What Was Your Childhood Religious Tradition And Do You Still Follow It? by Carol P. Christ

Recently, in an interview with the Women’s Living History Project of Claremont Graduate University, I was asked: What religious tradition did you identify with as a child and how did it impact your childhood? and: Is your tradition the same today that you had when growing up?

I was surprised that the interview questions didn’t ask anything about feminism, experiencing exclusion in patriarchal religions, or belief.  My religious and political convictions, which are intertwined, have alienated me from family members.  Therefore, I was suspicious of questions that seemed to have been formulated by someone for whom religion and family go together, and for whom believing or not believing (!) did not seem to be an important issue.

After expressing criticism of the questions, I agreed to work with them.  My answer to the first question was that I did not have a single religious tradition as a child. I had four. 

My family went to the Village Presbyterian Church in a new tract home suburb in southern California. There I was taught that God is love and that I should love my neighbor as myself.  Predestination was never mentioned, nor the torments of hell.  I declined confirmation at age thirteen, because I didn’t feel we were being prepared to choose between different versions of Christianity.  When I finally joined the Presbyterian Church some years later, I confessed to the minister that I believed in God, but was not at all certain about Jesus and the Trinity. He told me not to worry.

My father’s mother was Roman Catholic.  When I was six years old I spent a summer with her. After we dropped my grandfather off at his morning train, my grandmother and I often stopped at a Catholic church where she lit candles and prayed the rosary. Although I didn’t know what the “Hail Marys” and the “Our Fathers” were, I understood that my grandmother believed that the Blessed Virgin listened to her prayers.

My mother’s mother was a Christian Scientist.  My mother was embarrassed by having been brought up in a faith that seemed odd to the other children in school. Nonetheless, she believed that we did not need to get sick.  After we had the measles, mumps, and chicken pox, my brother and I rarely missed a day of school.  We were not taken to the doctor or coddled for playing sick.  The assumption of health is faith in the goodness of life in the body.

My mother’s mother who was raised on a farm in Michigan lived behind the Los Angeles County Arboretum.  When we were young, there was no fence separating it from her orchard. Our grandmother often took us for walks in the arboretum where she taught us to love nature.  Peacocks flew into her neighborhood from the arboretum, and though my mother said she would not want them in her yard, my grandmother loved them fiercely. She taught us to feed the peahens, chicks, and beautiful blue-green males from our hands and confided that certain peahens always brought their chicks to her back door as soon as they were born.

My childhood religion was made up of four strands: Protestantism, Catholicism, Christian Science, and Nature.  I have taken something from each of them.  From Protestantism, I learned that that Goddess is love and to love my neighbor as myself.  In Catholic churches, I felt the Blessed Mother always with us.  Christian Science taught me to trust in my body and its natural health.  Nature continues to speak to me of my connection to all living things.

Decades ago I left the Christianity of my childhood and embraced the religion of Mother Earth.  The symbols of Goddess religion are very different from those of my childhood faith.   I no longer pray to God the Father.  I do not believe in salvation through Christ nor do I have any particular fondness for the life or teachings of Jesus.

I pray to the Mother of All the Living, the Source of Life, and celebrate the powers of birth, death, and regeneration.  I believe Goddess is love and that She loves the whole world.  I try to do so as well.  I believe Goddess listens to our prayers and responds with infinite compassion and understanding.  I believe the earth is our true home, that life in the body is a great gift, and that death is the end of life. I know that I am connected to all living things and view plants and animals, rivers and rocks, as my relatives.

I have come a long way from the religion of my childhood, yet in subtle and important ways, my core beliefs are exactly the same as the ones with which I was raised.

This is my mother’s world and to my listening ears, all nature sings and ’round me rings the music of the spheres.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life.  She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute

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20 replies

  1. Carol, you sure had a more interesting childhood than I did. I grew up white-bread Protestant (yes, we ate Wonder Bread) in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Evangelical and Reformed, which was as mainstream Protestant as could be. Grape juice for communion, plus sappy hymns. When I took the confirmation class, I got in trouble for asking too many questions. (Gee, is that a surprise?) By the time I was in college, I was Unitarian. That lasted through graduate school, and then I (a) studied the Aramaic Bible with Dr. Rocco Errico and (b) got beckoned home by the Goddess. That’s where I live now: in Her lap. Thanks for your story.

  2. At 55, I am “retiring” from my Methodist childhood religious tradition. Everything about the sacramental life and rhythm of the Christian liturgical year has pulsed through my body since birth. I loved planning the family advent wreath services for as long as I can remember. A few years ago I met an art professor in a divinity school and she commented about how fully I embodied the sacraments and liturgy. Little did I know that this was the culmination of a life that was about to release all religious emotional attachment. Slowly I realized, through unsolicited memory, that I dissociated into that rhythm. There was a story of patriarchy’s cultural and familial grip to unfold. Five years later I listened as my sister spoke of Christmas Eve communion/eucharist last week, and it felt foreign to my senses.

    Barbara and Carol, I’m wanting to mark my pagan beginnings, but not sure where to turn? Where do you enroll in Goddess catechism??? I have connection with Goddess, as her pure gift and she has brought me to herself. Now I am yearning to be drawn to others in her.

  3. Susan, you might see if a local Unitarian Church is doing Cakes for the Queen of Heaven or Rise Up and Call Her Name or if they have a pagan/Goddess group. Or keep your eyes open for workshops. Or you can always try to start a reading group on Goddess/women’s spirituality topics and it could lead to doing ritual together. You don’t say what part of the country you are writing from.

  4. I find this a really inspiring and helpful story – to hear and listen to your experience. In my ways of knowing from my childhood I remember the worship of river, forest, mountain with my Dad and family. I also remember sunday school stories shared sensitively, openly, with questions and lots of open endings.

  5. I always love reading your posts Carol. We grew up with a disdain for religion, my dad’s mum is a strict seventh day adventist whose church family was and still is more important than her own. This left an imprint on my father and he still holds much animosity towards any kind of church or religious faith. My mum’s parents knew what they didn’t believe, I remember my pop just saying “there is no such thing as god or Jesus and when you’re dead…you’re dead!!” My Nanna was very much interested in ghosts, history and spirit contact, I used to stay up late watching all the ghost stories with her and reading her history books and this was a major influence. I became fascinated about religion as a teenager and was able to explore what ever I liked, i was drawn to paganism and wicca. My families influence however was strong and the idea of church and god never appealed. In saying this though I know that for a long time I was seeking a place to pray, something to have faith in and often wished that I had the experience of going to church. I’ve always felt a connection to nature, from when I was very small and the realisation that the Great mother has been with me always was quite profound. I felt it, but couldn’t explain it. Now I can & I too pray to the Great Mother, and celebrate birth, death and re-birth. I am at one with nature, part of the web. My beliefs are still unfolding and evolving and this is very exciting for me.

  6. Bless our struggles and our ways of seeking and finding our mother earth!

  7. Carol, thank you for this opportunity for sharing our childhood religious beliefs. Everyone has her particular path! The best I can describe myself is as lapsed Calvinist. I grew up on a farm in the South African Free State where men ruled: God, minister, and teacher. In those days, the 50s, in South Africa feminism was an unknown word. It was only after emigrating to New York in the early 80s that Jungian therapy brought me to the goddess, and I could understand the hunger that drove me, as a feminist artist and poet, to create visual prayers to the Great Mother, Earth. I have not been to a church service for many decades, but find in my art work the labyrinthian path unfolding daily and I can never be sure where it will take me next…

  8. I was born into a Jewish family, whose Jewishness, it now seems from an adult perspective, was more ethnic than it was religiously observant. All four of my grandparents emigrated to the US around the turn of the century from an area known as “the Pale,” which went back and forth between Russia and Poland; three of the four of them were from Byalistok or small towns/shetls in the Byalistok area. My maternal grandfather was from the Warsaw area. He was more interested in politics, particularly related to labor, than in religion, but he did go to a nearby synagogue to formally give a Hebrew name each of his children and grandchildren. Early on, my maternal grandmother lit candles on Sabbath, but that ended when they caught fire one evening. She didn’t keep Kosher, but she always bought Kosher meat (and gave me raw but Kosher chopped beef to taste. Yum! really!) I don’t know about my paternal grandmother’s beliefs because she spoke very little English. But my paternal grandfather declared himself an atheist. My father told me that was why he (my father) was never Bar Mitzvah. I was first sent to a Conservative Sunday School, but within a couple of years my parents found it too expensive to keep sending me there. They found an Orthodox “Sunday” School (actually, it was held on Saturday), which charged little or nothing. I attended there for a few years until I started insisting that my father shouldn’t be working or driving on Saturday, and that my mother should be keeping Kosher, and that they were wrong to skip over large portions of the Haggadah on Passover. My parents then discovered the Reform Temple and made some sort of deal so they didn’t have to pay the full amount of membership (which they couldn’t afford). I was confirmed in that Temple at age 15 (at that time, this Temple in Trenton NJ, only Bar Mitvahed upon special request; Bat Mitzvah had not yet come into practice; both girls and boys were confirmed.) We were required to attend Saturday Services as part of Saturday School. After my confirmation I no longer attended Saturday Services, but I did attend High Holiday services with my father. We both fasted (my father for the first time in his life); my mother did not fast. She stayed home and cooked. She also didn’t light Sabbath candles. We did celebrate Hannukah though, with candles. My sisters and I received a present each night. Sometime during my college years mostly in rebellion about the college asking a question about religion on their forms, I started identifying, at least on those forms, as “pantheist.” Actually I had little knowledge of what the word meant, except that it wasn’t any established religion. Friends who knew me from fledgling civil rights groups said that they thought I would be at home in the local Unitarian Society. However, since it met early Sunday morning (remember, I was in college!), I never got there. Several years later, after I married and had a child, I did join a UU church. Interest in a feminist analysis of religion soon followed (not directly from the church, which hadn’t quite gotten there yet, but from my own studies). Since then (1970s) I identify both as a UU and a Goddessian. However, I don’t believe one can stop being Jewish from an ethnic point of view (it’s literally in one’s DNA you know), and I have found a way to combine Jewish ethnicity with my Goddess pov by founding the Yahoogroup Asherah and by including a deconstruction/reconstruction of Kabbalah in one of my books. And by eating bagels, lox, chicken soup, white fish, gefilte fish…you get the idea :-)

  9. Judith, you are probably familiar with Asphodel Long’s book, “In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: the search for the female in deity”. and Judith Plaskow’s work, “Standing again at Sinai: Judaism from a feminist perspective”, both books written from a Jewish foundation. Also Raphael Patai’s “The Hebrew Goddess”. Having been raised as a Calvinist on a South African farm, the Old Testament was the foundation for the patriarchal religion that Held sway among the sheep and the cattle where I grew up. However, reading these books, re-formed all of that, and allowed the Goddess to walk among the men.

  10. I loved The Hebrew Goddess by Patai, and I did not understand why women did not immediately identify with the Asherah worshippers in Israel, whether they were Jewish or Chtistian, instead of with the prophets. Here is another group who are: http://kohenet.com/ The Hebrew Priestess Institute.

  11. Carol, quite, why not identify with the Asherah worshipers. For my daughter’s 35th birthday I painted her three red Asherahs, or maiden, mother and crone. I lived for 23 years in New York where I discovered your books that became part of my path. I now live back in my motherland against the Drakensberg mountains among the most wonderful groves of indiginous and wild trees… Asherah indeed.

  12. Carol wrote: “I loved The Hebrew Goddess by Patai, and I did not understand why women did not immediately identify with the Asherah worshippers in Israel” and Majak replied “Carol, quite, why not identify with the Asherah worshipers.” Here’s my theory about why many people don’t: What we learn to *believe* in religion goes so far back–to our childhoods as Carol so well describes–and also, particularly in many Jews’ views, thousands of years–years in which other religions were continually trying to either extinguish or convert them–that they are super defensive about changing any of their views. For both Christians and Jews it may feel like a personal threat, for Jews it may be also seen as a threat to Judaism itself. The more conservative in the case of Christianity, and Orthodox in the case of Judaism, the person is, the less willing they are to even for a moment let into their consciousness anything against what they have been taught since childhood. For example, when, in the early to mid 1990s I noted on my then-new website that Asherah was the Hebrew Goddess I got a stream of angry emails from (Orthodox?) Jews insisting that what I wrote was WRONG!!!! Asherah could not have been a Hebrew Goddess, they insisted, because Judaism is MONOTHEISTIC!!!
    Majek, thanks for the references to Asphodel Long’s *In A Chariot Drawn by Lions* and Patai’s *The Hebrew Goddess*. As you guessed, I’ve had them in my library for some time. You can also access some of Long’s writing on this and other subjects on asphodel-long.com Two more recent books that you also may be interested in are Jenny Kien’s *Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism* and Willam G. Dever’s *Did God Have a Wife? Archaelogy and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel*. Both are Asherah-centered.

  13. Yes. Judith, Jewish feminist friends have told me that the Goddess implies returning to paganism while Judaism is built on the repudiation of paganism.

  14. Great article Carol. I think Jassy has summed up her religious upbringing or, rather, her lack of one. As she said, my father didn’t believe that there was any higher power and religion was always criticised in my family when I was growing up as being a “crutch” for weak people. However, as a child I felt that I was missing out on something because I was the only kid in the neighbourhood who didn’t get to go to Sunday school. So – when I started school and was asked what religion I was, I used to say a different religion every year. One year I was a Salvo, then a Methodist, then Presbyterian but I was never a Catholic! I got to go to all of those different religious instruction groups and found what they said interesting. It never went any further than that however. When I married, my husband and I used to have long involved discussions with his 7th day adventist mother about her beliefs but what she said did not reflect what she practised, especially in relation to family and love. We adopted the attitude when we had our own children that we would give them some basic explanations of religion i.e. some people believed in God and they had Bible stories etc but we always felt that they should search and make up their own minds when they got older and they have done exactly that. On the other hand, I myself didn’t know what I believed in but the only constant was Nature – it was always there and represented the beginning, the middle and the end. It was then on the pilgrimage to Crete at the tholos tomb ritual that She spoke to me and I came away from there with a completely full heart. I found my true belief that day. Thank you for guiding me there xxx

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