After a year of debate and division, a Presbyterian theologian explores what went wrong at last year's controversial Re-Imagining conference.
The furor aroused by last year's Re-Imagining conference exceeded in magnitude anything in memory of mainline Christianity. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which met in Wichita last June, received more overtures of protest over Re-Imagining than on any topic in the denomination's 200-plus-year history. Re-Imagining has awakened various mainline denominations to a state of crisis in theology, and with it the need, in the words of the Wichita general assembly, to assert that "theology matters."
Indeed it does. If Re-Imagining stimulates mainline Protestants and Catholics to recover a responsible theology, guided by Scripture and creed, then it may play an important role in arresting the theological and moral drift so characteristic of mainline Christianity. If not, such events will signal the demise of the churches that support them. But to learn fully the lesson of Re-Imagining we must first be clear as to what exactly went wrong at the conference-which can act as a case study of what goes wrong when we abandon Bible and creed as our moorings for guiding the work of the church.
More than 2,000 attendees from all 50 states and 28 countries gathered in Minneapolis from November 4-7, 1993, "as midwives of the new life that will be born from our tears and struggles," in the words of an opening speaker. Three years in the planning, Re-Imagining was a global theological colloquium of feminist voices. Global, too, were its concerns: violence and war, racism, sexism, poverty, oppression, and economic injustice. These and other sources of tears and terror were addressed in moving pathos and acid iconoclasm. Re-Imagining was a mega-event for body, mind, and spirit. In addition to 34 plenary addresses, there were small groups, workshops, ritual and worship, music, dance, plays, and visual arts. For the intrepid listener, it is captured in 24 double-sided cassettes-nearly 30 hours of recording.
The reason why the repercussions from Re-Imagining—especially among mainline denominations—have equaled, if not exceeded, in magnitude anything in recent memory is not that the positions espoused were especially novel or more radical than feminist positions advanced in academic circles and literature. What distinguished Re-Imagining from myriad other similar events is that it not only claimed to speak to the church, but in certain respects for it. One-third of its attendees were clergy. Speaker after speaker called on the churches to undertake a new reformation of doctrine. And most significantly, the event bore the imprimatur of "The Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998," initiated by the World Council of Churches and funded by some 20 ecclesiastical organizations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the American Baptist Convention (ABC), the United Church of Christ, and four religious communities of Roman Catholics.
Re-Imagining left no doubt that women's issues are here for the duration. Speakers from around the globe gave impassioned testimony to the anger and alienation that often characterize the experience of women in the church. The sense of solidarity among women, particularly with the poor, oppressed, and those struggling for justice and equality, was particularly evident. Speakers were sharp in naming the powers that oppress and do violence to life. One could not remain unmoved by several voices of courage in the face of injustice.
One such voice was that of Violet Al Raheb, an Arab Lutheran living in Bethlehem (Israel), whose description of the oppressive conditions facing Arab Christians in the birthplace of our Savior was particularly revealing. She appealed for an expansion of spirituality from a private and individual model to a communal model that practices solidarity with fellow believers, regardless of geopolitical factors.
Again, Rosario Batlle, a Mexican-Puerto Rican Presbyterian (PCUSA) currently at the United Evangelical Theological Seminary in Madrid (Spain), told of her experience with African women who, through their study of the Bible, discovered the significance of women in early Christianity, as well as their own affirmation for leadership in churches. She spoke of finding her identity in the cross of Christ, warned of a danger in feminist and liberation theologies to label opponents as enemies, and sought ways of liberating the truth of the gospel rather than redesigning it.
Unfortunately, these positions were exceptions at Re-Imagining. When Chung Hyun Kyung, professor in theology at Ewha Women's University in Seoul, South Korea, mounted the podium, she announced, "A white Christian brother gave me an apple." Chung then took a bite from the Edenic apple and, with cheers from the audience, asked, "What taboo have you broken today?" A bit sophomoric, perhaps, Chung's gesture nevertheless typified the spirit of subversion that permeated Re-Imagining, frequently in crude and irreverent expressions.
Arguing for a re-emphasis on the Spirit and a de-emphasis on Jesus, Delores Williams, professor of theology and culture at Union Seminary (N.Y.), spoke of the Incarnation as "the Spirit mounting Mary." Decrying the "pit of patriarchy ...[that] distorts all relations in the created world and its institutions between human being and God," Johanna Bos, Presbyterian (PCUSA) professor of Old Testament at Louisville Theological Seminary, concluded, "We are not here to join the great pissing contest."
Nadine Addington introduced Susan Thistlethwaite, United Church of Christ professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, by quoting Thistlethwaite's conversion to feminism: "I started to pray aloud, 'O Father,' and I stopped. 'O Brother,' and I waited. And then I said, 'O s-.' "
Melanie Morrison, cofounder of clout (Christian Lesbians Out Together), said, "I know in my heart that the canon is not closed, it is open. I know this because the Bible does not reconcile me with the earth and the Bible does not reconcile me with my sexual self." Morrison later delivered a lesbian altar call as a background chorus sang, "Keep on moving forward ...never turning back." Jane Spahr, cofounder (with Morrison) of clout and lesbian evangelist for the Downtown Presbyterian Church of Rochester (N.Y.), claimed her theology was first of all informed by "making love with Coni," her lesbian partner.
The flaunting of such vulgarisms and sacrileges at Re-Imagining dispels the notion that they were aberrations from the agenda. They were calculated to represent it. No less disturbing were the cheers, applause, and occasional banging on tables that followed such spicy derisions. Most distressing, however, was an undisguised intolerance for other viewpoints, which belied the spirit of inclusivity, diversity, and nonviolence that was touted as the feminine way. No male voice was heard in four days of the conference (only 83 men attended), and never was heard an encouraging word about the masculine gender.
The most uncharitable accusations were targeted for the two whipping boys of liberalism, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and "fundamentalism." Among various aspersions, the Roman Catholic hierarchy was denounced by Beverly Harrison, United Methodist professor of Christian ethics at Union Seminary (N.Y.), as "the pedophile capital of the world." Fundamentalism, raked with malice and misunderstanding, was maligned as a movement rooted in fear, alienation, and the desire to deprive others of life.
IS THEOLOGY MERELY POETRY?
Re-Imagining was a carefully orchestrated event in which various patterns emerged that typified most, if not all, its speakers and liturgies. Its broad outlines can perhaps be captured in four angles of vision, the first of which is Re-Imagining's understanding of the nature of theology.
At the opening session, Mary Bednarowski, professor of religious studies at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (Minn.), said, "We have come together from many parts of the world to re-imagine our religious traditions." Not only does our Christian tradition have "the resilience, the inexhaustible resources, and the creativity to sustain a re-imagining of its most central symbols," she continued, but the task of re-imagining them was incumbent upon those present. Similarly, Rosario Batlle spoke of theology as poetry that reflects the luminous experiences of our lives.
The characterization of theology as symbol or as poetic image was critical to the theological experimentation of Re-Imagining. A symbol or poetic image is like an abstract painting to which any number of meanings can be assigned, depending on the subjective impression of the viewer. No meaning can claim to be definitive or to exclude other and quite contrary meanings. If theological statements (for example, "we are justified by grace through faith") are essentially symbolic in nature, then they are, like various explanations put forth for the origin of the universe, for example, simply models of human understandings; or worse, like the assigning of a telephone number to a given address, they are arbitrary designations. If such is the case, then we are, of course, free to change the model or the number when doing so serves specific interests. This was the position advanced at Re-Imagining.
The Christian tradition is united in affirming, however, that theological statements are not primarily symbolic but descriptive—that is, they stand in a defining relationship to objective realities. For example, the statement "Michelangelo was a creative artist" claims to assert something true of Michelangelo, something that cannot be discarded without distortion or destruction of the truth to which it testifies. The validity of the assertion is not determined by what it may evoke in the one who makes it, which is the case with symbols and poetic images.
The theology of the church is like this. It strives to define (even if it is incapable of doing so perfectly) what is the saving core or kerygma of the gospel. Theology is not, as was bemoaned at Re-Imagining, something to "fence us in," "tie us up," "or justify male domination," but to identify, declare, and preserve the way of salvation. Hence, as Paul taught, we are responsible "to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted" (Rom. 6:17, NRSV). The truth claims of the gospel are not our claims, but Christ's, and following him, the apostles' and the church's. The responsibility of the church vis-a-vis those claims is not to re-imagine them, but to discover their significance for each generation and to transmit them. Sound doctrine is not a corral that confines but a map that directs to the goal of salvation, or, to use another metaphor, a set of harbor buoys that show the navigable passages between God and humanity.
IS ONE GOD ENOUGH?
A second hallmark of Re-Imagining was its understanding of God. It is not possible to identify a single prevailing view of God, for syncretism, polytheism, pantheism, and monism were all in evidence. But one thing was clear: the Triune God of Bible and creed was roundly circumvented.
Anne Primavesi, a "research theologian" from Dublin, Ireland, asked, "Is one God enough?" The primary expression of God, according to her reading of Genesis, is creation itself, from which she derived a nature mysticism. Only later, she claimed, was the divine presence in rocks, rivers, flowers, and trees limited to the word of revelation, "narrowed down, down, down until it becomes solely the revelation of Jesus Christ." In the voice of Moses the law-giver, this confining revelation became the voice of male domination, coercive over the whole creation. Like Marcion and the Gnostics of the early church, Primavesi drew a sharp distinction between the God of creation and the God of redemption. But unlike Marcion, whose creator Demiurge was a base and inferior God, Primavesi's creator God is superior to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. God is hence supremely incarnated in earth rather than in Jesus. The catechism, she pronounced, should read, "One God is not enough!"
Elizabeth Bettenhausen, ELCA coordinator of the Study/Action Program at the Women's Theological Center in Boston, condemned the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as a boring doctrine, indeed, a violent act of male autonomy "that is downright dangerous for women's lives." The references to God in the plural in Genesis are, in Bettenhausen's judgment, only "to remind us, probably inadvertently, of the goddess and the earth from which he came." The audience was directed to pantheism over transcendence, to a spirituality of creation.
Even more than pantheism, however, a rampant syncretism characterized Re-Imagining. Chung Hyun Kyung, the apple-eater, described herself in these words: "My bowel is Shamanist, my heart is Buddhist, my right brain is Confucianist, and my left brain is Christian." A world parliament of religions reduced to one, Chung introduced her three special goddesses: Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction; Quani, a Buddhist goddess who prays for the abolition of hell; and Enna, a Philippine earth goddess. "These," she exclaimed, "are my new Trinity." This is, of course, simply a tri-theism, but it was nevertheless the extent of Trinitarian theology at Re-Imagining.
An opening naming ritual was introduced thus: "The naming of our God is a sacred act." In the Bible, of course, God's name is the result of his self-disclosure, as "Yahweh" at Sinai, but preeminently as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At Re-Imagining, the audience was invited to supply its own names for God: divine ancestor, mother God, lover, alpha and omega, fire of love, she who is eternal, Sophia, earth mother, spirit woman, cosmic maxim, ninjan, womb of creation, prime mover, and yin and yang. Jesus Christ was not named.
The process of amalgamation was furthered by Kwok Pui-Lan, Chinese professor of theology at Episcopal Divinity School (Cambridge, Mass.). Appealing at points to the superiority of Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism over Christianity, Kwok argued that assigning a referent to "God" was inherently irrational. The concepts of sin and guilt in Christianity were dismissed. "O Jesus," she said, "who are you that reconciles us to God? Who is this funny God? Who needs to be reconciled with him?" She argued rather for multiple incarnations and reincarnations. "The broken body of the HIV Thai prostitutes is now God's incarnate among us," she claimed. Again, Jesus has been reincarnated in the endangered environment, specifically as a fig tree. "If we cannot image Jesus as a tree, as a river, as wind, and as rain," she said, "we are doomed together. If we are forever anthropocentric in our search for the redeemer, we are doomed."
If there was a baseline God of Re-Imagining, it was the God of Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanian theologian: "The one God of many names," she said, "is the God of all creation." Never mind that the concept of God differs radically in the world's religions, and that to say everything is of God is to say nothing at all. We are again at a theology of abstraction, the inevitable result of forsaking the doctrine of revelation for a theology built purely from below. Whether Aristotle's Prime Mover or Virginia Ramey Mollenkott's monistic source of all that is, "God" becomes the ideal backdrop, in the words of Feuerbach, upon which we may project our own idiosyncrasies. At Re-Imagining the result was a decisive shift away from a salvation procured for us by the work of God in Jesus Christ to a salvation potential within creation. The doctrine of redemption, with its call for repentance and promise of transformation of self and society, was supplanted by a theology of immanence in which the distinction between God and the world was blurred or eliminated. What is, either is God, or is what God intended it to be.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO JESUS?
A third characteristic of Re-Imagining was its perspective on Jesus Christ. As a rule, presenters spoke from their own experiences and contexts, and this lent a particularity to each story. Barbara Lundblad, pastor of Our Savior's Atonement Lutheran Church in New York City, alluded to the story of Jesus writing on the ground in John 8 and encouraged women "to write a word that has not been spoken before." Many stories were thus told at Re-Imagining, but the story of Jesus was not told.
It was not an oversight. On the second day of the conference, Lundblad announced euphorically, "Some authority would call 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." Applause and cheers followed. In the 49 songs, chants, liturgies, and prayers contained in the Re-Imagining program book, the name of Christ appears twice; Jesus, only once (in an African-American spiritual). No prayer was addressed to Jesus, and none ended in his name (with the exception of an untranslated Amerindian prayer). "Amazing Grace" appears in the program with the caveat, "We will hum this piece without text." Talking circles were addressed to God, the Spirit, community, and the Minnesota Harvest Festival—but not to Jesus.
The cross and atonement were likewise subjected to derision and dismissed as sanctions for violence and oppression. Typical of many speakers was Delores Williams, who announced, "We have a whole different notion of incarnation." The first incarnation, she argued, took place not in Jesus but in the Spirit's visitation of Mary. The significance of Jesus for Williams consisted in the example of his life as "an ancestor-friend God." But he did not conquer sin on the cross. "I don't think we need a theory of atonement at all. I don't think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff." For Williams, "the Spirit [rather than Jesus] tells us who God is." Likewise, Ingeline Neilsen, Swiss musicologist and missionary to Zimbabwe, condemned the hymn "Lift High the Cross" as an example of an oppressive view of God. For Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, professor of English at William Patterson College (N.J.), the cross symbolizes God as an abusive parent. The Atonement is "wild theology that encourages the violence of our streets."
John 14:6 affirms that Jesus "is the way, and the truth, and the life." Re-Imagining attested to many ways, truths, and lives. Jesus was not the definitive revealer of God and reconciler of humanity to God. He was, rather, one of various avatars, or manifestations, of God. For Mollenkott, Jesus is simply an elder brother, companion, and trailblazer, one among many siblings who shows us how to live in oneness with the divine source.
Nowhere was the offense against the central figure of Christian faith more blatant than in the concluding worship event. Preaching on the story of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28), Christine Smith, professor of preaching and worship at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (Minn.), presented the Canaanite woman as heroine and Jesus as villain, pleading for a world in which there is no begging, no humiliation, and no crumbs. In a Holy Communion look-alike entitled "Blessing over Milk and Honey," the worship leader invoked "Our maker Sophia," and engaged the audience in libidinal antiphony: "With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life.... With the milk of our breasts we suckle the children.... With nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child; With our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations." There was no mention of Jesus or his atoning sacrifice. The Song of Solomon was neatly substituted for Golgotha, eros for pathos, leaving no trace of the One who gave his life for the redemption of the world.
It is perhaps one thing to espouse such views from a podium where the audience is granted autonomy over against a presenter. But worship on the Lord's Day (read: Sophia's Day) is a more serious matter, for there the audience is transformed into a worshiping congregation. With the "Blessing over Milk and Honey" the mask was off Re-Imagining: it was, as more than one speaker attested, an evangelical event with its own specially minted theology, liturgy, and worship. One wonders how the clergy present could participate without violating their ordination vows.
IS SOPHIA GOD?
The role of divine revealer denied to Jesus at Re-Imagining was filled by Sophia. "Bless Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom, dwelling deep within" echoed some two-dozen times through Re-Imagining like the Gloria Patri in a Benedictine monastery. There are, to be sure, passages in the Old Testament that personify sophia (Greek for wisdom), and on occasion speak of her as an attribute of divine activity (see "In the name of Sophia," p. 43). At Re-Imagining, however, no speaker addressed the role of sophia within the biblical or theological tradition, and particularly the Eastern Orthodox tradition where it has played a significant role. Sophia, rather, was presented in unspecified relationship to the Christian tradition, independent and even alien to it.
Ostensibly, Sophia was intended to represent a feminine expression of the Holy Spirit, but in reality, Sophia was the elevation of an attribute of God (wisdom) to the place of God. The practical result was that Sophia became a subjective metaphor for the political, social, gender, sexual, or ecological preferences of various speakers. We have noted the shift in theological authority at Re-Imagining from transcendence to immanence. That is, theology was severed from its traditional moorings in the transcendence of God, the person and work of Christ, the institution of the church, and the Holy Scriptures, and rooted to human experience alone-a tendency, incidentally, increasingly characteristic of many modern theologies. Any distinction between the "Spirit" and human experience was effectively eliminated, thus positing ultimate authority in human experience, which, at Re-Imagining, meant feminine experience.
The endeavor to shift theology from dogmatic to experiential categories verged on spiritual narcissism. "I reverence the Presence within you," began an opening liturgy, after which participants were instructed, "Whisper the sacred word that is your name." Several speakers alluded to the divine within them. Aruna Gnanadason of the Church of South India wore a red dot on her forehead as a symbol of the divine in her. Chung Hyun Kyung of Korea spoke of spirituality as an archaeological excavation of the layers of God within her. Barbara Lundblad took the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 61, which Jesus applied uniquely to himself in Luke 4, and applied it to herself: "The Spirit has anointed me. I need to know that this word is spoken to me in the spirit of Sophia. Trust the stirring in your womb."
The problem with locating theological authority in human experience is that human experience varies, making an objective standard impossible. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Ku Klux Klan, "German Christians" under Hitler, and the death-to-abortionists faction have advocated things that Christians-including Christians at Re-Imagining-abhor. The authority of human experience leads to the oldest and most violent ethic in the world: might makes right.
The equating of the Spirit with human experience at Re-Imagining resulted in elevating "the evil of patriarchy" to mythic proportions. Never defined, "patriarchy" fulfilled the stereotype of Re-Imagining that "subhuman" fulfills for the Fascist and "capitalism" for the Communist. In a story narrated by Aruna Gnanadason, patriarchy replaced sin as the source of all evil in the world. Man seized the demon of patriarchy to brutalize the creation, including woman, his innocent victim. The church, with its "brain-damaging theology," sanctions the present state of oppression. There is only one thing patriarchy cannot stamp out, however. That is the feminine spirit, compassionate and regenerating, which will ultimately prevail.
Gnanadason's mythic archetype might have been dismissed as a theological melodrama were it not echoed in Dirty Harry-epithets from speaker after speaker. One was left blinking in incredulity at such a simplistic-and self-righteous-world-view. But the show went on. Most of the fallout from the blast on patriarchy landed in the lap of the church. A male-dominated clearing house of power over women, the church became the object of all sorts of drive-by shootings from speakers. The upshot was that the institutional church was effectively eliminated as a viable community of faith. Virginia Mollenkott made it explicit when she advised that "it may be necessary for the substantial liberated minority in every denomination to leave the denomination in order to form the holistic church."
Re-Imagining's theology of immanence came to most explicit elaboration in sexual imagery. Susan Thistlethwaite declared, "Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism." The motif pervaded Re-Imagining at every level. It was most apparent in the default apology for lesbianism, homosexuality, transgenderism, and bisexuality that characterized Re-Imagining. Not a few speakers identified themselves as lesbian. Decrying "the unspeakable treatment of lesbian and bisexual women in mainline churches," Mary Hunt, Roman Catholic feminist of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (water) in Silver Spring (Md.), stated, "To be an out lesbian in Christian church circles is to live threatened with spiritual if not physical death." Quoting Mollenkott that "grace is a lesbian," Hunt urged breaking with "preoccupation with eternal truth ...and the excess baggage of patriarchy." "People doing justice [for homosexual rights] ...is what it means to me to be religious. Whether it is Christian or not is frankly, darling, something about which I no longer give a pope."
An appeal for consensual sexual acts followed in consort with the affirmation of lesbianism. "Imagine sex among friends as the norm," continued Mary Hunt, "young people learning to make friends rather than to date. Imagine valuing genital sexual interaction in terms of whether or how it fosters friendship and pleasure.... Pleasure is our birthright."
THE JUDGMENT OF HULDAH
Re-Imagining gave voice to the pain and alienation that many women experience in the church. Christians, especially those who affirm Galatians 3:28, for example, should hear such pain with a renewed commitment to the equality of women as coheirs of salvation and as complementary partners in the church. But Re-Imagining was not the way to go about it, as has been recognized from many quarters. Re-Imagining's radical revisionism with respect to the way theology is done, the nature of God, the significance of the Incarnation, and the person of the Holy Spirit poses a theological danger that the church cannot ignore if it is to remain the church.
The steering committee and various denominational leaders have labeled critics of Re-Imagining as divisive and factious. A postconference communique warned that "Unofficial conservative publications within ...denominations have attacked the conference as heretical and pagan." The attempt to deflect responsibility with words like unofficial and conservative is a lame ad hominem. That is like accusing doctors of jeopardizing health for attacking illness, or the police of disrupting communities because they prosecute crime. What other word besides heresy is appropriate where the Incarnation and Trinity were dismissed, where orthodoxy was derided, where Scripture was repeatedly contradicted, and where a goddess named Sophia was actively promoted? It is not those who name heresy who divide the church, but those who practice it!
In conclusion, 2 Kings 22 preserves a judgment that is of significance for Re-Imagining. During King Josiah's reign, repairs were undertaken on the temple. "The book of the Law" (Deuteronomy) was discovered and read before the king, who directed the prophetess Huldah to be consulted, "for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us." Huldah's interpretation did nothing to allay the king. "Behold, I will bring evil upon this place and its inhabitants," said the prophetess. Johanna Bos interpreted Huldah's prophecy as a condemnation of male domination of the temple, fulminating, "This old house of patriarchy has got to come down."
That is a decidedly idiosyncratic interpretation. Huldah's prophecy is not about male domination or patriarchy. It is about apostasy and idolatry, the very things that characterized Re-Imagining. "Because they have forsaken me and have burned incense to other gods, ...therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place" (2 Kings 22:17).
James R. Edwards is professor of religion at Jamestown College, Jamestown, North Dakota.
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