Feminist Conversations is a regular series here at Feminists For Choice. We spotlight feminists to find out what feminism means to them. Today I’m talking to Pastor Beverly Jane Phillips. Pastor Phillips was one of the first women in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to receive a Master of Divinity degree which she earned at San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1961. She was ordained to be the Hunger Action Enabler for Chicago Presbytery and later served as a regional organizer for Bread for the World in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. Now retired, Phillips and her husband live in Arizona, where she writes books, Bible studies, and texts for the women’s retreats which she leads. You can read her blog at www.beverlyjanephillips.com.
1. What was your motivation to attend Divinity School?
My motivation to attend divinity school was an experience of God speaking to me very clearly and unmistakably. Each summer when I was in college I volunteered as a counselor at a church camp for junior high kids. I was planning to be a children’s librarian but church and my faith were high priorities for me. The summer after my junior year of college I was the counselor for a cabin full of junior high girls at a Presbyterian Church camp in the woods near Lexington, Nebraska.
It was the tradition that on the last night of camp we would all gather around a big campfire to sing songs and hear a sermon by the director of the camp. In his sermon that night the director said, “Anyone can be a minister.” I have no idea what the rest of his message was about because those words were God speaking to me. It had only been two years that the Presbyterian Church denomination I belonged to would ordain women.
My first response to that statement was to laugh inwardly. It was absurd that God should call me, a shy woman to be a minister. The words kept resounding in my mind. I kept laughing. By the time the girls were all settled in their beds my laughter had turned to crying. I couldn’t believe that God would call me in such a vivid way and that he would think that I could be a minister.
The director and I were good friends so the next morning I confided in him what had happened to me. He accepted it completely and advised me to think about it for awhile and then to talk with my pastor about it. Even by then I knew that this experience was the voice of my God guiding me in his way. It was scary because it had only been two years since my branch of the Presbyterian Church had allowed the ordination of women. What made it even more scary was that my pastor, whom I respected and admired, spoke out strongly against it and had voted “no” every time it came up for a vote.
As much as I loved him, I was afraid to tell him about my call. I had already told my father and it upset him greatly. I did make an appointment to talk with my pastor and went into his office in fear and trembling. He listened intently and then said, “If God has called you to the ministry then far be it from me to stand in your way.” I couldn’t believe it! He and my father were my strongest supporters throughout the whole process of seeking ordination and of seminary.
2. How did you discover feminist theology, and how do you define that term for yourself?
I first discovered feminist theology in 1982 when I attended the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women at Purdue University. This gathering is held every three years and has been one of the greatest shapers of my spiritual and intellectual life. That first year that I attended they suggested that we read a book by Elizabeth Dodson Gray titled Green Pastures Lost. In it she was disputed the generations-old idea that the parts of creation are arranged in a triangle—God at the top, men under him, women under them, then children, animals and nature at the bottom.
That was my belief—even though I had been to seminary and survived happily being the only woman there studying toward ordination. I still believed that women were inferior to men. I disagreed with her throughout the whole book until I got to the last chapter and then I wrote in the end pages, “Why didn’t she say that in the first place!” I was hooked. From then on I read every feminist theologian and Bible scholar I could find.
I define feminist theology for myself by believing first of all that feminism is about the flourishing of women. My feminist theology which now extends to feminine names for God is based on the verse in Genesis 1:27 where the writer says: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Through the interpretations of men down through the ages the female part of God’s image has been erased—rather men have tried to erase it. I believe that when a statue of Mary cries or when an event like the Virgin of Guadalupe happens it is God our Mother trying to escape the shadows where people have placed on her. I believe that when women join together to proclaim the idea of God as feminine as well as masculine it is the feminine God trying to escape the chains of masculinity.
I am a Christian feminist theologian. That means that my experience as a Christian colors where I come from in my theology. I believe, like all feminists, that the reason for being feminist is to bring about the flourishing of women in all places. I believe this because I believe that God loves and honors women in the same way she loves and honors men. Jesus showed us this as he lived a life that was marked more by feminine values than by masculine ones. For example his saying that the first shall be last and the last first is not something many powerful men in any circumstance would believe or practice.
3. How have readers responded to Learning a New Language?
Most responses to Learning a New Language have been positive. The negative ones seem to fall into two groups. The first group is those who believe that God is male because Jesus and Bible say so and there should be no discussion of her being feminine. The other group is small but intense. They believe that Sophia is a Greek goddess and it is blasphemy to call God by a Pagan name.
The wonderful results I have seen from the other side of discussion of the book have far, far, far outweighed the negativity. I have had the opportunity to study the book with groups of people, mostly women, in several settings over the eight years since its publication. One group that still meets is a group of women from my church who read and critiqued it chapter by chapter as I wrote it. Another group of women studied it together in 2006 and still meet together to study feminist theology. They are the Phoenix Sophia Sisters. Still another group formed about a year and a half ago to study Learning a New Language together and they are still meeting. They are the Chandler Sophia Sisters.
Especially in the last two instances women who read and discuss the book together are bound to each other at a depth I have never seen before. And I have been part of many women’s groups over the years. I think what draws us to each other so strongly is the discovery we make together that we are worth way more than most of society is willing to admit. That we are strong and smart and most of all loved by God who looks like us. I have seen real and continuing healing take place in these groups.
I wrote Learning a New Language in order to pass on to other women the liberation and joy that I found in reading Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. I am still always looking for people who are interested in such discussion. They are few and far between (or maybe I just don’t know the right places to look for them), and so are buyers for the book.
Something that thrills me is that people who have read the book and people who know me well are picking up on the fact that God maybe, just maybe, is feminine as well as masculine. Every now and then someone in the church where I worship will correct themselves when they call God “he.” Or even in the course of saying something they will use feminine pronouns.
4. Aside from payer journals, what other suggestions do you have to help women develop their own sense of spirituality?
Praying with beads has furthered my spiritual growth in the past year. A friend who had worshiped at Her Church in San Francisco brought me a set of beads as a Christmas gift and I began using them immediately. Before I used them I thought praying a ritual prayer over and over would come to mean nothing. I have discovered that praying the “My mother…’ prayer over and over on the five beads in the strand opens my heart to Sophia in a way that makes me cry. Each time I say the prayer a sentence lights up that meets my needs at that very moment.
Being in a group of other women who are working with God to grow their spirituality is a vital part of this process. As women share their stories they are each one strengthened by the other.
The most important part of developing spirituality is being intentional about it! A woman must want, really want to grow spiritually. She must be willing to set aside special time to pray and meditate. It is not enough to offer up flash prayers as the thought occurs to her. If she wants a developing relationship with God, Sophia, the Divine One, she must make and take the time for conversation with God.
To get your own autographed copy of Learning a New Language, please email Pastor Phillips at email@example.com.
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.