Unspoken Worlds article reviews, pt. 2
The Divine Feminine
The entire modern concept of Goddess (whether omnipotent or not) is still relatively new and shocking to many, though it has much more ancient roots than most of us imagine. Nevertheless, when faced with even a modest conceptualization of Goddess, most members of the modern androcentric world religions react with quick anger. I am always amused, for example, to hear someone say the christian deity has no gender – but when asked to therefore refer to the deity as She the Mother rather than He the Father, are shocked and indignant at the supposed “sacrilege” or “disrespect” that would show. I’ve been snarled at more than once by men, simply for asking why being seen as female is so horrible. I suspect it is all bound up in their heads with notions of masculinity, power, and their own (male) superiority.
Susan M. Setta’s “When Christ is a Woman: Theology and Practice in the Shaker Tradition” is a fascinating exploration of this curious christian antipathy to a female God. Perhaps most striking, the Shakers initially believed Ann Lee was the female embodiment of Christ, sent to earth to save women just as Jesus was sent to save men. However, this was apparently too shocking for the times; later Shakers apparently backed off from that understanding. Despite the similarities of Ann too, like Jesus, dying from injuries received at the hands of a mob, she is apparently now seen as more prophetic than deific.
Other curiously interesting notes from the article: Lee suffered four miscarriages or deaths of children in fairly rapid succession. She would later preach that “animal sensations” or lust was the forbidden fruit, the great sin which caused the original couple to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. Also, her return to earth signified that women and men were now perfected peers once more, rather than men having to care for (read: subordinate) women due to having been saved by Jesus almost two millennia earlier. Her followers therefore seriously attempted to re-create an egalitarian Heaven on Earth, since humankind was thought to be once more perfected into the pristine state of the pre-exilic Eden.
Some of their thoughts: the Shakers believe that, due to life coming through woman, so too did sin have to come through the woman – which I’m not entirely sure I understand. They do not marry, preferring the celibate life – because marriage not only promotes sexual union, but also calls for a non-egalitarian state: the subordination of the woman to the man. Surprisingly, they valued women’s work as highly as men’s. Perhaps most dramatic for the times, though, the Shakers held all property in community, and (in a time when women had no autonomy and were effectively considered their fathers’ or husbands’ property) women participated along with the men in community organization and governance. However, for no really perceptible reason the main authors of Shaker tracts were men (Lee was illiterate), which gave them somewhat more power, over time, than was originally envisioned.
The author closes by noting that the Shakers offer us a vision of what a truly egalitarian society might look like. This somewhat reminds me (unpleasantly) of the entire conceptualization of sexism dying when we rid ourselves of gender roles, though in this case it appears to be sex itself, rather than gender roles, which are perceived as the basis of sexism. Again, I don’t think I agree with this assessment. First, I find it short-sighted on a species-based perspective: with no sex there are no young; with no young there is no future for the species. Second, while I’m fascinated by the (admittedly short-term) recognition of a Divine Feminine within this christian sect, I believe it is still strongly located within a body-denying form of the religion – an attitude which I consider ultimately self-destructive and unhealthy.
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The second article within the Divine Feminine subsection is anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown’s “Mama Lola & the Ezilis: Themes of Mothering & Loving in Haitian Vodou.” I have enormous respect for Brown. In a time when “science” and scientists were still supposed to be uninvolved and disconnected, heartless and emotionless (isn’t that a description of sociopathy?!), she realized such a stance would keep her from ever being accepted in the community she wished to study, and would consequently damage her ability to do research. Consequently she took the courageously dangerous (to later “scholarly respect”) step of being a truly committed participant, rather than a theoretically distanced “participant observer,” in her anthropological studies on vodou amongst the Haitian immigrant community in New York. This resulted in a fascinating book titled Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn – an anthropological work demonstrating real richness of ethnographic detail, as well as deep caring for the precarious little community which generously welcomed her in.
This article, like the book, is a (very short) ethnography which attempts to examine and describe members of a minority without resorting to either the “academic voice” or falling into sexism, racism, or colonialism. It is also a fascinating exploration of how two powerful female lwa or vodou spirits enhance, illuminate, and empower the lives of the priestesses Mama Lola and her daughter Maggie. Brown’s affection and care for her long-time friends is clear in her written “voice,” as she describes the richness, passion, and strength — as well as love and vulnerability — which the lwa bring to the lives of Brown’s partner-informants. Of particular interest to me was a paragraph where Brown compares Erzuli Dantor — fiery-tempered, passionate woman as well as deeply loyal, devoted single mother to her beloved daughter — to the christian Mary, Mother of Jesus (286). Never before had it struck me so powerfully: Mary isn’t just blissfully disconnected – the poor thing comes across as emotionally lobotomized!
There is also a gently understated irony, I believe, in Brown’s explication of why Catholicism was so thoroughly integrated into Vodou by the former slaves. As Brown notes, “Vodou is a religion born of slavery, of wrenching change and deep pain. Its genius can be traced to long experience in using the first (change) to deal with the second (pain)” (286). She states the general Western assumption that it was simply the culturally disoriented slaves “aping” their social betters – then points out this is actually not how either their descendants or they themselves interpreted their actions. Instead, the perspective of this particular oppressed minority ran more along the lines of “know thy enemy,” in their appropriation and reframing of Catholicism to their own uses (281).