Staying In or Leaving the Religious Community of Your Birth: The Dialogue Continues by Carol P. Christ


carol p. christ 2002 colorThis blog is part of an on-going discussion between me and my friend Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow about the differences in our choices to stay in and leave traditional religious communities, which is part of our forthcoming book Goddess and God since Feminism: Body, Nature, and Power.

When you (Judith) discuss the reasons I left Christianity while you stayed Jewish, I think you hit upon a crucial difference between us when you say that I am more “idealistic” than you are.  I agree that this does not mean that I am more ethical than you are.  When you say that I require more “purity of thought” or perhaps more accurately more “purity of ritual symbolism” than you, I think you have hit the nail on the head.  I simply cannot participate in a religious symbol system that I feel has done and continues to do great harm in the world.

I reiterate that for me this “problem” is not limited to the ways in which the maleness of God justifies male domination—including violence against and rape of women.  Equally important to me are the ways that religious symbolisms justify the violence of warfare and conquest.    I simply will not and cannot participate in religious rituals that justify domination and violence in the name of “God.”  If that makes me a “purist” or an “idealist,” I am willing to accept those terms. 

John Lennon wrote, “Imagine all the people living life in peace.  You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you will join us, and the world will live as one.”  Those words well express my standpoint.  I note that my recent genealogical research indicates that the dream of a more ideal religion may in part be a family inheritance, as I have ancestors who were Puritan and Lutheran, Quaker and Christian Science, along with others who remained Roman Catholic.  No, the dreamers didn’t succeed in creating a better world, but I stand with them in their willingness to try.

On the other hand, I think you get it wrong when you say that I put “purity” or “idealism” above “community.”  You are right that the path I chose was “out of” Christianity.  But when you speak of my “unwillingness to remain part of a community with which [I] had serious disagreements” and add that for you “community trumps consistency,” I think you overstate your case.  When you say that it “seems as if your disagreements with other feminists were more vivid for you than a sense of engagement in a shared project,” I think you get it just plain wrong.

Your statement would be true if the choice had been between “the courage of my individual convictions” and “feminist community.”  But that was never the choice as I saw it.  I chose to leave Christianity, but I did not make that decision on my own. There were many other women – both inside and outside the academy – who were making it with me. Mary Daly, Naomi Goldenberg, Anne Barstow in her writing about Catal Huyuk, Merlin Stone, Karen McCarthy Brown, Rita Gross, Starhawk, Z Budapest, Ruth and Jeanne Moutaingrove, Hallie Iglehart, Kit Havice, Christine Downing, Charlene Spretnak, Mara Keller, the women in my ritual group Rising Moon, the 500 women who came to The Great Goddess Re-emerging Conference, and all the women who told me after my talks that my words had changed their lives.  I counted these women as “my community.”

You may also remember that my “disappointment” with Christian feminists in the academy was not primarily over the fact that we chose different communities of faith.  I worked for many years in the Women and Religion section of the American Academy of Religion to promote dialogue among feminists in religion. My disappointment was not that Christian feminists failed to “join me” or “follow me” in leaving the church. My disappointment came when large numbers of them decided to focus their discussions “in house.”  The day the women walked out of the Women and Religion section in order to hear a male liberation theologian speak (in a section in which no women were invited to speak) was a watershed moment for me.  But that moment would not have mattered if it had not represented a trend among feminists in the field to close ranks as Christians.

When our differences are viewed primarily in terms of you choosing community and me choosing purity of faith or symbolism, several other key factors are left out.  As we have both noted, profession of belief is not required of Jews.  This is not true in Christianity, which means that “not agreeing with” core doctrines is problematic, especially if you are teaching theology.  I feel somewhat jealous that you had more freedom in this regard than I did.  If I had stayed Christian, I would have been forced to state acceptable views on the incarnation, the trinity, and salvation through Christ.  But I don’t agree with any of those doctrines.  I find it interesting that many feminist Christian theologians have written books on Christology and Trinity–I suspect because they were asked about their orthodoxy in a seminary context.

Moreover, when you became a feminist, the Havurah communities were already developing among counter-cultural and leftist younger Jews, which meant that you did not have to rely on larger, older, and generally more conservative synagogues to find Jewish community.  Moreover, while Jews are  generally liberal politically, the same cannot be said of Christians.

Finally, a comment made by Nancy Vedder-Schultz in response to your discussion of the reasons you stayed Jewish seems pertinent:  “I think it’s difficult for those of us who grew up in the hegemonic religion, i.e. Christianity, to understand the power of being an outsider religiously.  Although this was not your main point, it leaks through in every paragraph.  I believe that to leave one’s oppressed minority religion would be very difficult.  But to leave the hegemonic religion when you realize how oppressive it is—especially when you see it oppressing you personally—is easy.”

I am not sure leaving Christianity was easy, but it seemed possible, true to my self,  and the right path for me.

Carol P. Christ has just returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  The culture of ancient Crete, the last flowering of Old Europe, is one of the wellsprings of her spiritual vision.  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



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9 replies

  1. Good to see the dialogue continue!! It is a very complex topic, and an important discussion in feminism and religion. There is a factor we need to add to the mix perhaps in terms of Judaism versus Christian faiths. The Jewish people, understandably, and poignantly, still bond as a group who have experienced a holocaust. There is no separation between ancestral lineage, religious faith, and memories of extreme persecution in the history of the Judaism practiced by Jewish friends. To remain in the Jewish faith, to remain committed to what it means to be a Jew, it seems to me, is an entirely different mindset, and requires a far more acute break in bonding if abandoned, for instance, than my Christian training as a child, which had no ties to my ancestral lineage, or to suffering because of that ancestry as a group, or to anything whatsoever beyond the stories read to us from the Bible.

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  2. I agree, Francesca.
    Some Christians do feel ancestral ties to the faith, more likely if they don’t have mixed ancestry, but that does not equate to knowledge of extreme persecution.

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  3. Looking back on feminism and Christianity, I think I have a clearer idea of why churches don’t interest me anymore. I outgrew them. Sure they were dreadful to lesbians, and I easily get bored or annoyed in heteronormative spaces. I still admire Mary Daly as the greatest feminist of the 20th century, and her words are now inspiring a whole new generation of younger women, who surprisingly grew up with lesbian parents.

    Mary Daly is the lesbian feminist I love and trust the most. She simply did not compromise, and I like that. I love it when women don’t compromise at all.

    My idea of community has shifted.

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  4. And I can see how it would be galling to watch all the feminists walk out of a feminist group and go to the male theologian, thus negating the protests of other feminists within the academy. I just get annoyed with the never ending heterocentrism, and the very structure of churches largely props up what’s left of the nuclear family. I think it is more about family time with husbands and kids, and since I don’t like anything about that patriarchal show time, churches just represent that to me.

    I find meaningful spiritual content in nature, or in small groups of like minded people. I like the world lesbians have built and our prescious gatherings, whether it is a Dyke March or a lesbian photography exhibit.

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  5. It’s hard to say what I would think of churches if the culture of them matched my own. But the culture of a church has nothing to do with me, or my eccstatic love of women both past and present. As Gay Inc. advances, I find I have less and less interest in a hetero-oppressive world, and if women want to stay wedded to the womanhating church, well women are just going to do this. It’s not my world or ideal at all, but women will maintain patriarchy. I thought we had a shot at overthrowing it, but conservative women came up and wanted those boring academic jobs, and they wanted those PhDs, and then feminism was doomed.

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  6. Thank you both for this dialogue. I am looking forward to the book. I appreciate the distinctions between leaving a hegemonic religion and loyalty to one whose members have been persecuted as a minority for thousands of years. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and recited the Nicene Creed each week. To be a professing Christian requires holding and publicly declaring beliefs that I can no longer sustain or espouse, even though there are values and traditions I could share.

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  7. Thank you, Carol.
    I’m glad to see conversations like this taking place.
    I was raised Baptist and my beloved uncle with whom I had many intense and thought-provoking conversations was, to the best of my description, an Agnostic–or perhaps not… Often, he told me, when getting on the topic of organized religion (and his spite for it was evident in the way he said the words), “Don’t blindly accept something without questioning it first.” I would cite Biblical quotes and personal experiences, and he would always counter with something that caused me to begin questioning the system of things.
    It wasn’t until I was in my early 40s and had embarked on a rather inadvertent spiritual quest that my eyes and spirit were truly opened, and I finally understood exactly what he meant in those few wise words.
    Though I could elaborate on this for quite a while, I will spare you that, and in the interest of being fair to others who also have realized that a relationship with our Creator is a personal experience, NOT a “one-sized-fits-all”, I will get to the gist of the greatest lesson I learned: Simply because one was raised in a certain faith, or because “well, that’s just how it’s always been done” is not a good enough reason to follow a particular dogma or belief system.
    And yes, as I was able to see more clearly, our loving God would not discriminate against women if we indeed are all made in the Creator’s image. At some point long ago, my husband and I ascertained the reasons in which a patriarchal society and religious system eventually prevailed, and the many faults and fallacies in it.
    When we are finally willing to take the blinders off and to really see what is… Yes, it is scary, because what we have been taught up to this point is all we know, and somehow that has seemed to be a sort of intangible foundation of false strength. But as we come to the place in ourselves that we can see the Truth, we discover the true essence of God and find the peace we once thought was so elusive.

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  8. Thanks Turtle Woman, Elizabeth, and Ayla for your comments. All of our paths are different, but there are great two divides: feminism and staying in or leaving traditional religions. I always look to Mary Daly for inspiration and I think her characterization of patriarchy as ruled by the Unholy Trinity of rape, genocide, and war is not overstated. On the other hand, I am interested in making common cause with feminists who stay across the difference of having left. I think this blog is a very good place to do that. Unlike most places in the academy it really is open to a diversity of voices. I love listening to us talk to each other.

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  9. What a fascinating dialogue between you and Judith Plaskow. I just stumbled on it. As a former Christian who converted to Judaism and now considers herself a part of the small minority of Jews who are trying to keep the Feminine—as well as the Goddess—— alive in Judaism, I find what you are saying both troubling and helpful. So glad I found this site.

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