Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Goddess Ethics

(This is my offering in response to the suggestion by Pax at Chrysalis that we blog about Pagan values and ethics this month. It is excerpted from my column in the issue 38 (summer '06) of The Beltane Papers and was titled "Who Says We’re Weak on Ethics?")

It may not be surprising when people outside the Goddess community say Goddess spirituality seems to have no ethical framework. But what is disconcerting is that we ourselves sometimes level this accusation, in online discussion groups and elsewhere. I think the claim that modern Goddess religion is "weak on ethics" is an error based on a false understanding of what ethics are, and of confusing ethics with rules. For example, in biblical Exodus, Moses tells recently freed slaves that God has given them Ten Commandments. In Abrahamic religions to this day, the Ten Commandments are rules that cannot be broken without serious consequences. These rules are fairly specific and they are considered the ethical basis of religion and in some countries, secular justice systems....

People may look at Goddess religions and see nothing as specifically stated as the Ten Commandments and conclude that contemporary Goddess religions lack ethics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually the Ten Commandments are not ethics in themselves, but rather are specific rules derived from an ethical viewpoint. That ethical viewpoint leaves little to individual choice. It reflects a view of human nature in which people can’t be trusted to act ethically without being told what is right and wrong. Because of this, it’s necessary to have a strict deity... as reflected in the statement: "I am a jealous God. . . ." I speculate that such an ethical viewpoint may have grown, at least partly, out of the need to keep order among people not used to freedom, who were at the time wandering in the desert without a strong social structure.

The ethical viewpoint of modern Goddess religions places more trust in human nature, perhaps because it emerged and flourishes in societies where people are already used to a good deal of freedom. Therefore, there is less of a need to give a laundry list of what is right, what is wrong, what is allowed, what is forbidden. The assumption is that through participation in Goddess veneration and through being exposed to Goddess teachings, the ability to distinguish right and wrong flows naturally to the individual, who is empowered to live ethically. Nevertheless, some of us involved in modern Goddess religions, possibly in response to the need to replace the patriarchal commandments with some other specifics, have sometimes created lists of sorts. These lists tend to be less specific and less forbidding—and more open—than the biblical commandments. For example, I included the following, titled "Her Words," in my 1989 book, She Lives! The Return of Our Great Mother:
Seek knowledge. Revere wisdom. Be joyful. Know pleasure. Love one another. Protect life. And live in peace.
In her 1997 book, Rebirth of the Goddess, the following "ethical touchstones" are proposed by Carol P. Christ:
Nurture life. Walk in love and beauty. Trust the knowledge that comes through the body. Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering. Take only what you need. Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations. Approach the taking of life with great restraint. Practice great generosity. Repair the web.
Neither I nor Carol Christ give these as "commandments," but rather as statements that can be used to sum up Goddess ethics. What are those ethics and where do they come from?

Sometimes our ethics flow from the imagery we use. Many of us honor the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The independent and strong Maiden aspect of the Goddess sets an example for women to be independent and strong and gives us permission to sometimes put our needs first; the Mother aspect sets nurturing as a valued behavior; and the Crone aspect teaches us to honor elders and to have the wisdom to know when change and transformation are necessary. Therefore, we consider as ethical: independent, assertive behavior by women; nurturing and compassionate caring; honoring elders, and changing what has become outmoded and restricts further healthy growth, both in ourselves and in our world.

Sometimes our ethics derive from commonly held tenets and concepts. For example, participants in Goddess spirituality who are Witches (and even some who aren’t), follow the Wiccan Rede: " 'An it harm none, do what ye will," which is understood as giving us permission for self-fulfillment based on a sort of honor system that trusts our ability to make judgments and decisions. At the same time, it warns against causing harm to any living thing, including the Earth. In addition, the Wiccan belief that "what you send, returns three times over," means that if you do good, you can expect good to be returned to you, and if you harm or do ill, the hurt will return to you, in portions multiplied three times. Another example is the phrase in the Charge of the Goddess, "all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals." This sanctifies sex and other pleasures without enumerating which are allowed, and without requiring further ritual to sanctify them. Acts of love are, in themselves and without anything fancy added, rituals of the Goddess. This results in an ethic affirming sexuality. Sex does not carry the implication of impurity nor does it need ceremonies to make it okay. There is a key word here, though, along with pleasure, and that is "love." If an act is "of love," it is non-exploitative, non-oppressive and entered into freely. So that rather than legitimizing sex through official ceremonies, it is legitimized by non-exploitative, non-oppressive, freely-given love.

Still other sources of ethics in the Goddess movement are the understanding that humans are part of nature and that all life is an interconnected web; thus, harming even a small part is to be avoided and may bring harm to the whole. We set partnership rather than domination as a goal for human societies; this leads us to place a high value on the ethics of cooperation, shared leadership, and consensus-building....

The complete text of this column, plus 13 other of my (Judith Laura's) columns from The Beltane Papers are available as an ebook, Goddess Spirituality at the Crossroads and Other Columns, 2002-2007.


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