Lady Wisdom, Feminine Divine and Proverbs 8

Last week we discussed Proverbs 8, here are some of my thoughts on the passage.

Let’s be honest here, the (divine feminine) language in this passage can be little shocking to American Christianity, which is so often dominated by men. Who is wisdom? Well, whoever she is, she’s a woman. I read this as saying that God has this feminine side, these attributes that do not fit the stereotypes of “masculine” spirituality. Joyce Hollyday says, “If In the Greek, she is named Sophia. In the New Testament, she appears as the Holy Spirit. In both she represents strength and creativity, truth and life.”

One writer says (Joan Chittister):

In Proverbs, wisdom is always a female figure. For example, from Proverbs 4: “Get wisdom, get understanding, do not forget or turn aside from the words I utter. Forsake her not, and she will preserve you. Love her, and she will safeguard you. Get wisdom at the cost of all you have. Get understanding, extol her and she will exalt you. She will bring you honors if you will embrace her.”

And an Old Testament theologian writes (W. Brueggeman) that:

“This poetry lines out three lyrical claims for “wisdom”:

*Wisdom has been there in creation since the outset. There never was a time when God’s world was not ordered according to coherent well-being.

*Wisdom is an agent in accomplishing creation, a “grand artisan” who contributes decisively to the project.

*The relation of the creator and wisdom is one of deep and endless joy; both together rejoice in the world and in the humanity that is known to be “good.”

In Christian tradition, and most especially in John 1 concerning the “Word,” it is asserted that this feminine “wisdom” came into the world specifically in Jesus of Nazareth, so that Jesus is the peculiar carrier of God’s good intentionality. ((all quotations above taken from Sojourners articles).

Now this isn’t stuff you typically learn about, but it’s right here. This passage tells us that “lady wisdom” was from the beginning part of the creative work of God, a great artist who was “like a master worker…” And it should challenge our use of language as the church.

When we start talking about where the church is headed, I think we need to really consider the language and the way in which we envision God. Because much of how we structure our communities, much of how we even talk about God leaves little room for anyone who doesn’t fit into the right gender stereotypes.

In other words, this is a call for a bigger, deeper, more open understanding of God, because we assume that we see God is reflected back in the way we see ourselves and treat others.

Again Chittister says:

The basic principle is that what is not in the language is not in the mind. So if you are ignoring women in church language, or lumping women under a so-called generic term which is only generic half of the time, then what you have done is erase half the population of the earth. They can exist only when somebody else calls them into existence. So half of us are left to figure out when they mean us and when they don’t.

That’s why in the Hebrew tradition the idea of naming, of giving identity to, is a very important part of the theology. And we recognize it at that level. But we have failed to recognize it when we say, “Dearly beloved brethren, let us pray for the grace to recognize that we are all sons of God.”

I never got that grace—that’s how I’m sure that kind of intercession doesn’t work. I remember from the time I was 5 years old, looking around the church, knowing that they had forgotten somebody; they’d forgotten me, and I was in the church. I was not a son of God. I was a daughter of God and very comfortable with that.

Many women I know have had similar experiences of this. This is something that needs to change in our churches, in our homes and in our societies. We need to work to make sure that women (or any people) are not being left out of the picture.

Quakers, Women and Language

And this talk about language, and how we use what we say to structure thought and communities has always been important to Quakers. This summer (at Camas Friends) we’ll spend sometime talking about plain speech, and why we say meetings and meetinghouses when we talk about the church building.

Quakers have historically, at least when they are at their best, not just affirmed the equality of men and women but sought to put that into practice and create structures that are from the beginning formed for this purpose. If we all have the Inward Light of Christ, if we are all God’s children, and can all respond to that of God within us, then we truly are equal in God’s eyes. Unfortunately, we often don’t actually believe this with our actions. Often it has been those in power who have sought to make this less than true, but this is not always the case.

Quakers have encouraged women to preach and be ministers since the 1660’s, this is something we like to be proud of. Yet, we know, just by looking around at our churches that we don’t necessarily really believe this to be true. Much more work needs to be done and some of it has to do with the very language we use.

I was reading some Quaker history this week and the author of the book, Elbert Russell, wrote that in the transition from non-pastoral to pastoral meetings there was also a transition towards more male leadership. And I think that as pastoral friends we really need to consider this, and consider why this has happened, and how we might undue it as well. We need churches that practice a faith where all are empowered to be fully alive in the Spirit. Part of this will be speaking in ways that the women in our communities see themselves in God just as much as we men do.

Two Ladies

And I want to be clear on two personal points here. I have not always believed this, because I never learned this perspective until I got a little older. I was a part of a community that wouldn’t even recognize my mom as having leadership roles in our church, even though she was one of our youth leaders for years and was clearly gifted for that work. So I understand the place where many of us come from in this bigger issue and I also know that I still have a long way to go in learning about all of this.

And now as a father of two young women, these questions have hit home for me in a new way.

Following all this then, is a call for more language that incorporates both the masculine and feminine divine and sees God, and our language about God, as being far outside gender stereotypes. What must we do to help bring about change in this area? This is a call, in the middle of a world spinning out of control, to search not just for new ways to talk about our spirituality, but to make sure that everyone’s voices are being lifted up. As Chittister says, “It isn’t that we shouldn’t call God “Father.” It is that we shouldn’t call God only Father. It isn’t that Jesus wasn’t male. It is that Jesus was a great deal more than male.”

Rather, we need a plurality of images drawn from women’s and men’s experiences, not only with each other but with the creative power of nature as well: God as fire, bread, breath of life, mountains, and waters. We need to create transformative metaphors that give both men and women the sense of their holistic potential, and don’t just duplicate gender stereotypes on the divine level. God can be loving father who carries the little child in his arms and strong mother who, like the mother eagle, pushes us from the nest and teaches us how to fly. Interestingly enough, all these images are already present in the Bible. Rosemary Radford Ruether

3 responses to “Lady Wisdom, Feminine Divine and Proverbs 8”

  1. Thanks for posting this. I have a small issue in the interest of clarity. When I think of Jesus (of Nazareth) I am referring to the historical Jesus. However, Christ (or Jesus Christ) in my reference is to the Divine aspect which is male/female. I suspect that the image of Jesus for many, when mentioned that he was also female, takes on a very different interpretation. I wish that this were not true, but the distinction between the physical human being, Jesus, and the divinity of Christ that is present "in all his(sic) offices" is, in my opinion, an important one for Friends. Otherwise we may get "stuck" in waiting for the return of a physical manifestation.
    (Whew, I regret the compression of way too many thoughts in such a short space. I do appreciate your ability to write in clear prose with a distinct style, and am reluctant to raise "minor" issues, but that seems to be more my style as a "seeker.")

  2. From, "Wisdom & Your Spiritual Journey":

    Chapter One: Wisdom and Revelation in Everyday Life

    In the early 1830s, a young man went to sea, hoping to make his fortune. A Presbyterian by birth, he read his Bible each night in his shipboard hammock, and he was haunted by a verse in the fourth chapter of Proverbs: “Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.” Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this seasoning of wisdom. But where was such a combination to be found?
    Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island. Nantucket was then a wealthy and vibrant community, built and largely populated by members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.
    As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but prosperous inhabitants, another verse from Proverbs came to him. It was something about “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”
    The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to apply this kind of Wisdom.
    When he turned down one street, which was known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, prosperous-looking shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen.
    The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise in the ways of the world.”
    The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of course, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”
    “Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”
    “Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”
    Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t hesitate. He pulled out his purse, handed over the cash, and she handed him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with an excited smile on his face.
    He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit disturbed. “Excuse me, madam,” he said, laying the half-opened package on the counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”
    Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one eyebrow.
    “Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”

    — Chuck Fager