In the Web of Life — No Exceptions By Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Does God love me more than She loves my doggies? Does She love animals more than She loves trees and flowers? Does She love trees and flowers more than She loved the first cells that formed in the waters of our planet? Did She not also love the atoms and particles of atoms that coalesced to form the earth?

In her books Sacred Gaia and Gaia’s Gift Anne Primavesi questions the notion that the dialogue between God and the world began with “our entry onto the scene.”  Primavesi argues that “human exceptionalism,” the view that the world exists for us, and that we are an “exception” to the world, has been and is the predominant Christian view.  In the stories of Adam and Noah, God gives dominion over the creatures of the earth to man.  Theologians asserted that of all the creatures that inhabit the earth, only man is in the image of God, and the image of God in man is found in his rational intelligence, which is shared with no other creature.  Because he is in the image of God, man will escape death, which is the lot of every other living thing.  Rather than challenging human exceptionalism, modern science furthered it, asserting that “matter” was “dead,” and that therefore it was right and just for man to subdue “nature” through technology and to harness it for his needs.  

Human exceptionalism is so deeply rooted in our minds that even environmentalists have been known to argue that we should save the rainforests because we cannot survive without them, or because a cure for cancer might be found within them.  On this logic, there would be no reason to save the rainforests if we could figure out another way to change carbon dioxide into oxygen, or if the cure for cancer had already been found.

I have not been a human exceptionalist for many years, perhaps I never was. It makes me very happy to think that Goddess loves the blue tit drinking from the fountain in my garden as much as She loves me, and that she communicates with the blue tit in blue tit language just as She communicates with me in English or other languages I can understand.  After all, I am not blue and yellow or feathered, and I do not sing like the blue tit sings.  Why should God reserve Her love for me and only me, when there are so many other things in the world that She can love?  I like to think that the world we know has been co-created through the billions of years of the evolutionary process and that even Goddess has been surprised and delighted by the particular ways life has evolved on this planet.

I am only one of the many miracles on the earth.  I rejoice in life in all its diversity and difference and I am filled with gratitude for all that has gone before me and brought me here today.  I do not hope to be “excepted” from the rule that the end of life is death.  I was thinking of all of this on Thanksgiving Day.

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Categories: Eco-systems, Foremothers, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Relationality

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14 replies

  1. Carol, I absolutely love this post! A few years ago, I might not have understood it – but now, as a mother not only to my daughter, but also my two rescue dogs, I realize that it is so much bigger than me – or the human population.

    I have not heard of human exceptionalism before – but what you are saying here makes so much sense. I wonder, where might I find a copy of Primavesi’s book? Interesting and very important…

  2. Carol – we just read Marti Kheel’s Nature Ethics in class. As part of our discussion, I gave a brief intro to ecofeminism and noted how many come to blend feminist and ecological concerns from different standpoints (e.g., theological, goddess, womanist, etc.) So this post was so timely.

    I’m wondering, not knowing the book that you are referencing here, how does human exceptionalism differ either from anthropocentrism or from a (common) view that only human beings have intrinsic value, all others only instrumental? And is “human exceptionalism” attempting to trade of the connotations of American exceptionalism?

  3. It is sad that Anne Primavesi is not well-known in the US and she doesn’t engage with American feminists and ecofeminist to a great degree. Primavesi writes as a very critical Christian. She not only views human beings as part of nature but also as part of a very long evolutionary process of which we are NOT the end point or the reason for the whole thing. I suppose human exceptionalism is like anthropocentrism, with the qualification that exceptionalism makes us an exception to the rule that the end of life is death.

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=sr_tc_2_0?rh=i%3Astripbooks%2Ck%3AAnne+Primavesi&keywords=Anne+Primavesi&ie=UTF8&qid=1322865067&sr=1-2-ent&field-contributor_id=B001H6Q7Y4

  4. I think human exceptionalism goes along with the notion that God and even Goddess is somehow in human form. I went from living within Western culture to living within Indigenous worldview when I joined the nonprofit I now head, Tapestry Institute. I know many Indigenous people who experience the divine as different creatures, and those creatures are not human. I work with the horse-human relationship, and I am constantly telling people that while horses help humans, they were not put on this planet for that purpose.

  5. I haven’t read either of Anne Primavesi’s books that Carol refers to here, so I can speak only in general terms. Primavesi is surely correct that divine presence in the universe was unlikely to have begun only after humans separated from the rest of the primate community. Also, I agree with Carol in supporting Primavesi’s efforts to decenter the “Man as the Crown of Creation” assumption that has influenced so much of Western religion.

    As for ways of thinking about death in various religious orientations, the emphasis in some forms of Christianity on the body “incorruptible” when the dead will be raised on the Day of Judgement can be viewed as one end of a spectrum. Carol, and a lot of ecofeminists, are clearly situated in the other end, the one that accepts and celebrates the natural cycles of life on Earth. Marija Gimbutas saw this symbolic and artistic engagement with the natural cycles of birth, maturation, death, and regeneration in the artifacts of neolithic Old Europe. It is also present in numerous, more recent indigenous cultures. Gimbutas saw divine presence as encompassing the cosmological drama of the changing seasons, the bounty of the land, and the cycles of endless regeneration. She wrote, “The Goddess in all her manifestations was a symbol of the unity of all life in Nature” [Language of the Goddess, p. 321]. Death is, of course, a part of the natural processes, not something to try to escape from or to be brought back from. But, then, there are many types of religious response to this matter.

  6. Just living with a dog and cat seems to me clear evidense that humans aren’t the be all and end all of the world. And our attempts to be the center of attention have resulted in such destruction of the earth, that all the other animals must be in shock over this.

    I’ve never understood Christian obsessions over an afterlife, since people could focus so much more on this life and make it so much more meaningful. That’s why dog are so great, they so clearly demonstrate to humans how to have a good life!

  7. Joanne, I agree with you about imagery of the divine in human and non-human forms. The Greeks (surprise?) were the ones who insisted that deities must be in human form because the human form was the perfection of nature. In Language of the Goddess by Gimbutas most of the images have allusions to other than human forms. A “Goddess” with a human body, snakelike arms and legs, and the beak of a bird is far more inclusive than the classical Athene or Aphrodite. After all, human beings cannot slither or shed our skins and we cannot fly, we are not inclusive of all beings in the web of life, but Goddess should be.

  8. Turtle woman, you are so right.
    Charlene, thanks for bringing up Gimbutas.

  9. And Carol, I wasn’t even thinking of powerful mythological creatures, the Goddess in many forms, the pure delight in non-human powerful beings. Favorites include the minataur, mermaids, the griffin, and Medusa. To me, these represent a direct collaboration between animals and humans.
    There is no dominion over, just a collaboration or amagamation.

  10. With respect and love to all, I have come to really doubt that the question of
    life after death is a useful question. Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I
    remember clearly being in a box where (a) we had personal immortality and our
    whole life, worship, and value system were focused on that immortality, and, (b)
    we were to accept without rebellion of any sort that god was good and wise and
    god’s will was for the best.

    It can be truly difficult to get out of that box.

    If you have ever really believed in personal immortality, it is essentially a
    life-threatening idea to give up. And it can be difficult to mend the bones of
    your soul once they have been broken by the idea of quietly accepting even the
    unacceptable as long as it comes from god (anybody remember limbo?)

    Sometimes I think this either/or process is just box-chasing. There is
    immortality (back into the box), or there isn’t but that’s ok because if our
    loved one’s really die it’s god’s will and we accept god’s will even if it rips
    our hearts to shreds (back into the box again).

    There are, however, phenomena that are as reliable as the light switch in the
    living room. If one stays inside of the box, it can be impossible to develop
    the freedom of spirit necessary to take the open adventures that are required to
    know these phenomena. We understand, I think, the Warrior’s choice to live in
    spite of the threat of death. I sometimes feel that the spiritual path also
    requires acceptance of the fear of the ultimate unknown, and that this openness
    to the unknown lets us see farther, deeper, truer.

  11. Carol, I’ve raised this with you before (it’s on my web site). I think what you are saying is fine and important. But to me it only makes sense if we go the full way. I agree that the Goddess loves the blue tit as much as She loves me or you.

    But then (particularly if she loves atoms and particles) She loves the malaria parasite and the smallpox virus as much as She loves the blue tit or me or you. And then we have to work out our own relationship with smallpox.

    I seem to remember that it was you who said, way back when, that “We are more ethical than God”. And so, I think, also more ethical than Goddess. Can ethics co-exist with a love for everything? I remain confused about this, which I guess is not necessarily a bad place to be.

    • I don’t have any problem with that, maybe because I’m a biologist. I have collected and studied parasites and they are totally amazing. Their life cycles and ability to shape shift are beautiful. As to malaria, it only really becomes a problem when we set up economic systems that force impoverished peoples to live in malarial swamps. Parasites are part of a larger, ever changing picture in which the loss of parasite load can lead to environmental crisis (see: green crabs that become shellfish destroyers when bereft of their parasites).

      I think maybe the word ‘love’ is problematic for me. Be amazed by, respect, appreciate, desire to understand…all of those stances could apply easily to the blue tit, the bear tapeworm, no-see-ums and other persons. Love is a word that requires the object to be at least perceived as lovable. That seems too limiting for appreciation of all the varieties of life.

  12. Daniel, I do think Demetria and you are right that Goddess loves and must love everything. Philosophically my position is Hartshornian panentheism. Personally, Iike Hartshorne I experience the divine power as love. I feel love in the world and in my life. I am not sure this can be proved philosophically, though Hartshorne thought it could. In the world there is a conflict of wills and interests and we don’t need malaria to understand that. So Goddess is inspiring us to create the most harmonious world possible, perfect harmony being impossible, and when we suffer she is with us in our suffering, as she is also with the “individuals” of whatever type that are causing our suffering, some of which or whom may just be doing their own things.

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