Musings on the Goddess and Her Cultured Despisers --
Provoked by Naomi Goldenberg
By Carol P. Christ
When I was visiting England in the spring of 2001, Mary Grey invited Ruth Mantin and me to visit her
in Salisbury. When we met in a local pub, Mary handed me a copy of her book Introducing Feminist
Images of God, just published by the Sheffield Academic Press. Mary had inscribed the book, "To Carol,
Thank you for the trail you have blazed, and courage in the quest." She was eager to tell me that she
had found my work inspiring and that I was mentioned in her new book. I should have resisted the
temptation, but I thumbed through the Index and turned to pages 32-34 where my work was discussed
before I looked at the menu. While waiting for our dinner to arrive, I skimmed the pages, noting that
Grey characterized some Goddess activities as "self-indulgent rituals affirming female sexuality" and
that she found contemporary Goddess religion's "views on evil and tragedy unconvincing." Summing up
the seven pages (in a one hundred and seventeen-page book) that she devoted to Goddess religion,
Grey concurred with views she attributed to Rosemary Radford Ruether. Contemporary Goddess religion
is likely to "fail" because it has "no adequate role for men" and because takes a "quiescent attitude
toward the global need for structural justice." I realized that my Goddess thealogy, Rebirth of the
Goddess published in 1997, had not even been mentioned, while Melissa Raphael's Introducing Thealogy
published in 1999 in the same series as Grey's book merited a footnote but no substantive discussion.
Both Raphael and I had responded to the charge that that rituals affirming female sexuality are
self-indulgent, and we had each devoted an entire chapter to Goddess ethics. In my book I specifically
discussed the structural nature of injustice and offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess ethics as an
alternative to the Ten Commandments of Biblical religion. The ethical concerns of leaders and participants
in the Goddess movement--for example Starhawk's direct action protests against the nuclear industry and
globalization and Charlene Spretnak's involvement in the Green Party in California--were not mentioned.
Instead the familiar charge that the Goddess movement has no concern for social justice was repeated. It
seemed incredible to me that a feminist scholar would omit important facts and the most substantial
theoretical work from her discussion, especially when her intent was to discredit the work of other feminists.
I was surprised that the other editors of the series would let her get away with it. Imagine if someone had
tried to write that Christian feminism lacked a social ethic! I am certain that the editors of the series would
have told the author to do her homework before submitting her manuscript. It is an understatement to say
that I lost my appetite for the English pub food that soon arrived at the table.
A work titled Introducing Feminist Images of God (not for example Introducing Christian Feminist Images
of God) might have provided the opportunity to engage in an even-handed discussion of feminist work on
images of divinity from Christian, Jewish, Goddess, and other perspectives. In such a discussion the work
of Goddess feminists might well have been central, given that Goddess feminists have devoted a great
deal of attention to the question of imagery. Such a discussion might even have provided a chance for a
Christian feminist to pay homage to the many ways in which the Goddess movement has influenced
Christian feminist efforts re-imagine God as Sophia. Yet the strategy of Grey's book was to introduce the
Goddess movement in order to dismiss it. Having done so, she could get on with the real subject of her
book, which (though it includes a token chapter on Jewish feminism) is focused on Christian feminist work
on images of God.
What Grey did in her book is something that many Christian feminist theologians have been doing for a
long time-closing off dialogue with Goddess feminists and denying the importance of our work. Mary
Grey's work is part of a trend. Indeed compared to many other Christian feminists, Mary Grey stands out
for the fact that she at least engaged some of the thea-logical literature. In contrast, for example, in
Introducing Feminist Theology, Anne M. Clifford's discussion and dismissal of the Goddess movement is
set entirely within the context of Rosemary Radford Ruether's critique of it. In 2002 a conference on Religion
and the Feminist Movement was held at Harvard University. Its stated purpose was to gather information for
writing history. The conference was held on one of the major holidays of the Goddess movement and the list
of participants included two representatives of the Goddess movement, two Jews, two Muslims, and eighteen
Christians. Yet I estimate that there are at least as many Goddess feminists in North America today as there
are Christian feminists. We are already beginning to be written out of history! Sally Roesch Wagner has
documented the way in which Susan B. Anthony wrote Matilda Joslyn Gage out of the history of the women's
suffrage movement because of her radical critique of Christianity in Woman, Church, and State. I fear that
history is about to be repeated.
Something strange is going on in this process. Privately, Mary Grey tells me that she is "grateful for the trail
I have blazed," while in print she accuses me and the movement of which I am part of not having the same
kinds of concern for global justice that she and other Christian feminists have. She imagines that I will be
grateful for the private acknowledgement, while graciously accepting of (?) or suitably chastened by (?) the
judgments in the printed text. Nor am I expected to throw up my dinner! Unfortunately, Grey is not alone in
this kind of private-public split. Throughout the years, many Christian women have told me of their great
respect for the bravery and courage evident in my work, perhaps even gesturing to their own Isis earrings or
a Nile River Goddess pendants. Yet at the same time they tell of their fear that if they are too open about
their interest in the Goddess they might lose their positions in the academy or the church.
I wonder what Mary Grey had in mind when she spoke of the "excesses" and "self-indulgence" of feminist
rituals that "affirm" female sexuality. What does she imagine we are doing? In a world where women's bodies
are despised and commodified, where women's bodies are raped, beaten, and sold, is it excessive and
self-indulgent to imagine that the female body is sacred? Is it brave, bold, and life-affirming for Christian
women to affirm themselves in the image of Sophia saying, "with nectar between our thighs, we invite a lover,
we birth a child; with our warm body fluids, we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations," but
excessive and self-indulgent if the same words are spoken in a Goddess ritual? What is the difference?
Is it that one group of women claims connection to Christian tradition while the other does not?
Since the ethical concern of Goddess feminists is well documented, why is it that the movement continues to
be caricatured as "quiescent" and unconcerned about social justice? Is it self-indulgent narcissistic
navel-gazing when Starhawk and members of Reclaiming are arrested in the direct action movement against
globalization in the name of the Goddess? Is the same action done in the name of the prophets or Jesus
expressive of a deep concern for social justice? Or is it that Christian feminists really do not know that
Goddess feminists are concerned with social justice? And if not, why not, when it is a matter of public record?
Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark in which she describes the anti-nuclear work of the Reclaiming movement has
sold over 100,000 copies. Charlene Spretnak is co-author of Green Politics. Shouldn't Christian feminists who
generalize about the lack of ethics in the Goddess movement have been aware of these books and the
activities related to them? Is bad faith involved?
Over the years I have speculated about why Christian feminists insist on calling the Goddess movement
narcissistic and self-indulgent while characterizing themselves as concerned with social justice. Sometimes
I have concluded that insofar as this false dichotomy keeps women from exploring the Goddess movement,
it serves the interests of the religious institutions, including the seminaries where many academic feminist
Christians are employed. At other times I have wondered if Christian feminists have a psychological need
to dismiss Goddess movement, because if they took it seriously, they might be tempted to join it (and then
they might lose their jobs and invitations to participate in events sponsored by Christian institutions).
Reflecting on the way Mary Grey characterized the "excesses" of the Goddess movement, another
explanation comes to mind. Grey's discomfort with "rituals affirming female sexuality" eerily echoes the
prophets' judgment against the people of the land who sacrificed on every high hill and under every green
tree. For the prophets it was an either-or matter: either rituals celebrating sexuality and the fertility of the
land, or ethical concern. When Christian feminists worry about the potential "excesses" involved in celebrating
female sexuality in Goddess rituals, are they simply repeating the prophetic judgment against the people of
the land, while reserving the moral high ground for themselves?
At the pub in Sheffield, Mary Grey defended her characterization of the Goddess movement. But after further
discussion, she apologized to me for giving a misleading impression of it. Yet a personal apology from one
individual means very little if Christian feminists continue to distort the work of Goddess feminists in order to
dismiss it. What is required is that the work of Goddess feminists be taken seriously and evaluated fairly by
Christian feminists and vice versa. Whether we are Christian, Jewish, or Goddess feminists, we are all
interested in creating positive images of female power including female sexuality, and we are all interested
in changing the structures of power in which women and children are the poorest of the poor the world around.
This is fertile ground for dialogue.
1. Mary Grey, Introducing Feminist Images of God (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).
3. Carol P. Christ, Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality (New York and London:
Routledge, 1998), originally published in 1997 by Addison-Wesley; Melissa Raphael, Introducing Thealogy:
Discourse on the Goddess (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999). In my book I also
discussed the question of tragedy and evil, see 130-132.
4. I mention these actions solely as examples; they do not exhaust the list of Goddess feminists' social
concerns. I am not arguing that everyone who is interested in the Goddess is a radical social activist. But this
is true of every group. Not all Christians are radical social activists either.
5. Editors of the series Introductions in Feminist Theology are Mary Grey, Lisa Isherwood, Catherine Norris,
and Janet Wootton.
6. Anne M. Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 93-95. A large and
attractive photograph of Radford Ruether dominates the pages on which this discussion occurs.
7. Matilda Joslyn Gage, Women, Church and State: The Original Expose of Male Collaboration Against the
Female Sex, introduction by Sally Roesch Wagner (Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1980).
8. This is the famous prayer from the first Re-Imagining Conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA in
1993. See Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joem, eds., Re-Membering and Re-Imagining (Cleveland,
Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), 19-20.
9. Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982, 1997); also
see Starhawk, Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada:
New Society Publishers, 2002); Frijof Capra and Charlene Spretnak, Green Politics (New York: Dutton, 1984).
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