Radical Feminist Worship Substitutes Self for God
(reprinted with permission from Theology Matters, July/Aug 1998)
Donna F. G. Hailson and Karelynne Gerber
“FEMINISTS ARE COOKING UP GOTTERDAMERUNG. The feminist movement in Western
culture is engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Yahweh … God is
going to change … We women are going to bring an end to God … We will
change the world so much that He won’t fit in anymore.”1
Thus opens Naomi Goldenberg’s Changing of the Gods.. Feminism and the End of
Traditional Religions. In this bold manifesto, published in 1979, Goldenberg
expresses the mood and views of many radical spiritual feminists,2
eco-feminists and liberationists. She charges that men created the God of
Christianity in the image of a male authority figure, an omnipotent lawgiver
and judge. This figure of fantasy, she avers, has legitimated patriarchal
domination; generated scorn for the female body and supported the assertion
that women are not made in the image of God and are thus inferior.
“Jesus,” she insists, “cannot symbolize the liberation of women [because] a
culture that maintains a masculine image for its highest divinity cannot
allow its women to experience themselves as the equals of its men. In order
to develop a theology of women’s liberation, feminists have to leave Christ
and Bible behind them.”3
Thus today the move is on to create religions that divinize the self.
Goldenberg expresses the phenomenon most transparently when she writes, “It
is likely that as we watch Christ and Yahweh tumble to the ground, we will
completely outgrow the need for an external god.”4 In place of “traditional
religion,” she offers depth psychology which she identifies as a “living
religion . . . that satisfies a person’s need for mythic reflection and
understanding.”5 What she is proffering is the self-religion of archetypal
mix and match. It goes by many names.
When the self has not been fed, it looks for that which will fill. It
focuses on its own needs and grasps at anything that might appear to have
the potential to satisfy the vacuum. So here we find the call to go within
and bake a new “bread of life.” Here we find a Liberator Christ regarded as
just one among a host of archetypal symbols. Here we find a call for
humankind to create the new humanity.6
How tragic that so many are failing to see that the only all satisfying
answer to the deepest of human hungers is not feeding on oneself but rather
turning to the one true Bread of Life. How tragic that so many miss the
reality of liberation available only through the real (not symbolic) Jesus
Christ. How tragically misguided is the effort to engineer a new order of
humankind minus the Living Redeemer. Only in Him and through Him can there
be a New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17). How tragic that worship, in the wake of all
of this, has become the idolatry of self-absorption and navel-gazing when it
is meant to be, as C. Welton Gaddy has explained, “a gift between lovers who
keep on giving to each other.”7
Our purpose, in these pages, is to review how radical spiritual feminist
practices diverge from Bible-honoring worship, ritual and prayer. We begin
by defining our terms and examining the foundational dissimilarities between
the two theological systems.
Biblical Worship of the Triune God
Worship has been defined as “the offering of devotion, praise, and adoration
to that which is deemed worthy of such offering, usually God. Worship of
that which is less than God as though it is equivalent to God, especially if
it is addressed to particular images, is idolatry.”8
“To worship God is to ascribe to him the worth of which he is worthy. The
church of Jesus Christ is by definition a worshiping community called into
being by God to be a ‘spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, offering
spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (I Pet. 3:5).”9
Worship involves “a diversity of activities such as praise, adoration,
confession, thanksgiving, intercession . . . petition” and service. 10
Biblical worship is commanded and involves recognition of God’s holiness (I
Ch.16:29). It is a humbling experience; a drawing near; an offering of
ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Ps. 95:6; Heb. 10:
1, Romans 12: 1). Worship is to be given only to God and it is to be offered
in spirit and in truth (Mt. 4: 10; Jn. 4:24). In worship we remember and
honor the One who created the heavens, the earth, the seas and the springs
of water (Rev. 14:7). Worship is not to be directed to human beings nor to
other gods nor to anything in heaven or on the earth or in the waters
(Exodus 19:3,4; Rev. 22:9).
Those who worship, “hear the Word proclaimed, receive the Word enacted in
Sacrament, discover the Word in the world, and are sent to follow the Word
into the world.”11
Robert Webber, one of the foremost scholars in worship renewal explains,
“Worship represents Jesus Christ through re-presentation. Worship tells and
acts out the living, dying, and rising of Christ. Worship celebrates
Christ’s victory over evil, the certain doom of Satan, and the promise of a
new heaven and a new earth … worship celebrates God’s saving deed in Jesus
If “worship is the church celebrating the Gospel,”13 ritual is the visual
re-enactment of the Gospel. Rituals point beyond themselves to God’s saving
work even as the Holy Spirit realizes that work in worshiper’s lives.
Therefore, “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by
himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be
worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men. ” 14
The ritual of marriage, for example, is instituted by God and announces in
word and deed that God has joined together into one, two lives. Similarly,
in baptism, the outward washing affirms what God has done inwardly to
produce new birth in Christ. Baptism is “a sign and seal of ingrafting into
himself, of remission of sins by his blood and regeneration by His Spirit;
of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life. . .” 15
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, instituted by Christ, visibly proclaims
the sacrifice of Jesus and is a sign and seal of those benefits in a
believer’s life. 16
Prayer, then, is our response to the saving work of the Lord. It is only as
a result of Christ’s death that we can approach God in prayer. Prayer,
within this context, has been defined as “the relating of the self or soul
to God in trust, penitence, praise, petition, and purpose, either
individually or corporately . . . [For Christians, prayer has traditionally
been] the acknowledgment of God as the source of all goodness and therefore
the One who can meet human need and longing.” 17
“In biblical religion, prayer is understood as both a gift and a task … It
entails revealing our innermost desires to God but also God’s revelation of
his desires to us (cf. Prov. 1:23) … The goal of prayer is not absorption
into the being of God but the transformation of the world for the glory of
God. We yearn for the blessed vision of God, but even more we seek to bring
our wills and the wills of all people into conformity with the purposes of
God. We pray not simply for personal happiness or for protection (as in
primitive prayer) but for the advancement and extension of the kingdom of
Prayer involves wholeheartedness (Jer. 29:13); contrition (2 Ch. 7:14);
faith (Mk. 11:24); confession, righteousness (Jas. 5:16) and obedience (Jn.
3:22). We are commanded to pray and to pray unceasingly (I Ch. 16:11; Mt.
26:4 1; Lk. 18: 1 – I Th. 5:17). We are aided in prayer by the Holy Spirit
who intercedes for us (Ro. 8:26) and, in prayer, we call on the name of the
Lord (Gen. 4:26). We are assured that our prayers are precious to God,
ascending as incense before Him (Rev. 5:8-,8:3).
Confessional Christianity is founded upon the belief in one God who is both
immanent and transcendent, beyond gender, a personal being of a different
essence from the created order, existing eternally in three co-equal,
co-eternal Persons. This God is revealed in the Bible through a vast array
of masculine, feminine, and non-gendered images, attributes and adjectives
which include: creator, father, savior, shepherd, spirit, teacher,
comforter, counselor, defender, king, a consuming fire, a rock, a shield.
The God of the Word is holy, caring, compassionate, forbearing, omnipresent,
omnipotent, omniscient, glorified, gentle, faithful, good, gracious, great,
living, active, self-existent, eternal, unchanging, just, wise, righteous,
Biblical Christianity worships the fully-human, fully-divine Jesus Christ
and affirms His virgin birth; His ministry; His death on the cross; His
bodily resurrection and His ascension into heaven. Believers look forward to
His second coming.
Biblical Christianity affirms the personal nature and work of the Holy
Spirit thus rejecting any sense of the Spirit as an impersonal or
all-encompassing force of God. Biblical Christianity affirms the universal
sinfulness of humankind and the provision of salvation only through Jesus
Christ. Believers look to the Bible for guidance in living out their faith
in gratitude for the Lord’s gracious salvation.
And biblical Christianity views the Bible as the inspired Word of God. When
approaching it, Bible-believing Christians know they must do their best to
remove their lenses of experience, relying upon the Word to speak and
breathe. The individual endeavors to read meaning out of the Word rather
than into the Word: exegesis v. eisegesis.
Radical Feminist Worship of Self
Radical feminism views traditional Christianity as patriarchal, dualistic,
woman-oppressing, demeaning, guilt-producing, enslaving, non-connective,
anti-nature and unconcerned with earthly matters because overly-focused on
rewards in the hereafter. For women, like Naomi Goldenberg, the “lamp unto
one’s feet”19 is not the Bible but, rather, individual experience and
vision. In the radical feminist catalogue of faith, religion is valued only
as it coincides with and bolsters an individual’s concepts of myth and
Thealogy 20 (theology constructed from women’s experience) tends to speak of
God in pantheistic or panentheistic terms, stresses archetypal language and
the feminine divine and denies the uniqueness and deity of Jesus Christ.
Rejected herein is “substance-dominated theology” (over against relational
or process theology), substance dualism and the immutability of God. “Nearly
all feminists acknowledge the compatibility between feminist and process
views of the world.”21
Those who embrace pantheism within this system play with the word to suggest
that “if it is understood as an affirmation that all reality is God’s
reality, then it is not an
alternative to Christian theology but an ingredient in it.” In this fluid
mode, pantheism is employed to suggest that sin is “a violation of the
world’s well-being, which also necessarily violates God’s well-being.”22
This view is really more the province of panentheism. As Marcus Borg
explains, panentheism is the belief that “God is more than everything, even
as God is present everywhere. God is all around us and within us, and we are
within God … This source of eternal wisdom is called by the contemporary
Jungian scholar E. F. Edinger ‘the Self (with a capital S) and is viewed as
the equivalent to God. If we combine this with the notion of God’s
omnipresence, it leads to a concept of God as that within us, within which
we also are.”23
Carter Heyward elucidated this view when she told her audience at the 1998
Re-Imagining Conference that “while nobody, not even Jesus is divine in him
or herself, everybody like Jesus is able to god. And I use this [to god] as
a verb. This is why we are here to god … The good news is that everybody
is in God. Nobody is left out.” Heyward made it clear that “everybody”
includes the Earth and all its creatures.
When the Bible is rejected as divine revelation and God is viewed as a
panentheistic oneness, it is a short step to the embracing of Jung’s
collective unconscious. Then the divine becomes a matter of archetypal
models with which one may play mix and match.
Joan Chamberlain Engelsman demonstrates this use of archetypes when she
suggests that three feminine models could be rolled into Christian imagery
for God: “the mother, the maid, and the anima.”24 Or, she says, the feminine
image of God might be developed by describing “one member of the trinity as
feminine … [or developing] the feminine aspect of all three members of the
trinity … [or by adding] a feminine image of God [to the trinity thus
creating] … a quaternity.”25
Thus, the system begins by rejecting the Bible and positing God as a
panenthestic oneness. Then images of God are chosen from a buffet of
archetypal models (whatever resonates with one’s own mythic ideals).
Radical feminism then sets to work criticizing and dismantling sacrificial
theology denying the virgin birth, the efficacy of the cross and personal
salvation through faith in the living Jesus Christ. The cross, in fact, is
seen as an instrument of torture and as a phallic symbol. The idea that
reconciliation with God might be obtained through the sacrifice of Jesus on
the cross is viewed by some as a theory of divine child abuse (the Father
sending His innocent Son to His death to satisfy His wrath).26 The cross is
stripped entirely of redemptive value and seen only as a tool for the
sanctioning of violence and victimhood.
Radical feminism then dismisses the reality of personal sin, focusing
instead on systemic sin (akin to other liberation theologies). Jesus’ life
is looked to as being representative of the saving power of God through
solidarity with the marginalized. “Salvation,” in this system, is said to be
achieved through compassionate love in community and syncretism is embraced
when it is seen to be an aid in one’s liberation.27 The Fall in the Garden
of Eden is viewed as an anti-woman myth and eschatology is revisioned as a
matter of future global solidarity achieved through the rise of Christa
community a community of redemptive and erotically loving (creatively
With this thealogical foundation, religious observances, then focus on
women’s experiences; women’s mythology; the feminine divine; the remembrance
of women and the celebration of the female body and bodily functions.
Observances are conducted in the circle which serves as a symbol of oneness,
the all-encompassing godhead, the female entryway and equality.
As these elements form the core of the system, it is not surprising to
discover that the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, edited by Letty M.
Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson, provides no listing for “worship.” There
are entries under ritual, liturgy and prayer but the practices are given
Women’s rituals are defined, in Russell and Clarkson, as “agreed-upon
patterns of symbolic action that spring from, evoke, and develop complex and
often deep layers of feeling and thought.”
“As such,” writes Linda J. Clark, “they carry the values and intentions of
communities . . . They objectify a community’s shared, subjective experience
… Women’s rituals often embody certain characteristics: (1) they unite
emotion and intellect; (2) they work with the body and images of the natural
world; and (3) they take place in circles where hierarchy of leadership is
either modified or abolished altogether.”28
Fredrica Harris Thompsett notes that sacraments are reworked to reflect
“women’s diverse experiences, memories, and imagination; advocating women’s
involvement in shaping their own symbolic universe; overconiing false
dualisms of spirit over matter, mind over body, male over female;
contextualizing the development of ritual; and depending on mutual and/or
rotating responsibility for leadership.”29
Marjorie Procter-Smith lists as common elements in feminist liturgy:
non-hierarchical and egalitarian leadership and planning; the honoring of
women’s experiences and “openness to other religions and traditions, texts,
myths and symbols;” the honoring of “women’s connections with one another
and with women of the past;” the valuing of “women’s bodies and bodily
functions … as reflections of the holy and loci of divine revelation;” the
affirmation of “the presence of the holy in the everyday and extraordinary
experiences of women;” the rejection of “patriarchal dichotomies, affirming
the nonhierarchical interconnectedness of all life as a model of the divine
life” with these interconnections “understood to include nature;” the
questioning of “traditional forms of authority, both human and divine” and
the evaluation of “traditional texts, symbols and ritual practices . . . as
to their potential for contributing to the well-being of women and other
oppressed people, rather than in reference to some intrinsic authority.”30
Gail Lynn Unterberger notes that in this system women, in prayer, use
“alternative ways of describing the sacred, from God/She to Goddess, Mother,
Parent, Sophia, Shekhinah, Light, Holy One, Bakerwoman God, and countless
others. Generally preferred are appellations that are not militaristic,
triumphalistic, narcissistic in the holy attributes or domineering or
‘juvenilizing’ of women. Also important is concern for animals, the
biosphere, and the cosmos … Many feminists find it helpful to affirm that
prayer often changes the one who prays rather than persuades an omniscient
God. Feminist process theologians … have posited that because of the
intricate interactive relationship between God and humanity, both are
transformed through prayer.”31
Thus we have ritual as the objectification of a community’s shared
experience; sacrament as the reflection of women’s experiences; liturgy as
the honoring of women’s experiences and prayer as co-creation,
co-transformation within the panentheistic oneness.
Examples of Radical Feminist Worship
We are seeing the playing out of this system through a variety of media,
individuals, churches, educational institutions and communities.
Here is a sampling:
United Methodist Communications (UMCom) produced a 15-hour video series for
use in the denomination’s Sunday Schools. According to UMAction, a
renewal/reform group, the speakers on the tapes question “the authority of
the Scriptures, the deity and Lordship of Jesus Christ, divine omnipotence,
the expectation of eternal life, the reality of human sin, and God’s ability
to answer specific prayer.” Those interviewed on the tape include radical
feminist theologians Rita Nakashinia Brock, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Catherine
Keller, Delores Williams, Chung Hyun Kyung and Rosemary Radford Ruether.
Chung advocates “the worship of ancient Korean gods and goddesses [and] …
ancestor worship.” Another woman, Valerie Russell, opines that, “Prayer is a
time you meditate and get in touch with the seeds of power in you.”32
Retreat centers, like the Presbyterian Church (USA)-owned Ghost Ranch in New
Mexico, are hosting retreats centered on the goddess. A flyer, advertising a
fall 1998 conference proclaims, “The Anasazi Ancient Mothers are calling YOU
to celebrate the sacred feminine Goddess in the Land of Enchantment . . .
With art, movement, ritual and song Honor the Goddess within each woman.
Tell YOUR Herstory with art, voice, dance, ritual. Walk a Hopi labyrinth . .
. Meditate. Create art with your symbolic Goddess language… Dance at the
Temple of the Living Goddess. Connect as a sacred circle with very special
women for mutual transformation. Share the magic!!!”33
The book Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration contains sermons,
meditations, liturgies, litanies, eucharistic celebrations, Bible studies
and rituals all promoting radical feminist principles. It contains, for
example, a meditation on the gnostic Gospel of Thomas and a sermon and
litany in praise of panentheism which asserts that “God’s (or Sophia’s or
Wisdom’s) presence permeates all things and people” including “the Catholic
archdiocese of Chicago, the Painted Bridge Arts Center . . . Greyhound bus
drivers . . . witches and witch doctors … [and] suburban housewives going
back to college.”34 Herein also, the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” is rewritten
to honor “Fairest Sophia, Ruler of all nature, 0 Thou in whom earth and
heav’n are one. . . .”35
Sophia, the Greek word (feminine gender) for wisdom, is a unifying symbol
within radical feminism. The word in Hebrew, hokmah, is found throughout the
wisdom passages of the Bible (most notably, Proverbs) and also in the
apocrypha and in gnostic texts including the Gospel of Thomas. The argument
is made that Sophia is a legitimate image of God, not simply a
personification of an attribute. As the word is feminine gender, it is used
to put a feminine face on God. It has also been used, however, in the
attempt to open Christianity to the worship of female deities from Astarte
to Isis to Aphrodite and Mary. Some image Sophia as a divine consort or a
personified hypostasis of God. Jesus is sometimes equated with Sophia to
become SophiaJesus or is presented as the prophet of Sophia. But
hokma/sophia/wisdom is more properly understood as a personification. This
is the most reasonable interpretation in light of its counterpoint with the
“foolish woman” of Prov 9:13-18.
In the preface to Miriam Therese Winter’s WonmanWord, the author asserts,
“To make ritual is to remember into life and into meaning, to determine who
and what will survive from generation to generation, what people will be
honored, what values will be strengthened, what traditions are worth
keeping, what perspectives will be handed on … Ritual not only transmits
perspective, it also molds reality according to its worldview . . . When
that which is liturgically rehearsed is no longer the way men want the world
to be but the way it should and could be, then the whole of humanity, female
and male, will know a heartfelt liberation and the world will take one giant
step toward realizing the reign of God.”36
To advance this agenda, she lifts, among other images, the “Cosmic
Christa”37 and, in “A Psalm to the Goddess,” offers praise to Ishtar,
Inanna, Sophia, Isis, Nut, Gaia, Hera, Athene, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter,
Persephone, Anath, Astarte and Asherah.38
Similar books, retreat speakers, ritual guides and videos are making inroads
to the church, colleges, women’s groups and seminaries. Women’s gatherings,
especially in the mainline denominations, are evidencing the impact. Coming
alongside of these are two movements that are, perhaps, the most aggressive
in furthering the radical feminist agenda: Church Women United and the
Church Women United is an ecumenical organization which is known primarily
for its production and distribution of three annual worship service material
packets. It has been in existence since 1941 and, for many years, has served
as an advocate in peace and justice issues especially as these involve women
A review of the materials CWU has produced in the 1990s, however, reveals
“prayers offered to the Universal Mother; calls for the abandonment of
fall/redemption theology because it is said to be linked with ‘shame, fear
and guilt,’ and the lauding as ‘prophetic voices’ and ‘sacred storytellers’
of those who praise the rebellion of Eve in the Garden of Eden; encourage
goddess worship and syncretism; suggest that Christian missions are an
imposition and dismiss the biblical concept of an omnipotent God as a
In the 1997 World Day of Prayer materials, participants were called upon to
declare in a responsive reading that, because of patriarchal abuses, “even
in the church women cannot be partners with men.”40 In song, they asserted
that people will become a “new creation” by “meeting each other” and “by
meeting with the earth.”41
In the 1997 May Fellowship Day materials, women were called upon to declare
through a responsive reading that they will be responsible for the “world of
the new creation.” To be brought to birth in this “church of the new
creation,” they avowed, is “an unbreakable bond in the Spirit that binds as
one all brothers and sisters, transcending . . . religion . . . that treats
no personal preference as aberration or handicap . . . Blessed are we when
we give birth to the Word made flesh in us.”42 Through this proclamation,
participants denied the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and made startling claims
as to the breadth of their own natures.
In a “ritual of remembering” in the 1997 World Community Day materials,
participants lifted a chalice of water which was said to hold the “blood and
tears of women, named and unnamed, who have suffered and celebrated before
us. This is the blood of monthly cycles, life and death, and the tears of
pain and joy that anoint our lives.” This was accompanied by bread “made
with old raisins (symbolizing the dried-up dreams of earlier generations),
the amaranth grain grown from ancient seed, and the water of our mother’s
tears … We claim the past, we move into the future full of hopes and
dreams for the fruit of the New Creation.”43
The amaranth seed was introduced earlier on in the materials as recalling
the mystical heart of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures. The writers of
this 1997 program suggested that just as the male oppressors the Spanish
empire-builders” sought to destroy the mystical seed of the Aztecs, Mayas
and Incas and just as the male oppressors European church leaders sought to
destroy the mystical seed of the medieval women mystics (Hildegard of Bingen
and others), so male oppressors today will try to destroy the rediscovered
mystical (linked with pagan) seed CWU is celebrating.
The Rev. Martha M. Cruz, CWU’s Deputy General Director for Administration
and Communication has insisted this ritual was not intended to serve in the
place of the Eucharist. Rather, she insisted it was all just a matter of
using materials that would be familiar to participants.
Worship in the Re-Imagining Community
Radical spiritual feminist principles are seen in their most blatant forms
in the rituals and prayers of the Re-Imagining community.
The movement emerged in 1993 with a controversial conference held to mark
the midpoint in the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade: Churches in
Solidarity with Women. Its aim was to do “theological work born out of
More than 2200 participants were present for the event which sparked an
uproar in mainline denominations. Much of the commotion concerned the new
and questionable liturgies and rituals designed specifically for the
Nearly five years after the excitement of the first conference, the
Re-Imagining movement is still making waves. As the now fully-incorporated
Re-Imagining Community, it continues to sponsor conferences such as the most
recent “Re-Imagining Revival,” held in April 1998. The organization also
regularly publishes a newsletter, and coordinates-across the country
numerous “faith labs,” mini-seminars committed to theological exploration.
The opening ritual at the 1993 conference encouraged attendees to lift up
many names for God, to indeed imagine their own names for the Holy One.
While traditional and clearly biblical names such as Father God, Elohim, and
Spirit were mentioned, re-imaginers overstepped the boundaries of orthodoxy
as they called God “divine ancestor,” “earth mother,” and “yin and yang.”
One participant, reflecting on this particular ritual, declared, “This
[naming] continued until we arrived at the point where would you believe it?
we wrote our own names as those of God.”45 To this already expansive list of
questionable designations we may now add “Cosmic Mother,” “Isis,”
“Aphrodite,” and “Brigid,” names suggested by 1998 Re-Imagining Revival
presenter Mari Castellanos. One would assume that re-imaginers view each of
these “names of the Holy One” as acceptable means of addressing God in
prayer and worship.
In another ritual that took place at the 1993 conference, speaker Aruna
Gnanadason led participants in coloring red dots on their foreheads. She
asserted that in Indian culture wearing the red dot is a symbol of having
been in the presence of the divine and “the divine is everywhere.”
When missionaries came to India they did not allow Christian converts to
continue wearing the red dots on their foreheads claiming that only the
cross belonged there. Gnanadason, however, continued to wear the red dot as
a sign of protest against the missionary movement. In the Re-Imagining
ritual, participants wore the red dot as a symbol of being conscious of the
divine in each other, and they went on to bow to the divine in the other
person. In this way they joined Gnanadason in protesting against the
missionaries who brought the Gospel message to India.
This ritual is one example of the Re-Imagining movement’s emphasis on
personal experience and cultural distinctiveness over against the revelation
of Scripture. Such an emphasis leads to a denial of absolute and universal
truth, and it allows pluralism and relativism to prevail. As one conference
observer stated, “The ReImagining event presented a smorgasbord of cultural
ideas and religions, allowing attendees to pick and choose to their liking.
The “apple ritual,” first used at the 1996 Re-Imagining Conference: “Naming.
Claiming and Re-Imagining Power” and repeated at the recent “Re-Imagining
Revival” is a celebration and affirmation of Eve’s act of rebellion against
God (Gen. 2).
Claiming that the Christian tradition has used the Fall narrative in a way
that is harmful to women, re-imaginers used this ritual to rebel against
church teachings, to commit what they perceive to be ecclesial subversion.
Leaders distributed apples among participants who were then invited to
“honor our mother Eve who was created to know. Let us bite the apple in
celebration, for we, like Eve, are created to know.” Women defiantly bit
into apples as they were encouraged to “reach for wisdom” and “the wholeness
of God” in imitation of Eve. And the musical refrain in accompaniment was:
“Taste, taste and see, how good is the fruit of Garden.” With this ritual
re-imaginers claimed the right to “oppos[e] and expos(e] the social and
ecclesial patterns of domination and subordination that have been
perpetuated in a hierarchical ordering of church structures.”47
Through this ritual, re-imaginers dismissed the seriousness of sin and
snubbed their noses at the biblical God. The denial that personal sin
affects one’s relationship with God is consistent with the moral relativism
seen in ReImagining circles, especially in the realm of sexual ethics. The
only sin that seems to be recognized as a problem in the eyes of these
radical feminists is the corporate sin of patriarchy.
By denying the existence of personal sin, radical feminists remove the need
for a savior with the power to reconcile them to God. The next step is to
reinterpret Jesus, His incarnation and especially His salvific death. Hence,
Revival attendees sang the traditional hymn “It is Well with My Soul,”
stripped of all references to the blood of Christ, the cross and the second
coming. Instead of one’s sins being nailed to the cross to be borne no more,
sins were said to be managed by being “left in the wake” as individuals are
nice to each other in community. No need for Jesus. No need for His atoning
sacrifice. Rituals and worship such as these celebrate disobedience to God,
ignore the reality of personal sin, and remove the need for a savior.
Something that has become standard in these circles is the Sophia blessing.
Re-Imaginers invoke the blessing of the feminine divine on presenters and
each other at ReImagining gatherings as they stand and sing, “Bless Sophia,
dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within.” while performing
simple hand motions. These words address Sophia as a Christian would address
the one and only God.
Re-Imaginers further revere Sophia in the milk and honey ritual. the
observance that caused the greatest uproar following the 1993 conference.
The ritual has been repeated over the years but, in 1998, was not
accompanied by the erotic liturgy of the original.
The observance was designed to celebrate women’s sensuality, “how good it is
to be in our bodies.”48 Some re-imaginers claim that this ritual is not
intended to be a substitute for the Eucharist while at the same time,
asserting that the cup of milk and honey was a part of the oldest communion
texts of the early church given “for the healing of the bitterness of the
human heart with the sweetness of Christ’s word.”49 Even if the latter claim
is accurate, the liturgy written to accompany the ReImagining ritual of milk
and honey was indisputably not a part of the early Christian tradition.
In the liturgy, Sophia is equated with God, named Creator God, and ascribed
a specifically female body. Participants speak of the “milk of our breasts”
and “the nectar between our thighs” and link these characteristics with
Sophia, noting that these attributes enable them to claim to be made in the
image of Sophia. They invoke Sophia to let her own “milk and honey flow.”
Presumably this is the same “milk of [her] breasts” and “nectar between
[her] thighs” that the women have just affirmed. These words imply that
Sophia, as Creator God, created the world in the same way that women “create
life” when they birth children. Elsewhere in the liturgy women claim to
“invite a lover” and “birth a child” and apparently they envision Sophia
doing the same. It is here that God, as Sophia, is transformed into Goddess.
Hilda Keuster, author of the controversial liturgy, says that as a result of
this and other rituals she is “beginning to hold a feminine image as [her]
primary image of God.” She explains that this was “largely the result of
discovering, as I wrote, all the richness in a fully developed,
genderspecific image of God as Sophia … Seeing what flowed from my pen
when Sophia was invoked, described, and praised created an inner shift.
Unconsciously and spontaneously, my thoughts and language moved away from a
neuter divinity to a feminine God with whom I connected in a very deep,
primitive, and natural way.”50
The most recent Re-Imagining conference, “Re-Imagining Revival,” repeated
the milk and honey ritual, the Sophia blessing and the ecclesial
subversion/apple ritual. In addition, participants established even more
innovative expressions of worship. The openiong ritual, “Lighting the
Lamps,” was a celebration of those often neglected or misunderstood women
who had come before them on the journey of Re-Imagining. Incorporating music
and dance, a beating drum, light and darkness, and dramatic readings, the
scene had the feel of a seance when conference leaders summoned the spirit
of “First Woman” and lifted her as an example for all women to follow. Then
participants sang, “You are a lamp unto our feet . . . and a light unto our
path.” These well-known words (Ps. 119:105) were applied to women and
The conference progressed from “Lighting the Lamps” to “Troubling the
Waters” as participants mixed together water they had brought from their
hometowns, water which was said to be a representation of their “histories,
people, joys and sorrows,” water which was said to be symbolic of the
interconnectedness of every person. Re-imaginers circulated bowls of this
communal water so that participants could “trouble” it, stirring and
splashing while offering examples of things that “trouble their own water.”
The ritual was used to encourage women to consider the ways they could
trouble the waters, that is, stir up trouble, within the church and
patriarchal systems, and speakers used Matthew 8 as biblical support for
this sort of action.
The final theme of the Revival was that of “Raising the Body.” Claiming that
the spirit has long been associated with maleness and thus maleness received
affirmation, while the body has been connected with femaleness and thus
received rejection, re-imaginers sought to reclaim the body. Participants
used spices, again serving as a representation of the whole of their
identity and experience, to anoint one another, drawing on the biblical
imagery of the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body (Mk 16:1).
Re-imaginers, however, viewed themselves not as anointing the dead, but as
commissioning each other to continue the work of raising the body.
Presenter Anne Patrick, McDeever Chair of Moral Theology at St. John’s
University in New York, suggested ways of doing this which included:
striving to overcome dualism between the spirit and the body and attending
to the earth by recognizing it as the body of God.
By substituting a panentheistic oneness for the Triune God as the focus of
its worship, radical feminist spirituality denies every fundamental
Christian doctrine. It distorts the identity of the one true God, and
rejects the Incarnation and Atonement. It elevates women’s experience over
revelation, casting aside the authority of Scripture and pulling from it
only that which affirms women’s experience and mythic base. Finally, the
Re-Imagining rituals denigrate the person and work of Jesus Christ by
denying His deity and scoffing at the cross.
This radical feminist worship has as its focus, self. Nowhere within its
system does it ascribe to the Christian God the “worthfulness” He is due.
Barbara Lundblad, Associate Professor of Preaching at Union Theological
Seminary in N-Y, amid great applause and cheering, reflected on the worship
at the 1993 conference saying, “Some would have called our worship of last
night verging on heresy . . . We did not last night name the name of Jesus.
Nor have we done anything in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of
the Holy Spirit.”
1 Naomi Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of
Traditional Religions (Boston: Beacon, 1979), 3-4. The reference is
to Die Gotterdamerung (The Twilight of the Gods), an opera by
Richard Wagner. The phrase is used to indicate the turbulent ending
of a regime or an institution.
2 The “naming” of this theology is under much debate. Some
proponents, such as Letty Russell, embrace the label “radical;”
others would prefer eco-feminist, process theologian, liberationist
or simply, feminist. To distinguish this system from other forms of
feminism, we have employed the term, 11 radical.” We do so in this
sense: “radical” is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as
“departing markedly from the usual or customary; favoring or
effecting fundamental or evolutionary changes in current practices,
conditions or institutions.” It is fair to say that this system
aligns with these meanings of the word “radical.”
3 Ibid., 22.
4 Goldenberg, 25.
5 Ibid., 51.
6 Miriam Theresa Winter, Adair Luiyunis, and Allison Stokes,
Defecting in Place: Women Claiming Responsibilityfor Their Own
Spiritual Lives (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 4.
7 C, Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), xi.
8 John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford
UP, 1997), 1045.
9 R.G. Rayburn, “Worship in the Church, Evangelical Dictionary of
Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1193.
10 Rosemary Goring, ed., Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and
Religions (New York: Larousse, 1994), 567.
11 Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order: Directory for Worship, W-1.1004.
12) Robert Webber, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in
Worship), (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996),39.
13) Ibid, 74.
14 Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, “The Westminster
Confession of Faith,” 6.112.
15 Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, “The Larger Catechism,”
16 Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, “The Westminster
Confession of Faith,” 6.16 1.
17 Bowker, 762-763.
18 D.G. Bloesch, “Prayer,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed.
Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 867.
19 Psalm 119:105 reads : “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my
20 Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson, Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 281- “The word
[thealogy] is used both as a positive alignment with Goddess,
goddesses, or God in female terms and as an iconoclastic term to
create awareness of the androcentrism of theology.”
21 Ibid., 296-297. It should be noted here that there are many
brands of feminism. Women who claim the label “evangelical feminist’
would not concur with this statement on process theology nor would
they align themselves with the other aspects of thealogy discussed
in this paper. The evangelical feminist holds a high view of
scripture and believes that the Bible affirms the equality of the
20 Ibid., 169.
21 Ibid., 223.
22 Ibid., 200.
23 Borg, 32,41.
24 Joan Chamberlain Engelsman, The Feminine Dimension of the Divine, 2nd. ed
(Wilmette: Chiron, 1995), 19.
25 Ibid., 152-153.
26 See, for example, Joanne Brown and C.R. Bohn, eds., Christianity,
Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (New York: Pilgrim, 1989).
27 Chung Hyun Kyung refers to this as “survival -liberation centered
syncretism.” See Chung, Struggle to be the Sun Again: Introducing
Asian Women’s Theology, 7th ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 113.
28 Linda J. Clark, “Rituals, Women’s,” Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies, eds. Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 25 1.
29 Fredrica Harris Thompsett, “Sacraments,” Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies, eds. Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 252.
30 Marjorie Procter-Smith, “Liturgy,” Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies, eds. Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 169.
31 Gail Lynn Unterberger, “Prayer,” Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies, eds. Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 223.
32 UM Film Series Undermines Faith,” UMAction Briefing, Fall 1997, n.p.
33 The Goddess Returns to Ghost Ranch” flyer.
34 Ibid., 134-136.
35) Susan Cole, Marian Ronan and Hal Taussig, (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward,
36) Miriam Therese Winter, WomanWord: A Feminist Lectionary and Psalter (New
York: Crossroad, 1995), ix.
37) Ibid., 251-252.
38) Miriam Therese Winter, WomanWisdom: A Feminist Lectionary and Psalter
(New York: Crossroad, 1993), 299-301.
39) Donna F.G. Hailson, “Church Women Unorthodox: The Theological Corruption
of Church Women United,” Touchstone, July/August 1998, 45.
40) “Like a Seed Which Grows Into a Tree,” 1997 World Day of Prayer Worship
41) Ibid., 8-9.
42) “Growing Seeds in Prepared Soil,” 1997 May Fellowship Day Worship
Bulletin, 7-8. Note: the author of this responsive reading is Miriam
43) “Gathering Seed From A Medieval Motheroot,” 1997 World Community Day
Leaders’ Guide, 15-16.
44) Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joem, eds. Re-Membering and
Re-Imagining (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1995), xv.
45) Ingeline Nielson, “Naming God,” Re-Mentbering and ReImagining, Nancy J.
Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press,
46) Dottie Chase, “United Methodist Women Get Taste of Sophia Worship,” Good
News, Jan/Feb. 1994, 37.
47) Letty Russell, “Re-Imagining The Master’s House,” 1996 ReImagining Study
48) 1998 Re-Imagining participant’s book, 7.
49 Heather Murray Elkins, “The Bitterness of the Human Heart and the
Sweetness of the Word, ” Re-Imagining newsletter, May 1995, 5.
50 Hilda A. Keuster, “Creating the Sophia Ritual,” Re-Membering and
Re-Imagining, Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds.,
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1995),18.
51 1998 Re-Imagining participant’s book, 11.
*Rev. Donna F G. Hailson is Assistant Professor of Evangelism and Renewal
and Director of the Doctor of Ministry in the Renewal of the Church for
Mission at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
She co-authored The Goddess Revival (a 1996 Christianity Today Book of the
Year). Her book about radical spiritual feminism, From Truth to Myth: The
Trojan Horse of Unsound Doctrine, will be released by Bristol House in the
winter of 1998.
Karelynne Gerber, a member of the PC(USA), received her M.A. in World
Missions and Evangelism from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is
currently pursuing her M.A. in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell.
Both Donna Hailson and Karelynne Gerber are part of the Voices of Orthodox