Sunday, July 19, 2009

Science & the Cutting Edge of Goddess Thought

This is the post I promised earlier this month to mark our 3rd blogging year–or the beginning of our 4th year—however you like to look at the passage of time. I’d like to explore with you the ideas of some authors who "push the envelope" of what has been become traditional in Goddess spirituality: Carol P. Christ, Glenys Livingstone, Jeri Lyn Studebaker and Judith Laura (who is me, when I’m not blogging). These aren't the only authors writing "on the edge"; they are mentioned here as being representative of a trend in Goddess spirituality, which many people think of as looking toward the past to prehistory, and too few realize can also represent the cutting edge of theo/alogical thinking. I want to invite you, after you read this post, to add as comments other authors you think are part of this trend.

Carol P. Christ’s book, She Who Changes (2003) brings us to the philosophical edge not only of Goddess spirituality, or Goddess religion as she sometimes calls it, but also of
the(o/a)logy in general, by combining Goddess thought with process theology. Process theology could be said to be a philosophy of religion that strives to be scientifically based. At the beginning of this book's second chapter, "Change Is," Christ writes:

For process theology, the whole universe is alive and changing, continually co-creating new possibilities of life....The world is a web of changing individuals interacting....The body is the locus of changing life....The universe as a whole is changing in a continual process of evolution....all individuals, including human beings, other animals, cells, atoms, and particles of atoms, exercise creative freedom. Goddess/God is fully involved in the changing lives of every individual in the universe and in the evolution of the whole. Creation is co-creation. The whole world or cosmos is the body of Goddess/God. For process theology change, freedom or creativity, are interconnected. Everything in the world is in process.
Seems compatible with Goddess spirituality, right?

A little further on, Christ refers specifically to the "uncertainty principle" of physics and writes that the incorporation of this concept into process theology leaves room for freedom of humans and other animals as well as "the freedom of atoms to act in unexpected ways." She also writes that process theology is different from notions, including some Goddess and Pagan views and the Gaia hypothosis, that see the Earth as the "world," which is identified with female deity. Christ writes that the process view insists that the "world"

is not just the earth, but the universe as a whole...that is the body of Goddess/God.
I see nothing incompatible with Goddess thought in this, in fact I and others (see below) have also encouraged such thinking.

Where some of us may have trouble with adopting process theology whole cloth is in its view of divination and death. To a process theologian, as Christ explains, predictive divination is useless and there is no continuation of conscious being after death. However, IMO, it may be that we need to consider that perhaps the objections of process theologians are based on faulty assumptions. In her introduction, Christ writes that when divination is used to get information about the future, it is based on assumptions about the future. But she describes only one such assumption (which conflicts with process theology because it doesn’t account for change or allow freedom):

One assumption that might be made is that there is some perspective...from which the future is already determined, already known, or has already happened

Though this may be one assumption, it is not the assumption that most of the divining Pagans and Goddessians I’m acquainted with make. Speaking for myself, in the type of divination I practice, Tarot, I assume quite differently and inform people I read for that the future is not set in stone, that they retain free will, and that we are looking at possibilities, likelihoods even, but not certainties. We shuffle the cards to achieve randomness, a quality of the Universe. I also studied psychic messaging (no cards) with a nonPagan whose inspiration came from the Western Esoteric Tradition. Easily the most influential metaphysical teacher in DC in the second half of the 20th century, she emphasized that in a psychic reading, the readee retains free will.

In chapter 5, "Life is Meant to be Enjoyed," setting up the process argument that "life" after death is impossible, Christ writes:

...for process thinking, body and soul or body and mind are understood to be one continuum. There is no reason to expect that the mind and soul can live apart from the body.
This seems to me to be a conflation of "mind" and "soul" that may not be accurate. Are mind and soul the same? Or is mind merely a lay term for "brain" or "intellect?" To me, it’s closer to the latter. "Mind" is not synonymous with "soul" to me; "soul" is closer to "spirit," and whether there is such a thing as "soul" (or spirit) cannot be proven or disproven scientifically. The process position, as Christ presents it, is that there are no such things as "personal immortality" and "reincarnation." Yet she writes that process theology also includes the concept that "There is nothing in life or death that can separate us from the love of Goddess/God." How to reconcile these statements? To me, "personal immortality" and "reincarnation" are two different religious beliefs or even doctrines. "Personal immortality," sounds like a Christian description to me; it was theoretically what humans gained through Jesus’s crucifixion. Reincarnation—that human souls reincarnate as other humans and sometimes animals—is a concept that originates in Eastern religions (though mystical Judaism has a similar concept, it has some distinct differences). These are just two possibilities of what happens after physical death. And even if they aren’t "true," that still leaves other possibilities. The question to me is, Is there persistence of consciousness on some level after physical death in this world? In discussing her own mother’s death, Carol Christ recalls feeling that her mother was "going to love." How can a person go to love, and be with love (after physical death) if she loses consciousness of that love? How can nothing separate us from the love of Goddess if we no longer are conscious of that love. Wouldn’t loss of that consciousness necessarily entail separation?

Since we cannot really know, I prefer leaving options open regarding the persistence of consciousness after death. Although many involved in Goddess spirituality believe in such enduring consciousness, and some also believe in reincarnation, there is also room for those who believe that this life is all we have, that we "live on" in the recycling of our biological materials and in the influence our lives have had on others (which is the position of process theology). I think allowing for more than one view in a subject to which we have conflicting data is, at root, more compatible with the scientific method.

OK. I’ve gotten more wound-up with She Who Changes than I planned, so moving right along:

Glenys Livingstone in her book, PaGaian Cosmology (2005, 2008), relies heavily on science—mostly biology and chemistry with some physics—to construct a contemporary understanding of Goddess consistent with scientific thought. Her book also is probably the first to fully explore the meaning of the Sabbats in the Southern Hemisphere (her home is in Australia).

In her Preface, Livingstone explains that word, "PaGaian":

...expresses a reclaiming of the term "Pagan" as meaning a person who dwells in "country", yet with "Gaian" spliced in, it expresses a renewed and contemporary understanding of that "country". Gaia is a name for humanity’s Habitat, an ancient yet new name, which I understand to include whole Earth and Cosmos—there is no seam separating Earth from Her context.
In the first chapter, she says that what she is speaking of is

not a Deity: therefore this is not "theology" nor even "thealogy". It is cosmology: what I am speaking of and work with is a Cosmos—a place....PaGaian Cosmology is a way of speaking about this Place: it implies a metaphor and a practice. It is a synthesis of "celebrating Gaia-Goddess-Cosmos".
She writes that cosmogenesis is the "ongoing creative activity of the Universe" and quotes Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry on Einstein’s Cosmogenetic Principle. Livingstone writes:

That principle states that every point in the Universe is the same as every other point—basically that hydrogen in this part of the cosmos can be assumed to be the same as hydrogen in another part of the cosmos.
This principle, she continues, also states that the "dynamics of evolution" are the same at every point in the Universe, and that this means, among other things, that

the same Creative principle that gives birth to the Universe, pervades every drop of it with the same creative potency—that the center of the Universe is everywhere.
In the second chapter, exploring embodiment, Livingstone writes:

We do have a genetic code within each cell, that is a physical memory of our origins...[ellipses hers] we are seeded with memory. This is especially true of the female body, whose ovum transmits the cytoplasm from one generation to the next.
And a few paragraphs later:

I am suspicious of "texts" that would erase the body...since in patriarchal cultures it is the female particularly that is associated with physical reality....The early Greeks denied her inclusion in the "kosmos" because of her messy body.
In a discussion of the terms "masculine" and "feminine," Livingstone looks at the popularity of describing the "active differentiating force" as masculine and relating that "force" to consciousness, with the corollary that "maternal" consciousness is "simply amorphous and chaotic, and incapable of evolutionary move." She counters by pointing out that

The biological emergence of the male at about 1.5 billion years ago, is quite distinct from so-called "emergence of consciousness", which is quite distinct from the development of Neolithic matristic cultures, which again is quite distinct from the development of patriarchy....There is no need to masculinize this force/face that urges the move into individuation and complexification....the consciousness of the Mother is not an amorphous sludge....She has...full creative capacity, has always been quite capable of change; in fact, it is in her very nature.
In the chapter, "Cosmogenesis and the Female Metaphor," Livingstone integrates scientific theories of cosmogenesis with the Virgin, Mother, and Crone aspects of Goddess. Later, she examines the spirochete bacterium as "an example of the Female Metaphor."

Jeri Lyn Studebaker’s book, Switching to Goddess (2008), contains a large amount of material about ancient (and persisting) Goddess cultures. Yet it also includes science-based material. Though warning against using science in place of or as a form of religion, Studebaker uses significant amounts of material from scientific literature–especially biology and biochemistry–to back up her arguments on such topics as human behavior, the difference between men and women (mothers, in particular), the role of oxytocin and the relationship of all of this to how we image deity. For more on this book, see our review .

Moving on to Judith Laura’s Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century (1997, 2008): the first chapter explores concepts in Goddess spirituality including various understandings of "Goddess" that go beyond the conception of a specific concrete deity:
...this understanding of Goddess as "something more than immanence" goes even beyond panentheism because energy is exchanged between the creator and the created. This synergistic divinity is individual people, animals, the Earth, the planets—yet is also greater than the sum of these parts, providing guidance, inspiration, and healing that we as individuals or even as a group, cannot provide on our own. Goddess is within each of us and we are within her. She flows through all; she flows outwardly to connect us to one another and to nature in which she is also immanent.
And a little later in that same chapter, the author writes that a concept similar to Mary Daly’s "Be-ing" as a verb rather than a noun has become common among Goddessians and continues:
Others consider Goddess a term for a form of energy or a metaphor....Understanding Goddess as spiritual energy means that we accept that there is a spiritual dimension to the Universe, that we can (and do) interact with this dimension, and that this dimension is best understood when characterized as Goddess....The difference between understanding Goddess as energy and Goddess as metaphor is that to understand the former, you need to accept that there is a spiritual dimension to the universe. If you cannot accept this...then you can still understand and honor the Goddess as a metaphor for the natural world, which is divine....our metaphor for divinity is Goddess the Process who is one with the Universe ....she is one with her creation...the creator and created are in constant flow...the universe is interactive and in constant flux...we are to live as part of nature.
In the book’s last chapter, "Taking the Quantum Leap," ideas from new physics—such as the formation of the Universe; space-time and relativity (which the author sees being a possible explanation for intuitive or psychic experiences); theories of light and cones of energy; particle physics including the uncertainty principle and the fields of gravity, electromagnetism, and weak and strong interaction; dark matter, black holes, and "the void"—are integrated with Goddess concepts. A section on "The Universe: Stars and Spirals" begins, in part, with the following:
Spirituality that honors the Goddess is often called "Earth-centered"....The term was first applied to the cosmology of Ptolemy...the Earth was said to be the center of Universe....Today we know the Universe behaves quite differently, and we are certainly aware that Earth is not its center. When we talk about Earth-centered spirituality or Earth religions today, we are more likely to have in mind our interdependence with the Earth from an ecological perspective and spirituality that fosters closeness to the Earth and its cycles. Yet we would do well to reexamine the term "Earth-centered" in light of its original meaning and our current intent....
Women have been culturally inculcated to believe science is too much for them to
handle....Patriarchal religion has taught us that science and religion are incompatible. Neither of these notions is true....We may, therefore, want to consider whether it might not be more appropriate to refer to what we now call Earth-centered spirituality as nature-centered, and its religions, nature religions. These terms include not only the Earth, but also the rest of the cosmos.

Even in the unlikely event that it were proven that the generally accepted version of Goddess veneration in prehistory was a figment of our collective imaginations, works such as these would argue strongly for the legitimacy of the Goddess path because they speak to issues in today’s world and are compatible with contemporary science. We will continue to be inspired by the Goddess cultures of the distant past, yet it’s clear to me that a significant part of the present and future of Goddess spirituality/religions lies in their compatibility with science. Critics who see us as a movement tied to and only influenced by the Neolithic are not looking at the whole picture.


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At Monday, July 20, 2009 1:34:00 AM, Blogger Strange Attractor said...

Thanks for these recommendations. The combination of scientific thought with goddess theology sounds fascinating. I'll be sure to put these on my reading list.


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