Series 41: For the Love of Faith Shakers | Episode 04
Who Says God is a White Man? Finding Ourselves in the Divine with Dr. Christena Cleveland
We’re back with a fourth episode in this powerful series; For the Love of Faith Shakers. As many of us who might have come from a Western evangelical Christian community, we were presented a God that has a strong patriarchal presence. As we dig into the history of that, we learn that this image has been crafted, held together and governed by men, as those in power tend to shape the deities as they want to see them. However, history–the same written and oral history that gives us the basis for the Bible–tells us that Jesus likely wasn’t caucasian with blue eyes as we often see him depicted, but that he was Jewish, born and raised in the middle east and more than likely, was a person of color. But the image of white Jesus took root, as well as God as a white man, his father, also a man, emerging from the clouds in a fury–ruling with an iron fist. This generally serves one group of people in one gender, but has been so painful and difficult for black and brown and female and LGBTQ+ communities to see themselves in their creator; and to feel safe with this God, to feel cherished, to feel protected, to feel included. And so to give us some insight toward moving beyond this narrow, potentially abusive and oppressive view of God, we’re talking with Dr. Christena Cleveland. Dr. Cleveland is a social psychologist, an author and activist who grew up in white evangelical spaces and was a popular speaker and influencer in that world for many years. As a researcher and former professor of Divinity at Duke University, she’s done some amazing study around the patriarchal forces in Christianity and other religions, which led to some dismantling of this practice of silencing the feminine side of God’s intimate presence in our life. It wasn’t until she looked at her own history of being “othered” by the white leaders in her religious background that she began to understand the tension she felt about her relationship to God as a black woman. This led to a journey of figuring out who God was to her and how we all–no matter our gender or our color–can find ourselves in the Divine.
Hey everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your host at the For the Love podcast. Welcome to the show. So we’re in a series right now called For the Love of Faith Shakers. And this is our third faith series that we’ve done. We really wanted to talk to powerful, intelligent, and thoughtful leaders of faith who are not inside the traditional faith structures. They’ve just been shaking it up. They’re pushing hard on old forms. They are flourishing in different spaces, with different communities and we have so much to learn from them.
And so let’s start here with today’s guest. So I think most of us have heard the phrase, at some point, “God is a woman.” Maybe you’ve come across thoughts and theology from others who have really mused about our creator using a wider lens, like scholars and theologians who have spent years and centuries, of course, looking into this idea of the feminine divine. And so as you can imagine, that creates quite a swirl in the evangelical western Christian community. And not just that, I mean, even others since most religions have had a very strong patriarchal bit since the beginning of time. They’ve been crafted and held together and governed by men. And so those in power tend to shape their deities as they want to see them, which looks a lot like them.
So back in the day, somehow Jesus, who’s a Jew who lived in the middle east, ended up being a Caucasian man with blue eyes and long brown hair, usually wearing white robes. It’s interesting though viewing Jesus as a white man and God, his father, was a man, period, emerging from clouds, with this stern disposition and ruling with an iron fist and this powerful, almost punitive approach to humanity. That idea generally serves one group of people in one gender which makes it so painful and difficult for black and brown and female and LGBTQ+ communities to see themselves in this personification. Not just see themselves, but feel safe with this God, to feel cherished, to feel protected, to feel included.
So it is the work of a lifetime, honestly, to upend those images and ideas of God and Jesus that we’ve been shown. But I wonder what if there’s mystery? What if there’s more mystery here than we’ve been taught, than we’ve been allowed to consider? What if God is representative of all the people that he created, just as love is for all, right?
These are hard discussions, and they break apart some notions that feel safe to a lot of us. But they’re good and they’re important because they expand our thoughts. They expand our beliefs, or even just our curiosity to this idea, this possibility that God cannot just be defined in one way.
And so to give us some insight toward moving beyond this narrow, what ends up being an abusive and oppressive view of God, we’ve got today, Dr. Christena Cleveland here.
So Dr. Cleveland, she’s a social psychologist, she’s a public theologian, she’s an author, and she’s an activist. Christena founded the Center for Justice and Renewal, along with its sister organization, Sacred Folk, where she provides this framework for people’s spiritual imaginations. She’s also, no big deal, an award-winning researcher, a former professor at Duke University’s Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Essence and Christianity Today. She’s done some amazing study around the patriarchal forces in Christianity and other religions, and then she dismantles this practice of silencing the feminine side of God’s intimate presence in our life simply to further patriarchal aims.
Her new book that we’re going to talk about at length is titled God Is a Black Woman. You see where we’re going. It was published just a few weeks ago. So I want you to open your heart. I want you to open your mind. I want you to open your ears, dear listener. This is a very liberating conversation. It is thought provoking. It is powerful. I feel very energized today talking to her and feeling this sense of truth and wisdom and comfort settling in my bones as I listen to this powerful leader talk about the feminine divine. And so I’m excited for you to be here and to listen. Buckle in here and get ready for this incredible conversation with the absolutely delightful and wonderful and smart Dr. Christena Cleveland.
Books and Resources Mentioned in this Episode:
God Is a Black Woman
by Dr. Christena Cleveland
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XO – Team Jen