Christian Feminist Letha Dawson Scanzoni Taught Me To Be Friends With God | Sojourners

Christian Feminist Letha Dawson Scanzoni Taught Me To Be Friends With God

Letha Dawson Scanzoni. Graphic includes elements from the book ‘All We’re Meant to Be,’ By Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty. Image by Mitchell Atencio/Sojourners.

“I don’t get that song,” I confessed.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni had just sent me Kathryn Christian’s Come, Holy Mother album because she knew I would appreciate its divine feminine imagery. And I did. Except for the tune, “Sacred Love,” which is based on medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg’s description of love between humanity and God. I was put off by its lyrics: “I, your God, burn with desire for you. Open your heart, I come and I wash you anew. Like a lover longing in the night, I come, I come to you.” The words felt too intimate for someone still recovering from spiritual trauma.

But this was not Letha’s experience. In The Other Evangelicals, Isaac B. Sharp describes the theological marginalization of liberal, Black, progressive, feminist, and gay Christians within post-World War II evangelicalism, a discrimination that included Letha, who was excluded from evangelicalism, in part, because of her feminist convictions. Contrary to the assumed “big tent” brand of conservative Christianity, each of these diverse groups was “defeated by the straight-white-male-conservative evangelical power structure.” Still, even though she had been pushed to the theological margins by evangelical gatekeepers, her relationship with God didn’t suffer such marginalization.

Born in Pittsburg on Oct. 9, 1935, Letha was an independent scholar, writer, editor, and writing consultant who specialized in the intersections of religion and social issues. She passed away on Jan. 9, 2024, at a nursing facility in Charlotte, N.C. She was 88.

Her primary metaphor for God was that of a loving friend. She understood Jesus to be the perfect embodiment of the friendship that God offered. For her, this meant that just like a friend changes their likes, activities, and interests due to the growth of a relationship, God also changes because of God’s friendship with us. In any true and deep friendship, both of the friends, as well as the relationship itself, will necessarily shift and adapt. Nothing can stay the same because deep caring calls for responsiveness. “To think God doesn’t change,” Letha said, “doesn’t account for God to have empathy and compassion for us.” She wasn’t striving to put a particular branch of theology into practice, she just trusted her experience.

One time, she asked me to pray that she could find something she very much needed but had misplaced. She knew how much I resisted the idea of God as the great sky vending machine, so she was treading gingerly. Before I responded, I asked her why she thought it would help. She chuckled as she answered: “I have already looked everywhere I know to look, many times over. I am becoming anxious and that is making me less efficient in my work and less effective in my efforts to find it. If you were here, you would gladly join me in my search, wouldn’t you?” she asked. “So, doesn’t it seem reasonable that my divine friend would also be grateful that I asked? And, in bringing this need out in the open, might this open me to see places I’ve overlooked in my frantic searching?”

Some weeks later, we returned to the subject of divine love, as so many of our conversations involved theology and biblical interpretation. It was then that she shared with me how one of her favorite texts was Song of Songs. It spoke to the closeness she felt with God. Even though she was not a mystic and she didn’t feel compelled to undertake a specific spiritual program or practice to foster religious experience, she did trust that God feels “lovesick” for us.

As a teen, she read Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? and shortly thereafter, responded by shifting her dream of traveling as a professional musician (well within reach, given her acceptance to and matriculation at Eastman School of Music) to using her talent, musical and otherwise, to follow any path that God called her to walk. She never looked back from this calling and never lost confidence in the communion she had with God.

Letha appreciated metaphors of divine intimacy because they reflect oneness — union — with God. The womb-like sense of being enveloped in God was comforting to her. Even the idea of ecstasy as a momentary flash of pleasure, of being lifted up, if only fleetingly, spoke to her of the deep connection to which God, the Beloved, calls us.

Given all this, some might want to judge Letha’s relationship with God as narrowly focused and individualized — a “Jesus-and-me” approach. But that would be inaccurate.

Letha’s friendship with God taught her that people and their life circumstances, feelings, challenges, and lived realities all should be given priority over rigid theologies and systems. Because of this, she was sometimes accused of slippery-slope thinking — the idea that when someone embraces one belief that falls outside of an arbitrary boundary, they soon do away with the boundaries altogether. She rejected this analogy and instead advocated for a “love thy neighbor” approach, where empathy and relationship outweigh rules and restrictions.

When Letha felt alone in her public stance that God meant for women to be all they were meant to be, she knew God, her loyal friend, would give her strength to stand strong. When she stepped out to make the case that God’s love knew no partiality due to one’s sexual identity, she trusted that God wouldn’t forsake her.

The preface to the updated version of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1994) included correspondence between the two authors, Letha and her co-author Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Letha wrote to Mollenkott that she felt a little like Peter must have felt when he had to revise his thinking about the role of the law in his faith. She admitted that while she felt lonely because of her public stance, the feeling was positive because it helped her to identify more with others who feel alone. In that letter, Letha says to her friend Virginia, “... if we’re going to be talking about ‘incarnational theology’ we’ve got to be willing to live it, as Jesus did, and identify with the oppressed, the needy, the outcast, and the downcast.”

She once read in Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Seeds of Heaven about the difference between a single and shared yoke and resonated with the important distinction: A single yoke enables someone to carry a heavy burden for a time but, eventually, they will become exhausted and unable to continue. On the other hand, a shared yoke works differently: It enables true sharing, where someone can carry the brunt of a load while the other assists, and then vice-versa. This way, both can persist without laying down the burden and without becoming weary.

Letha’s justice-oriented work at the margins of Christianity both introduced her to Jesus and later alienated her from the institutional church. Her indefatigable activism required that she be invested for the long haul. What called, inspired, and sustained her was the friend she had in Jesus.