Thursday, March 05, 2009

For Women's History Month:Religion 1970-2008

We are, you and I, living history: We are living participants and witnesses to an important time in the history of women and religion; and we are living in a history that we have been part of yesterday and today and that is likely to have significant impact on the future role of women in religion. In the past few years, some of us have felt that we are backsliding, losing ground once gained, or that our progress was being blocked by the old paradigm, by forces of that paradigm that wouldn't let us move forward. Yet in other ways some of us are also able to sense just around the corner a greater breakthrough to equality and freedom for women and its positive effect on spiritual seekers of all genders.

With this as a backdrop, to mark Women’s History Month I’m offering excerpts, with permission, from the 1997 Introduction and 2008 Preface to Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century by Judith Laura. What follows is of necessity a brief summary of what has occurred from my point of view, especially in the US. Your views and experience may differ, depending on where you live, when you became involved in spiritual feminism, and other factors. If you’d like to add your own take on the recent history of women and religion – including personal anecdotes – that would be great! Please leave them as comments

A vibrant new form of spirituality emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Variously known as women's spirituality, feminist theology, and Goddess spirituality, it was born of mid-century feminism. From a few people, scattered across the country, musing privately over the possibility of divinity imaged as female, it grew to a spiritual movement replete with traditions, rituals, and hundreds of thousands of participants not only in the United States but also in many other countries around the globe.

My involvement began in the mid-1970s, when I wondered if religion, like other social institutions, had been influenced by the patriarchal suppression and devaluation of women. There were then few books even touching on the subject, but in a bookstore specializing in esoteric, old books, I found the works of Helen Diner and Esther Harding. They revealed that worship of deity as female existed – indeed it was virtually universal – not only before Judaism and Christianity, but before even the Greek, Roman, and other pantheons in which goddesses were reduced to serving as the wives or daughters of gods.

This information had, by the late 1980s, become more widely published and elaborated upon by contemporary anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and theo(a)logians. This spiritual movement encompasses many traditions including Pagan, Christian, and Jewish. It also draws inspiration from Native American, African, and Asian traditions….Perhaps the greatest influence has been Pagan....Though quite diverse in their beliefs and practices, in general these groups worship the Goddess and her son/consort, the God (usually characterized as horned, showing his closeness to nature). Some groups, however, worship exclusively the Goddess in her many aspects and personalities and names. I've observed, however, that just because a group bills itself as Pagan and honors the Goddess doesn't mean that it is automatically free of sexism, particularly in the language used in its rituals and in group interactions. It seems that some Pagan groups, particularly those that predate the feminist spirituality awakening and whose traditions have remained unchanged by it, may also be burdened by patriarchal customs similar to those plaguing other religions.

Within Christian feminism, at least two movements have emerged: Women-Church and the Re-Imagining Community. Most observers credit liberation theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether with starting the Women-Church movement in the 1980s. Initially a mostly Catholic and Anglican movement, Women-Church asserts that women cannot function as whole spiritual persons and still stay strictly within the church....Women-Church advocates, therefore, that women form an exodus from the church and, still retaining their Christian roots, create their own rituals, traditions, and sacred spaces. In addressing divinity, if any gender is used, it is female. The imagery used to describe divinity is also female. A similar movement, the Re-Imagining Community, began in the early '90s. Headquartered in Minneapolis, the community's mission extends to many areas of church life and belief and involves women and some men from many Protestant denominations. Participants at a conference in Minneapolis in 1994, before they spoke, invoked Sophia as Divine Wisdom personified as female. The conference – and some of the participating clergy – were later denounced by some home churches. Nevertheless, a significant number of laypeople and clergy had served notice to their denominations that continuing to personify divinity as "God, he" would no longer do…. One of the Re-Imagining Community's prayers begins:

Bless Sophia, Spirit of Wisdom and Truth,
we who continue to seek new life and a
new vision for the church.

The efforts are similar but perhaps more fragmented for Jewish women. While writers like Blu Greenberg try to beat a path through the morass of Orthodox laws and customs, those customs remain unchanged, and the women within Orthodoxy, like many Roman Catholic women who still blindly follow the Pope, remain bound – or at least reconciled – to those traditions. Conservative Judaism is a mixed bag, apparently depending on the location of the congregation and the openness of the rabbi to new ways of thinking. Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism continue to be the most comfortable with adapting their worship forms to accommodate objections to exclusive male-god language as well as the lack of female divine imagery. These groups also are at the forefront of including women as full participants, including women as cantors and rabbis. The Jewish Renewal Movement, a kind of New Age manifestation in Judaism, seems to be making a particular effort to incorporate what Jewish Renewalists usually refer to as the "feminine divine" or the "female face of God." Yet, even in these groups, for the most part, the implication is that God is still "he," but he has a feminine side or aspect.
In her groundbreaking book, Standing Again at Sinai, Judith Plaskow advocates what some might consider revolutionary changes in Jewish thought to enable women to become spiritually empowered while staying within that tradition. Some Jewish women have formed their own feminist spirituality groups, sometimes within and sometimes outside the synagogue walls….

From the evolving forms of feminist spirituality in Pagan, Jewish, and Christian settings, many traditions and practices have emerged - from rituals that begin with casting a circle to women's seders. Yet, there is, for some, a yearning for additional metaphysical or mystical paths consistent with Goddess spirituality and with contemporary life, including scientific knowledge. This yearning may lead participants to explore other spiritual forms such as "New Age" philosophies, theosophy, gnosticism, and other Western esoteric traditions. These explorers [may find] in what are touted as modern and open traditions many of the same patriarchal prejudices that persist in traditional religion....

…. Since the initial publication of Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century in 1997, the greatest influences bringing change to Goddess spirituality in general have been the Internet, Goddess Temples, and the increasing acceptance of Goddess imagery in some forms of Christianity and Judaism.

....Early on, the phenomenon of "mailing lists," discussion groups connected by email, brought into world-wide community people interested in Goddess and in women's role in religion. The exchange of ideas on these lists, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was invaluable not only in increasing available information but also in lessening the isolation of some of the participants who, until then, may have felt alone on their Goddess path. With the growth of the World Wide Web, hundreds to thousands of websites arose with information about the divine personified as female. This made information about Goddess studies, theory, groups, individuals, and rituals available in a way that was unimaginable [earlier]....Today a lively Goddess blog community supplements earlier Internet phenomena with very personal views and additional ways to interact and exchange opinions. Most Goddess folk no longer feel isolated even if they live in a geographical community that is less then welcoming to their beliefs. Such isolation is being replaced by the feeling that many people share this spiritual path, which is growing in perhaps unforeseen ways. Indeed, sometimes we may feel overwhelmed by the amount of Internet information about Goddess and other spiritual feminisms and the challenge of figuring out which websites, blogs, and individuals offer credible information and valuable theories.

The emergence of Goddess Temples as well as the increased acceptance of female divine images in Judaism and Christianity may be, at least in part, related to Internet influences and to the feeling that it is time for an organized, public community in real life. Although many of us love outdoor rituals and also enjoy the feeling of warmth that comes with meeting in each other's homes, there is a growing realization that to avoid having to "reinvent the wheel" every few years when groups develop and then dissolve, and to better serve the emerging and growing Goddess community, it's important to have buildings dedicated to Goddess reverence. At this writing, there are Goddess Temples in North America, Europe, and Australia. Most of these Temples are not affiliated with any mainstream Goddess-inclusive religion, such as Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism, or with any specific branch of contemporary Paganism or Wicca. Rather, many of these Temples honor a wide spectrum of goddesses and have a variety of rituals and programs extending to a number of different traditions, some of them newly created. A growing number of people identify as
"Goddessian," meaning either a distinct Pagan sect, or a group apart from Paganism that could theoretically include Goddess Christians and Goddess Jews, among others.

The increase in people identifying as Goddess Christians is partly due to the influence of Christian feminism and partly to publicity surrounding various theories about the role of Mary Magdalene in early Christianity, with some contemporary Gnostic Christian sects giving her the status of Goddess or co-messiah with Jesus, and at least
one Lutheran church holding weekly Goddess rosary prayer hours.

There are at least two concurrent movements among people who come from Jewish backgrounds and are interested in incorporating reverence for deities of the Ancient Near East. Some of these people identify as "Jewitches." They have a strong interest in magic, both in Witchcraft in general and in the Jewish magical tradition in particular. At the same time, there are people who identify as "Goddess Jews." They usually have less of an interest in magic and more of an interest in feminist views of women's equality in religion. Some people identify as both Jewitch and Goddess Jew. The interest in Goddess Judaism is fed by the increasing archeological and anthropological evidence showing that ancient Hebrews
worshipped the Goddess Asherah , and probably other deities, in addition to the male deities Yahweh and El….

Interest in the relationship between Goddess and scientific theory is increasing in the Goddess community…but there is still room for more growth, which I believe will occur as an increasing number of Goddessians with advanced degrees in various sciences explore this area further. Of particular current interest are the relationships between Goddess and such topics as black holes and chaos theory, as well as other aspects of quantum physics and cosmology. [In addition to this book] Examples include Glenys D. Livingstone's PaGaian Cosmology: Reinventing Earth-based Goddess Religion (2005), Marcia Kelley Hunter's doctoral dissertation for Empresarial University of Costa Rica, In Search of Dark Mater: A mythopoetic study in imaginal cosmology (2003), science professor Jenny Kien's exploration of physiology and Kabbalah in Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism, and this book, which explores similarities between Goddess and quantum physics and cosmology. Of course the environmental sciences, as well as evolutionary theory, have been friends with Goddess spirituality for some time.
From Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century © Copyright 1997, 2008 by Judith Laura. All rights reserved.

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At Friday, March 06, 2009 8:04:00 AM, Blogger Eco Yogini said...

Beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing :) I loved reading about other religions and their movements towards the Goddess. This is inspiring and gives hope.
I will definitely be looking into Glenys D Livingstones book!

ps- I am so thankful to have found your blog, the term 'Pagan' just hasn't been sitting right with me for a few years and 'Goddessian' is perfect! Labels are so esoteric, but we love them and they can provide a sense of meaning and focus. You gave that to me :)
Blessings, Lisa


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