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The Divine Feminine

A note - Blogging isn't free. Right now I provide gifts to my writers as a way of thanking people for writing. I would like to be able to afford to give them some sort of renumeration, even if it is small, for making this blog what it is. I'm in talks with a friend who may be able to help connect this blog, which has been in existence for one year now, with more religious communities dedicated to interfaith dialogue. Your donation will do a lot toward making that happen.



I originally submitted this article for Truthout, which published an essay by me about Thomas Merton a little over  a year ago. I got notified that it got passed over for publication by their editorial board. I thought it would be a good fit for the blog.


The Divine Feminine

If there ever was evidence for patriarchy, organized religion certainly is it. Throughout all of the major religions, men dominate the leadership structure and are the most predominant in figures of reverence. It's not simply a problem of how organizations are formed, either – unorthodox religious thinkers seem to be predominantly male too, with figures like Alan Watts or the Dalai Lama at the forefront.

There are exceptions. One of the greatest historians of religion is Karen Armstrong, who has written serious books about the major faiths of the world. Malala Yousavzai has bravely, despite assassination attempts, put herself out not only as a feminist and women's rights proponent but as a Muslim as well. Most significantly, women are venerated on a core level for many Catholics – Mother Theresa is venerated by most Catholics, Mary is seen as the vessel of Christ and Mary Magdalene is seen as an example of Christ's mercy in scripture, even if it is within the Catholic structure that women are kept out from positions of authority. (Francis, despite his liberalism otherwise, has said “that door is closed” when pressed on the issue.)

There also were venerated figures in Christian history such as Teresa of Avila, a prominent figure during the Counter Reformation, a period in which the Catholic Church aggressively sought to stop the spread of Protestantism. She was founder of the Discalced Carmelites order, which she helped form alongside John of the Cross. Teresa famously was quoted as saying, “Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything.”gh

Other exceptions exist especially in the periphery of the Christian world. Women have a prominent role in the Christian Science church. While it has an understandably controversial basis, that church, started by Mary Baker Eddy in New England in 1875, doesn't avoid women's issues the way many religious organizations do – in fact, their official website bears a prominent article by writer Monica Karal in which she writes that “poverty, forced marriages, and violence against women are some of the many issues in which change is urgently needed.”

That article adds a profound illumination on the relationship between men and women. Both men and women are both guilty of perpetuating alienation – sexual entitlement and violence on the side of men and mistrust and false accusation on the side of women often perpetuate discord. Karal adds that the divergent qualities of men and women are not there to provide discord but that they are meant to be “complementary, not oppositional nor competitive. They interact to form a dynamic whole that promotes innovation, progress, and true satisfaction for everyone. Each of us is created with the ability to lead with our strengths and to learn from the strengths of others.” She adds further that “I believe humanity will increasingly see that the true nature of men is not to limit or harm women, but to appreciate their value to the community and to work with them side by side.”

We live in a time of unprecedented female engagement in society, with the predictable unsettling by men threatened by this new paradigm (many of America's mass shooters have been men who railed about women who rejected them). We also live in a time in which religious influence is shifting dramatically – Francis represents a pope of the developing world. If there ever was a time for women to gain a leadership role in institutions of religion, now is that time. With that gain in leadership, there also should be an incorporation of feminism in theology.

A Return to the Divine Feminine

A return to the divine feminine would place an emphasis on healing instead of control and tradition, patriarchal concepts which have dominated faith for a long time. As I researched for this article, a lot of the writing that I found mentioned “mystique” and “mystic” very frequently. The nature of man is much more simplistic than of women – men, at their best, seek to protect and maintain. That's why they emphasize tradition and defense so much. At their worst, men further aggression, dominance and intolerance – those same impulses taken to an extreme.

Female nature is far more complex. In popular folklore, women are often portrayed as elusive, mysterious and angelic. The “Sirens,” a group of sweet voiced beautiful women that transfix George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? are a fantastic example of this vision of women – the three central characters, on the run from the law, look positively in awe as these three women walk out of the river toward them and sing “Don't you weep, pretty babe.” Women are much more complex than men, although not as indecipherable as some may think, adding to the mystic nature.

Women have for so long been absent in religious leadership that it is hard to imagine what theology with them at the helm would look like. What can be imagined, however, is what it would not look like. The “rhythm method,” a calendar based contraceptive method arrived at by Roman Catholic physician John Smulders, would seem like a good example of the many male imposed sexual regiments incorporated in the Catholic canon.

Pope Francis has disappointed some by saying he doesn't see the possibility of women ever entering the Catholic church's priesthood. He has been more radical than one would possibly have hoped for from a Catholic leader – there are still limits on how far his radicalism could go. Nevertheless, he has provided many wonderful quotes on the contribution of women to religious life, illustrating that his personal views may be a bit more left than the church tentacles would allow him to be. A great one was that “women have much to tell us in today's society. Sometimes we're too macho, and we don't leave enough room for women,” adding “women are able to ask questions that men can't understand.” He reinforced that theology itself “cannot be done without the female touch.”

A more feminine theology would focus much more on the mystique and wonder of our existence, the world and the universe, with the stewardship necessary and move away from the sex obsession and defense that characterizes masculine theology. The misandry, extremism and anger of much of the feminist movement demonstrate that a more feminine theology could go in unsavory directions but there would be much more ambiguity and reverence for creation than what we've received traditionally.

Father Versus Mother

Science is how we observe the world and the universe – religion, on the other hand, is how we perceive it. The earth is a parent for human beings – it provides the means for us to breathe, evolve and exist.

The Judeo-Christian perception of our planet and of God is masculine and fatherly. God is referred to as “he” throughout both the Old and New Testament and the Trinity – the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit – is an intensely patriarchal concept. Whereas mothers typically are seen as nurturers, fathers are seen as stern – the sacrificing of his only son by God seems quite a bit like that of a very stern father.

Naomi Klein, a self described “Jewish feminist” who was invited by Pope Francis to collaborate regarding climate change, has written that this was a historical break from other traditions. Christianity was a very realist religion – we see the Messiah crucified and humiliated by the very people he came to save. Other pagan traditions were far more mystical. There are elements of both a mystical and a fallen nature in our world, however – our existence is often mysterious in its wonder and greatness but all too predictable in its tragedies and failings.

The mystical notion of a mother god have been directly challenged by conservatives as figures like Francis have sought to revive it. Hans Fiene, a Lutheran pastor from Illinois and the creation of Lutheran Satire, writing for the conservative magazine The Federalist, wrote mockingly in reception of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si that “the earth is not my sister.” While writing a bit satirically and not with the sort of venom that some conservatives have greeted Pope Francis with, Fiene writes of the many destructive things that the world meets humanity from the small, like staph infections and poisonous plants, to the large, like tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. Fiene's perspective certainly illustrates why people in rural areas, more familiar with nature, are more likely to both believe in God and fear him.

Concepts of God as a male father work when military victories are needed and social organization is needed. When environmental calamity along with truly pointless conflicts face humanity, the incentives for course corrections present themselves and with that correction, a shift in how we perceive God is in order.

In her article, “A Radical Vatican?”, published in the New Yorker after her visit to the Vatican, Klein cites frequently an Irish Catholic priest she spoke with – Sean McDonagh – who proclaimed that the Catholic church is approaching “a new theology.” Awed by the fact that McDonagh seemed to revel in a period which Catholicism was reworking itself in dramatic, radical ways, Klein asked if the Bible “falls apart at some point” in the face of so many fundamental challenges, to which he shrugged. Klein observed, “If Genesis needs a prequel, that's not such a big deal. Indeed, I get the distinct sense that he'd be happy to be part of the drafting committee.”

Religion indeed is the interpretation of our world and universe – not the literal word of God. Genesis describes God's activity from a third person perspective, not proclaim it from a first. A gender swap in how we perceive God would truly be revolutionary – mothers provide and nurture for their children whereas fathers tend to see their lineage in their children. A masculine image of God brings us the perverse sex obsessions of much of the Christian world, especially Catholicism, whereas a feminine image of God would bring knowledge that the world and universe birthed us and nurtured us but we are not it. We can destitute this world enough that it will continue on without us, much as the next door planet seemed to do.

Sources

Francis. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home. Vatican City: Vatican Web Site, 2015. Print.

Karal, Monica. "Celebrating Women - Christian Science." Christian Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Klein, Naomi. “A Radical Vatican?” The New Yorker, 29 June 2015. Web.

Wills, Garry. The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Divine Feminine

Monica Karal – Women's Rights, Christian Science Monitor

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