She Who Is Sophia

Two friends of mine (whom I actually introduced to one another) just gave birth to an adorable baby girl named Sofia. She’s even more beautiful than her beautiful name (which is saying a lot). As I was reflecting on her name, I remembered a book summary that I wrote seven years ago (!) on Elizabeth Johnson’s SHE WHO IS: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. I sent it to my friends, thinking that they could read it to their daughter Sofia as they tucked her in at night. Considering the fact that she’s the daughter of a philosopher and a math professor, I wouldn’t be surprised if she understood it all right away and then offered me some constructive criticism.


Book summary of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s  She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994)  written for Dr. Telford Work at Westmont College on November 16, 2004

Background: Speech About God at the Intersection of Mighty Concerns

Elizabeth Johnson launches She Who Is with the crucial question: “What is the right way to speak about God?” (3). Aware that if our speech for God were truly limited to Scripture we would all have to speak Hebrew and Greek and that “as cultures shift, so too does the specificity of God-talk” (6), Johnson boldly puts classical theology and feminist ideals in bed together hoping to birth a theology that “creates women as well as men to be [truly] imago Dei” (13).

With the “flourishing of women” as her theological lens, Johnson critiques traditional speech about God, which derives “almost exclusively from the world of ruling men,” as oppressive (18).  Such androcentric theology claims that women were made by God primarily to reproduce, “the only thing that man cannot do better without her help” (24). Aquinas insists upon the deficiency of the female soul, mind, and will, her need to be governed by men and her corrupt role as temptress (24). Combating such oppressive theology, Johnson hopes to “transform the system” primarily by critiquing the exclusive, literal and patriarchal use of male terms for the divine.  “Speech about God in patriarchal terms,” writes Johnson, “becomes an architect of injustice” (38) and leads many to the unspoken conclusion that “if God is male, then the male is God” (37). Feminist theology asserts that such attachment to male terms violates the first commandment and is, in fact, idolatry (39). Johnson declares that only when “the full reality of women as well as men enters into the symbolization of God can the idolatrous fixation on one image be broken and the truth of the mystery of God emerge for our time” (56).

Foreground: Resources for Emancipatory Speech About God

Using Scripture as crucial resource for emancipatory speech about God, Johnson delves into the Christian and Jewish images of the Holy Spirit (ruach), whose dove imagery implies divine female power (84), and Shekinah glory, the divine feminine presence. “The most developed personification of God’s presence and activity in the Hebrew Scriptures,” Johnson excitedly proclaims, “is the biblical figure of Wisdom” (86), a female personification. Also known as Sophia, Wisdom initially appears in Job and “strides into the Book of Proverbs with a noisy public appearance” (87). Keeping in mind the strict monotheism of Israel and the divine qualities given to Sophia, she cannot merely be a sidekick to the God of Israel. Sophia stands proud as nothing less than “Israel’s God in female imagery” (91). Sophia’s admirable description in Proverbs appears remarkably similar to that of logos in John’s Prologue. Although the author of John uses a different word, “Christian reflection before John had not found it difficult to associate Jesus Christ with Sophia” (98). Some actually referred to Jesus as Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom (99). However, the term was suppressed due to its threat to the “androcentric thinking that circles around the maleness of Jesus” (99). Johnson concludes her analysis of Scripture with references to God-as-mother imagery, which is seen throughout Numbers, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Psalms, and Hosea.

Johnson also employs classical theology as a resource, which she sums up nicely into three primary insights: “the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility, the play of analogy in speech about the divine, and the consequent need for many names of God” (104). In discussing the need for many names, Johnson cites Henri de Lubac’s metaphor of the swimmer who is constantly reaching out for a new wave, a new representation of God, to stay afloat. Drowning in a phallocentric concept of God, Johnson reaches for a fresh, new feminine Name in order to continue swimming.

Speaking About God From the World’s History

It is no wonder to Johnson that the God most associated with feminine qualities (the Holy Spirit or Spirit-Sophia) is often treated as the “third-place,” “faceless” and “forgotten God” (130). By adhering to the insecurities of a phallocentric theology, we are “not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (131).

“The maleness of Jesus,” Johnson argues, “is used to reinforce a patriarchal image of God” (152), which makes “men theomorphic and christomorphic in a way that goes beyond what is possible for women” and “shuts them off from God, except as mediated through the christic male” (153). Elizabeth Johnson has no interest in denying the maleness of Jesus. However, painfully aware that Christ’s maleness has been misconstrued for male benefit and to female detriment, she eagerly offers her interpretation of Jesus-Sophia. Reminding the reader of the unique correlation between the “Word” in John and “Wisdom” in Proverbs,  Johnson claims, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate, the Wisdom of God”(156), who enters into liberating and mutually respectful relationships with women all throughout the Gospels. Johnson explains that Jesus is male not because God is male but because if Jesus were incarnate as a woman, her preaching and compassion would be met “with a colossal shrug.” It is because of his “social position of male privilege” that Jesus’ preaching and behavior created such a stir (160).

Johnson also adds that the cross represents the “kenosis of patriarchy”(161), in that Christ emptied himself of “male-dominating power in favor of the new humanity of compassionate service and mutual empowerment”(161). So a man cannot assert maleness in the name of Jesus, who himself emptied his maleness of oppressive assertion.

As a feminist theologian, Johnson refuses to interpret “the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin” since such a view cannot separate itself from an “angry, bloodthirsty, violent and sadistic father [God], reflecting the very worst of male behavior”(158). Instead, Christ’s death is seen as “a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer and are lost”(159).

Johnson cites Sandra Schneiders, who claims that when Christ asked Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) he was associating himself with all the oppressed believers in such a way that “Christ, in contrast to Jesus, is not male…[but] is quite accurately portrayed as black, old, Gentile, female, Asian or Polish” (162). Such intimate association with the oppressed grounds the resurrection as an affirmation that “God has the last word for [the] executed victim of state injustice and that word, blessedly, is life” (163).

Returning to childbearing imagery in Scripture, Johnson introduces Mother-Sophia. Drawing on the drive and audacity of mothers who throughout history have fought against social injustice, hate and, most of all, harm to their children; Johnson reveals the overwhelming potency of a mother’s love, which asks “Did I conceive to throw away?” (183). Like a bear robbed of her cubs (Hosea 13:8), Mother-Sophia “pledges to attack the destroyers and tear their hearts out” (180).

Dense Symbols and Their Dark Light

Johnson explicates various views and models of the Doctrine of the Trinity, seeming to prefer that of Hildegaard of Bingen: “there is a brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire, and these three are one”(211). The feminine Wisdom/Sophia “reflects the roles of all three persons” (or hypostases) of the Trinity. Augustine also acknowledges, “the Father is wisdom, the Son is wisdom, and the Holy Spirit is wisdom, and together not three wisdoms but one wisdom”(212).  Through syllogism, one can proclaim the femaleness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother-Sophia. Of course, the divine remains wholly distinct from sex and is neither male nor female. Yet “a strong dose of explicitly female imagery” to represent the relationship of the Trinity with Godself and with Creation breaks “the unconscious sway that male Trinitarian imagery holds over the imaginations of even the most sophisticated thinkers” (212). Johnson elaborates on the symbol of the Trinity and reaches a crescendo with the compelling image of a triple helix engaged in a holy dance of mutuality, friendship, healing and justice (222).

Continuing to affirm God as relational (and repelling Aquinas’s patriarchal non-relational God), Johnson expounds even more on her theology by dipping into the Kabbalah for some zimsum and Philippians for some kenosis. In creation, God withdraws form the world so that the world is not “swallowed up by God’s overwhelming infinity” (223). Similar to the divine self emptying of kenosis, the divine withdrawal (zimsum) creates a space for finite life to exist and flourish yet she still remains immanent. “God,” explains Moltmann, “withdraws [her]self from [her]self to [her]self” (234). In other words, God, like a mother, has “room inside [herself] for another to dwell,” a space for another to live and move and have its being. Therefore, since Johnson claims that we live within the womb of God our Mother, she asserts a pan-entheistic worldview, again affirming a highly involved and relational God. “To be,” continues Johnson, “means to be with and for others” (241). Because God is, God is relational. “HE WHO IS,” Aquinas affirms, “is the most appropriate name for God” (242) while Johnson asserts “SHE WHO IS” to be existentially and religiously necessary if speech about God is to shake off the shackles of idolatry and be a blessing for women” (243).

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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2 Responses to She Who Is Sophia

  1. peaches says:

    who wrote the book review? It signals whose class it was written for but not who wrote! I would like to ask this person another question – pchee

  2. deforestlondon says:

    Peaches, all the posts here are written by me (unless stated otherwise)

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