Thursday 2 April 2009

The Divine Feminine

(an address given at Frenchay Unitarian chapel on 8th February 2009)

Recently it was Imbolc or Candlemas, on the 2nd of February.

In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint. The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft. The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare - which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times. There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.

Candlemas is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Law.

Both these festivals have traditionally also focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud. They are also a celebration of the Divine Feminine. This is an aspect of the divine that has been neglected in Christianity, due to its patriarchal traditions and its negative view of Eve as the one who brought sin into the world.

But mystics of all traditions have honoured the Divine Feminine. Julian of Norwich, the great Christian mystic, referred to God the Mother (in the context of Trinitarian theology):
And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. ...The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. []

In the Orthodox Church, there is also a long tradition of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (known as Sapientia in Western Christianity); indeed the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was dedicated to Her. She is both the Bride of Christ and the feminine aspect of Christ. Also, many liberal Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God.

In Judaism, there is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, and the Ruach, the Breath of God, both of which are seen as feminine. The Shekhinah is believed to descend on the Sabbath eve at the lighting of the candles (usually done by the lady of the house). The Shekhinah is exiled in the physical world and trying to rejoin the Godhead. We can help reunite them in the process of Tikkun - the exercise of compassion, which helps to heal the rift between the worlds. Also, it is regarded as a holy thing to make love on the Sabbath eve, as this helps to reunite the Shekhinah and the Godhead.
In Islam, there is the Sakina, the peace of God, which descends upon believers, who is mentioned twice in the Koran.

In Buddhism, there is Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. She has taken a vow not to pass in to Nirvana until all souls have achieved enlightenment.

There are also many goddesses in Hinduism and Paganism, and it is in these two traditions that we see the Divine Feminine in all her glorious variety. And yet, one would expect that the presence of goddesses in a religion would guarantee respect for women. That has been the assumption of feminist theologians who pressed for inclusive language, or wanted to throw out the masculine imagery and language and start again. But women didn't have equal status with men in Hinduism until recently - indeed, Rammohun Roy had to campaign for the abolition of widow-burning.

In Paganism, it is probably the existence of priestesses and the influence of feminism that have ensured the equality of women. Also, very importantly, all aspects of womanhood are represented: the maiden, the mother, the warrior, the sexual woman, the crone who is the embodiment of wisdom.

However, a certain amount of gender-role-stereotyping is present in Paganism, and perhaps Pagans need to think more about the Divine that transcends gender - this is one reason why I became interested in Christian mysticism, since that tradition has always insisted that God is beyond gender, even if they refer to the Divine with masculine nouns and pronouns.

The early advocates of the Great Mother Goddess were social conservatives. Jacquetta Hawkes, a prominent enthusiast for the Goddess in the 1930s, believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that the role of women was to remain in the home and bring up children. This is rather ironic in view of the next generation of enthusiasts, the separatist feminists of the sixties and seventies. Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, was influenced by the idea of the Great Mother Goddess. This is apparent from much of the material that he wrote for use in Wiccan ritual. He was also (embarrassingly for most Wiccans who are largely left-leaning) a member of the Conservative Party. However, the women he portrays in his two novels are very feisty and independent characters.

In Unitarianism - the first denomination to have a female minister, Gertrude von Petzold, in 1904 - women are of course regarded as completely equal to men. Unitarians have also embraced the Divine Feminine to a certain extent, and use inclusive gender-neutral language wherever possible.

Nevertheless, when I hear the word "God", I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear Spirit of Life, or the Divine, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn't explicitly include the Divine Feminine - the Goddess.

So, how does the Goddess differ from traditional views of God?
  • In all traditions, she is regarded as immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother - this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.
Because she is Mother Nature, she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (in contrast to most of Christianity, which regards it as a result of the Fall).

The Divine Feminine was recognised by some Unitarians as early as 1980. A quick search on the web reveals that quite a lot of UK Unitarians honour the Goddess.

I think it is important, in honouring female images of the divine, not to start gender stereotyping, and assuming that some qualities are inherently masculine, and others inherently feminine. This is clearly not true; and in regarding the Divine as being beyond gender, Unitarians are ahead of the game. But rather than always using masculine and gender-neutral language to describe the divine, it would be great to use feminine language sometimes too, however you regard the Divine.

As Maud Robinson, of Dublin Unitarians, writes:
God does not have a gender and although we can readily accept that intellectually, we should be aware that many of us have a deep history of the use of male-centred language in prayer and that it is embedded in our collective psyche. The word God, in itself, causes me problems, it is a word, which despite our modern sophistication and political correctness can’t but conjure up images of a male godhead for many of us. How can we escape from these deeply ingrained images of a male godhead?
I think the answer to her question is to look at images of the Goddess in various religions, and start to explore this imagery in your preferred tradition, or traditions. There are numerous books and websites devoted to Her; and in a tradition dedicated to inclusivity, it seems only right to include both genders.


peripatos said...

"christian mysticism beyond gender" . . . I am yet to be convinced . . . have you some idea what I might read?

Yewtree said...

Cherry, K. (2006) Jesus in Love. Berkeley: AndroGyne Press.

Conner, R.P., Sparks, D.H., and Sparks, M. (1997) Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit. London and New York: Cassell.

Moore, S.D. (2001) God’s Beauty Parlor and other queer spaces in and around the Bible. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (1992 [1983]) In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroads.

Yip, A.K.T. (2003) ‘Spirituality and Sexuality: An Exploration of the Religious Beliefs of Non-Heterosexual Christians in Great Britain.’ Theology and Sexuality, 9 (2), pp 137-154.

Cari said...

Hello, I've been enjoying your thoughtfully written blog. I thought you might be interested in a recent post of mine entitled "Goddess in the Bible," about the St. John's Bible project and it's inclusion of feminine images. I am a calligrapher and book artist and have had very mixed feelings about this book. I am inviting thoughtful comment on my post for my own further enlightenment as well as for a future published article. Please come by for a visit: