Love Divine, All Loves Excelling By Carol P. Christ


A founding mother of the study of women and religion and feminist thealogy, Carol has been active in social justice, anti-war, feminist, anti-nuclear, and environmental causes for many years.  Her books include  She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologiesWomanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

In my last blog I wrote that the image of God as a dominating other who enforces his will through violence–found in the Bible and in the Christian tradition up to the present day–is one of the reasons I do not choose to work within the Christian tradition.  To be fair, there is another image of God in Christian tradition that I continue to embrace.  “Love divine, all loves excelling” is the opening line of a well-known hymn by Charles WesleyCharles Hartshorne invoked these words and by implication the melody with which they are sung as expressing the feelings at the heart of the understanding of God that he wrote about in The Divine Relativity.

Love divine, all loves excelling also expresses my understanding of Goddess or as I sometimes write Goddess/God.  Though I am no longer a Christian, but rather an earth-based Goddess feminist, I freely admit that I learned about the love of God while singing in Christian churches.  Hartshorne wrote that he knew the love of God best through the love of his own mother, and I can say that this is true for me as well.  My mother was not perfect, and she did not understand why I wanted to go to graduate school, my feminism, or my adult political views, but I never doubted her love or my grandmothers’ love for me.  (I count myself lucky.  I know others did not have this experience.)  Like Hartshorne, I also learned about the love of God through the world that I always understood to be God’s body.  Running in fields and hills, swimming in the sea, standing under redwood trees, and encountering peacocks in my grandmother’s garden, I felt connected to a power greater than myself.  

I consider myself to be a process philosopher not because I enjoy reading Whitehead–for the most part I don’t–though I absolutely love reading Hartshorne.  I am a process philosopher because (with all due respect to the subjectivity of knowing and the relativity of knowledge) I believe that it is more true than not to say that everything is connected and that we live in a relational and interdependent world.  I am a process thealogian because (again with respect to the subjectivity of knowing and the relativity of knowledge), I believe that it is more true than not to say that the divine power is loving and understanding.

I am neither a theist nor a polytheist nor a pantheist, but a pan-en-theist.  Goddess/God is in the world and the world is in Goddess/God.  But while in the world there may be a time for love and a time for hate, Goddess/God always responds with love and understanding.  The power of Goddess/God is not the power to overpower.  It is a power of inspiration or persuasion that moves us to love more, to understand more.  In a truly relational world, Goddess/God depends on us to achieve social and ecojustice in the world.  Not the fear of God’s punishment, but empathy, sympathy, and compassion—feeling the feelings of others including the feelings of Goddess/God—is our motivation to create a more just and harmonious world.

Our images and conceptions of Goddess and God are human constructions, but that does not mean that the nature of Goddess/God is fundamentally unknowable.  I have argued in She Who Changes that the notion that “God is a mystery” is a holdover from theologies focusing on divine omnipotence.  I agree with Charles Hartshorne that if God is not love, then religion is a vast fraud!

The Goddess I know is She Who Is Always There with each and every one of us, human and other than human beings. She appreciates us with infinite love and understanding. She reminds us that there has not ever been a time when we were not loved and understood. Her love and understanding inspire us to love and understand each other and our world more and more, each and every minute of every day.

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Categories: Christianity, God-talk, Goddess Movement, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Thealogy, Women's Spirituality

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9 replies

  1. Carol,

    I took Process Theology as part of my M.A. and explored Hartshorn and Whitehead. I lean more towards the Process theologians that focused more on theology (Ogden) then philosophy. One of my favorite Process Theologians is Teilhard de Chardin. His writings were certainly ahead of his time.

    My experience with Process thought left me somewhat bothered and left behind grim thoughts or ideologies of the realities of prayer and death. Reading your description, the message becomes more hopeful.

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  2. I gravitate to Hartshorne because his work is not Christian, in other words he did not tie his understanding of the love of God to the sacrifice of Jesus or to the idea of the authority of the Bible in his writings.

    Indeed Hartshorne’s philosophy challenges some of the “chestnuts” of Christian theology, including omnipotence, omniscience, authoritative revelation, amd death as the great evil.

    Prayer in my understanding is to She Who Is Always there, Goddess with us. She does not have the power to change things with a mighty arm, but She can inspire us to change ourselves and make a contribution to changing our world.

    I personally accept death as the proper ending of life, as I have written about in “The Last Dualism” in Journal of Feminist Study of Religion, spring 2011.

    However, I do not think life is fair or that it makes any sense to speak of everything happening according to the will of a loving and good Goddess. Goddess is loving and good but we co-create the world. Some things are simply bad luck, others as a result of choices made by others and systems we did not personally create, and others the result of personal choices that are harmful to ourselves and the web of life.

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  3. Carol, I just wanted to quickly say that your reflections on Goddess/God are just beautiful. I love this description: “The power of Goddess/God is not the power to overpower. It is a power of inspiration or persuasion that moves us to love more, to understand more.” That is how I prefer to conceive of the divine as well.

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  4. I think that God and Goddess are personalized forms of Love. Marianne Williamson said Return to Love that love is impersonal. Kind of an odd statement when you think about how important love is to us personally. Even so, when I read the statement I got it immediately. Love is always there and constant, whether we acknowledge or experience it or not. To call this Goddess or God makes perfect sense. It is the patriarchy that seems to have taken love away from us in whatever ways it could. Happily it is something we can each reclaim as our own – free!

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  5. Though I have also distanced myself from my early external spiritual support, I share a loving formation and connection with your story, “to be fair…” by having loved and felt the love of Gregorian chants embracing me back
    .
    Earth-based Goddess spirituality makes me feel that we are shifting too much responsibility on the planet, which is a living, finite system like our bodies. So some of us hunger for a deathless Goddess-God relationship.
    Though I am not familiar with Whitehead or Hartshorne, or what it means to be a process philosopher. But I ask myself not only who have Whitehead and Harthorne influenced, but who influenced them. My comment is informed by views which in the west are known as perennial philosophy, which to me means dualist-nondualist philosophy, and in my humble opinion keeps informing most western spirituality, as well as the language used in systems thinking, integral enquiry, and many other emerging academic categories.
    When you say that, “…everything is connected and that we live in a relational and interdependent world… I believe that … the divine power is loving and understanding,” but how do we prove this to someone who feels estranged and deeply sad? The first part of your statement takes me to the Patanjali Sutras, its contribution to Integral Yoga, or integral thinking, participating and contributing, he suggested that the mind apprehends the form of objects around us and we are conscious of it by internalizing what in empirical terms is “outside of us.”
    How intimately connected and interdependent we are to everything that surrounds us, from the moment we open our eyes in the process of cognition? It may help if we draw from Sanskrit language where these most intimate relationship is explained in terms of vritti vyapti and phala vyapti. Vritti vyapti refers to the mind enveloping the perceived object(s) and taking the shape of the object – as gold is cast into the shape and structure of a chosen object. Phala vyapti is to become conscious of cognition. The functions of perception and cognition, one psychological the other conscious, are inseparable. And as we apprehend experience, the connection, relation and interdependence is intimately and spontaneously understood. This can also be viewed as pure subjectivity and interrelatedness combined. But to find the theory in the Brahma Sutras, or mention in Patanjali, does not equate with apprehending the experience.
    Understanding comes from apprehending experience from deliberate concentration. Concentration, in academic discipline, can be viewed as a precursor to deep meditation and Samadhi. Concentration yields to insights. I believe that this kind of understanding is important when we consider the concept of Goddess-God and Love. Can I blindly love what I do not know? And what if it is harmful to me? Or if it sinks me into a dogmatic belief system that can leave me dull?
    This is where I see some difficulties, in practical and applied context, with the second part of your statement, though it sounds inspiring and beautiful to say that “…… the divine power is loving and understanding,” without adding that it can also be the opposite, judging from the point of view of those who suffer. This is loving Goddess-God is easier to understand for a few privileged and grateful ones, but not so much to a majority of people who suffer hunger, and oppression. So, who or what is this Divine Power? Can it be loving and ruthless at the same time? I need this Goddess-God to take off Her mask and show me who She really is. There are more questions and answers in this direction, but they would take me beyond the scope of this comment.
    Is a romantic notion of Goddess-God leaving out much to be explained? Are we expected to blindly believe in this “love,” and close our eyes to massive genocidal political designs sanctioned by this Divine One?
    To answer this, I am taken to the Devi Mahatmya, Goddess scripture of ancient India, which is still chanted today at Shakta rituals, while also embodied in the lives of Goddess women of today. An English version of this sacred chant is found in the 1993 Anthology of Sacred Texts by and About Women.
    The translation I am most familiar with contains a more poetic language from a woman devoted to the Goddess, but one the most significant elements about the Goddess that we need to understand are Her power, Her qualities and what She bestows on everyone, whether we know it or not. Her qualities abide in all beings surrounding us, these include: The translation I am most familiar with:
    Adorations again and again to the Goddess who abides in all beings in the form of consciousness.
    Adorations again and again to the Goddess who abides in all beings in the form of action.
    The same repetitive chant “Adorations again and again to the Goddess who abides in all beings in the form of… continues with the rest of the qualities in which She manifests in all beings:
    Adorations again and again to the Goddess who abides in all beings in the form of intelligence.
    … in the form of sleep, hunger, thirst, shadow, power, patience, class, genus, endurance, modesty, tranquility, faith, loveliness, wealth, memory, loss of memory, dynamic thinking, compassion, contentment, mother and error.
    Error, not even this is left out of Her. Goddess-God also give us error. This leads people who suffer some insight into why there is suffering and oppression in the world. Of course, where there is wealth and shadow, there is the opposite in greed , and where there is power there are also wars of power. The question can be, can we change this? I would like to believe that our effort in the right direction can help improve the present conditions of oppression and hatred, the opposite of Love Divine. But, can the present imbalance be seen as a cosmic force provoking conflict in order to generate a drama and of polarity tensions to awaken us, even in painful ways, for spiritual awakening and evolution?
    In the lives of many, I have seen how Goddess-God does not “always responds with love and understanding.” Love and understanding for some comes after intense crisis and a total loss of their identity, leading to one informed by Grace. What mystics call a spiritual experience, or Samadhi, is not easily available to all.
    A truly relational world for me is one in which one can follow the principles of Integral Yoga, and this does not mean yoga exercises, which is the only part of Yoga that is usually understood in mainstream US. For me Integral Yoga paves the way to Love Divine because it includes the Eight Limbs of practice—in Sanskrit called Ashthanga Yoga, another term appropriated by US yoga asana businesses. Without these principles, love can be shallow and very far from Love. The eight limbs are 1) ethical retraints, 2) ethical and moral observances, 3) asanas/postures for physical health and mental balance, 4) breathing exercises, 5) culture of sensory demands, as needed—the first five are considered the external practices—6) concentration, 7) meditation, and 8) Samadhi or superconsciousness.
    How can a limited individual expect to understand the immanent and transcendent Goddess-God within an unprepared mind? The Eight Limbs prepare the mind, and then Integral Yoga, sometimes called the Four Yogas, becomes the complex system to be applied in daily life. Most are familiar with the Four Yogas: Selfless Action/Volunteerism (Karma Yoga), Love and Devotion (Bhakti), Study of Rational Methods and Meditation (Raja Yoga), and the search for deeper wisdom (Jnana Yoga).
    In Bhakti, the path of Love and Devotion to Goddess-God, irrespective of their spiritual tradition, mystics have expressed viewing their body extending as the whole universe, and viewing the Universe, microcosm-macrocosm system, Earth included, as their whole body. This is not just a pretty metaphor, mystics and spiritual adepts have declared this is quite literal. And they have also expressed being in a Lover-Beloved relationship with Goddes or God.
    These examples lead me to see why the spiritual insights from the Sanskrit perennial philosophy, a high context culture and language, keeps enriching, informing and deepening spiritual understanding in modern English language spirituality, conceived in the low context culture and English language that informs us today.
    In Thealogy Beings With Experience, (39) you show us a contrast between Naomi Goldenberg’s concept of Goddess, with your experience and understanding of “Goddess as the ground of being, 13 the sustainer of life, and as a power with whom I am in relation.” Then you add, “There is also no proof that the ground of being is love.” The interesting transition that a given experience facilitated your beliefs akin to Judith Plaskow’s, “that the ground of being is awesome yet ambiguous power that often seems indifferent to human moral struggles,” after a significant experience, do not explain that our foundational experience does not explain the chasm in the experience discrepancy of those who suffer, even while we experience spiritual bliss. I can only accept the discrepancies in the rational terms of the law of cause and effect, a.k.a. Law of Karma.
    For me, explaining that, “There is also no proof that the ground of being is love.” Leads me to shout: Ha! Here is where I believe ontological and experiential powerful experiences enter the arena of the ineffable, especially across cultures and different languages. But we keep trying to explain and understand, because we love it. In India there is a small anecdote that begins with a joke, “The crooked pudding.” It so happened that a blind man heard a friend admiring the creamy color of a delicious pudding that both were tasting. The blind man asked what is creamy white? The friend replied, “Like a duck.” Then the blind man asked, how is a duck?” And in order to please the blind friend, the man positioned his hands as true as he could to the shape of a duck. The blind man touched the hands and said, “Creamy white is a crooked pudding.” What I mean is that “love and power” are not experiences that can be apprehended within a frames of mind conditioned by narrow definitions. The concept of an experience through which we transcend human limitations, renders us mute and blind to label it with a concept as subjective as the meaning of a word. Perhaps there are as many words for “love and power” as there are human beings on Earth, and as many concepts of Love Divine.

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  6. good questions, my feminist theologian friend and pal Judith Plaskow also says that to view Goddess or God as love and understanding leaves out hate and violation, etc.

    process philosophy is not monist or theistic. it does not say Goddess/God is identical with the whole (monism) or Goddess/God is responsible for everything (theism + omnipotence). rather process philosophy says that God is not everything (monism) because other individuals human and other than human really do exist and co-create the world and that God is not responsible for everything (omnipotence) because other individuals really do co-create the world.

    it makes more sense to me to attribute suffering to chance and the choices of other than divine individuals than to a God who is not conceived of as good or worse to a God who is conceived as good.

    for process philosophy and in my view, Goddess/God is good but not responsible for evil and suffering. death is part of life in a the world which was created through the evolutionary process on our planet and evil is created by individuals other than Goddess/God. the Goddess/God i know is Goddess with us and never against us.

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  7. I like how you distinguish between evil and death. Evil to me is the absence or distortion of love, which seems to me to be out original state of being.

    I loved Rebirth of the Goddess and find myself thinking much as you do. Thank you for your work in all its aspects.

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  8. The process thealogy you shared with us in your book She Who Changes, and the class at CIIS on the same subject gave me a language to describe my views in a coherent way. I shared it with my daughter that Goddess God is always with us and when we choose to act in those ways that support life Goddess God supports us to move in that direction and synchronistic events may buoy us in our direction. But if we choose to behave poorly and abusively toward life, then Goddess God suffers and cannot stop us and we are on our own to bully our way through the obstacles. She says that concept has given her faith in her direction and power to brave the winds of fate that sometimes dog our steps. It is one of those things she never forgot. That is how I view this work too, Carol. Extremely valuable philosophy I can live by, Thanks for searching and sharing with us the fruits of your journey.

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