Pronouns can limit or expand how we think about people; they can limit or expand how we think about God. (Listen.)
Once upon a time, long, long ago, Lady Wisdom called out at the public places—the city gates, the crossroads, the mountaintops—and she said: “The Lord began the work of creation with me. In time before dreaming I was in on the action; right from the word ‘go’ as the earth began.
Throughout creation, I was there at the Lord’s side, applying my skills like an expert in the trade … My joyful enthusiasm always made the Lord’s day, for I filled our work with dance and play. The Lord’s earth was my playground and the earth’s children my greatest delight” (Proverbs 8:22-31). Do you hear? Do you understand? Lady Wisdom is the co-creator of the universe. She is a skilful tradie, an architect, an artist, a creative force. In joyful cooperation with the Lord, she brought the world into being. Lady Wisdom: Sophia: Creator.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, wise King Solomon reflected, then wrote: “Wisdom pervades and penetrates all things, for she is a breath of the power of God … Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets …” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-27).
Do you hear? Do you understand? Lady Wisdom is the breath of the power of God: the spirit which renews all things and which makes people friends of God and fills their lips with proclamation and praise. Lady Wisdom: Sophia: Sustainer and Intercessor: Spirit.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, the Logos, Word, Wisdom, Sophia was with God, and Sophia was God. This one was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it, and without it, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in it was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5). And once upon a time, long, long ago, wise King Solomon reflected and wrote: “Wisdom is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.” (Wisdom of Solomon, 7:29-30)
Do you hear? Do you understand? Lady Wisdom is the Logos of God who came to earth in human form, was clothed in human flesh, endured human suffering, and prevailed against the darkness. Lady Wisdom: Sophia: Christ.
She is the joyful dancing creator of the universe; the sustaining, reconciling spirit-breath of God; the pulsing heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sophia: Lady Wisdom: Three-in-One.
And once upon a time, long, long ago, God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. And God said: “We will make people in our own image, modelling them on ourselves …” So God created people as a reflection of God, created them to be like God, created them male and female (Genesis 1:26-27).
Yes, God created people in God’s own image: male and female God created them. For God is diversity. Diversity is not just something God likes; instead, diversity lies at the heart of who God is. The truth of God is much bigger than male Father, male Son and male Spirit. God is these things, and more. God is Mother, God is Child, God is feminine Spirit. God is Sophia playing and dancing at the beginning of creation; God is Sophia, sustaining life and reconciling people; God is Sophia, enfleshed as our Lord Jesus Christ.
Again and again I hear people referring to God as ‘he’, and the Spirit as ‘he’, and nothing but ‘he’. And I think about pronouns: he, she, it, they. Pronouns are powerful. They can render people invisible, distort people’s lives, shape people’s reality, change people’s perception. When a ‘he’ becomes a ‘she’, her experience of the world changes, because we think about and speak with and treat and recognise and reward men and women differently. Like it or not, our internalised expectations for women and for men shape how we relate to them: and so pronouns—the language we use to refer to him, her, it or them—can profoundly shape the world we live in. They can limit, and they can expand, how we think about people; they can limit, and they can expand, how we think about God.
For example, most of us understand that when we describe ‘humans’ simply as ‘men’, women are cut out of the picture. And so their work is rarely noticed, acknowledged or valued; and their experiences are ignored, mocked, denied, or interpreted for them.
In the same way, when we describe ‘God’ simply as male, Lady Wisdom’s work is rarely noticed, acknowledged or valued; her daughters, made in her image, are ignored, mocked, and denied; and their theology is largely done for them by men—who rarely seem to preach on Wisdom from the pulpit or write her into liturgies or prayers.
Yet God is diversity and community, in whom male and female are both honoured, both responsible, both gifted, both given voice, both called to work together, neither obliterated from our language or our vision. So if the ways we think and talk about God are limited to one gender, our faith will be impoverished. We will only be able to glimpse half of God’s image; for we only notice what we can name and describe. And because people are made in the image of God, this limited image of God will limit and impoverish our approach to people, too.
This Trinity Sunday, then, I challenge you to think about pronouns. When you talk about God, do you say ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ or ‘they’? What images of God are you including? What images of God are you excluding? Which people, made in God’s image, are being recognised or minimised, acknowledged or made invisible by your words?
And as you ponder, remember this: At the foundation of the world, the Lord and Lady Wisdom danced and played and created the universe together; and on the sixth day, people were made in their own image, male and female they were created. Our God, the God at the centre of the universe, is diverse and communal. So if you are talking about the Creator, you might want to use ‘they.’
If you are talking about the Spirit alone, know that she is a ‘she’ in Hebrew: she’s the ruah, the breath, the feminine Spirit of God. But if you’re talking about the Spirit in the New Testament, it’s the breath of neutral gender: ‘it’. It animates Christ and it descends upon Jesus’ disciples. When a writer refers to the Spirit of the man Jesus, they might use ‘he’; but the Spirit at large is more diverse than that.
If you are talking about Jesus, yes, he’s a ‘he’: but never forget that the Logos which animates him is Sophia, or Lady Wisdom.
So let us remember these things, and let them shape and expand us as we talk about God. Let’s dig deep into our Bibles, and find all the metaphors and all the genders for God: Mother; Father; Lady Wisdom; Jesus Christ; Word; Sophia; Holy Spirit; breath; Human One; light; fire; wind; fortress; she-bear; eagle; potter; gardener; mother hen; freedom fighter; defence lawyer; comforter; king; and so much more. He, she, it, they: they’re all in the Bible; they’re all descriptions of God: all of them partial; none complete.
And as we use these metaphors and embrace these genders, let’s praise the One who can never be fully encompassed by human comprehension or language, but who yet provides such rich and powerful imagery, and who grants us glimpses of the vastness and diversity and glory and sheer joy that dances at the centre of the universe. In the name of Lady Wisdom: Sophia: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. Amen. Ω
Go now, thinking about language: what is named, what is nameless, what is noticed, what is obscured. Expand your horizons, give voice to diversity, and plumb the depths of our shared language for God. And may Lady Wisdom, who dances at the centre of universe, and renews all things, and makes us friends with God, find a home in our hearts, and her name on our lips, and her joyful expression in our lives. For the service of worship never ends; it must be lived. We go in peace to love and serve our God, In the name of Christ, Amen.
A reflection on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 given to Sanctuary, 16 June 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019.
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