GODDESS WITH US: IS A RELATIONAL GOD POWERFUL ENOUGH? by Carol P. Christ
Last week I wrote about Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy’s deification of male power as power over. This week I want to ask why the relational Goddess or God* of process philosophy has not been more widely embraced, both generally and in feminist theologies.
Could it be that a relational God just isn’t powerful enough? Are some of us still hoping that an omnipotent God can and will intervene in history to set things right? Do we believe an omnipotent God can save us from death?
Process philosophy provides an attractive alternative to the concept of divine power modeled on male power as domination. According to leading process philosopher Charles Hartshorne, the power to coerce, power as power over and domination, is not the kind of power God has.
The concept of divine power as omnipotent (having all the power) leads to what Hartshorne called “the zero fallacy.” If God has all the power and can dominate in all situations, then the power of individuals* other than God is reduced to zero. In effect, this means that individuals other than God do not really exist, but at most are puppets whose strings are pulled by the divine power.
Moreover, as Hartshorne argued, the power to coerce is not the kind of power Goddess “should” have. Although many have been forced to submit to them, tyrants and bullies do not empower others. Should we not understand the “highest power in the universe” as empowering of others?
For process philosophy Goddess is understood to be the most sympathetic or empathetic of all relational beings. Goddess did not first “exist” and then later “create” other individuals in order to relate to them. Goddess has always existed in relationship to some universe and to some individuals. To be related is part of the “nature” of Goddess.
While other individuals understand each other imperfectly at best, God “enters in” to the experiences of every individual in the universe with infinite understanding and compassion. The power of a relational God is not the power to coerce, but the power to inspire or persuade individuals to act in their own best interests and in the best interests of other individuals in the universe. The love and understanding of God opens us to understand more deeply and to love more widely.
From the standpoint of traditional theologies shaped around the image of male power as power over and the concept of omnipotence, it might seem that the power of the process Goddess is “limited.” This is a mistake. The process Goddess does not voluntarily “withdraw from the world” (as in Kabbalah) or voluntarily “limit” her power (as in some forms of the free will defense) in order for the world and free individuals to exist. According to process philosophy Goddess never did have all the power, because Goddess has always been in relationship to some other individuals. To be an individual is to have at least a degree of freedom and at least a degree of power. This means that individuals other than Goddess have always and will always have some of the power in this or any other universe. Goddess cannot be omnipotent, because an omnipotent Goddess logically cannot be in relationship to other individuals who also have a degree of freedom and power.
The relational understanding of the nature of God satisfies me both intellectually and emotionally. My moral question about how a good God could “allow” the evil in our world to occur, is answered. God does not “allow” evil to happen because the power to stop it single-handedly is not the kind of power God has. My personal question about why God did not answer many of my most heart-felt prayers is also answered. The power to coerce others in order to “make things happen” for me or for any other individual is not the kind of power God has.
On an emotional level, it makes me very happy to think of and to experience a divine power that enters into the experience of every individual in the world—including but not only my experiences—with perfect insight and with infinite care and concern. Goddess is “always there,” encouraging me and every other individual to enjoy life, to “make the best” of difficult situations, and to widen and deepen our understanding and compassion for others.
The omnipotent God of many traditional theologies may be dead, but the God or Goddess whose power is in relationships is not. There is a traditional Biblical name for this power: “Immanuel,” God with us.*** Omnipresence is the theological term describing the divine power present in and for everyone and everything. In traditional theologies omnipresence is swallowed up in omnipotence. Perhaps it is time to separate these theological “twins.”
I suggest that power in relationship, the power to love, understand, and inspire really is the highest power.
*I am speaking here of one divine power which may be called Goddess or God. In this essay I use the two names interchangeably.
**For process philosophy, individual is not a term reserved for human beings: individuals include particles of atoms, cells, animals, and human animals.
***If we want to speak in Hebrew, also “Immanu-Elah,” Goddess with us.
Carol P. Christ is a feminist theologian. For her God is not a dominant Other, but rather the most relational of all relational beings. In She Who Changes she discusses the implications of process philosophy for feminist theologies. She is dreaming of the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute. It is not too late to join the fall pilgrimage, nor too early to sign up for spring 2014. Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference. Her books also include and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.