“Immanent Inclusive Monotheism” with a Multiplicity of Symbols Affirming All the Diversity and Difference in the World by Carol P. Christ

carol-christIn recent years monotheism has been attacked as a “totalizing discourse” that justifies the domination of others in the name of a universal truth. In addition, from the Bible to the present day some have used their own definitions of “exclusive monotheism” to disparage the religions of others. Moreover, feminists have come to recognize that monotheism as we know it has been a “male monotheism” that for the most part excludes female symbols and metaphors for God.  With all of this going against monotheism, who would want to affirm it?

In response to some or all of the above critiques, many modern pagans define themselves as polytheists, affirming at minimum, the Goddess and the God, and at maximum a vast pantheon of individual deities, both female and male, from a single culture or from many, including divinities with animal characteristics.  Other pagans define themselves as animists, affirming a plurality of spirits in the natural world. A group of Christian feminists have argued that the Christian Trinity, the notion of God Three-in-One, provides a multiple and relational understanding of divinity.

While also rejecting exclusive monotheism and male monotheism, Jewish poet, ritualist, and theologian Marcia Falk provided a definition of inclusive monotheism that I find compelling.

Monotheism means that, with all our differences, I am more like you than unlike you. It means that we all share the same source, and that one principle of justice must govern us equally.  . . It would seem, then, that the authentic expression of an authentic monotheism is not a singularity of image, but an embracing unity of a multiplicity of images, as many as are needed to express the diversity of our individual lives.*

The notion that there is a unity underlying the multiplicity of life in the universe appeals to me.

tourgoddess redI experience “the Goddess” in multiple ways–as a voice that whispers in my ear, as arms that comfort me in my sleep, as a conscious presence that understands me, and in all the beauty of other human beings, animals, and the whole of the natural world.  I experience the Goddess through a plurality of stories and images—in the small figurines from the Paleolithic and the Neolithic such as the Venus of Willendorf or the ancient Cretan Neolithic Goddess with beaked face and snake-like body pictured here, in the stories of Demeter and Persephone, including the one told by Barbara Ardinger on FAR, and in contemporary paintings such as those of Judith Shaw and Jassy Watson that have graced FAR.

I particularly resonate with images that are not exclusively human, but that have bird, snake, or other animal characteristics, because, while I do experience the Goddess as a personal presence, I also experience the world as the body of Goddess. I sometimes joke that I have never found an image of God as male that I like, but I recognize intellectually that the divine power can and must also be imaged as male. I am not interested in reviving any of the male Gods associated with conquest, war, or domination, but I am beginning to open my heart to the Green Man.

At the same time, my favorite prayer song, as I have discussed on FAR at other times is:

As we bless the Source of Life,

            So we are blessed.

While I invoke the Goddess through a multiplicity of images, I also experience all of them pointing to a single Source of Life.  Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas spoke of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration found in all life forms, while my friend Judith Plaskow speaks of a power of creativity that underlies and supports life.**  I experience the powers of birth, death, and regeneration which are found in all creative processes, physical and spiritual, to be grounded in a unity of being that underlies everything.

Jassy Watson, Gaia - Connected from the Cosmos to the Core

Jassy Watson, Gaia – Connected from the Cosmos to the Core

Marcia Falk’s re-creation of Jewish prayers is an expression of what Judith Plaskow and I have defined as the “immanental turn” in feminist theology.  For Falk, God is found “in” the world, not “outside” or “beyond it.”  While in her earlier prayers she invoked the Source of Life as an individual being, in her recent prayers “God” is more and more immanent in the world.

Though Falk does not add the word “immanent” to her term “inclusive monotheism,” I think the “immanental turn” is what can make monotheism inclusive.  If God is understood to be “outside” or “beyond” the world, then it is likely that God will be defined in ways that exclude aspects of the diversity and difference in the world. On the other hand, if Goddess is fully “in” the world, then her images must include all of the diversity and difference in the world.

I suggest that unlike transcendent exclusive monotheism, “immanent inclusive monotheism” is not likely to become the kind of “totalizing discourse” that justifies domination or disparagement of others.

If polytheism and animism also affirm the unity of being behind the diversity and difference of the world, then their difference from immanental inclusive monotheism may be matter of semantics*** or of emphasis or degree. I am not so sure that Trinitarianism can be defined as fully inclusive of all the diversity and difference in the world so long as it affirms that God was more incarnate in Jesus than in Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, or you or me, or the birds and bees.

*See my Rebirth of the Goddess, 111.

**In our forthcoming book Goddess and God in Light of Feminism.

***In Rebirth of the Goddess I argued that insofar as polytheism was defined by monotheists as a false belief in contrast to their true one, the meanings of both terms need to be rethought.

Carol P. Christ is looking forward to the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.  Early bird special for the spring pilgrimage extended for those who join now.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol is a founding mother in feminism and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

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Categories: animals, Archaeology, Art, Earth-based spirituality, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, God-talk, Goddess, Monotheism

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23 replies

  1. Beautifully written, comforting and wise, Carol. If we have ears to hear, eyes to see, lips to taste, noses to smell and fingers to touch, then the immanent divine IS within each of us, if only we would let it be. Not separate, all included.

  2. Yes, great read & beautifully written. I have been thinking about the Goddess in my psyche these past few days and trying to find the words to describe my relationship to the Goddess and what you have said here resonates. I LOVE that you have put up my painting – thank you x

  3. Sounds a little like Unitarian Universalism.

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  4. I believe one of the primary lessons of the Goddess is oneness and divinity of all life. This then means if I am Goddess then I am also God, that both exist within us as we are divine beings. While I could get this intellectually, and on psychological levels of “inner male” and “inner female” it took a very long time for it to resonate on deeper levels.

    For years I struggled with ideas of a male god. I didn’t understand him nor did I want to based on the examples of war-mongering, vengeful sky gods that I’d been presented with in my life. I had a clear picture of the Goddess and realized he was a part of her, though that was about as far as I was willing to go. In the last few years, thanks to becoming immersed in feminist ideology, I’ve been realizing that the God concept needs a reworking based on the fact that the male divinities we’ve known for millenia are all rooted in a system that was never meant to represent the true nature of the male human, let alone his inherent divinity.

    We can realize that men in patriarchy are conforming to toxic versions of masculinity. Is it any wonder with the examples they’ve been given from gods to leaders to their very own fathers? War heroes are glorified while fatherhood is undervalued.The fabric of our society is based in these notions of what men are supposed to be in order to be “real men” and most often what men are supposed to be is dominating, aggressive, emotionless, isolated, etc. But of course, these qualities are not the true nature of men, nor are they the sole dominion of the male. Anyone who has a son or who has deeply and intimately shared a life with a man knows that there is a varied spectrum of “masculine” traits within male beings that simultaneously exists with traits thought of as more traditionally “feminine”.

    Recently I’ve begun to redefine the God for myself. He is the Green Man and the Goddess’s horned lover who is nurturing caretaker to beasts big and small. He’s the Buddha and the boy; a child of nature born to embrace consciousness as his birthright. He is the catalyst that jump starts life, whose body nourishes the seed and whose vulnerability all life is dependent upon. It is in this inherent and important vulnerability that I believe we have come to know the fear-based misogyny of the patriarchy and the men it produces. Being vulnerable is frightening and I imagine men feel most vulnerable in the arms of women who represent their mothers and the deeply desired (and required!) connection of the human soul. According to the culture of domination, brute strength can trump fear every time.

    And so male divinity lost its innocence and threw lighting bolts at those specters of fear produced within the shadows of the human psyche. In serving this fear, they became forced to reject all things perceived as weak – anything that reminded them of their vulnerable nature – bifurcating their spirits and sacrificed their souls on the altars of vengeful, blood-soaked idols.

    • But now that time is coming to an end. The Goddess has returned and with her comes the Innocent God who is ready to be brave in the service of love. He will do battle only with his own demons and support the Goddess as she supports him. Together they stand facing the same horizon, forming an unending, equal partnership that is the foundation for all life.

      • Beautifully put Ib, I could not agree more. Exactly. Vulnerability. The best of men has always even through patriarchy expressed this in their work, like, for example, a great Russian and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. And surprisingly it is exactly in the past 5 years that these great TV series started to come out, with very strong female protagonists, either literally Goddesses or Foremothers, or human women with superhuman abilities, who are supported by exactly the type of a man we’re talking about. “Battlestar Galactica”, “Dollhouse”, “Fringe” – they all have these Green God men! And it is wonderful. However, they were male characters like these in TV series before, for example Quantum Leap, where a male protagonist offers service not out of fear or guilt, but out of genuine concern for sentient beings. And he takes on roles of women, children, the elderly, and the oppressed. Let’s hope that in our age there will be more characters like this to serve as role models and there will be more actual men like this in our lives.

    • There is an interesting book by Craig James entitled, “The Religion Virus,” that helps to explain how and why our current monotheistic religions have managed to survive and thrive. I wonder whether there is also a “patriarchy” virus?

      • I do believe that the Patriarchy could be equated to a virus. I think it was Terrence Real that said that if the patriarchy were a disease it would be one of disordered desire. (paraphrased) Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll have to check that one out.

  5. Thanks, Carol, I look forward to your thoughts on Mondays and enjoyed this reflection very much as usual. I would like to make a point on the grandeur of the dualism/multiplicity of the Persephone-Demeter concept of godhead. The British Museum owns a magnificent, Aegean art ceramic of Persephone and Demeter in dialogue. The two goddesses share their seat (what they command) and each leans toward the other while they confide, almost secretly, in one another. According to the Myth, Demeter would seem to personify Mother Nature, and her great offspring the life force in nature (thus separate them, as in winter, and everything dies). It is therefore mind-boggling, to say the least, that a cosmic deity, embracing potentially the whole of creation, should be represented in a work of art, simply by two women in intimate dialog!! It is like no other sculpture of the divine I’ve ever seen in Greek or any ancient art — Persephone on the left, Demeter on the right, see what you think, an illustration here:

    Persephone and Demeter in Dialogue (from Myrina on Lemnos; ca. 100 BCE)

    • great image.

    • Amazing, Sarah! I love The British Museum. It is one of my many spiritual homes, one of the others being the Met in NYC. Recently I led my male friend on a Goddess/frame drumming tour around the British Museum, he was impressed, especially by parallels between seemingly distant cultures. he said I should run this tour for money – and I am very surprised that The British Museum have not published a Goddess guide through its exhibitions.

  6. I’m eager to read your new book. I suspect that a lot of spiritual feminists are monotheistic in that they believe only in the Goddess, but polytheistic at the same time in that they believe in Her in her 10,000 names and forms. That’s what makes the most sense to me. And as Dion Fortune (among others) says, all gods lead to one god, all goddesses lead to one goddess. And we are all basically human.

    • I suppose it was the exclusive monotheists who muddied the waters here. It was they who decreed that the worship of certain kinds of images meant one was a polytheist. I try to make a distinction between a multiplicity of images and the belief that there are many “divine” forces in the world and no “unity of being.”

  7. Great post, Carol. And I believe it answers a question that has been whirling around in my mind since your post “Is Goddess With Us or In Control…” What you describe here as “immanent inclusive monotheism” is what I described in a response to your earlier post as “polytheistic panentheism” (immanent is unnecessary in that descriptor, since panentheism is by definition immanent). I would be unable to use the term monotheism in part for all the reasons you mention in your first paragraph. So i’m glad to have discovered the term panentheism, which for me seems to be the usual form of paganism that I’ve experienced in the U.S.

    I also believe that Marcia Falk’s quote describes my experience of the Goddess as well. We are all one, we share the same source. The image of my polytheistic panentheism “is not a singularity of image, but an embracing unity of a multiplicity of images, as many as are needed to express the diversity of our individual lives.*

    Tillich says that consolidation of power (for e.g. monotheism) does not pose a problem “as long as the center does not degrade its own centrality by using it for particular purposes.” Of course, he was a monotheist. But I have seen how the center or representatives of the center (in this case monotheists) have used the power of the whole for advancing personal agendas — for e.g. male supremacy, racism, etc. — so I am wary of monotheism. I guess I am saying that monotheism easily becomes a “totalizing discourse” that can be used to dominate others. When there’s another term to describe my path, why would I use monotheism?

    • Nancy I was looking for a response from you this morning when I woke up. Ho-hum, WordPress decided it needed to be “approved” first. Who knows how their program works. I approved it, so here it is online.

      I have been using the term panentheism since I wrote Rebirth of the Goddess. There I said that since monotheism defined itself in opposition to polytheism, both terms were inadequate as they exist. However, I did also quote Falk positively I Rebirth. I explored panentheism in She Who Changes. I suspect you found process philosophy earlier than I did.

      I hear what you are saying about monotheism. I guess I also worry that polytheism implies that there is no unity of being but rather a conflict of competing forces in the world.

      Our differences–if there are any–could be that my experience is more mediated by the image-idea of the world as the body of Goddess than by differences among the Goddesses and Gods. In that regard, I tend more towards animism than polytheism.

      • Thanks for the reply. I have the feeling that you and I may have very few differences in our thealogy. But there are probably differences in our experience of Goddess, since we are different people.

        RE: polytheism — Looking at Hindu “polytheism” (which is usually polytheistic panentheism), I don’t see that polytheism necessarily implies a conflict of competing forces in the world, nor that it implies that there is no unity of being. If Greek or Norse polytheism were the model I was thinking about, I guess I might worry about that.

      • Nancy, on differnces in our experiences of the Goddess, I am not attracted to the Hindu Goddesses while you are. My worry with them is that some of them carry “warrior swords.” Yes I know it is said that they are fighting demons or even illusion. Still they are kitted out as warriors. I also am not attracted to the notion that this world is an illusion. So my goal would be to read the original Goddesses of India back to their pre-Indo-European “Old Indian” life-affirming roots, as we are doing with Old Europe.

  8. Thanks to everyone.

    • I feel that I do the same thing — read back into history to the roots of the pre-Indo-European (or pre-Semitic, etc.) cultures that were matrifocal. I believe, for example, that Inanna has roots in a pre-patriarchal culture. When your read everything we have about Her, She appears to be a goddess with sex, love, birth, death, rebirth as Her touchstones. But when the Semitic invaders re-envisioned Her, Her death aspect became an image of war. When it comes to Kali, (or many of the village goddesses in India), it’s easy for me to see that Her original image — and even Her image today most of the time — doesn’t/didn’t have much to do with war/being a warrior, but had to do with the entire cycle of life, death, decay, rebirth. She’s a dark goddess for a reason. She still embodies in most of Her myths the values/images/experiences of the original people of India (the “Dravidians”), not the Indo-Europeans. Like you, I have no place in my pantheon for war deities.

      Within Shakta (the part of Hinduism devoted to the Goddess), life is not seen as illusion, but as our experience of the immanent Goddess in all Her beauty/terror/reality. Kali, for instance, represents the creative, nurturing, and destructive aspects of life. She is by necessity both the good and the terrible mother. Every nursing woman has to sustain herself in order to nourish her children, and since Kali is the mother of everything in the world within Shakta, She has to feed on her children as there is nothing else to eat. Hinduism is often reduced to the patriarchal understandings of Shaiva (based on Shiva as the supreme deity) or Vaishnava (based on Vishnu as the supreme deity) teachings, both of which can be read in terms of life as illusion. But Shakta understandings are much more amenable to a feminist perspective, from what I have read.

  9. I think you may have defined a meta-narrative that even a post-modernist could embrace.

  10. “My worry with them is that some of them carry “warrior swords.” Yes I know it is said that they are fighting demons or even illusion. Still they are kitted out as warriors. I also am not attracted to the notion that this world is an illusion. So my goal would be to read the original Goddesses of India back to their pre-Indo-European “Old Indian” life-affirming roots, as we are doing with Old Europe.”

    Sorry to butt in on this conversation, but reading this inspired some thoughts…

    I think these warrior garments are a later addition not unlike the way Athena was made to be a war goddess in later times.

    I would also compare the idea of removing illusions (which can also be the illusions of the “self” or ego as opposed to grand worldly illusions) to the focus on wisdom within the archetype of Athena. Could this not be the wisdom to know thyself (void of ego or self-focus which are delusions the sword of Kali are said to cut through) and then be better equipped to know others and the world at large providing a greater sense of inner and outer knowing? Isn’t this the wisdom Athena is symbolic of? A great knowing that can only be felt from within after all illusions are cut through like a metaphorical machete slicing through jungle flora. Then we are set free within that wisdom and can finally be the beings we were born to be.

    Kali and other Hindu goddesses are scary, terrible looking things because to really know thyself void of ego is a terrifying concept. We believe we are “the self” and so it does not want to die. This fear is simply personified in Kali who when called upon can aide us in our pursuit of freedom from the great timeless demon we now call ego.

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