Episode 47

WomanSpirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow

Published on: 31st August, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. If you are a listener who loved our episode on The Gospel of Mary Magdalene or Mary, Mother of God, then you will love the texts we are discussing today: WomanSpirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, and Weaving the Visions:New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, both edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. These books contain essays that were written in the 70’s 80’s and early 90’s, and they reflect a movement within feminism that was grappling with the patriarchal aspects of religion, and rather than rejecting religion altogether as so many feminists were doing at the time, these authors were working to retain the spiritual, the mystical, and the ritual parts of religion while still confronting and challenging patriarchy. As an introduction I’m going to read just a couple of sentences from the 1992 version of WomanSpirit Rising. It says that some feminists...

“are convinced that religion is profoundly important. For them, the discovery that religions teach the inferiority of women is experienced as a betrayal of deeply felt spiritual and ritual experience. They believe the history of sexism in religions shows how deeply sexism has permeated the human psyche but does not invalidate human need for ritual, symbol and myth. While differing on many issues, the contributors to this volume agree that religion is deeply meaningful in human life and that the traditional religions of the West have betrayed women. They are convinced that religion must be reformed or reconstructed to support the full human dignity of women.”

 

And no one better to discuss this issue with than the magnificent Maxine Hanks! Welcome back, Maxine.

[Hi Amy -- thanks for inviting me to read this book with you, it holds a lot of meaning for me personally.


This project has already been so enriched by your wisdom and experience! You’re an expert on many Women’s Studies texts, but my understanding is that in the tradition of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes by Sarah Grimke, you are a person of faith and most at home in feminist theology. Is that right?


Maxine:  Yes, I’m a feminist theologian and historian, focused on women’s studies and women’s history in religious culture, mainly in LDS/Mormon culture and in Christianty.  My spiritual path, personal faith journey and my scholarly path, scholarly work are very intertwined.   My work on recovering feminism in Mormon history and culture overlapped with my own personal work to find feminist voice in Mormon culture, and my own path through feminist theology, clergy formation and ministry overlapped with my scholarly work on feminist theology in Christian tradtion and LDS tradition.  So as I found my way in life and work as a feminist, I found my way as scholar in feminist work, the two were interdependant.  I’m a deeply spiritual person, I rely on my relationship with god for decisions about both my life and professional path. I’m a minister, chaplain, and theologian, historian, and I see spirituality as one lens, one approach, one hermeneutic method among others, so my work brings spirituality and scholarship together.  I think it requires multiple approaches, interdisciplinary work to adequately assess the situation of women in religion --  gender studies training, historical method, and theological/religious studies, so I trained, took degrees in all three to use in my work.


Amy: If you’re comfortable, I’d be grateful if you could talk about your own journey as a feminist theologian, including your book, Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, and the ensuing events after the publication of that book.


Maxine:   Sure, the main thing to mention about my work, my book and WSR, is that they parallel each other, taking a very similar approach, and with similar results, but ten years apart.  WSR came in 1979.  I began working on WA in 1988-89, published in 1992.  

Yet in 1979,  a decade before I published WA, I had been working through the very same issues that Christ, Plaskow, et all were dealing with, and at the very same time.  In 1978-79, I was a feminist, who used that label for myself, and I was serving as an LDS missionary.  

I noticed and was frustrated by the dominance of male voices and sexism re: women’s own experience, bodies, views.  I was also frustrated by how few Mormon women were willing to express their true feelings, frustrations and  feminist concerns or voices in Mormon culture.   The only exceptions were MERA and Sonja Johnson, and they were feared, shunned by most Mormons.  Sonia's excommunication in 1979 happened when I was on my LDS mission in the East and it impacted me deeply, as a feminist who was really hurting from the sexism in the mission. I keenly felt the need for validating our own women's and feminist  perspectives and our own female relationship to God and priesthood.  I felt that I had received some form of priesthood in the LDS temple and as a missionary -- I knew I was a valid minister, but I didn’t know how to defend that or document that in 1979.  That came a decade later with my book.  But I knew we had an inherent feminism or feminist traditoin in Mormonism; I had been aware of that since 1976 via the WE and EXII.    But I didn’t yet know where or how to find the sources, and present the evidence for our feminist history and theology, which came later, and I’ll describe that in a moment, later in the larger historical context of the role and effect of Woman’s Spirit  Rising.


It’s important to understand how groundbreaking and vital Woman’sSpirit Rising was for its time in 1979 and what it accomplished.  So I’d like to share some larger historical context about femininst theology in American culture first, to situate WSR.  Then I can circle back to say how W&A and my work fits into that context and relates to WSR.



HISTORICAL CONTEXT FOR WSR

Context -- WSR arrived at a crucial shift in 2nd Wave feminism (like Sexual Politics embodied the arrival & shift in feminism from the '60s to '70s), WSR captured the arrival & shift in feminist theology from '70s into '80s feminism -- the last of the 3 decades in the 2nd Wave.  '60s feminism formed the theories, goals of feminism then '70s feminism took it wider to the public, popular discourse, workplace, homes, media, but still new, struggling to prove itself, persuade the public of its truth. Then in the '80s feminism arrived, found mainstream acceptance, validity, normalcy, not freakish, an integral feature in colleges, media, workplace, breaking the glass ceilings (movie Working Girl).  


        Feminist theology was one decade behind feminism. The major religions were patriarchal, thus much slower than secular culture to deal with or accept feminism, including their own inherent feminism within those religions.  So we didn't see very much feminist theology or books in the '60s, it begins in the 1970s with books emerging mainly from Catholic and Jewish feminists, like Mary Daly, Rita Grosss, Elaine Pagels, Merlin Stone, Carol Christ, and Judith Plaskow, then in the '80s it continued with these authors and increased with more work by women like Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Riane Eisler and others. In the 80s it widened out with more work and bigger exposure -- just like feminism itself had done in the 1970s. 


Yet in the 70s and early 80s, very few college courses or programs dealt with feminism in religion or feminist theology.     Women's studies departments and programs were growing and thriving in colleges in the 1980s (like the UU program and Weber State and USU), but there were very few courses or programs on women in religon or feminist theology. (We had one course at the UU in 1980s-90s, taught by Vella Evans).  The Harvard WSRP was the first program to focus on study of women and religion in 1973. So women's studies in religion was emerging  in the major schools and Ivy League in the 70s like femnism had in the 60s, but very few programs in the 70s; that began taking hold in more colleges, courses, programs, and majors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when programs emerged at more schools, like Claremont and others.     


One important point here -- is that secular feminism itself. arose from religious women, who took their spirituality into society and politics, their Christianity into social reform. Anne Braude's book, Radical Spirits, explores how the women's rights movement and women's spiritualism were intertwined -- the role of religion in women's history and the women's rights movement. So feminism began in religion, in the 1800s, and moved outward into society, but it took a long while for feminism to come back home and find itself accepted in its own roots --other than a few faiths like the Quakers who were feminist all along.   



We see this in Mormonism, which was a leader in feminist innovations within the Church in the 1830s & 40s, 10-20 years before Seneca Falls, and Mormon feminists took that testimony  of women's agency,  authority and equality into the larger social sphere and communities in the 1850s-1890s as pursuing vocations and careers outside the home in medicine, education, nursing, especially via suffrage as pioneers in the suffrage movement -- due to having gotten  the vote themselves in the Church in 1830.    Yet they lost ground within the faith in the 19th century and had to re-emerge  in the 1970s-80s-90s, which brought conflict and backlash, so only in this century is Mormon feminist theology in our own origins finally finding wider understanding, recovery and acceptance within the Church.    I chronnicled this in my book W&A on Mormon feminist theology, which I compiled in the 1980s-90s -- but more about that in a minute. 


So, in 1979 -- Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow looked at the pioneering work  of feminist theologians emerging in the 1970s and wanted to capture and summarize it -- to map the main approaches, gather the major voices, and make them more available by editing an anthology of writings.   This was SO needed at that time, to make the few groundbreaking voices in feminist theology of the '70s more known and available.  So that's what they did, with Woman's Spirit Rising  --they created a reader that would bring the key pioneers and their pioneering work on feminist theology forward, and legitimize it, make it known and useable more widely to help educate and inspire more women and work.   They succeeded immensely.  Women's Spirit Rising was a watershed moment in American feminist theology, concretizing that subfield of both women's studies and religious studies and their intersection, and letting women everywhere know -- this work was real, and happening and needed.  It inspired so many women in so many religions to engage that work in their own cultures and studies. As a result, the 1980s saw an explosion of feminist work on religion and theology, in schools and in church cultures.


Female clergy were emerging in the 1970s & 1980s in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican and Community of Christ churches but articles and books took hold in the 1980s.  In 1989 at the Scientific Study of Religion conf. a panel of Roman Catholic, Sikh, Jewish, southern Baptist, and Mormon women found a consensus: that women were no longer waiting for approval from male religious leaders but moving ahead with feminist theological investigations. That consensus was reaffirmed in a 1992 book Megatrends for Women which predicted that feminists were reaching a critical mass within traditionally male-dominated religions and would make significant changes in the 1990s and beyond.

 

      I had the same idea as Christ and Plaskow in  Woman's Spirit Rising, the same approach and inclinations --- but my work began  before I had seen their  book. So we were operating from a similar vision, 10 yrs apart.  We both wanted to validate feminist theology.    I wanted to make our own feminism and feminist theolgoy more known and  available -- as inhereent in our own tradition and history, and not some secular agenda that feminists were imposing on the LDS Church.  I wanted to recover our own unique home-grown feminism and feminist theology-- and that has remained true to hte present day and my work now.

           So I researched Mormon feminism and feminist theology in LDS history to the present, for 3.5 years, and selected major voices, texts, and excerpts, and commissioned some new articles on current work at that time on needed topics, then pulled together all this work in one book. It was gutsy, a whole lot of new cutting-edge, overt feminist work and recovery on topics that had been feared and repressed for so long-- it shocked people. It was a bombshell, so the reactions were intense. 

         In the 1980s very few Mormons, even very few feminists were using the word "feminism" which had been tainted by Sonia's excommunication.  And nobody was using the term feminist theology.  My book was the first book to reclaim Mormon feminism in word and concept, validate it as real and inherent in our own tradition, and recover it as American feminism. And my book was the first to use the term "feminist theolog."   I was the first to advocate the need for that in LDS culture and studies -- at the 1990 Sunstone Symposium panel on the Current State of Mormon Theology, in a paper titled “Toward a Mormon Feminist Theology.” .  I said then, that the most lacking and most important area of  needed work in Mormon theology on the horizon was feminist theology.   I was working on my book at the time, which I published in 1992.   

         Even liberals and feminists, were a bit freaked out by my assertion then -- most of them advised me not to use the word "feminsim" or the term "feminist theology" because it would frighten too many people away, but use other terms. I was tired of feeling stifled and censored, I felt it was time to own our feminism, call it was it was, not hide it any more behind terms like "sisters."   

        So I just put it all out there and let it confront the fears and do its work -- and it did.  It dissolved the stigma and fear of feminism and helped it go mainstream, enabled it to be engaged, used, by members, leaders (the RS Pres. each had a copy and told me they used it regularly) and also by scholars outside the faith in colleges across the country, in Wm Stds programs, incl. at Harvard. So other religious feminists and scholars of feminism in religion could see what the Mormon women were doing.   

         So W&A functioned just like Woman's Spirit Rising did -- which was a wonderful coincidence and discovery, since I didn't discover Woman's Spirit Rising and its writers and works until I was nearly done pulling together my own book, b/c I was immersed in Mormon studies and recovering our own voices. I wish I HAD seen it before I started my book -- it would have helped me so much and made my work easier, far less stressful.  I was figuring it out on my Own.  But WSR coming along at the end of my project was a huge boost of validation and confidence that I needed at that time, to get me through what I was facing after the book came out. . 


        WSR came along a a time in American feminism when  feminist theology and women's studies in religion were not widespread but were emerging as another movement within feminism and within academia, and among women within religions.   WSR gave all of us-- a giant boost of validation and inspiration to do our work. 



Amy: Thanks so much for providing that context! So let’s introduce the EDITORS of these books and then we’ll dive in!


Carol Patrice Christ was born to a Protestant Christian family, in California in 1945. She obtained her PhD from Yale University and has served as a professor in universities such as Columbia University and Harvard Divinity School. Her best-known publication is "Why Women Need The Goddess", which was initially a keynote presentation at the "Great Goddess Re-emerging" conference" at the University of Santa Cruz in 1978. This essay helped to launch the Goddess movement in the United States and other countries, and it discusses the importance of religious symbols in general, and the effects of male symbolism of God on women in particular. Christ calls herself a "thealogian" with an a - "thealogy" is derived from Ancient Greek θεά (theá, “goddess”) + -logy.  Her work has helped to create a space for the field of theology to be far more inclusive of women than has historically been the case.

She is the director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual, where she conducts pilgrimages to sacred sites in Greece (mostly Crete, as listeners will remember from our episode on The Chalice and the Blade), and she lives on the Greek island of Lesbos, which was the home of the poet Sappho.

 

Judith Plaskow was born to a Jewish family in New York in 1947. Throughout junior high and high school, Plaskow dreamed of becoming a rabbi, even though women rabbis were unheard of and opposed by many, including her own rabbi. However, even she had reservations: she wanted to be a trailblazer but wasn't absolutely certain that she believed in God. She says that her life changed one day during closing services on Yom Kippur when she realized she could get a doctorate in theology instead. Had she become a rabbi, she would have been only the second ever female rabbi, but she says she was "born a theologian" and is sure she made the right choice.

Plaskow earned her doctorate at Yale University, where she met Carol Christ and they became fast friends. She taught at Manhattan College for thirty-two years before becoming a professor emeritus, and she was one of the creators of the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion and served as editor for its first ten years. She also helped to create B'not Esh, a Jewish feminist group, and a feminist section of the American Academy of Religion. 

Plaskow's work has been extremely important in developing Jewish feminist theology. Her most significant work, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, argued that the absence of female perspectives in Jewish history has had a negative impact on the religion and she urged Jewish feminists to reclaim their place in the Torah and in Jewish thought. It is one of the first Jewish feminist theological texts ever written and is considered by some to be one of the most important Jewish texts of the 20th century. In fact her Wikipedia page calls her the first Jewish feminist theologian (!). 

 

So Drs. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow published WomanSpirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion in 1979. It’s an anthology of many women’s essays on feminist theology. The edition I read for this episode was published in 1992, and in the preface to that edition, they explain that like so many other feminist projects from the 1970’s - I think especially back to Our Bodies, Ourselves - it was written by all white women who claimed universality for “women’s” experiences while completely leaving out the perspectives of women of color. So in 1989 Christ and Plaskow expanded their project and published a new anthology of feminist theological writings featuring more diverse voices, which is called Weaving the Visions:New Patterns In Feminist Spirituality. So we’ll be sharing passages from both books today!

 

MAXINE -- YES exactly Amy.  This gets at the structure and approach of WSR, which I  want to address --  one major contribution of WSR and what I found most helpful. It was their Mapping of Approaches and methods for Feminisst Theological work.  They identified 4 main approaches being used by feminist theologians to do the work of feminist theology within different religious traditions.   I will delve into that in a minute.  

      Yet this structure, due to its early pioneering location in the late ‘70s, was limited, basic, thus missing additional dimensions.  Their structure was criticized as too simplistic  -- as posing reformists and revolutionaries against each other and privileging revolutionaries -- which wasn’t their intent.  They were, “determined...by the work available when it was edited.”   They were simply trying to identify and map the major methods or approaches that were being used and could serve as a guide or help. (I was in the same situation -- I exerted to include feminists of color and lesbian perspective,, but I only found a couple of such Mormon voices willing to be in the book in the 80s; most women were afraid to join.)

        As they said in their Preface to the 1992 edition -- they never dreamed that their book would become “a minor classic in the fields of religion and women’s studies” and they were “amazed how well the work has stood the test of time...and remain as profound and challenging today as when they were first written.”   (Again, I experienced the very same phenomenon and feelings about W&A, which holds a unique power, my other works lack).

        They realized in 1989, that “the range of issues feminist theologians are addressing today has deepened and broadened”  so they shifted and widened their approach to WTV, to embrace that evolving work of feminist theologians.  The expanded their structure  or categories of feminist approaches for WTV  beyond what they used in WSR.

        The other major criticism was that WSR was lacking some vital voices and approaches.   In the Preface to the 1992 edition of WSR, Christ and Plaskow lament and admit that WSR had omitted vital marginalized voices -- those of women of color and gay or lesbian women, and other economic classes.   So they created a sequel book to remedy that problem, and “make the diversity of women’s experience a central concern” and consider how “race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation deepen the critique of religious traditons.”  They compiled Weaving the Visons published in  1989 which exerted to include those marginalized voices and bring them into the collective feminist discourse on feminist theology.

 

Amy:

The other thing I want to highlight is that in the preface of WomanSpirit Rising the editors talk about their experience as PhD students at Yale, and listeners will recognize scenes that sound just like what we covered in our episode on Keep the Damned Women Out: The Struggle for CoEducation. They talk about presenting research ideas on Women in Judaism or Women in Christianity, armed with credible and exciting source material, and having professors (all men) either mock or dismiss them, or sometimes even get angry at them. They turned to each other to keep their sanity and they said that if they hadn’t had each other for support, they might have dropped out. 

I’m so glad they included that detail, and they described that they were grateful for the opposition to their interest in women’s studies because it opened their eyes to the injustice of patriarchy and turned them into feminists! Often it’s the really hard things that provide the motivation and the hard-earned epiphanies that propel us to do our life’s work.

 

So with all of that as preparation, let’s dive into the text! Maxine, do you want to share some of your further thoughts about the books’ structure and essays that you found the most important?

 

Maxine: YES, thanks.

        First --- the book  identifies  the main problems faced by feminist theologians, and then MAPs the maini approaches taken by feminist theological work at that time.  This was such a useful, helpful contribution to women trying to pioneeer feminist theology in theiir faiths.  It was like a how-to guide.   They were trying to capture and show the diversity of approaches, to honor them all, both reformist and revolutionary.  They said, “some might wish to resolve these numerous tensions in feminist theology and vision, but we find them creative and exhilarating.”

        Again I had done the same thing with my book, without having seen what WSR did. I wanted to capture the diversity of feminist work and validate all of it.  I said that my “authors do not all agree, this book does not provide one answer...there is no single, unified Mormon feminism or feminist theology.”


So, I had mapped what I saw as  four main theological approaches that Mormon feminists were using (1 -- Liberal feminist modifying male theology to include or extend male theology & privelge to women/the female; 2-- Difference/essentialist feminism, a separate feminine system not a modified male system;  3 --Intersectional feminism w androgynous theology of God priesthood, integrating or transcending gender; 4 post-modern theology beyond anthropomorphic gods or bodies and language, purely mystical.   Then I had organized my book in 3 sections to flesh-out and illustrate those categories.    1) Mormon Feminism  2) Women’s Authority,  3) Women and Theology, Priesthood. 

        So the thinking and organization for WSR had paved the way do help feminists do what  we needed and what  I did ten years later, even though that was a coincidence, not a direct influence--- but I take the Jungian view that what they brought forth into collective consciousness enabled others to experience or find the same thing, even if indirectly.

          I LOVED this mapping that Christ and Plaskow did, and I added it to my own theological approaches and work after I read it. They cited these  4 problems and these 4 approaches or methdods for doing feminist theology.

THE 4 PROBLEMS

1) exclusively male religious language & constructs about God; 

2)  limited or false dualistic thinking; privilege god/male/spirit over human/female/body

3) vital value & need for women’s own experience and history, apart from men’s

4) the need to create new ritual and theology.


THE 4 APPROACHES

1)   Criticism, Inquiry --to see, locate the problem, evaluate what’s there what isn’t--

Decide -- does theology omit or include women?  Is it male or female or both?

2)  Reform -- edit, revise, recover, improve, transform existing, traditional religion/theology

  Find, excavate, reclaim female/feminine from within the male texts, traditions

    mainly in Jewish & Christian texts, traditions   (Islam left out)

3)  Revolution-- resist, deconstruct, shatter, undo the sexisim, reject the inherited, require new texts, new ritual, new traditions, discover a new side or dimension of religion,

compose a new aspect for it. 

4)  Creation -- find, discover, and create a whole new vision beyond what has been known, or done or outside of the traditions, invent new gods, theologies, rituals, mysticism

THE  4 SECTIONS of Book Explore the  4 Approaches

Christ and Plaskow explain that all of the authors address the problem that “Western religion is profoundly sexist. It’s ideas and doctrines, images and symbols are products of male perceptions of reality and have legitimized and reinforced the  subordination of women.”   I like how they organized the book in 4 sections to explore the 4 approaches taken by the authors which show how feminist theologians had used those approaches in their work.   (I had done a similar thing, divided my book into 3 sections that showed how the women had used the approaches I had identified.) 


1)  The Essential Challenge:  Does Theology Speak to Women’s Experience?

Revolution -- Female-centric Approach

Can male gods, theology even grasp, speak to or serve women’s needs?

Difference feminism -- focus on female experience as essentially different from male, separate.

Do women need a different, female god, theology, priesthood, religion?

Mary Daley, radical lesbian feminist, Rosemary Radford Reuther’s work on women’s voice.

QUOTE--Valerie Saiving -- “I am a student of theology. I am also a woman...I put these two assertions beside each other...to imply that one’s sexual identity has some bearing on his theological views....theology has been written almost exclusively by men...I... criticize… contemporary theologians...from the viewpoint of feminine experience..


2) The Past: Does it Hold a Future for Women?    Inquiry Approach

Revisit history & theology, is female present, embedded, hidden within past tradition; can we excavate the female within male texts w feminist re-readings, re-interp of traditional texts?

Sheila Collins on Herstory; Phyllis Trible on feminist reading of Genesis; ESF on women in early Christianity;  Elenor McLaughlin  does the Christian past hold a future for women?;  Elaine Pagels, What Became of God the Mother?;  Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman.

QUOTE--

Phyllis Trible --” On the whole, the Women’s Liberation Movement is hostile to the Bible, even as it claims the Bible is hostile to women….Many feminists...read to reject.  My suggestion is we reread to understand and appropriate... Ambiguity characterizes the meaning of adham in Genesis 2-3… adham is a generic term for humankind...Deity is speaking to both the man and the woman.”

QUOTE--

Elaine Pagels -- “Unlike many of his contemporaries among the deities of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel shares his power with no female divinity….Indeed the absence of femnine symbolism of God marks Judaism, Christianity and Islam in striking contrasst to the worlds other religious traditions, whetehr in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome or Africa, Polynesia, India and North America… however Jewish and Christian gnostic works which were attacked and condemned as heretical...abound in feminine symbolism, that is applied, in particular, to God...Instead of a monistic and masculine God...these texts describe God as a dyadic being, who consists of both masculine and feminine elements.” 


3) Reconstructing Tradition   --   Revision, Reform Approach

ESF-- feminist spirituality, Christian identity & tradition;  Rita Gross -- Female God Language in Jewsih contexts;   Nellie Morton-- the dilemma of celebration; Judith Plaskow -- bringing a daughter to the covenant; Jamowitch, Weneg & Cantor  -- womens sabbath prayers and Haggadah  (seder)

QUOTE --Nelle Morton  “Women appear at an impasse in celebration.  Traditional symbols root too deeply in a patriarchal culture to function adequately in their new context, and new symbols have not yet emerged...We are not saying no to the whole created order of things, our traditions...We are saying no to those images, symbols, structures and practices which cripple us and keep us from claiming our rightful personhood….We began by substituting feminine words of liturgy for those masculine words that exclude women...Our search led us beyond the sexist imagery to the wholeness...embedded deep within.”

QUOTE--

ESF--”My own experience as a woman ...in the Catholic tradition...leads me to question that maleness is the essence of Christian faith and theology. Despite all masculine terminology of prayers, catechism and liturgy...my commitment to Christian faith and love first led me to question the feminine cultural role which….church had taught me to accept and to internalize.  My vision of Christian responsibility and community brought me to reject the culturally-imposed role of women….not vice versa.”


4) Creating New Traditions  -- Creative Vision, Mysticism, New Approach

“Revolutionary feminist theology...places primary emphasis on women’s experience.”

Judith Plaskow -- The coming of Lilith, Toward a Feminist Theology; 

Daly -- Why Speak about God?

Naomi Goldenberg -- dreams & fantasies as source of revelation,  fem appropr of  Jung

Penelope Washburn -- becoming women; menstruation as spiritual experience

Christ-- Spiritual quest and women’s experience  and  Why women need the goddess

Starhawk and Z Budapest -- pagan/wiccan female spirituality & ritual

Naomi Goldenberg -- “Jungian theory might prove inspirational for feminist work in religion….devote energy to formulate spiritual concepts that allow [us[ to maintain a religious view of life apart from the oppressive forms prescribed by traditional religionists.    Jung describes how he was motivated to free himself from biblical creeds and how he developed a religious outlook utilizing visions, fantasies, and dreams.”

Amy: That is so helpful, thank you Maxine!

 

   Amy: 

On the topic of Women’s experience, here are two passages that stood out to me.

A positive formulation of a feminist Christian spirituality and identity can, in my opinion, never proceed from theologicial and cultural critique and demand of women that they forget their own anger and hurt and overlook the violence done to their sisters. In Christian terms, no cheap grace is possible. At the beginning of the Christian life and discipleship stands metanoia, a new orientation in the life power of the Spirit. Christian theology and the Christian community will only be able to speak in an authentic way to the quest for feminist spirituality and for the religious identity of women when the whole church, as well as its individual members, has renounced all forms of sexist ideology adn praxis which are exhibited in our church structures, theologies and liturgies. The Church has publicly to confess that it has wronged women. As the Christian community has officially rejected national and racial exploitation and publicly repented of its tradition of anti-Semitic theology, so it is still called to abnadon all forms of sexism. (From “Feminist Spirituality, Christian Identity, and Catholic Vision, by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Harvard Divinity School, p. 140)

 

Plaskow says that the Torah is an account of “God-wrestling” - people having experiences with the divine that are mysterious and hard to capture in words. The Torah as it is written only includes men’s experiences, and those experiences are perceived and described within a very patriarchal construct. 

But she describes that ancient Jewish sources describe a primordial Torah - written in fire before the world began. So there is a process of making the earthly Torah better reflect the pre-existent Torah. She says,

“Half the souls of Israel have not left for us the Torah they have seen. Insofar as we can begin to recover the God-wrestling of women, insofar as we can restore a part of their vision and experience, we have more of the primordial Torah, the divine fullness, of which the present Torah of Israel is only a fragment and a sign.” (Weaving the Visions, “Jewish Memory”, p. 43)

 

And on the topic of creating new experiences:

I was amazed to learn that in the Jewish tradition, for example, bar mitzvahs - the coming-of-age rituals for boys reaching puberty, have been celebrated since the middle ages, but I guess not unsurprisingly, the first bat mitzvah took place in the United States in 1922, and didn’t catch on for decades, and some very conservative Jewish communities still don’t allow them because they forbid women from reading the Torah in public. But anyway… Judith Plaskow suggests that Jewish ritual has a long precedent of evolving and inventing new ways of connecting to God, so we should add feminist ritual.

 

I want to share two examples, both of which are ancient traditions, so not at all new, but I didn’t grow up with them, so they’re new to me.

 

This is a passage from Dhyani Ywahoo, Etowah Band of the Eastern Cherokee Nation, in her essay “Renewing the Sacred Hoop,” which will tie into next week’s book as well. She says:

 

“Listen to the breath and know it is also the mountain's breath. Mother Mountain has many meridians of energy just as the human body does. You can feel the mountains in your cheeks, just by breathing. Your consciousness is not just in your body. It is in everything. Everything is related. The mountain, too, is your body, so all the better to treat it with respect. 

As long as you are walking upon the Earth you are like a  child in the womb, begin fed by this Earth. ...The wisdom of all our ancestors, wherever they came from, basically points to one truth: everything is in relation to you. Native American’s say, ‘all my relations,’ acknowledging that connection to everything that is alive. All being is an aspect of yourself. So to listen to the elements of nature is to listen to the voice of yourself: to look at the fire and see what it has to show you; to listen to the wind and understand that it, too, is your mind. These are your relatives: the fire, the water, the wind, the Earth, all of the creatures that you meet upon this planet.”

“Renewing the Sacred Hoop”, Dhyani Ywahoo, Etowah Band of the Eastern Cherokee Nation. WTV, 274-275)

 

This one is from Luisah Teish who is a priestess in the Yoruba-Lucumi spiritual tradition of West Africa, in her essay “Ancestor Reverence.” And I have to say as I read this I remembered how my friend Rochelle Briscoe, who did our episode on “Jane Crow and the Law” talked about her African ancestors and how they were a big part of her life. She is a super practical, rational lawyer who worked in the Obama Administration and now has a big-deal job in tech, so I loved hearing from her that she has a connection to her ancestors integrated into her very modern, very intellectual self. I need to ask her more about that.

“Ancestors function as guides, warriors, and healers. These roles are not mutually exclusive of each other. A given ancestor may act in any number or combination of these capacities. It depends on what the person was like during her lifetime and on what work she was doing in the spirit world. 

Was your grandmother a seamstress? Yes? Then take her shopping with you. She’ll lead you to the best bargain on attractive, durable, and low-cost clothing. You’ll have to acquaint her with your style and color preferences but you should also pay attention to hers. Was Papa a handy man? Yes? Then take him with you when you go house hunting. He can sense the bad wiring, leaky pipes, and deteriorating foundation of the place. He’ll steer you toward a better house and then suggest ways to make necessary repairs…. You don’t know how much they are willing to help you until you contact them.”

(“Ancestor Reverence”, Luisah Teish, priestess in the Yoruba-Lucumi spiritual tradition of West Africa, p. 88)

And then she lists many different ways of making shrines to our ancestors to invite them into our lives.


Amy:  I guess that about wraps it up!

What would you say is a main takeaway for you, Maxine?

 

Maxine:   My takeaway is this ---  feminist theology is a valid and inherent aspect of every religion. It is not an artificial or imposed secular idea or politically-correct agenda.   All religions and theologies deal with gender in one way or another, by including it, or omitting it or deconstructing it. But gender is embedded in our ideas about god and our relationship to God, and every theology reveals how that religion has dealt with gender. 

      So, feminist theology is a valid needed work in religions because it examines those theological constructions -- to discover HOW they deal with gender:  Are they patriarchal or sexist or oppressive to any gender?  Are there deeper, more complex or inclusive constructions or ideas in the faith’s origins or history waiting to be excavated?  Are there harms in the ways that religion has envisioned gender ?  Are there  remedies that can heal those harms, that will not violate the unique character of that religion but work harmoniously with it?   What are those remedies?

 

 

Amy: One thing I want to leave with listeners is this quote, from the editors, Christ and Plakow:

 

We believe that the diversity within feminist theology and spirituality is its strength. Each of these feminist positions has a contribution to make to the transformation of patriarchal culture. The fundamental commitment that feminists in religion share to end male ascendency in society and religion is more important than their differences. Time will tell which strategies will prove most effective in achieving the shared goal. What is clear is that, if feminists succeed, religion will never be the same again. (16)

 

Thank you, etc.

 

On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be reading a book that, based on its subject, we could have placed much earlier on our timeline. At long last we will be discussing the feminine tradition in the culture of the first nations who occupied this continent. The book is The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, and it was written by Paula Gunn Allen in 1992. And one of her essays is included in Weaving the Visions! Paula Gunn Allen was a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, and I feel very honored that my dear friend Sherrie Crawford will be back to discuss this book with me. You may remember that when Sherrie was introducing herself way back on our episode on The Creation of Patriarchy, she shared that she had recently discovered through DNA testing that the side of her family she thought was Mexican, “Spanish,” as her maternal grandmother liked to say, was actually Native American, and specifically Pueblo, the same nation as Paula Gunn Allen. So reading this book has been a journey of discovery of her own heritage for Sherrie, and I have felt really humbled to witness that. The book is fascinating, and heartbreaking, and inspiring, and I’m very excited to discuss it in our next episode. So see if you can get a copy of the book, again it’s called The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, by Paula Gunn Allen, and then join us for the conversation, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.



 

Amy’s Notes

 

In WomanSpirit Rising, Christ and Plakow name four main themes that appear in many of the essays:

  1. The problematic nature of exclusively male God-language
  2. The falsity of dualistic thinking 
  3. The importance of valuing women’s experience and history
  4. The need to create new ritual as well as new theology (vii)

 

Other frameworks: Revision (tweaking existing frameworks) or Revolution (creating completely new traditions or rituals)

 

[A] sense of injustice… lies at the heart of the first feminist criticisms of religion. Most of these criticisms originated in an often inarticulate sense of exclusion from traditional religious practice or theology. Women who felt called to be rabbis, priests, and ministers frequently found themselves barred from these vocations. [I wanted more than anything to be a seminary teacher. I remember going to the Church Education System office and signing up for a class, and on the first day of the class - which I loved - the teacher asked me to stay after, and told me that he had noticed my wedding ring and needed to inform me that once I became pregnant I would have to quit because women with children were not allowed to be CES seminary teachers. I was devastated.] Orthodox Jewish women who wanted to participate fully in worship were excluded from the praying community and seated behind a screen. [I observed this in synagogues in Jerusalem, and I was just in Istanbul, where women were similarly relegated to the back of the mosque and sometimes to balconies.] Catholic and Protestant women who wanted to serve communion were asked, instead, to serve church suppers. [That sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it! And we have no vote in making decisions that impact us and our families.] Everywhere we turned, women found signs reading ‘For Men Only.’

The women’s movement enabled women to turn private pain into a stystematic feminist critique of religion.” (3)

 

On exclusively male language 

God the Father [is] “the great patriarch in Heaven.” ...Even if theologians insist that God is not male, the symbols convey their own meaning. (23) 

 

‘I am no longer certain as I once was that when theologians speak of ‘man’ they are using the word in its generic sense. It is, after all, a well-known fact that theology has been written almost exclusively by men. This alone should put us on guard, especially since contemporary theologians constantly remind us that one of man’s strongest temptations is to identify his own limited perspective with universal truth. (25)

 

If God in “his” heaven is a father ruling “his” people then it is in the “nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated. (54)

 

The most profound, intriguing, and inviting of all Jewish theologies, the Kabbalah, teaches us that galut, “exile,” is the fundamental reality and pain of present existence. It teaches that one of the causes of galut is the alienation of the masculine from the feminine in God, the alienation of God and the Shechinah. But it also teaches… that each of us can effect the turning of galut by dedicating all our efforts to the reunification of God and the Shechinah. Now that the masculine and feminine have been torn asunder and the feminine dismembered and banished, both from the discourse about divinity and from the human community, such a tikkun, “reparation,” is obligatory (a mitzvah).  When the masculine and feminine aspect of God have been reunited and the female half of humanity has been returned from exile, we will begin to have our tikkun. The world will be repaired. (Rita M. Gross, “Female God Language in a Jewish Context, 167, WSR)

 

On Dualism

Classical dualism ...became the model for the oppression of women when the culture-creating males identified the positive sides of the dualism with themselves and identified the negative sides with the women over whom they claimed the right to rule. ...When this dualistic pattern of thinking is combined with a symbolic tradition in which God is addressed and conceptualized in predominantly male language and imagery, the sexim of religious thinkers appears logical and consistent. (5)

 

 

 

Catholic theology and anthropology has operated for a long time with the concept of the ‘two natures’ of humanity, according to which women and men are by nature and essence different from each other. This attempt to see human nature and Christian discipleship expressed in two essentially different modes of being human led in tradition and theology to the denigration of women and to the glorification and mythologization of the feminine.

 

Sexism is rooted in the dualistic worldview that grew out of the dramatic religious changes that swept classical civilization in the first millennium BCE. The breakdown of tribal culture in that period led to the disruption of the holistic perspective that characterized early human societies. .Woman and man, nature and culture, body and spirit, Goddess and God, once bound together in a total vision of world renewal, became split off from each other and ordered hierarchically. When male culture-creating groups appropriated the positive side of each of these dualisms for themselves, the age-old male-female polarity was given a newly oppressive significance. Woman were identified with nature, body, the material realm, all of which were considered distinctly inferior to transcendent male spirit. (21)

 

Women are not only different from men but also inferior to them. Traditional theology combined this male-female dualism with the body-spirit dualism. Women then represented sexuality, carnality, and evil. Whereas this tradition defines man by his mind and reason, it sees woman as determined by her ‘nature’ and sexuality. Motherhood, therefore, is the true Christian vocation of every woman, regardless of whether or not she becomes a natural mother. However, in the ascetic Christian tradition nature and body have to be subordinated to mind and spirit, so woman because of her nature has to be subordinated to man. This subordination of woman is sanctioned by scripture. The official stance of the Roman Cahtolic church on birth control is moreover, based on this dualism. Women are not allowed through effective means of control to integrate their reproductive capabilities into a life plan of discipleship and vocation, but they have to remain subject to ‘natural’ biological reproductive processes.” (142)

 

[Merlin Stone, researching ancient religions] ...recalled that somewhere along the pathway of my life I had been told - and accepted the idea - that the sun, great and powerful, was naturally worshipped as male, while the moon, hazy, delicate symbol of sentiment and love, had always been revered as female. Much to my surprise, I discovered accounts of Sun Goddesses in the lands of Canaan, Anatolia, Arabia, and Australia, while Sun Goddesses among th eEskimos, the Japanese, and the Khasis of India were accompanied by subordinate brothers who were symbolized as the moon.

I had somewhere assimilated the idea that the earth was invariably identified as female, Mother Earth, the one who passively accepts the seed, while heaven was naturally and inherently male, its intangibility symbolic of the supposedly exclusive male ability to think in abstract concepts. This too I had accepted without question - until I learned that nearly all the female deities of the Near and Middle East were titled Queen of Heaven, and in Egypt not only was the ancient Goddess Nut known as the heavens by her brother-husband Geb was symbolized as the earth. (121)

 

 

 

On Women’s Experience

Because women have often shaped and understood their lives according to norms or preferences for female behavior expressed by men, there is a sense in which women have not shaped or even known their own experience. What they have known is the false consciousness created by male ideology . Men are therefore excluded from consciousness-raising groups so that women will not hide their true feelings or experiences in fear of men’s disapproval.

To me this speaks to some of the topics we addressed in Gender Trouble. On some levels, gender doesn’t matter - but on some levels, when sex and gender have been used as the defining features that have limited people’s lives, then we need to recognize that in some important contexts sex and gender matter a lot.

 

A positive formulation of a feminist Christian spirituality and identity can, in my opinion, never proceed from theologicial and cultural critique and demand of women that they forget their own anger and hurt and overlook the violence done to their sisters. In Christian terms, no cheap grace is possible. At the beginning of the Christian life and discipleship stands metanoia, a new orientation in the life power of the Spirit. Christian theology and the Christian community will only be able to speak in an authentic way to the quest for feminist spirituality and for the religious identity of women when the whole church, as well as its individual members, has renounced all forms of sexist ideology and praxis which are exhibited in our church structures, theologies and liturgies. The Church has publicly to confess that it has wronged women. As the Christian community has officially rejected national and racial exploitation and publicly repented of its tradition of anti-Semitic theology, so it is still called to abnadon all forms of sexism. (From “Feminist Spirituality, Christian Identity, and Catholic Vision, by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Harvard Divinity School, p. 140)

 

Plaskow says that the Torah is an account of “God-wrestling” - people having experiences with the divine that are mysterious and hard to capture in words. The Torah as it is written only includes men’s experiences, and those experiences are perceived and described within a very patriarchal construct. 

But she describes that ancient Jewish sources describe a primordial Torah - written in fire before the world began. So there is a process of making the earthly Torah better reflect the pre-existent Torah. She says,

“Half the souls of Israel have not left for us the Torah they have seen. Insofar as we can begin to recover the God-wrestling of women, insofar as we can restore a part of their vision and experience, we have more of the primordial Torah, the divine fullness, of which the present Torah of Israel is only a fragment and a sign.” (Weaving the Visions, “Jewish Memory”, p. 43)

 

On Creating New Ritual

Since so many religions leave girls and women out of important rituals, many of the authors suggest that women create new rituals that speak to them. I was amazed to learn that in the Jewish tradition, for example, bar mitzvahs - the coming-of-age rituals for boys reaching puberty, have been celebrated since the middle ages, but I guess not unsurprisingly, the first bat mitzvah took place in the United States in 1922, and didn’t catch on for decades, and some very conservative Jewish communities still don’t allow them because they forbid women from reading the Torah in public. But anyway… Judith Plaskow suggests that Jewish ritual has a long precedent of evolving and inventing new ways of connecting to God, so we should add feminist ritual.

 

I want to share two examples, both of which are ancient traditions, so not at all new, but I didn’t grow up with them, so they’re new to me.

 

This is a passage from Dhyani Ywahoo, Etowah Band of the Eastern Cherokee Nation, in her essay “Renewing the Sacred Hoop,” which will tie into next week’s book as well. She says:

 

“Listen to the breath and know it is also the mountain's breath. Mother Mountain has many meridians of energy just as the human body does. You can feel the mountains in your cheeks, just by breathing. Your consciousness is not just in your body. It is in everything. Everything is related. The mountain, too, is your body, so all the better to treat it with respect. 

As long as you are walking upon the Earth you are like a  child in the womb, begin fed by this Earth. ...The wisdom of all our ancestors, wherever they came from, basically points to one truth: everything is in relation to you. Native American’s say, ‘all my relations,’ acknowledging that connection to everything that is alive. All being is an aspect of yourself. So to listen to the elements of nature is to listen to the voice of yourself: to look at the fire and see what it has to show you; to listen to the wind and understand that it, too, is your mind. These are your relatives: the fire, the water, the wind, the Earth, all of the creatures that you meet upon this planet.”

“Renewing the Sacred Hoop”, Dhyani Ywahoo, Etowah Band of the Eastern Cherokee Nation. WTV, 274-275)

 

This one is from Luisah Teish who is a priestess in the Yoruba-Lucumi spiritual tradition of West Africa, in her essay “Ancestor Reverence.” And I have to say as I read this I remembered how my friend Rochelle Briscoe, who did our episode on “Jane Crow and the Law” talked about her African ancestors and how they were a big part of her life. She is a super practical, rational lawyer who worked in the Obama Administration and now has a big-deal job in tech, so I loved hearing from her that she has a connection to her ancestors integrated into her very modern, very intellectual self. I need to ask her more about that.

“Ancestors function as guides, warriors, and healers. These roles are not mutually exclusive of each other. A given ancestor may act in any number or combination of these capacities. It depends on what the person was like during her lifetime and on what work she was doing in the spirit world. 

Was your grandmother a seamstress? Yes? Then take her shopping with you. She’ll lead you to the best bargain on attractive, durable, and low-cost clothing. You’ll have to acquaint her with your style and color preferences but you should also pay attention to hers. Was Papa a handy man? Yes? Then take him with you when you go house hunting. He can sense the bad wiring, leaky pipes, and deteriorating foundation of the place. He’ll steer you toward a better house and then suggest ways to make necessary repairs…. You don’t know how much they are willing to help you until you contact them.”

(“Ancestor Reverence”, Luisah Teish, priestess in the Yoruba-Lucumi spiritual tradition of West Africa, p. 88)

And then she lists many different ways of making shrines to our ancestors to invite them into our lives.

 

 

Revision vs. Revolution

Is feminist theology genuinely liberating? Have those feminists who stand within Biblical traditions noted for their sexism adequately freed themselves from sexist theology? And have those feminists who reject biblical traditions adequately transcended the dualisms of patriarchal theology, or are they simply glorifying the denigrated side of the polarities that the patriarchy created? (9)

I’m still figuring this out. I understand the need to redeem the value of nature, of intuition, of nurturing, of emotion, and practically speaking I believe in the dignity and necessity of care-taking and domestic work. But I feel uncomfortable saying that those are female traits and so they’re good and goddessy, just as I feel uncomfortable saying they’re bad and witchy. Mayyyyybe more women embody those traits…? But that hasn’t been my lived experience. Who is the most organized and rational of my kids? My daughter Lucy. Which of my kids has the biggest emotional range? They all have a huge emotional range, but Stone maybe ties with Sophie for first place. Who loves animals and babies? They all do. Who is super verbal and socially attuned? My son, as well as my daughter. Between my husband and me, who is more like the moon in terms of mood swings? My husband. Who was more unpredictably temperamental between my mom and my dad? My dad. So I don’t buy it. And personal anecdote aside, like the quote says, because it was a bunch of men who defined and distributed the traits, I don’t like staying within that dichotomy.

 

“Feminists have charged that Judaism and Christianity are sexist religions with a male God and traditions of male leadership that legitimate the superiority of men in family and society. This new challenge to traditional faiths just confirms the view of some feminists that society has outgrown its need for religion. They agree with Freud and Marx that religions keep people dependent on authority and thwart their desire to improve their material situations.  Other feminists, however, are convinced that religion is profoundly important. For them, the discovery that religions teach the inferiority of women is experienced as a betrayal of deeply felt spiritual and ritual experience. They believe the history of sexism in religions shows how deeply sexism has permeated the human psyche but does not invalidate human need for ritual, symbol and myth. While differing on many issues, the contributors to this volume agree that religion is deeply meaningful in human life and that the traditional religions of the West have betrayed women. They are convinced that religion must be reformed or reconstructed to support the full human dignity of women.”

 

“The herstorian recognizes and affirms the noble impulse, the thrust of promise and fulfillment which lies behind the biblical epic, but laments some of the ways in which this impulse was translated. She is therefore not likely to find in particular biblical passages, events, or people that completeness of intent that the tradition claims for itself, but looks before, behind, beyond, and even outside the tradition as well as at it for her affirmation. …

Once the imperialism of the historical event has been relativized, the feminist herstorian is free to choose from the tradition those poisnts of insight and affirmation which speak most forecefully to her won experience and that of her sisters. She is also freed to explore the rich heritage of myth and symbol - both biblical and extra biblical  - and to allow it to speak to her, rather than accepting an interpretation of it as given by Scripture or authority. (“Reflections on the Meaning of Herstory, Sheila Collins, 70 WSR)

Yeah, I guess. That’s just so exhausting, and I can get bitter that men don’t have to do all that extra work. 

 

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.