Re-Imagining, or, The Face of God

A ceremony featuring the sharing of milk and honey occurred at the Re-Imagining Conference of 1993

As Bill Berneking notes, ” . . . it would be difficult to write a history of women in America without mentioning the 1993 Re-Imagining conference and subsequent movement.”

The Conference was a watershed or turning point in many ways. On one hand, it sparked an ongoing Re-Imagining Community that continued to champion the theology and practices of the initial conference. On the other, it made clear, especially for mainline protestant denominations, just how contentious the principle of women’s equal value could be when it came to expression in religious language and practice. It gave other Christians a powerful symbol that summed up their dissatisfaction with a specific direction of change in the church, and may also have marked the time when the term “feminist” became synonymous, for these Christians, with something like “godless.”

The Re-Imagining Conference took place November 4-7, 1993, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. More than 2,000 people attended, with more on a waiting list for space. Approximately 1/3 of the attendees were members of the clergy of various denominations, including the PC(USA), the UMC, and the ELCA. All of these denominations had participated in conference planning through arms of their national organizations, and had contributed church funds for travel to the conference. The conference had been three years in the planning, and was the midpoint of the World Council of Churches’ Decade in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998. Its purpose was to demonstrate and disseminate current theology and practice that incorporated feminist methods. Feminist theology perceived the longstanding exclusion of women and women’s perspectives from organized religion, only recently being overcome, to stem from more deeply-rooted linguistic and doctrinal practices that sanctified images of God that privileged things masculine, and social arrangements based on domination and coercion.

To that end, God was invoked by names different from those in ubiquitous use in the churches, including “Father,” “Son,” “Lord,” and “King.” The conference explored and presented alternative names for and images of God — from the Bible, from other religious traditions, and from women’s religious experience — that depicted God in a feminine mood. The list of speakers was a Who’s Who list of feminist theologians and religious from across the spectrum, including Mary Daly, Delores Williams, Rita Nakashima Brock, Carter Heyward, Chung Hyun Kyung, Mary Hunt, Virginia Mollenkott, Kwok Pui-Lan, Catherine Keller — and the Women’s Center’s Johanna Bos.

Immediate, intense, and lasting controversy exploded in the aftermath of the Conference. Critics challenged the use of other religious traditions and of images drawn from women’s experience as “idolatrous” — more in the sense of being invented by humans without being informed by divine revelation, or in the sense of not having divine authorization, not in the sense of being a limited image that is improperly taken to be complete that becomes an obstacle to communion with the living God. The use of a “milk and honey” ceremony — designed to skirt differing theologies around the eucharist, which problematized sharing communion at the conference — was seen by some as a rejection of the Christian sacrament, or a blasphemous parody of it. Since a number of speakers questioned the deployment of certain Christian doctrines, which detractors recognized as essential tenets or fundamentals, like “the atonement,” the conference was seen as a place where heretical views were championed and applauded. Particular objections were to addressing God as “Sophia,” which critics understood as a form of idolatrous goddess worship such as that which preceded the Babylonian exile, and the generally warm reception given to lesbians attending and even speaking at the conference, who from the critics’ perspective should have been rebuked or at least ignored rather than embraced and listened to.

(It is possible that the most heretical act of the conference was the one called out by James R. Edwards in his article “Natural Born Sinners”: “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 conference was not enough about men.)

The money was a particular problem. Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans who heard that their national organizations had funded a conference where heresy was celebrated and Jesus and his Father lampooned were irate that their contributions had been used in this way, and let their bureaucrats know that they would not be contributing to more of the same. Conference organizer Mary Ann Lundy, of the PC(USA)’s Women’s Division, resigned. “Were you at Re-Imagining?” became a litmus test that prospective pastors and professors might have to pass. The response to Re-Imagining was as much the event as the conference was, and perhaps more.

What the event of conference and criticism made clear was that the church was deeply divided theologically and theoretically, between at least two groups: a group that believes there is a definitive revelation, well-understood by the tradition of the church, and well-expressed by its traditional language, which establishes the parameters for legitimate and acceptable experience, and which ought to instruct and discipline lives that deviate from those parameters; and a group that believes revelation has been in various respects mis-understood, mis-represented, and oppressively communicated throughout the tradition and practice of the church, and needs to be corrected by the experience of suffering to which that misbehavior has led, especially since that experience is an ongoing vehicle of revelation.

The first Re-Imagining Conference sparked the development of a Re-Imagining Community which has continued to hold conferences annually since; the group Voices of Sophia continues to uphold it as a positive force. For others, Re-Imagining serves as a symbol of dangerous excess, against which the faithful must be on perpetual guard. The legacy of Re-Imagining is contemporary history. Its issues are issues we Christians involved with practical and doctrinal theology and church governance live with today.

[Editorial comment: What seems to have been obscured in the controversy — at least as it has come to be remembered by the Internet, which seems only to be “forever” for those who make use of it — is the nature of the hope that drove over 2,000 people to make a pilgrimage to Minnesota, with more on a waiting list for spaces. What did those people think they were going to hear in Minneapolis? Probably what I thought I would have heard, when I first heard about Re-Imagining, the following year: about how the church they already loved and participated in might openly and unashamedly acknowledge and return their love by reflecting their creation in God’s image in its speech and practice, thereby turning a face of God towards them in which they could glimpse the outlines of the best version of themselves — something the church has done for men all along. Since cultivating the best version of each of the unique and precious lives that are the members of the Body of Christ is one of the tasks of the church, it — we — ought to learn the lesson of that hope. That lesson is a hard one. It is that the church is not doing its job “at home,” here “on the ground,” when people have to go to Minneapolis — and suffer condemnation for it from their church — to see a face of God that should already have been turned towards them daily in and by the home of the good news of Jesus Christ.]

Read More . . .

An internet search for “Re-Imagining 1993” will yield an immense volume of criticism of the Conference (a good representative would be the comments at Brethren Renewal Online, which include the text of a statement of protest signed by many leaders of the critical response from other denominations); it is far more difficult to find neutral or positive treatments of the Conference (but maybe I didn’t use the right key words).

Stephen Goode’s analysis “Feminists’ crusade sparks holy war” from Insight on the News July 25, 1994 tries to cover both conference participants’ and critics’ interpretations and motives

Sojourners made space for Janice Love’s, “Commentary – Finding Space to Reimagine God” (free registration required to access the article)

LPTS Alum Alexa Smith covered a Re-Imagining Revival in 1998 and the shadow of Re-Imagining in Mary Elva Smith’s remarks about plans for the Women’s Ministries Program Area in 2001

Janet Fishburn, in “Theological Education: A Reformed Imperative”, advances the thesis that the “Old Light/New Light” controversy is still with the Presbyterian Church, uses the Re-Imagining Conference as a case in point

Rosemary Radford Reuther, in “Can Women Stay in the Church?”, has a different negative take on Re-Imagining

Or, read the memoir: Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds., Re-Membering and Re-Imagining

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About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

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