GODDESS WITH US: IS A RELATIONAL GOD POWERFUL ENOUGH? by Carol P. Christ

carol-christLast week I wrote about Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy’s deification of male power as power over.  This week I want to ask why the relational Goddess or God* of process philosophy has not been more widely embraced, both generally and in feminist theologies.

Could it be that a relational God just isn’t powerful enough? Are some of us still hoping that an omnipotent God can and will intervene in history to set things right?  Do we believe an omnipotent God can save us from death?

Process philosophy provides an attractive alternative to the concept of divine power modeled on male power as domination.  According to leading process philosopher Charles Hartshorne, the power to coerce, power as power over and domination, is not the kind of power God has.

The concept of divine power as omnipotent (having all the power) leads to what Hartshorne called “the zero fallacy.”  If God has all the power and can dominate in all situations, then the power of individuals* other than God is reduced to zero.  In effect, this means that individuals other than God do not really exist, but at most are puppets whose strings are pulled by the divine power.

Moreover, as Hartshorne argued, the power to coerce is not the kind of power Goddess “should” have.  Although many have been forced to submit to them, tyrants and bullies do not empower others.  Should we not understand the “highest power in the universe” as empowering of others?

For process philosophy Goddess is understood to be the most sympathetic or empathetic of all relational beings.  Goddess did not first “exist” and then later “create” other individuals in order to relate to them.  Goddess has always existed in relationship to some universe and to some individuals.  To be related is part of the “nature” of Goddess.

While other individuals understand each other imperfectly at best, God “enters in” to the experiences of every individual in the universe with infinite understanding and compassion.  The power of a relational God is not the power to coerce, but the power to inspire or persuade individuals to act in their own best interests and in the best interests of other individuals in the universe.  The love and understanding of God opens us to understand more deeply and to love more widely.

From the standpoint of traditional theologies shaped around the image of male power as power over and the concept of omnipotence, it might seem that the power of the process Goddess is “limited.”  This is a mistake.  The process Goddess does not voluntarily “withdraw from the world” (as in Kabbalah) or voluntarily “limit” her power (as in some forms of the free will defense) in order for the world and free individuals to exist.  According to process philosophy Goddess never did have all the power, because Goddess has always been in relationship to some other individuals.  To be an individual is to have at least a degree of freedom and at least a degree of power.  This means that individuals other than Goddess have always and will always have some of the power in this or any other universe.  Goddess cannot be omnipotent, because an omnipotent Goddess logically cannot be in relationship to other individuals who also have a degree of freedom and power.

The relational understanding of the nature of God satisfies me both intellectually and emotionally.  My moral question about how a good God could “allow” the evil in our world to occur, is answered.  God does not “allow” evil to happen because the power to stop it single-handedly is not the kind of power God has.  My personal question about why God did not answer many of my most heart-felt prayers is also answered.  The power to coerce others in order to “make things happen” for me or for any other individual is not the kind of power God has.

On an emotional level, it makes me very happy to think of and to experience a divine power that enters into the experience of every individual in the world—including but not only my experiences—with perfect insight and with infinite care and concern.  Goddess is “always there,” encouraging me and every other individual to enjoy life, to “make the best” of difficult situations, and to widen and deepen our understanding and compassion for others.

The omnipotent God of many traditional theologies may be dead, but the God or Goddess whose power is in relationships is not.  There is a traditional Biblical name for this power: “Immanuel,” God with us.***  Omnipresence is the theological term describing the divine power present in and for everyone and everything.  In traditional theologies omnipresence is swallowed up in omnipotence.  Perhaps it is time to separate these theological “twins.”

I suggest that power in relationship, the power to love, understand, and inspire really is the highest power.

*I am speaking here of one divine power which may be called Goddess or God.  In this essay I use the two names interchangeably.

**For process philosophy, individual is not a term reserved for human beings: individuals include particles of atoms, cells, animals, and human animals.

***If we want to speak in Hebrew, also “Immanu-Elah,” Goddess with us.

Carol P. Christ  is a feminist theologian.  For her God is not a dominant Other, but rather the most relational of all relational beings. In  She Who Changes she discusses the implications of process philosophy for feminist theologies.  She is dreaming of the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  It is not too late to join the fall pilgrimage, nor too early to sign up for spring 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER TeleconferenceHer books also include and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

P.S.  As the US contemplates using military force in Syria, I urge you to inform yourself of the risks and to ask the President and Congress  not to intervene with military force.



Categories: Abuse of Power, Earth-based spirituality, Feminist Theology, God, Goddess, Love

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7 replies

  1. A very wonderful new divine name, Carol, thank you for Immanu-Elah” (I did some extensive research once long ago, even teaching myself biblical Hebrew, so that I could translate the Book of Ruth myself).

    Emily Dickinson should be read and studied more as a feminist nature mystic. As regards the highest power, she has a startling poem about honoring, even ordaining, love and relationship, as you say, existent as integral within the greatest majesty of nature, she says:

    Garland for Queens, may be —
    Laurels — for rare degree
    Of soul or sword.
    Ah — but remembering me —
    Ah — but remembering thee —
    Nature in chivalry —
    Nature in charity —
    Nature in equity —
    The Rose ordained!

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    • I wonder how many other female poets have expressed similar sentiments. Sappho did too in her poem “To an army wife in Sardis” which I have discussed on FAR.

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  2. Non-violence is power-neutrality. God/Goddess power is empowerment of the human person.
    Friends sent me this link about a study of non-violence vs. violence as a means of affecting change and it quantifies the results. Non-violence wins hand down.

    http://www.thestreetspirit.org/discovering-the-unexpected-power-of-nonviolence-street-spirit-interview-with-erica-chenoweth-4/

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    • I look forward to reading the whole interview which states that non-violent resistance is more effective than violent resistance. I have become an avid fan of Howard Zinn — see link to his “Three Holy Wars” at the end of my piece. In recent days I have been pondering the questions: If slavery had been ended non-violently rather than through war, would we still be seeing such violent racism today? If the US had separated from England non-violently as Canada did, would Kerry and Obama be beating the drums of war? Besides killing people in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, violence breeds a violent frame of mind. One of my teachers used to quote J. Maritain, “The means are the end in the process of becoming.”

      Does this relate to our concept of God? Yes it does! God as a dominating Other images dominating others. Goddess or God as a compassionate loving presence in all life inspires us to be compassionate and loving. Of course it is never as simple as that, but our images of Goddess and God do make a difference.

      I have also been asking myself how Obama and Kerry who seemed to be against violence at points in their lives, now have become macho “liberal hawks”?

      When will we ever learn, oh when will we ever learn?

      PS I would say better non-violence is power with not power over…it is not power-neutral, because it is non-violent resistance to unjust power.

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  3. Wow, Janice, that is a powerful study. Seems the older I get, the further I lean to being a pacifist. And while my heart cries out to the children who were killed and maimed, there is simply nothing on the Goddess’ fine earth that I can do to stop it, at least not right now. Which leads me back to the point that Carol was making about the Goddess being within each of us. Finding that spark in each person, and helping it grow, is so much slower, but in the long run that is the only thing that will bring peace. May we each help some sparks grow.

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  4. Thank you Carol
    As is often the case with your writing I have come back to this post several times and will do again – it reflects a tentative piece of writing I had just completed and about which I was uncertain as to how to take forward. You have helped me think more clearly about what I can say when asked what it is that I do now believe (given my movement away from the beliefs of the church with which I belong). The challenge to ‘power over’ and to thinking through the basis of relationships without this assumption is something I am seeing and trying to live increasingly – and sadly in my experience is often met with more attempts to take power – or authority – over me. Probably to be expected.
    Thank you for your continuing thought-provoking writing and living.
    May you be blessed as you bring good things to others

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