Two Ultimates: The Ground of Being and Goddess by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ 2002 colorThe concept of two ultimates, the ground of being and Goddess, can be helpful in understanding differences of emphasis within and among religions.  Some religions or strands within religions focus on relationship with or worship of a personal God, while other religions or strands within religions focus on identifying with or merging with the impersonal ground of being or the whole of which we are part.  These two ultimates are found in feminist spiritualities and theologies.

In “Being Itself and the Existence of God”* process theologian John Cobb identifies two ultimates.  The ground of being as the metaphysical principles that structure all of life is unchanging; as the whole of which individuals are part, the ground of being is impersonal.  God, on the other hand, is an active presence in the world, is personal, and cares about individuals in the world.  If God is understood to be in some sense an individual in relation to other individuals, then God cannot be identified with the whole, because the whole is made up of God and other individuals.  Yet God is not simply one individual among other individuals.  Only God has perfect knowledge of the world and every individual within it and only God cares for the world in light of perfect knowledge of it.

I find Cobb’s notion of two ultimates helpful in understanding some of the differences in feminist views of Goddess and God.  Some spiritual feminists, especially Goddess feminists, view the sacred as the whole of which we are a part, structured by the seasons and cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.  Starhawk’s tree of life meditation in which the individual identifying with the tree draws energy from its ground imagines Goddess as the ground of being and life.  Z Budapest’s song “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return” connects us to the cycles of birth and death.

The view of Goddess as a personal presence who loves, understands, and inspires us to love is based on the notion of God as a person with whom individuals are in relation.  Jennifer Berizan invokes a Goddess who cares in her song “She Who Hears the Cries of the World,” addressed to the Goddess in the form of Chinese Goddess Kwan Yin.  Prayer to Goddess and a sense that She is always with us are based on the idea of a relational, personal God.  According to Cobb religions do not have to choose between the two ultimates. If both are real, then religions can and should recognize both. 

Cobb’s distinction between the two ultimates helps me to understand two strands in my own spirituality and worldview.  My relation to the personal ultimate might be expressed as: Goddess is in everything and everything is in Goddess.  I experience—feel and sense—the presence of Goddess as intelligent love “in” my body, mind, and spirit as I go about my everyday life.  She is always there:  I know I am supported and understood when things are difficult; I feel gratitude to Her for the grace and joy of life; She inspires me to do what I can to ensure that the grace and joy of life are available to everyone and everything.  I feel the presence of her intelligent love in other human beings, in birds, in animals, and in insects, and in mountains, caves, and the sea.  Recognizing the presence of the Goddess in my body and in every other body makes my experience of the world sacred and more joyful.

I also feel a spiritual connection to the impersonal ultimate which is “the whole,” “the creative process,” or “the ground of being.”  This second strand in my spirituality can be expressed as:  we are all connected in the web of life.  I feel a deep connection to all other individuals in the web of life and to the web of life as a whole.  For me the web of life includes everything—human and other than human beings, “animate” and “inanimate” individuals and groups of individuals.

I sometimes feel this connection as an “I-Thou” relationship with a particular bird or bee or flower.  I spend many spring mornings in my garden in a meditative state in which I connect with birds that drink from or bathe in my fountain, enjoy bees and butterflies that fly amongst the flowers, and welcome each leaf and flower as it comes forth.  At times I feel my body myself becoming merged another particular individual in the web of life.  After I promised a Ruddy shelduck that I would look after its habitat, I felt as if my body were being torn apart when environmental lawyers removed its habitat from the Complaint I was writing to the European Commission about failure to protect bird and wildlife habitats in Lesbos.  Other times I feel myself becoming part of or merging with a “whole” that is greater than my individual life.  When the sun is setting into the sea or the moon is rising over mountains, I often become aware that I am part of something much larger than myself.  I also feel deeply connected to what Marija Gimbutas called the processes of ‘birth, death, and regeneration” that function in my body and the seasons and underlie all life.  I feel deeply connected to other human beings as well—both to those in my immediate world and to those who are far away.

To feel deeply connected can be a source of intense joy as well as incredible pain—especially in a world that is suffering from injustice, war, and environmental degradation.  To connect deeply with “the whole” is not to connect only to rainbows and butterflies, but also to connect also to raped and violated women, to women, men, and children held in slavery, to victims of war, to animals on the brink of extinction, to polluted seas, to poisoned land.

I experience both ultimates as “real.” I agree with Cobb that recognizing both provides a more complete picture than recognizing only one.  Meditations and exercises designed to make the part aware of its connection  other individuals in the web of life and to the web of life as a whole are appropriate.  And so are prayers and worship addressed to Goddess or God as a personal, intelligent, loving, compassionate presence who cares about individuals and the world.

Idean cave shadows

*In The Existence of God, John R. Jacobson and Robert Lloyd Mitchell, eds. (Lewiston: The Edward L. Mellon Press, 1988), 5-19.

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, and there she participates in rituals that invoke Goddess and celebrate the connection of all beings in the web of  life.  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

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

13 thoughts on “Two Ultimates: The Ground of Being and Goddess by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thanks so much for this. This has helped clarify some complexity I have been struggling with recently… I am grateful for such an education!


  2. This is the part I have trouble with: “prayers and worship addressed to Goddess or God as a personal, intelligent, loving, compassionate presence who cares about individuals and the world.” To what presence, then, do we assign the suffering that exists in the world? I just can’t see how one can worship a presence that loves one moment and destroys the next. I do accept the connection of all things, and the responsibility we have, to act in ways that don’t hurt the earth/others, although even that is limited since we aren’t always able to predict the outcome of our actions. I think that a personal god/goddess is a fantasy of a “perfect parent” who might love us better than our real parents did. Immanence makes much more sense to me than transcendence. If we are a part of the all, why would we pray to one piece of it? I am grateful for many things in my life, and I note them on a regular basis. I also feel sad for the suffering that happens in the world, but I don’t thank or blame a god/goddess for either.


    1. As I said in the piece from which this was taken, the concept of two ultimates begs the question of whether the personal ultimate exists. If it does not, then there is only one ultimate, the ground of being. Yes the personal ultimate is something like a perfect parent with the difference that the personal ultimate loves all individuals human and other than human “like” a perfect parent. From a process point of view which I and John Cobb hold and defend, the personal ultimate is not responsible for all of the suffering that happens in the world, because individuals other than Goddess really do have power. This blog is part of my longer conversation with Judith Plaskow about the nature of divine power. She agrees with you.


  3. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for your inspiring and enlightening post! I have long been intrigued by the Goddess movement and my master’s thesis examines the movement through your writings and those of Rosemary Radford Ruether. (I just earned an MA from Bangor Theological Seminary.) I’d be happy to share it with you if you’d like to read it.

    Linda Costelloe


  4. Carol, this may be one of the best, most enlightening blogs I’ve ever read. (Of course I agree with you.) I started it yesterday, got distracted, and just came back to it today. Brava!


  5. Yes, the question of praying to a personal Deity is a vexing one. The Hindu understanding helped me (with a sideways shift to make it work): there is the Unknowable, and within the Unknowable is Everything. That includes you, me and squillions of everything else seen and unseen that makes up existence. How do I pray to an Unknown. I don’t. I resonate with one, perhaps two sacred or holy images. And I chat away to Her in that form. My prayers, my conversations, my hopes, my heartaches for the planet are directed at Her (the Unknowable) in that smaller and more personal form (the form I chose). It so works – and lifts the blame factor for which the Unknowable cannot be blamed. Evil is what we do. Not you and I (I hope) but human beings. We have a mind, and with that mind we can do much evil – and much good too. I share this thumbnail hoping it may help. Zoé


    1. I know that many religions speak of divine power as unknowable, a mystery, etc. For me the power of the Goddess as love is neither unknowable nor mysterious. My “mentor” Hartshorne famously said that he didn’t have to look any farther than his own mother to understand the love of God. Some might want to substitute other loving figures in their lives, if their own mothers were not as consistently loving as his was. As I do not attribute the evil in the world to Goddess or God, I don’t have to resolve that theological conundrum.


  6. I’ve been busy getting ready for a family reunion and my mother’s move back east, so I just read your post today, Carol. I find it very interesting, and assume that John Cobb — although a process theologian — comes at all of this from a Christian or at least Christo-centric perspective. Monotheism seems to limit the ways in which we can look at this question. Within polytheistic — particularly panentheistic — religions the distinction between impersonal ground of being and a personal God/dess is a given. An individual recognizes that she is a part of the web of existence/the whole, while acknowledging that she has a personal relationship with a God/dess(or God/desses) who helps in times of need, cares about the individual, inspires her, etc. This personal God/dess is also only part of the whole, but as a God/dess She has a much more expansive overview of “life, the universe, and everything.”

    I have three personal Goddesses, representing/covering three different aspects of life. I call on them all the time, but don’t need to believe that they are “perfect,” because I’m a polytheist and, therefore, believe that each of Them is but one of many sacred presences. I think only monotheists need perfection as a conception of divinity. Believing that one’s personal God is perfect leads to many conflicting understandings re: omniscience (perfect knowledge of the world), omnipotence (perfect all-powerfulness), a (perfectly) all-loving God, human free will, etc. It seems to me that Zoé is on the right track in citing Hinduism, since it’s (usually) a panentheistic religion. I, too, have been influenced by Hindu theology, and my connection to the divine works the same way for me as it does for her.


    1. Hi Nancy, there is certainly room for differences in our views of divine power. Cobb and I are both panentheists who deny traditional views of divine ominpotence and omniscience. While I agree that exclusive monotheism has certainly been used to create divisions, I count myself as an inclusive monotheist who has “an intuition of the unity of being” (Marcia Falk) and an appreciation for the need for a plurality of images. Part of what Judith and I hope for is that others will reflect on, clarify, and articulate their own views of divine power, even though obviously, we all will not agree.


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