Beltane 2004, Vol 3-3
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
In 1992, a feminist Christian theologian named Elizabeth A. Johnson wrote the scholarly and beautifully written, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. She asks, "What is the right way to speak about God?" She understands that the way we speak about Deity, the metaphors we use and the stories we tell, profoundly molds the identity of our religious community. How should we speak about the most sacred and beautiful and most mysterious things we can imagine?
Elizabeth Johnson proposes to name Deity as SHE WHO IS, "the creative, relational power of being who enlivens, suffers with, sustains and enfolds the universe." There is much for a Goddess-scholar to agree with in that name and that definition. Often in ritual and writing, I have named the Goddess as simply, She. She is one of the most beautiful and powerful words in the English language. The pronoun is a whisper, a supplication, a surrender to love.
Saying something poetic about a word, as I just did, generally sends me off in ecstasies to my Oxford English Dictionary, just to see what magic might be there. "She" didn't turn out to be as interesting as I had hoped, but I was intrigued by "is," the verb, to be. As the verb wound its way to modern English, it did not only reflect the sort of static present-tense-ness that I associate with the word be. There is not necessarily an eternal, unchanging God hidden in "to be." In earlier times the verb meant "to become" or "to come to be" or "to remain," "to continue to be," "to stay." She is the being who has been before and the being that is to come. SHE WHO IS, She who becomes, is becoming, remains, continues to be, old woman, leader, woman, maiden in bright shades of spring green.
Last year, in 2003, Carol P. Christ wrote She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World. Readers in the Goddess community are familiar with Christ's earlier, and more explicitly Goddess-thealogical works, such as Odyssey with the Goddess (1995) and Rebirth of the Goddess (1997). One of the reasons I have followed Christ's work with such interest over the years is that she takes risks with her thinking and scholarship. She has been, truly, one who changes.
The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the verb to change is possibly cognate with an ancient Greek verb for "to bend," "turn," or "turn back." This is a satisfying rendition of the verb for our consideration of Christ's latest work, she who has lived and worked in Greece for many years. In She Who Changes, Christ is in many ways turning back. Her childhood religious traditions were steeped in Protestant Christianity, a background in common with many in the Goddess community. Her academic training included work in systematic theology, theology which aims to tie together the various ideas of a given religion into an organized whole. Her previous book, Rebirth of the Goddess was her (successful, in my view) attempt to write a first systematic thealogy of modern, Western Goddess religion.
Carol P. Christ has maintained over the years a strong connection with scholars of religion, so it should be no surprise to learn that she has been influenced by other scholars of religion. In She Who Changes, Christ is building on the work of Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), an American process philosopher. Process philosophy and process theology find that natural and human life exist more in changing processes than in unchanging things. Christ writes, "Process philosophy states that all life is in process, changing and developing and that the divine power participates in changing life; feeling, relationship, creativity, freedom and enjoyment are the fundamental threads that unite all beings."
Again, there is much in these definitions that speaks to a Goddess-woman. In She Who Changes, Christ explicates Hartshorne's ideas in detail, and argues that his ideas are reflected in (and applicable to) various religious traditions, including Goddess religion. Her focus is not on Goddess religion in the same way her previous books have been. Christ is writing in this work a feminist philosophy of religion.
For a while in my life, around the time that I first met the Goddesses, I gave up thinking about my religious beliefs and ideas. Thinking about the nature of God, and good and evil, right behavior and the rest had led me into all sorts of emotional and spiritual dead ends. I started, as many of us do, by building an altar. For many years, I let embodied physical altar items interact with the non-rational mind: an egg, a stone, a woman, a mirror. I participated in rituals, talked to Goddesses and read poetry and myth, had wild and powerful experiences, and let it all seep into bodymind.
Entering a Ph.D. program in religion gives a woman a big clue that she has become interested in thinking about religion again. I am again interested in questions of the nature of Deity, and my mind is considerably more open than it was fifteen years ago. Reading She Who Changes, I was very curious about Christ's current thinking about the divine power, which she names Goddess/God. For Christ, Goddess/God is "the most related of all related beings and the most sympathetic of all sympathetic powers in the universe." Her conception of Goddess/God shows Christ's strong leaning toward what she calls at one point, "an inclusive monotheism."
Christ is asking, as did Elizabeth Johnson a decade earlier, how shall we speak of Deity and the relation of Deity to the world? Christ writes, "Is God-She or Goddess immanent or transcendent? Should we call ourselves pantheists? Mystics? Polytheists? Monotheists?"
I notice in my own conversation how often I speak of "The Goddess." So many of us have habits of monotheism. For women raised in Western Judaism or Christianity, it can be extremely difficult to conceive of Deity in other ways, especially in polytheistic ways. Christ settles, as I have at different times in my life, on the concept of panentheism, another idea from process philosophy. In pantheism, everything is God. In monotheism, God is generally transcendent and separate from all the beings, things and processes of the world. In panentheism, Deity can be all these things: all the beings of the world still retain their individuality, yet all are in and are part of Goddess/God. There is an underlying One, an intuition of unity.
In my own journey, I have set myself the task of trying to wrap my mind around polytheism, the belief in many goddesses and gods. In polytheism, there is not generally a unifying deity in a given pantheon. My studies are focused on Germanic religion, which was polytheistic; there was even more than one pantheon. Intuition and reasoning both tell me that, theologically and practically, almost everything about a given religious tradition or experience will change and be colored by whether Deity is seen as one or many, or one-in-many.
I have been blessed with experiences of several of the Germanic Goddesses. Do I sense an underlying unity between and among them? Maybe yes, but I lean toward no. Their individuality feels powerful and central. My dissertation topic will take me into the realm of the Germanic group-Goddesses, like the Norns and Valkyries and Matronen, which further complicates matters. If the Goddesses aren't essentially One, then how will I conceive of the relationships among them?
As I start to think about these questions, I come back to Elizabeth A. Johnson and her perceptive understanding that our view of Deity (and the language that we use about Deity) in many ways creates our religious communities. If we conceive of our circle of women as One in The Goddess, how would we feel about many and all the various polytheistic Goddesses? Would we lose a sense of oneness, of community? Would we try, as Ruth Barrett asks us to consider in her classes on ritual and energy, to invite all the Goddesses to the same dinner party?
By continually saying "The Goddess," I wonder if I unthinkingly perpetuate a Goddess monotheism, and if I want to do that. It is taking discipline and creativity to attempt to think polytheistically. And if I ever am able to do so, perhaps I can return to these questions with a fresh perspective. About all I can say for certain is that She Who Is is She Who Changes, and that sure as Mother Moon follows Sister Sun through the sky, we also will change.