What factors are most important in the decisions of spiritual feminists to leave or to stay affiliated with traditional religions? My friend Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow and I discuss these questions in our forthcoming book, Goddess and God in the World. In this excerpt I speak to Judith about our different choices.
For me no longer identifying with Christian tradition had a great deal to do with belief. At some point I came to the conclusion that I did not believe in Christianity’s “core doctrines” of Trinity, incarnation, and salvation through Christ. Yet these doctrines are expressed in the Nicene Creed, which is accepted by all Christians. In an interview at a Christian seminary early on in my career, I was asked to define and defend my Christology or theory of salvation through Jesus Christ. My answer that feminism had put a question mark over all doctrines for me was not considered acceptable.
Judaism, on the other hand, is not a religion that stresses belief. Indeed your husband Robert used to love to shock me and other Christians by saying that for a Jew belief in God was not required as long as he or she followed the law. Understanding this difference between Judaism and Christianity helped me to understand that the question of belief in “core doctrines” simply was not as central for you as a Jewish theologian as it would necessarily be for me as a Christian theologian.
However, my reasons for leaving Christianity did not only have to do with my lack of belief in its core doctrines. For me the issue I call the power of “core symbols” was equally if not more important. Once I began to understand the way in which the “core symbols” of the Bible had influenced people and cultures, “I” simply could not ally “myself” with traditions that continued to promote them in liturgies.
I found I could not repeat the words nor stand in silence when “God, the Father, Lord, and King” was celebrated in communal worship. On the one hand my body revolted and I felt like I wanted to throw up. On the other hand, my mind told me that even if I could control the reactions of my body, the continued repetition of these symbols by others was influencing their individual actions and the actions of the culture they were legitimating through them—and these actions were hurting others. I have sometimes said that I might have been able to stay Christian if the only thing that was at stake had been the maleness of God. I do not know whether this is true, because I was never faced with this simple dilemma.
For me, it was at least as important to recognize that images of God as a warrior in the Bible were leading other Americans to believe that “God is on our side” in the wars our country fights. Because I had studied the Hebrew Bible intensively, I knew that God is portrayed as a warrior in key texts cited by liberation theologians, including Exodus and the prophets. The God of Exodus is portrayed as a “man of war” who casts the horses and chariots of the Egyptians into the sea. In the prophets, God promises to bring war and devastation on “his own” people who have disobeyed his covenant. These ideas not transformed but simply re-formed in Christianity.
The Holy Roman Empire was converted to Christianity after Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the words “in this sign conquer” as he prepared for battle. Many centuries later, I grew up singing “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.” As Robert Bellah argued, “America’s civil religion” involves the belief that America’s wars are justified by America’s special relationship with God as a new “chosen people.” For this reason, many Americans believed God was on our side in the Vietnam War—as many Americans believe today that God is on our side in a war with Islam.
As I worked on my dissertation on the holocaust, I became intensely aware of the power of Christian symbols of the Jews rejecting Christ to create the atmosphere in which the holocaust was possible. It was partly my friendship with you that made it impossible for me to participate in liturgies I felt were anti-Jewish. These included the Easter service in which the Jews were blamed for killing Christ, and even where those words were excised, the name “Judas” or “the Jew” which was given to the betrayer of Jesus.
When I added to this my feelings for women—myself included–who had been psychologically, physically, or sexually abused by men whose power over women was authorized by images of God as a dominant male Other, I simply could no longer ally myself with a tradition in which such images were part of Bible readings and liturgy.
Your renewed commitment to thinking as Jewish about the questions we had heretofore been thinking about together was difficult for me to accept and understand. On the one hand, I understood that it was easier for me to leave Christianity than it was for you to leave Judaism, because as you said, you would always be defined as a Jew in a Christian culture. Thinking back on my decision to leave Christianity in contrast to your decision to stay within in Judaism, I can see that my relationship to Christianity was more complicated than yours was to Judaism.
My parents’ mixed marriage meant that I did not have a single Christian tradition to identify with. I had three—Roman Catholicism from my father’s family, Christian Science from my mother’s, and the Protestantism of my childhood. My father’s decision to stop going to church because of sermons about civil rights meant that by the time I finished college, my immediate family no longer had a religious tradition at all. In addition, the fact that I had experienced discrimination in the church of my adolescence by the other girls and their parents because we lived on “the wrong side of the tracks” must made me question whether I would ever “belong” in a Protestant community. This made it easier for me to leave.
Nevertheless, and though we have discussed this issue many times, I have never in fact understood why the issue of “the power of symbols” is not as important to you as it is to me. Why does your body not recoil as mine does when images of God as a dominant male Other are invoked? How does your mind allow you to continue to worship in a context where images that we both recognize have caused a great deal of harm–to individuals and communities–both in history and in the present day continue to be invoked?
In case you are wondering Judith does have answers to these questions—answers that involve history, community, and what she calls the ambiguity of life. What are your reasons for leaving or staying affiliated with traditional patriarchal religions?
Carol P. Christ leads life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute. There is still space in the spring tour May 25-June 8. Fall tour is Sept. 28-Oct. 13. Come to Crete learn more about Goddess and a culture of peace. Carol spoke on a WATER Teleconference recently. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.