An Evangelical Feminist Confronts the Goddess
by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Dr. Mollenkott is professor of English at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey, and the author of eight books, including Speech, Silence, Action! (Abingdon) and Biblical Imagery of God as Female (forthcoming from Crossroad.) This article appeared in the Christian Century October 20, 1982, p. 1043. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
. . In the beginning exists the Virgin
Glory to Her
for the joy in living
Trust in Her
wisdom and truth to guide you
This song, part of a record album titled Lavender Jane Loves Women, is called “Her Precious Love.” It is described on the jacket as “a religious tribute to the Mother-Goddess-Creator-Protector of life, love and joy. (The ‘H’ in ‘Her’ is always capitalized.)”
As much as I admire the loving, peace-affirming attitudes of the song, I am troubled by its separatism. In fact, because of songs like this, as well as Mary Daly’s book Gyn/Ecology and Carol Christ’s essay “Why Women Need the Goddess,” I had assumed that Goddess worship was always separatist, disregarding men. I knew by hearsay that some witch covens permitted male participation, but had thought that the male role would be so subordinate as to amount to a reverse sexism.
Black women and Jewish women cannot wholeheartedly participate in a feminism that rejects or ignores men, and neither can white women who are evangelical or biblical feminists. Whereas black women face a white racism that dictates their solidarity with black males, and Jewish women refuse to grant Hitler posthumous victories by turning against men and motherhood, evangelical feminists are too impressed by biblical images of the one family of humankind and the one body of Christ to be willing to structure a separatist solution to sexist inequities. Because of passages like Genesis 1:26-27, we evangelical feminists would feel that we were trampling on God’s image (and therefore ourselves) if we excluded men from our concerns, our worship and our language. Hence I had given little serious consideration to those who were reviving the ancient religion of the Goddess, except to lament that the Judeo-Christian tradition had been so patriarchal that it had forced many justice-oriented women into neo-paganism.
But recently I have discovered something that made Goddess worship a much more serious contender for thoughtful consideration. The fact is that only the relatively small lesbian-separatist contingent of Goddess worshipers speak and act in ways that exclude or scapegoat men. Mary Daly and Alix Dobkin (composer of “Her Precious Love”) are part of the lesbian-separatist movement -- a powerful and important movement because it provides a completely different alternative. By its very isolation, its radical purity of contrast, that alternative can show up the shortcomings of masculist culture, including the sexism of the Jewish and Christian establishments. Nevertheless, I was wrong to assume that all worshipers of the Goddess were separatist and hostile to those of us who are trying (along with feminist males) to bring about reform in Jewish and Christian structures and within the forms of worship.
“Be like me -- or else!” sentiments on either side are sad and clearly divisive. A feminist’s decision to live within or without patriarchal religion must be honored as a deeply felt expression of her self-determination. We honor multiplicity within unity -- which many of us feel is most accurately symbolized by the procreative Goddess from Whose womb comes the multiplicity who are of the One [The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (Anchor, 1982), xxviii].
Such pluralistic ability to respect others despite deeply felt difference from them is, of course, the essential ingredient of all interreligious dialogue.
It was my own fault that I was not sooner aware of that sort of wisdom. Several years ago someone had given me a copy of Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (Harper & Row, 1979), but because of my erroneous assumptions, I had never opened the book. Upon later examination I needed to read no further than the first few pages to discover the sexual inclusiveness of witchcraft. And Starhawk, while recognizing that exclusion of the male has great value for some women as an antidote to sexist contempt for women, explains that separatism has never been the mainstream view of witchcraft, which worships “the Triple Goddess of birth, love, and death, and . . . her Consort, the Hunter, who is Lord of the Dance of life” (p. 2).
Starhawk’s explanation of male-female polarity is typical of a central and healing dialectic in contemporary worship of the Great Goddess:
The Male and Female forces represent difference, yet they are not different, in essence: They are the same face flowing in opposite, but not opposed, directions. . . . Neither is “active” or “passive,” dark or light, dry or moist -- instead, each partakes of all those qualities. The Female is seen as the life-giving force, the power of manifestation, of energy flowing into the world to become form. The Male is seen as the death force in a positive, not a negative, sense: the force of limitation that is the necessary balance to unbridled creation. . . . They are part of a cycle, each dependent on the other. . . . Unchecked, the life force is cancer; unbridled, the death force is war and genocide. Together, they hold each other in the harmony that sustains life [p. 27].
While I do not like to think in terms of sexual polarity, preferring to think simply about human virtues, nevertheless to place witchcraft’s egalitarian male-female polarity into the context of a typical Sunday morning worship service is to recognize our terrific need for inclusive-language reforms. Since patriarchal imbalance has skewed us to the brink of nuclear disaster, prayers for deliverance from it sound extremely ironic when they are addressed to a Father whose love for a Son generates a male Holy Spirit.
And the fault is not really with the Bible, either, as all too many Christian feminists seem willing to claim. (We biblical feminists deny that St. Paul is a male chauvinist, for instance, and we think that such talk is dangerous to the survival of authentic Christianity.) If our holy book is in its basic intentions incurably sexist, then Naomi Goldenberg is right that all efforts to reform the Judeo-Christian tradition are rear-guard actions that will simply develop a new faith under the old labels. Goldenberg minces no words:
The feminist movement in Western culture is engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Yahveh. . . . The psychology of the Jewish and Christian religions depends on the masculine image that these religions have of their God. Feminists change the major psychological impact of Judaism and Christianity when they recognize women as religious leaders and as images of divinity [Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Beacon Press, 1979), pp. 4-5].
Goddess worshipers are cognizant of the power of symbolic language and ritual. For instance, Sophie Drinker comments, “In all the myths, rituals, sculpture, painting, and literature of antiquity, there is an all-pervading woman-presence. . . A realized truth generates creative power. From these noble images of women, energy flowed back to the individual woman, releasing and strengthening her imagination and her artistic impulse” (“The Origins of Music: Women’s Goddess Worship,” in The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, p. 30). Because Goddess worship not only generated creative energy in women but respect for women in men, the role and status of women in prepatriarchal societies was apparently rather high. (As Virgil commented, “We make our destinies by our choice of gods.”) Liturgical references to God exclusively as “he” are therefore unmasked for what, politically, they are: empowerment to the male and enervation to the female. This practice must stop.
Recent feminist scholarship has convinced me that worship of a God who sounds exclusively male is conducive to male primacy. Logic would therefore dictate that the only lasting way to right the social balance is to proclaim that God, who is Spirit, can and must be spoken of in ways that empower everyone. However, even though on the basis of Scripture I know that the Ultimate Reality is as much female as male, I reject the term Goddess. First, I view the word God as non-sex-specific. God is a job description for the all encompassing Being/Becoming who creates and empowers the universe. Second, whenever a feminine ending is tacked onto a job-descriptive word, the job itself tends to be trivialized (consider waiter/waitress, actor/actress). Therefore, despite my ready admission that all speech about God is metaphoric, I resist speaking about a Goddess, since the feminine ending in English is inevitably diminutive. Furthermore, to speak of the Goddess implies that she is literally female, hence that God is literally male -- the language of idolatry. On the other hand, we Christians can be convincing about our faith that God transcends human sexual limitations only if we are willing to refer to that God as “she” just as often as “he.” And in public, too. And in print. I have yet to see any major Christian magazine that consistently refers to God inclusively. What are we waiting for?
If by their example Goddess worshipers can teach us Jewish and Christian believers the importance of inclusiveness in our language and structures, they will have given us a very important gift. But they offer us many additional challenges and correctives. Space will permit only a brief listing.
It might aid our development of humility to recognize our complicity in the murder of thousands of women as witches. Witch-burning was the major technique for stamping out the Old Religion in Europe. It cannot be said often enough: many of the women executed as witches were healers, midwives and purveyors of folk wisdom. They were no more demon-possessed than the people who currently meet together in Starhawk’s coven and others like it.
Comprehending the horrors perpetrated by our own religious tradition may (we can hope) stimulate us to oppose new horrors and inequities. For instance, although the United States government has stripped Native American ownership to a mere 2.3 per cent of American soil, it seems highly ironic but hardly coincidental that that 2.3 per cent is now discovered to contain some 30 per cent of American oil, 30 per cent of strippable coal, 65 per cent of available uranium, and many other precious resources. Native Americans, in their reverence for Sacred Mother Earth, are trying to protect this remaining land from rape by multinational corporations and the federal government’s war machine. Feminist Holly Near sings about the resistance to technological rape of the land: “I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother’s daughter, / And you can’t just take my dreams away. Not with me watchin’ / No, you can’t just take my dreams away.”
From Goddess worshipers we might perhaps learn the importance of stressing the biblical theme of God’s immanence as opposed to an overemphasis on God’s transcendence. Surely it is no accident that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the symbols of God’s presence within human experience are feminine -- the Shekinah glory, Wisdom who cries in the streets, the Spirit, and so forth. Patriarchal Judeo-Christian tradition has tended to overemphasize transcendence as part of its repressing of female images of God in Scripture and holding women in secondary roles.
In the light of that history, it is understandable that many contemporary feminists assume that “patriarchal sacred texts, in which ethical codes are frozen in time, place authority and responsibility outside the individual -- in law, custom, and traditional roles” (Baba Cooper. “The Voice of Women’s Spirituality in Futurism,” The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, p. 505; emphasis mine). This doesn’t sound at all like the Bible as I now understand it, but it does sound like the externalized ethic still taught in many evangelical churches (to name only my own tradition). “Let God write your checks,” I remember hearing not so long ago -- and I wondered what on earth that could mean to people who are not trained to think of God’s living presence within the depths of their true selves. By contrast, witches in the Susan B. Anthony Coven are taught that “women are the Goddess every time we make a choice”; and all Goddess worshipers learn that, uncomfortable as it may feel, they must provide their own authority.
Other values central to Goddess worship include the importance of small intensive communities (covens do not normally exceed 13); the value of celebrative sex as (in Starhawk’s words) “the numinous means of deep connection with another human being, and with the Goddess”; ecological and human mutuality as opposed to one-way exploitation of nature; belief in the possibility of a noncoercive future and the need for positively envisioning and enacting it; and child-rearing techniques to compensate for sex differences. For instance, Spretnak writes,
With all the recent scientific findings that female and male brains are physiologically and functionally quite different, it becomes clear that cultivating the female mind with its impulse toward empathetic comprehension, communion, and harmony is essential to humankind’s surviving the myriad forms of patriarchal destruction, such as the “necessity” of a nuclear arms race [“Afterword: Feminist Politics and the Nature of Mind,” The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, p. 565].
Goddess worshipers are far from perfect, like all the rest of us, and they have some severe misconceptions about the Judeo-Christian tradition. Most do not seem aware that images of God as female are available in the Bible; some assume that Judeo-Christianity sees matter as evil; some assume that monotheism is of necessity totalitarian rather than pluralistic. But some of us evangelical feminists would argue that if one Creator is indeed responsible for all the tremendous variety of the creation, then radical monotheism of necessity must be pluralistic, receiving one God’s pluriform manifestations with gratitude and joy.
We all have a lot to learn, however, about the practical outworkings of nonjudgmental pluralism. Romans 12:10 (Jerusalem) gives us a good clue about living pluralistically: “Love each other as much as brothers [and sisters] should, and have a profound respect for each other.” A similar attitude is expressed in feminist music:
One thing I’ve
learned is never to assume
Don’t shut my
sister out, trust her .choices,
Don’t shut my brother out, either.