One of the biggest controversies between American Christians in the last 50 years has been about God’s gender. A big question and fight has been: Is God male or female? In the last 25 years, the question and fight has grown in scope to: Is God male, female, both, neither, or queer? I vote for: God is queer. More on that later.
The issue is too big for one blogpost. So, for now, I choose to think about it in terms of what is probably the biggest Christian fight and question about God’s gender in the Bible in the last 50 years: How does it boil down to Jesus and Sophia? Are they the same thing? Are they almost the same thing? Are they not at all the same thing? Since in many parts of the Bible Jesus and Sophia are divine in one way or another, is that about divinity in the Bible having a male and female part? Or is it more complicated and playful?
Who is Sophia?
OK, OK, I know many—maybe most of you—are saying: Who the heck is Sophia? So I must pause to give a quick three-paragraph summary of who Sophia is. The first thing for you to know is that Sophia is a big part of the Bible, that has really only been re-discovered in the last 50 years.
The word ‘Sophia’ in Greek means ‘Wisdom.’ So although Sophia is a real character in many parts of the Bible, in almost all the places where the word ‘sophia’ appears in Greek, the English word one finds is ‘Wisdom.’ ‘Sophia’ also is the Greek word for wisdom at the same time as it is a divine Person. Take, please, as example the following verses in the biblical book of Proverbs:
Wisdom calls aloud in the streets, she raises her voice in the public squares; she calls out at the street corners…, “You ignorant people, how much longer will you cling to your ignorance?…Pay attention to my warning, now I will pour out my heart to you” (1:20-22a,23,24a) … “She (Wisdom) is a tree of life to those who hold her fast…..Hold her close, and she will make you great; embrace her and she will be your pride” (3:18a, 4:8).
Notice why many scholars and devotees of this divine female biblical Wisdom prefer to use the Greek word “Sophia” in English, since it reminds the reader that the Bible often understands this kind of Wisdom as a real divine person. Here again in the book of Proverbs:
Does not Sophia call meanwhile?… At the approaches to the gates, she cries aloud: “O Men! I am calling to you… My mouth proclaims the truth … I, Sophia, am mistress of discretion … I love those who love me … God received me when his purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works. From everlasting I was firmly set, from the beginning, before the earth came into being. The deep was not when I was born. … I was by God’s side … ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere in his world, delighting to be with the sons of people” (8:1,3,12,17,22-24a,30-31).
Wisdom Sophia is found throughout the Bible, in the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Matthew, Luke, I Corinthians, and James.
With this brief introduction to her, we can return to the subject at hand: is God male or female, both, either, neither, or queer? If one just takes the cases of Jesus’s divinity and Sophia’s divinity alongside each other, what can we learn about the God’s gender for Christians?
Biblical references to Wisdom Sophia
As feminism and religion started intersecting with each other in the 1970s, quite quickly parts of Christianity started reclaiming the figure of Wisdom Sophia. Although there are a few other places in the Bible where God has a female/feminine gender, important feminist issues brought Wisdom Sophia’s thoroughly female divinity to the public’s attention. Professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was one of the first to write books with Sophia’s female divine gender in clear focus. This set up a firestorm of debate. When I co-authored (with Susan Cole and Marian Ronan) two books on Wisdom Sophia in the 1980s, Cole and I (as United Methodist clergy) were brought up on heresy charges for “denying the Lordship of Christ.” (We were not convicted.)
But our books and a growing number of others encouraged a wide range of people to use Sophia as a way to think about God with a female/feminine gender. Indeed, this new interest in a biblical female divine Wisdom Sophia attracted broader interest and devotion to her and to other ways of thinking about God as female/feminine. For some, God then became thoroughly feminine, and God as masculine was seen as a major problem, especially in terms of the overall domination of men in the world. While for others, Sophia and other female ways of thinking about God was an attractive or occasional option. And, there was a massive backlash against a female gendered God, especially among male clergy and conservative churches.
One of the most intense controversies emerged when some of us pointed out that in the biblical books of Matthew and Luke, Jesus himself talked about Sophia in intimate and positive ways. In defending his ministry and that of John the Baptist, Jesus says, “Wisdom Sophia is justified by her deeds,” meaning Wisdom Sophia supports both the actions of John the Baptist and me (Jesus) (Matthew 11:19). Also, “Wisdom Sophia is justified by all her children,” meaning Wisdom Sophia is justified by her children Jesus and John the Baptist (Luke 7:35).
Paul wrote about her also very positively: “But still we have a Wisdom Sophia to offer those who have reached maturity; not a philosophy of our age, it is true, still less of the masters of our age, which is coming to their end. The hidden Wisdom Sophia of God, which we teach in our mysteries, is the Wisdom Sophia that none of the masters of this age have ever known” (I Corinthians 2:6-8). This statement from Paul is directly calling Jesus Wisdom Sophia.
The Letter of James praises her and compares her and Jesus: “Whereas the Wisdom Sophia that comes down from above is essentially pure. She also makes for peace, and is kindly and considerate. She is full of compassion and shows herself by doing good. Nor is there any trace of partiality or hypocrisy in her” (3:16,17).
A wider range of the meaning of gender
I have to say that in the early, heady days of the 1980s feminism, I was deeply taken by the way the biblical Wisdom Sophia brought us a female divinity. This is still a part of my own spiritual realities.
But in the last 15 years, I find myself increasingly noticing that my earlier relief that Christianity had access to female/feminine divinity missed some of what the comparisons between divine Jesus and divine Sophia were saying in these texts. I was too much under the sway of the intense and charged modern male-female fights.
Now, as I re-read the comparisons of divine Sophia and divine Jesus in the first two centuries of the Christ people, I see these texts not so much in a contestation between female and male, but more an invitation to a wider range of the meaning of gender. Both Sophia and Jesus as divine realities—in somewhat different and similar ways—are inviting people into a larger range of genders than male or female. Nor are they trying to make some ideal combination of male and female together. Rather they are going onto a fuller set of divinities much larger, more complex, and far more interesting than the binary of male and female.
Jesus is far from the ideal male divinity. He is much more a fascinating playful mix of strength, vulnerability, unfinished process, occasional perfection, love, anger, beauty, loneliness, and openness. His aliveness is multivalent, childlike, and humorous. In the first two centuries of documents, it is not possible to pigeonhole him as archetypal male, whatever that might be. For those comfortable enough to consider the way the Jesus of the first two centuries does not settle on a closed identity, it has been almost as easy to see him in female/feminine terms. But ‘his’ flexible and fluid character does not really work as just male or female, nor as some steady androgyne. He is just too divine and human in a variety of directions. It is true that that in later highly Christian creeds, he became a mighty, authoritarian male divinity; but that took quite a bit of time to pull off.
The same is the case for Sophia. In the classic Proverbs 8 passage, her primary identity is playful and her relationship to the high creating sort-of male divinity does not work in primarily male-female terms. That text is too bouncy and multivalent, ranging wildly between a young divine daughter, a real workmanlike creator, and an almost-mother. In other documents she is wildly angry and almost an authoritarian father. And then in the New Testament, those passages about Sophia play gently and humorously with her identity as the original Jesus or some kind of multi-gendered sibling.
So for a while, I suspect until we can let go of the idea that male and female are the only gender options, we relax into a kind of gendered queer plurality for God, Jesus, Sophia, and our own participation in divinity. It seems likely to me that in the coming decades Jesus and Sophia will also unfold into a larger range of playful genderdness.
1 ‘Queer’ is now widely used as a positive descriptor of multi-gendered and non-straight people. There are lots of people like this. ‘Queer’ also now is a noun, verb, and adjective that connotes a person, group, culture, and/or set of actions with a surprising combination of characteristics. This can be about a variety of genders, with increasingly different relationships, social strategies, and creative results. As in Amanda Gorman’s approach to Joe Biden’s inauguration was queer. Or, It is true that sidearm pitching is kind of queer, but it certainly has been successful in striking people out. Or, The Jesus people of the first century developed queer strategies to overcome and resist the violent policies of the Roman Empire.
Listen to the recent Bible and Beyond Discussion about this same topic. Click here for the archive of the discussion on YouTube.