these last three are nattily attired in Persian fashions with pantaloons, flowing capes, and puffy hats that are echoed in images of the three magi. Other images suggested healing, such as Jesus raising Lazarus or the paralytic carrying his own bed. The Samaritan woman drawing water from the well was also there, as were images of baptism.

From Rome we went to Ravenna to examine its fifth and sixth-century churches. In the fifth-century St. Apollinare Nuovo, are 26 mosaic scenes. They are the first to depict Jesus’ life story as a sequence, and they begin with the wedding in Cana. The thirteen scenes of his passion begin with the Last Supper, which depicts the moment when Jesus says he will be betrayed,five of the thirteen passion scenes show Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Panel ten shows Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross to Golgatha. One would expect to see the crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead an angel sits before a tomb, speaking to two women swaying forward like Gospel choir singers. I could swear they were singing the Sophia blessing. The remaining panels showed the stories of Doubting Thomas (John 20:19-29) and the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-43), images of the resurrection.

Images of the death of Jesus were unknown to early Christians. Instead, the art of their churches placed them in a lush visual environment. They were surrounded by stars in night skies, sparkling rivers, verdant meadows, craggy mountains, and exuberant fauna and flora. The Christ they saw was the incarnate Christ, vibrantly alive, the incarnation of Sophia. These beautiful images saturated our consciousness until, at last, we understood: In church, the worshppers stood in paradise.

The paradise we saw was not an imaginary, idealized afterlife, and certainly not perfect. It was, in fact, often rather homely and ordinary in its loveliness, depicted with irregular forms and rough edges. Nor was it a return to a primordial Garden of Eden. It was something else. It was this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God, as Gen. 2 said it was. In landscapes fed by the four rivers of paradise, the apostles and saints stood serenely, clothed in white robes of glory, joined by the living community of saints gathered around the Eucharist table. The images of paradise captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape and agricultural fecundity of the Mediterranean world. It was not heaven, the mysterious realm of God, which was shown by puffy clouds of white, red, and blue, from which the hand of God extends to bless the earth below.

The fourth-century Ephrem of Syria (c. 306-373), wrote thousands of hymns, especially for women’s choirs. He was a lay church leader, theologian, biblical commentator, and the most popular poet in all fourth-century Christianity. He captured this life-affirming vision of paradise in hundreds of poems. He says:

Paradise surrounds the limbs
with its many delights:
The eyes, with its handiwork,
the hearing, with its sounds,
The mouth and the nostrils,
with its tastes and scents . . . (Hymn VI, 3)
My hunger takes delight
in the breath of its fragrance,
For its scent gives nourishment to all
at all times,
And whoever inhales it
is overjoyed¦ (Hymn IX, 15)

Ephrem also wrote hundreds of hymns about women as stellar examples of faith. He preferred the marginalized women of the Bible, like Tamar and the Samaritan Woman. He liked uppity women. He praised their boldness, their courage, and their willingness to dispute with Jesus. I doubt he would have found the Davinci Code interesting, since it demotes Mary of Magdalene from the pre-eminent Apostle to Mrs. Jesus! He didn’t think women needed men to be important. Women themselves were types of humanity all could emulate. His understanding of paradise was not something promised to Christians later, but a world that was theirs at their baptism because they were given new spiritual eyes, the eyes of Sophia, so they could see the spirit incarnate in life. Ephrem’s works were translated into all the Christian languages of the Mediterranean world and sung in churches everywhere.

Ephrem’s poetry and hymns proclaimed what Christians knew: that by his defeat of death and his resurrection, Jesus Christ re-opened the gates of paradise on the earth, especially in the church. Through immersion into earth’s waters, which flowed out from paradise, the baptized received the indwelling spirit of God. Jesus became human so we might become divine. The newly baptized gained the power to grow in wisdom together and ascend to God. In the communion feast, paradise could be tasted, seen, and felt in its healing power and joy as it was celebrated with the risen Christ, who joined together the living and the departed in the great feast of life, of Eucharist.

In paradise, Christians found the courage to resist the many forces of sin and death that dominated the politics of their time. Living together in the beloved community enabled them to struggle against the forces of empire in the world and hold fast to each other and to the church. For them, the paradise of this world was not perfection, but the place of struggle. When imperial persecutors asked them to renounce this paradise, many stood firm in faith, choosing to die rather than surrender paradise. They also understood that Christians were not always moral, even when they tried to be good citizens of paradise, so they held each other accountable to the ethics of just and loving relationships and they regarded all violence, even in just war, as a mortal sin. Justin Martyr of the second century notes that the baptized traded in their weapons of war and renounced coercion. Penance was their means of rehabilitation sinners, a medicine for sick souls who needed support, encouragement, and a community to pray for them”only by such community support could they become again what God intended them to be. Although the Theodosian Code of 438 instituted military service for Christians, the church’s ethical stand against shedding human blood remained. Emperor Theodosius himself was ex-communicated by his bishop, Ambrose of Milan, when he ordered a massacre of rioters in Thessalonica.

As Rebecca and I began to understand paradise, nearly everything we had previously understood about Christian history, theology, and ritual began to shift. It was as if we had been climbing a long mountain trail until, at a sudden turn, the switchbacks opened onto a new vista. We could see behind us the terrain we had trudged through ??“ an arid Golgotha landscape of sharp, barren rocks that had left us thirsty, sore, and spent. Opening before us were vast meadows, lush and green, surrounded by sparkling snow-covered peaks, their cascading waterfalls flowing into rivers.

What happened to the vision of this world as paradise? Where and how did Christianity shift from a focus on life in paradise to an obsession with atoning death and redemption through violence? How did it come to be that in the course of its second millennium, Western Christianity replaced paradise with a crucifixion-centered understanding of salvation, despaired at the extent of human sin and its inevitability, and isolated people with guilt to seek their own individual salvation?

Like detectives in search of a murder victim, we followed a trail of clues that led us, finally, to a body. We found Jesus’ corpse for the first time at a considerable distance from the Mediterranean world, in the forests of the far north of Europe, where the Rhine wends its way to the North Sea. Saxon artists in the tenth century, carved the first crucifixions’ three-dimensional, life-sized, wooden figures. The oldest to survive, the Gero Cross, was created around 965 and hangs in the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. Jesus hangs on the cross, slumped in death, his eyes closed, his mouth slackly open.

A hundred and fifty years before this Saxon crucifixion was carved, Charlemagne, whom the Pope crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800, waged a terror campaign to subdue the Saxon tribes. He used Latin Christianity as his propaganda tool. The Saxons had their own version of Christianity that suited their tribal confederacy, which practiced a form of democracy. But they were forced under the threat of death to be re-baptized the first use of the sword to misionize. In addition, Charlemagne’s court theologians like Pascasius Radbertus argued that the Saxon Eucharist had the dead Christ on its table, NOT the risen Christ. They said his death judged the Saxons for their sins against him. Bishop Hincmar said the priest should kill Christ on the table and declare him dead. In other words, the priest was the murderer at a feast of death.

Saxon theologians insisted on the traditional theology of the living, risen Christ at the table. Their theologians, like Gottschalk, were flogged and imprisoned, and their texts were burned. After a hundred years of debate, the dead body won, and the Western Eucharist became a feast with murder and death. The new Eucharist created a state of anxiety around partaking of the Eucharist, for a person could eat and drink damnation, doomed to die forever. No longer a feast of communion with life, it inscribed judgment and fear of punishment into its core ritual, commemorating saving death.

The Gero Cross was the clue that unraveled the mystery of how Christianity abandoned paradise in this world: it lost its moral bearings about violence. When Charlemagne used the sword to conquer his enemies in Christ’s name, he began to unmoor Christianity from its moral stand against shedding human blood, to the objection of most bishops of his time. After a century of communion with a corpse, Charlemagne’s Saxon victims began to create images of the dead Christ, perhaps at first in protest to show what Charlemagne’s violence had done to them and their Christ. After the tenth century, images of Jesus’ death began to multiply and to become increasingly grotesque as ideas of paradise in this world began to fade. It seems Christians could not both wield the sword and embrace paradise in this world, especially after murder had entered their feast of paradise and replaced life with death.

The decisive point arrived in 1095, when Pope Urban II launched the first crusade in an attempt to quell the feudal violence plaguing Europe. Urban declared that war was not only just, it was holy, a pilgrimage that served God and enacted love for one’s kin. By killing Jews and Muslims, crusaders would earn forgiveness for all their sins and be assured of a place in paradise after death, not after baptism. This moral confusion about violence postponed paradise as a reward for killing. Holy war was the means to get there.

In 1098, 3 years after the launch of the Crusades, Pope Urban’s friend Anselm of Canterbury formulated an explicit theology of atonement, proposing that God became human in Jesus in order to die on the cross and pay the penalty for humanity’s sins. Anselm described Jesus’ death as a gift pleasing to God and failed even to mention the resurrection. Death now saved, not resurrection and life. His theology of death functioned as war propaganda, supporting crusaders who imitated Christ’s self-sacrifice. Death became the passageway into salvation. To kill or be killed for God became the fastest route to paradise. Justice was defined as punishment for sin, not rehabilitation of sick souls. The doctrine of original sin came to define the human condition, not the spark of divinity we shared with Christ.

A focus on redemptive suffering and death marks the second millennium of the Christian West. The Crusades set the model of conquest and colonization that would embed itself in the history of Europe. By the fourteenth century, apocalypticism and hope for the destruction of this world came to mark much of European piety. The early church thought the end of the world was the end of Roman oppression, not the destruction of paradise. A nostalgia for paradise reemerged in the colonization of the New World. Columbus and his ilk knew paradise was no longer open, but they wanted the gold that flowed out from its rivers. Others such as the Purtitans thought they could re-create it in a pristine wilderness, untainted by human hands??”they did not see Native Americans as human.

In tracking the medieval corpse of Jesus to the New World, we uncovered how deeply the colonial search for paradise has informed the history of the United States, its achievements and its injustices, its impulses towards justice and equity and its dehumanization of the other, its romance with wilderness and its consumptive relationship to natural world, its hunger for peace and its faith in violence and in a violent God. The dominant American culture lives now in the aftermath of the destruction of paradise. That aftermath carries the legacies of colonization, racism, militarism, and the exploitation of the earth and its peoples, legacies that have put our earthly paradise at enormous risk.

In rounding the arduous turn to a new vista, we must construct a path to a Christianity adequate for its third millennium, a faith that affirms life in this world and that resists violence. Christians have always sought to see our faith, our history, our relationship to the world and to other faiths, and our future in a ways relevant to our concrete historical lives. We must embrace a faith that takes pleasure in our senses and the physical world, a faith that honors the earth, brings joy to life, and recognizes we all posses the spark of Sophia. I believe we must uncover and widen the old path in paradise, and recognize again that this world is sacred soil, it IS holy ground.

The government of the United States is dominated today by a medieval form of Christianity that supports an American Empire, with its corporate and military collusion of powers. This is an oft-repeated story. Empires have come and gone, shaping Christianity to dominate and oppress others, uniting church and hate. They have justified their violence by claiming that God would create a new and better world by destroying this one, which they had made miserable by their own war profiteering, conquest, and colonization. They fulfilled their own prophecies by their departures, but, until the end of the twentieth century, they lacked the technological means to take the entire world out with them.

Christians have a long history of resisting empire, its economic and political domination, its religious propaganda, and its uses of violence and fear, a history that runs all the way to the present age. We must retrieve a faith that affirms our love of each other, ourselves, and the earth and remains deeply skeptical of the human will to power and the need to think of ourselves as innocent and good. We need a faith grounded in wisdom, in Sophia, that resists evil and is astutely political. Such faith is far stronger than that which needs state coercion and military might behind it. We must hold fast to a life-giving, life-affirming Christianity that has survived since its earliest beginnings, despite imperial attempts to repress or destroy it and despite theological ideas that have betrayed it.

Kalon, the Greek word for the beautiful is related to kalein, call. Beauty calls to us through epiphanies, the places where two worlds meet, where the invisible spirit is embodied in matter. It is the love of beauty, of our eros for the world, for each other, our children, and our children’s children that calls to us with urgency in these times. We must rekindle Christian traditions that hold fast to what we love and to what is beautiful. We must resist violence, cultivate the virtues that make community work, and embrace love in all its complicated, conflicted, diverse forms. This engagement of love, embodied in heart, soul, mind, and bodily strength, lies at the core of our work for justice, freedom, human rights, sustainable life, and peace. So keep making that path in paradise, so we can re-imagine it, and save it.


Rita Nakashima Brock is an award-winning author, and a respected international lecturer and scholar who worked for two decades as a professor of religion. From 1997-2001, Dr. Brock directed the Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, formerly known as the Bunting Institute, one of the nation’s premiere research institutes for women, called “America’s think tank for women” by the Boston Globe. From 2001-2002, she was a Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School.

Among her books are Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States, and Proverbs of Ashes. Her current book project is Saving Paradise, forthcoming in the spring of 2007.


check out an excerpt of her book Saving Paradise

in the Book section of this website.