The words of Proverbs 8 may be 2,500 years old yet we still find them radical and unnerving. The early Christians found them exciting. Here was someone (in the Old Testament) who identified as a person separate from another person both of whom were doing God’s creating work and were delighting in creation and each other. This sounded exactly like Jesus and the Father. Early Christians seeking scripture about Jesus quickly identified Jesus as Lady Wisdom, Sophia in Greek. It took many centuries for us to bury this divine woman. In 1992, Elizabeth Johnson published her masterful theological opus She Who Is, which helped recover this early notion of Jesus as Sophia. At the time many considered it radical. Congregations and women’s groups who tried to use it and its presentation of Jesus as Sophia could count on controversy. By the time I read it as a doctoral student 8 years ago we were all like, “Yeah, so?” The notion of God being for women or even presenting godself as a woman had grown more acceptable. We weren’t going to pay women properly or promote them to the top jobs or treat them as free agents allowed to do whatever anyone else was allowed to do, but we could grant that this one time God had called himself Sophia.
It seems to be how our society deals with difference. We don’t really embrace difference. We make opposing certain differences inappropriate. Back when the Defense of Marriage Act was still in place, Christians in favor of marriage equality tried arguing any number of ways, to no avail. But then some began trotting out examples of older issues. The religious arguments against gay marriage were in many cases almost verbatim the religious arguments against interracial marriage from the previous generation, and against desegregation from the generation before that. That got people’s attention. It didn’t take long after that for DOMA to get struck down. But society didn’t embrace difference. Society didn’t embrace gay marriage any more than it has embraced interracial marriage or desegregation. We tolerate those differences. We’ve deemed overt anti-black bigotry unacceptable. We’re in the process of deeming overt anti-LGB bigotry unacceptable. Systemic issues remain. Overt attacks today are aimed at transgender persons. Society will pick some new target, in time.
I think our difficulty with difference lies at the heart of our difficulty with Trinitarian dogma. We have a hard time thinking of God as three because that means three different people. When we confess that before all time there are three distinct persons who are one God, we struggle not because the math is a little wonky but because we struggle with difference. I like my God simple because then I can better understand him. I like him a him, because I’m a him. (Not one of those guys with the great beach bods, though, I can’t compete with that.) I like a God who looks out for my family and inspires my wife to earn a promotion so we can better provide for our kids, who helps my scholar friends finish their dissertations and get good jobs, and who fills each of you with peace that surpasses understanding, because those are things that I want. While I think some of them come from God, I am sure even those have been modified to look how I want them to look. And if I read Proverbs 8 seriously, I have to confess that my simple God who fulfills my desires is a major modification of a Trinity of persons relating.
In Proverbs 8, Sophia tells us she was there from the beginning, working and creating with God. She is, in the language of the Nicene Creed, the one “through whom all things were made.” “And,” she tells us, “I was daily in God’s delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” In this picture, God is a father and daughter delighting in each other and what they have made. With Audrey Leitzke’s permission, I share this image. By now most of you know of my guest spot with Give and Take in their Mothers’ Day concert. My girls were at rehearsals and got to hear me practicing at home. Audrey would want to sit with me while I played and sang “Hysteria.” Since the concert, I get multiple daily requests for “Hysteria.” Def Leppard’s Hysteria is my favorite album. As a teenager I listened to it after the lights were out every night, Side A one night, Side B the next. The title track is probably my favorite song from that album. I’ve been playing it on guitar since I was first playing. I play it now on my grandfather’s old dreadnought. I got to play it with people I love, and when I did, Audrey loved it. I am delighted that Audrey loves this song. She delights in it, rejoices that I play it, and I rejoice and delight in her singing along.
Now I know this is a sweet story, but that is not the point. I see a pale reflection of the Triune God in it. In this image God is the relationship—the rejoicing and delight we have in each other. Sophia tells us through Proverbs 8 that God is the loving relationship she and the other persons of the Trinity have with one another. There is no certainty or simplicity in that. I love that Audrey loves my singing and my playing, but it is not as though that is the sum total of our relationship. We’re peas in a pod, but we are not the same. I don’t know what she is thinking, she doesn’t know what I am feeling. We’re different. We can relate because we embrace the difference.
God being three distinct persons as they relate to us means that at the most basic, fundamental level, God embraces difference. Sophia does not merely tolerate the Holy Spirit. You know, she doesn’t say: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; go in one that isn’t mine! We’ve got an infinite number or rooms, Spirit, I don’t know why you’ve got to go into mine!” No. The triune persons embrace one another, and embrace the world. They rejoice in the world and delight in us. The Holy Spirit daily calls us and inspires us to rejoice and delight in those around us. The Holy Spirit does not call us merely to tolerate one another. It is nice that racist slurs and overt discrimination against blacks are no longer polite. It is nice that legally speaking women have fewer workplace barriers than they did 50 years ago. That alone is not embracing difference. God is talking about getting really close, too close for comfort.
God has already embraced us radically. We know today that in earliest Christianity symbols and metaphors for God were gender-fluid. That fluidity applied most of all to the Second Person of the Trinity, whom we call the Word, the Son, Jesus, who early Christians also called Sophia. No less a theological heavyweight than Augustine identified Jesus with Sophia. In his book, The Trinity, Augustine uses today’s First Reading to support the notion that this Second Person of the Trinity comes to us. He writes, “[Sophia] is sent in one way that she may be with human beings; she has been sent in another way that she herself might be a human being.” Elizabeth Johnson rephrased it, more bluntly and more beautifully, “Jesus is the human being Sophia became.” While our society debates permitting transgender protections, it bears mentioning that when the Second Person of the Trinity—Lady Wisdom, Divine Sophia—came to earth she identified as a man. He was named Jesus.
“Before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus says in John’s gospel. Before there was a creation, the Word was with God and the Word was God. That Word was Sophia. She was there with God, and God created the world through her. When she became human, she came in a different gender. She embraced difference. The infinite became finite, Sophia identified as Jesus of Nazareth. However different we are from those around us—friends, strangers, those who see things differently than we do—those differences pale in comparison to God’s difference from us. Yet God has become the opposite of all God is—the opposite size, the opposite strength, the opposite gender. In Christ, God embraces our difference.
And in Christ, God calls us to embrace difference around us. God shows up as a gender-fluid person who we used to call Sophia but who would prefer to be known as Jesus Christ right now, thanks. And he’s not here to tolerate us; he is here to embrace the difference. White, black, gay, straight, trans, cis, male, female, Christ doesn’t see past it; Christ embraces it. For God is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit embracing each other in their difference, and embracing creation in its difference. Old concept. Radical and unnerving, maybe. But exciting, yes?