Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of Book Co-Authored by Carol P. Christ & Judith Plaskow

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (Fortress Press, 2016) 364 pages, trade paperback, 6” x 9,” also available as an e-book.

Written by two of the most well-known authors in feminist spirituality, Goddess and God in the World is an extraordinary combination of autobiography and theological discourse. In this book, the authors continue a relationship that goes back to their days at Yale graduate school, a relationship that also includes collaboration as editors of two landmark books: Womanspirit Rising: a Feminist Reader in Religion (1979), the first anthology of essays on feminist theology, which included Goddess, Jewish, and Christian authors; and Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (1989) an anthology that included authors from these and many other religions and cultures. Carol P. Christ is also author of 6 other books; Judith Plaskow is author of 5 other books. Both also have innumerable journal essays and articles to their credit. (All of their publications are listed in the backmatter of this book.)

The authors identify each other by only their first names in the book, so I will do the same in this review. Goddess and God in the World is the first book that Carol and Judith have co-authored, with each writing individual chapters and collaborating on other chapters, including the Introduction. A footnote in the Introduction reveals that a coin toss determined the order of the chapters and whose full name would come first on the cover and title page. The first part of the book focuses on autobiography, with its pattern a separate chapter by each author, followed by a jointly written chapter giving a more scholarly view of the autobiographical material. This pattern in repeated twice in Part I, “Embodied Theologies,” and ends with last two of Part I’s 8 chapters individually written. The second part of the book alternates chapters between authors in a conversation about theological issues many of which they feel have roots in their life stories. The last chapter in Part II is jointly written.

At the end of the jointly-written Introduction, the authors present 8 questions that, they write, “lie at the heart of our book.” They encourage readers to answer the questions before reading the book and again after reading it. These questions are:
Is God or Goddess to be found outside the world, or within it?
“Are we called to a life beyond the body and nature, or is this world our home and our bodily life the only life we have?
“Is there someone listening to us when we worship, pray, or meditate or is addressing Goddess or God a metaphoric way of speaking?
“Is everything that happens in the world the will of Goddess or God, or is the world shaped by chance and a multiplicity of wills?
“Is Goddess or God good, or does divine power include both good and evil?
“Does the idea that divinity loves the world inspire us to promote flourishing of all, or does the notion that divine power includes both good and evil encourage greater human responsibility for the fate of the Earth?
“Should we speak of Goddess, God, neither, or both?
“Is what each of us believes about divine power a personal choice with only private meaning, or do our beliefs matter because they shape the world we share?
(italics theirs)

In Carol’s first chapter, titled after a Protestant hymn,“For the Beauty of the Earth,” (Chapter 1 – she apparently won the coin toss), she writes about her life, beginning with her birth “just before Christmas” near the end of World War II, and continues to discuss religious background and incidents of her childhood and youth, including deaths of relatives, undergraduate college at Stanford — including a sophomore year abroad reading Dante and Augustine — and studying other matters relevant to Christian history. In her last two years at Stanford she studied “Old Testament” in Hebrew and became “fascinated with a God who did not stay in heaven, but came down to earth to enter into a covenant with His own special people.” She also studied Roman Catholic theology and authors considered Existentialist. She came to the conclusion that her “view of God was in many ways as Jewish as it was Christian.” She was accepted into the “Old Testament” program at Yale graduate school, during which her views changed, she experienced disappointments, and began to develop feminist thoughts and actions.

Apparently neither author was thrilled with the situation at Yale. Judith’s first chapter (Chapter 2,“Stirrings,”) also begins at birth, with her statement, “I am certain that I was born a theologian.” She discusses her Jewish childhood, during which her family belonged to a Reform Temple though her mother grew up in a family participating in the Conservative branch of Judaism and her father’s in an Orthodox branch. Judith writes of attending Hebrew school for 12 years (my memory is that this was very unusual for a girl at that time, even in Reform Judaism). She recalls an incident when she was nine years old, when it suddenly occurred to her that “God might be a woman.” Though she didn’t think about this again for a number of years, it reappeared and influenced her later in life. In high school, she recalls learning about the civil rights movement at a time when she was already “obsessed with the Holocaust.” Of this, she writes, “For me, it was never a simple matter of us and them, the good guys and the bad guys. Rather...the Holocaust made me aware of what human beings are capable of.” She attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and entered Clark University, where, like Carol, she was impressed with the works of Elie Weisel and Albert Camus. Also like Carol, she spent a year abroad during undergraduate school. She also spent a month in Israel, just after the Six Day War. In a section called “Yale and Its Discontents,” she enumerates the various problems there. One positive outcome, imo, was that it was at Yale that she and Carol met, became friends, and together developed their interest in feminist theology.

In Chapter 3, the jointly written “God in the History of Theology,” the authors’ discussion includes the attempt to reconcile two concepts of God: the Biblical and the Philosophical. They discuss how feminist theory emerged from this and, in particular, the influence of 3 essays: Valerie Saiving’s “The Human Situation," Rosemary Radford Ruether’s “Earth and the Magamachine,” and Mary Daly’s “After the Death of God the Father: Women’s Liberation and The Transformation of Christian Consciousness.” They write that these essays raised questions still being pondered by today’s feminist theologians. They also begin to investigate possible explanations of how a “good” God could allow “evil” in the world, a topic brought to their attention by World Wars I and II.

In the next three chapters, the authors discuss their postgraduate work, Carol at Columbia University, San Jose State University, Harvard, and elsewhere, and Judith at New York University, Drew Theological School, and Wichita State University. At Columbia, Carol “…became part of the kind of open-minded religious and theological discussion I had hoped to find at Yale.” She discusses her introduction to and investigation of various theological authors and movements including feminist theology and liberation theology. She questions the relationship of deity to war and warriors. Her interests also included the changes that both Jewish and Christian women were attempting to make. She writes of the situation at that time: “… while Christian women have recovered Sophia, female Divine Wisdom, they have shown little interest in the Hebrew Goddess. Though some Jewish women have begun to reclaim the Hebrew Goddess [Asherah, as discussed in Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess], they are likely to speak of Her as Shekhinah, the female Divine Presence.” She writes that both the Jewish and Christian women seemed less than eager to face questions raised about the “triumph of Judaism and Christianity over paganism and idolatry.” The chapter continues as Carol leaves Christianity for Goddess religion, spends time in California, writes her extraordinary and still influential essay, “Why Women Need the Goddess,” collaborates with Judith on the anthology, Womanspirit Rising, and writes her first book, Diving Deep and Surfacing. She moves to Greece, where she still resides, has founded the Ariadne Institute and leads Goddess pilgrimages to Crete.

In this group of chapters, Judith continues to tell of the evolution of her belief system. She writes of the differences in language and theology of the services in the Reform Temple in which she was raised and those she attended in an Orthodox synagogue after she married. She also writes of her exploration of spiritual communities during her graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School. Of her post graduate work she writes, “When I finished my dissertation, I found myself in the extremely awkward position of having been trained to be something I could never be: a Protestant theologian….Yet how could I be a Jewish theologian when I had virtually no training in Jewish studies?” She writes about “turning points” including her mother’s death, the discovery of certain authors and articles and books, and her need to “resolve the matter of where I stood in relation to Judaism,” including whether she could fully move towards Goddess spirituality. She continues by describing the many challenges of a group she helped found called B’not Esh (Daughters of Fire) and describes the work she did on her first — and important — book, Standing Again at Sinai, in which, among other things, she resolves for herself “The enterprise of theodicy – the effort to justify God’s goodness and power to the existence of evil....” and becomes more interested in “the ways in which our language about God supports social, political, and religious inequalities of power.”

The next chapter, “Feminist Theology at the Center,” which is co-authored, traces its development, both from a theological point of view and its intersection with various social movements. Among the issues the authors explore are questions raised by the traditional interpretation of Jewish and Christian texts, the decision that many women made about whether to reform the religion they were born into (or reared in), or leave that tradition and join the Goddess movement, and the role of embodiment in both these options.

The last two chapters of Part I, which are individually written, are about what I would call the maturing of spiritual exploration into both action and wisdom. I will allow you to discover on your own what this means for each of the authors.

Part II, “Theological Conversations,” is the shorter of the two parts yet the part that contains some of the most revealing, moving, and contentious passages in the book. Its first four chapters alternate between the two authors (who write them in the first person) in discussing the issues raised in Part I, such as the nature of “divine power,” how people arrive at understandings about deity, whether Goddess (or God) is all love (or all good) or also includes evil, and reflections about what beliefs, experiences, and issues the two authors have in common and which are different. When it comes to areas in which they disagree, the discussions often include strongly stated arguments. In the last, Chapter 13 (a significant number in both Judaism and Goddess spirituality), both authors draw their conclusions about “Embodied Theology and the Flourishing of Life,” emphasizing agreements that allow them to work together despite their differences.

As far as I know, there is no other book like Goddess and God in the World in spiritual feminism. It contains details about the authors’ personal lives as well as the thea/theologies of two of our greatest and most influential thea/theologians. It is also unique in the way its structure and shared authorship supports the conclusion that there is a relationship between theology and personal experience. It takes a giant step forward in centering its focus on today’s development of thea/theology, rather than looking backwards on what may or may not have been ancient beliefs and mythology of specific goddesses. There are many more fascinating details in these chapters than what I have been able to share in this already-long review. I will just say that the authors’ discussions of their lives and evolution of their beliefs in this extremely valuable book are sure to fascinate and be treasured by anyone interested in feminism and religion and probably others as well.

In addition to continuing her work in Greece, Carol P. Christ now teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of religious studies at Manhattan College and a founding editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

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