In 1998, ecofeminist thealogian Carol P. Christ’s Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality presents a living and embodied, woman-centered thealogy of Goddess based equally in philosophical reflection, academic historical research, and personal experience. Christ, one of feminist spirituality’s founding mothers, espouses deliberately eschewing modern society’s dependence on classical dualism, asserting that Goddess cannot be fully understood within such a limited worldview. Instead she observes that modern women’s understanding of the Goddess initially arises not from the dry academic theorizing which characterizes modern theology, but rather from their diverse and often complex experiences of Her. This ecological rootedness in practical experience embodies their growing awareness and connection with all life, and demonstrates an ethos of power-with rather than power-over (though the author does not use those specific terms). Christ utilizes a combination of the neologism thealogy (defined as “a reflection on the meaning of the Goddess” [xiv]) and an etymology of religion (from the Indo-European “to bind” and “to turn or turn back”) as spiritual inspiration for this research, stating that “the symbols and rituals of the Goddess bring to consciousness (remind us of) our sense of deep connection (or binding) to all people and all beings in the web of life” (xvi).
Further, through clear, lively prose coupled with a sometimes fearless-seeming vulnerability, through her personal examples Christ proposes the radical nature of this re-thinking and re-membering of feminized divinity is profoundly life-changing. While it will offer a sweeping challenge to our most basic assumptions, it ultimately gifts us with a far more holistic global perspective — one that nurtures a radical sense of possibility for a more positive and self-fulfilling ontology, as well as an opportunity to create a fundamentally changed and better world.
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In a philosophical vein, Christ’s aptly titled 2003 She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World is a fruitful intellectual meeting of her feminist spirituality with Charles Hartshorne’s process theology. As has been already noted, Christ is a pioneering thealogian: a pragmatic critic of the rampant androcentrism found in mainstream religions, via evocation of the divine through female symbolism. In this fascinating thealogical feminist analysis, Christ applies Hartshorne’s philosophical concepts to his stated six common theological mistakes of classical theism, once again teasing out the deeply ingrained misogynist and anti-nature symbolism bolstering each theological mistake. She writes vividly, almost lovingly of Hartshorne’s work, observing that the process theology worldview emphasizes a decidedly ecofeminist perspective: of embodied, changing, relational knowledge embedded in nature, as well as the appropriateness — sometimes even necessity — of visualizing both power and divinity as female. In her final chapter, where she epitomizes a female-bodied and nature-oriented symbolism into her suggested new rituals, she beautifully exemplifies the ecofeminist potential for joyous living.
This emphasis on the embodied, changing, and relational nature of knowledge, and Christ’s openness to continued intellectual processing, is inspiring; hopefully she will write more in this fascinating thealogical methodology. In particular I would very much like to read of how process thealogy might work in use by white Western women while examining non-Western deities, since potential appropriation of indigenous spiritual symbolisms outside of their native cultural context is an issue women in situations of power-over must learn to handle respectfully. It is my hope that this process paradigm may assist in philosophically and ethically bridging differences in order to locate inclusive power-with commonalities between women. I believe it is only when we learn to analyze and respectfully avoid appropriation that we can meaningfully articulate and inclusively embody a divinity which is simultaneously ethical, life-affirming, and female.
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1999 is a fruitful year for recognition of the Divine Feminine: the third book in this subsection and on my list which was released in this year is feminist anthropologist and professor Susan Sered’s fascinating Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa. Anthropologically speaking, I find her chosen methodologies problematic: since she speaks neither Japanese nor the local dialect, her sole informants on the indigenous Okinawan fishing village of Henza are a native Okinawan woman who has relatives in the geographically separated village, and an Okinawan man who has lived in Chicago for 30 years, but declares himself an expert on all things Okinawan. Further, Sered spends only a year in the village, as opposed to the close and life-long friendships developed by other scholars of the many (and culturally quite varied) Okinawan islands. Most personally disturbing, however, is her apparent complete indifference to this earlier research. I find her stated reasons for doing so somewhat odd: that the Henza priestesses are an oral, not a written, tradition and thus the relevant books are written by either outsiders or the mostly male Okinawan elite; and that the books are in Japanese, which she cannot read. I find myself wondering: is she not herself also an outsider depending on a self-professed male Okinawan elite?
However, even while keeping those reservations in mind, I find Sered’s research to be a welcome exploration of a modern culture in which not only do women lead religiously, but they do so in that society’s official and primary religion: the priestesses ritually embody either the clan matriarchs or the kami (or spirits) of the local environment in order to bring health and good fortune to the village. Sered believes this situation is unique in all modern cultures, which draws her to study the connections and possible tensions between gender and religion within the village of Henza. Consequently she writes extensively about both the significance of priestesshood, and how the religious centrality of the female beneficially affects and interacts with all other aspects of society. The people and their society are regarded as naturally healthy, and social roles are not restrictively ascribed to either gender, which promotes a relaxed gender complementarity organized within a distinctly non-hierarchical worldview — to the point that there is a complete absence of male dominance and oppressive hierarchy in the Henza cultural patterns. It is exciting to note that Sered’s work validates much of what Christ and Starhawk posit: a reverence for the sacrality of women and the Divine Feminine (in this case as expressed through ancestor worship of the clan matriarchs) tends to produce a peaceful and gender-egalitarian society.