For many years I have researched, preached, taught, and written books to persuade people that we need to include biblical female names and images of the Divine in our worship for social justice and equality and for deepening our spiritual experience. My message has attracted many more women than men because women for the first time experience the affirmation and power in the divine image that men have experienced for centuries through male divine images. Some men support including female divine names and images because they understand it as a justice issue. Others are coming to resonate with female divine names and images not only to contribute to gender justice and equality, but also for their own healing from sexist culture and for deepening their spiritual experience.
When I read Jim Alexander’s novel, I Am Sophia, I saw that he experienced the Divine Feminine to deepen his spirituality as well as to advocate for social justice.
To learn more about Jim’s experience of the Divine Feminine, I invited him to this conversation for my blog.
- Briefly relate your spiritual/religious background that led to your expansive theology that includes female names and images of the Divine.
First of all, I want to express my appreciation for your support, Rev. Dr. Jann. You have done so much to proclaim the beauty of the Feminine Divine, and it’s an honor to share in this work in my own small way. As for my background, I grew up Roman Catholic in Amarillo, one of the many parts of Texas with a strongly fundamentalist evangelical culture. Even though the Catholics and Evangelicals didn’t always like each other very much, it felt to me as if many of them were in agreement that God was rather petty and rigid: if you didn’t follow the “right” rules or have the “right” beliefs, he would look on as you burned in eternal flames. And of course, God was always He. When I later came to encounter Christian theologies proclaiming a vibrant, living God of vast abundance, deep presence, and incarnate love, I found that they made room to envision God also as She. It was then that my soul fell in love with Her.
- Few heterosexual white males have attended New Wineskins Community, founded 26 years ago and focusing on the Divine Feminine in worship to dismantle patriarchy, and they haven’t stayed. How have you come to resonate with female names and images of the Divine in worship services?
I don’t know if I can speak to anyone else’s experiences, but in my case, my first encounter with the Divine Feminine was a breath—no, a blast—of fresh air. Around 2004 or so, I came across excerpts from the writings of Vladimir Solovyev (1853–1900), a heterosexual white male who wrote about Holy Wisdom or Sophia, a biblical figure who has had a prominent role in the Eastern Orthodox branch of the Christian family. I was utterly captivated by Sophia, and I deepened my knowledge by reading Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s seminal work She Who Is. Since that time, Sophia has danced in the center of what the ecumenical Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr would call my imaginarium: the collection of precious images and symbols from which my soul draws life. For me, to worship Yahweh through her feminine names, including Sophia and Shaddai, evokes special feelings of sacred communion and ecstatic love.
- What led to your writing I Am Sophia? Reflect on why you were drawn to this female divine name/image and your purpose in writing this novel.
While pursuing a secular education and career, I spent many years avidly reading in the areas of Christian theology, spirituality, and world religions. I was particularly focused on reconciling the Christian gospel with questions raised by my deeply held commitment to honoring religious pluralism, by “the problem of evil,” and by the church’s entrenched history of patriarchy. I never expected to write a novel, but when the gestalt of I Am Sophia came to me in 2015, I began writing and it just blossomed. It was never a chore or a discipline, and I never had a moment of “writer’s block.” Whether the book is meant to reach many people or just a few, the final result is a book I was called to write. I Am Sophia takes place several generations from now, in a future in which organized religion has collapsed. Just when the last dozen Christians in the inhabited solar system accept that their church is going to die out, a mysterious and charismatic woman calling herself “Sophia” takes them on an epic journey into the forgotten feminine wisdom pulsing through the mystical heart of their ancient tradition.
- How have you tried to bring theology inclusive of the Divine Feminine to the church?
I’m blessed to be a member of a vibrant, diverse, and welcoming faith community: Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown San José, California. It is quite unremarkable to hear God referred to from the pulpit in female terms. Also, we are blessed to have an inspiring and talented female pastor, The Rev. Julia McCray-Goldsmith, as well as great new female bishop, The Right Rev. Lucinda Ashby. As far as the wider church goes, I Am Sophia is my first significant contribution to the conversation.
- Do you think including female divine names and images in worship will change the church and the wider culture?
Yes! In fact, I don’t think we can change the church or the wider culture without it. Many of our greatest ecological, social, and political challenges have been exacerbated by foreclosing feminine insights in favor of narrowly hyper-masculine approaches. The deepest root of the problem lies in the fact that many Christians wrongly believe God can only be encountered in a masculine image. As long as this remains the case, we will continue to privilege stereotypically male thought patterns in conscious and unconscious ways. Moreover, women’s rightful place in church leadership and consistent valuation as full human beings will remain contested, I fear. As Mary Daly famously wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God.”
- Do you believe language and symbolism are important enough to go to all the effort to change two thousand years of church tradition?
Language and symbolism are the most important things! At least they are the most fundamental, as attested by both religion and modern psychology. As Muriel Rukeyser observed, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Until we Christians get our basic theological story straight, we will continue to proclaim a blinkered gospel vision which reflects an idolatrous relationship to maleness. Insisting that God is only male reflects an attempt to shove the transcendent living Deity into a narrow mental box for the purpose of securing unearned worldly privilege for folks like me. She will eventually burst forth from any such box.
- Have you met resistance to your work on the Divine Feminine?
Some parts of I Am Sophia bring up hard realities, including the sexual objectification and exploitation of women. Although there is nothing graphic in the novel, one of my pre-publication readers (a male person) had difficulty with the fact that it included these realities. I see God most clearly participating in incarnate life precisely where it becomes the grittiest and most difficult to bear—precisely where her daughters and sons suffer. In Her deep presence to creation, She bears those sufferings in solidarity with us, always.
8. What is your vision for the future of the Divine Feminine within the church and wider culture?
I think the Christian church has been going through a crucifixion in the modern era. Christianity was a poor ideological fit for the Western colonialism of recent centuries, and European and American Christians of privilege are still suffering from the cognitive dissonance of trying to preach a God who is love and yet supposedly condemns to eternal flames anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. I see Christianity as once again becoming a religion thriving outside of imperial frameworks rather than one largely co-opted by them—the dying of “Christendom” will lead to a new life for Christianity. It will free the church to become what Jesus and his earliest disciples meant it to be: a sacred, deeply humane pathway to blessed encounter with the God of Incarnate Love. The full recovery of the Divine Feminine will constitute the beating heart of this resurrected church.
9. Where can one order I Am Sophia?
Thanks for asking! My secure author website has links to retailers as well as a preview of I Am Sophia’s cover art, teaser, and endorsements (including your eloquent endorsement: “Alexander combines the gifts of a compelling storyteller, religious scholar, and visionary. Many theological books, hymns, and litanies have celebrated the biblical divine image of Sophia, but this is the first novel featuring Her. With vivid descriptions and character portrayals, it invites seekers on a suspense-filled quest for Her sacred wisdom.” ). When folks purchase on Amazon.com, I hope they will note that going back after they have read the book and giving a five-star review will significantly help to increase the book’s visibility and impact!
Jim F. Alexander is writer-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in San Jose, California. Raised in the Texas panhandle, he earned degrees at Austin College, Tufts University’s Fletcher School, and Stanford Law School, and was a U.S.—Germany Fulbright fellow and a Newbigin fellow in theology. He has worked in law, business, and NASA’s human spaceflight program.