“THE DIVINE MYSTERY”? by Carol P. Christ

carol-christ“The mystery of God in feminist theological discourse” is the subtitle of Elizabeth Johnson’s widely read She Who Is. The notion that God is “a mystery” is rarely questioned in feminist theologies. But maybe it should be.

Although it is true that the finite cannot encompass the infinite, and that all knowledge is rooted in particular standpoints, I do not agree that the first and last thing to be said about the divine power is that it is “a mystery.” Indeed as I will argue here, speaking about God as “a mystery” obscures more than it “reveals.”

christina's loveThe notion that Goddess or God is “a mystery” is rooted in notions of “a God out there” that most spiritual feminists reject. Goddess or God “in” the world is, I suggest, not unknown, but known, not hidden, but revealed–in the beauty of the world and in ordinary acts of love and generosity.

The notion that God is “a mystery” is a well-worn trope in Roman Catholic theology. Protestants make similar claims when they speak of  the hiddenness of God and assert that all language about God must be symbolic or metaphoric. Feminist theologians may appeal to notions of the mystery or hiddenness of God when we assert that images of God as a dominating male other are historically conditioned by patriarchy and can be changed as feminists become liturgical and theological actors. So far so good? Do we need to look any further? I think we do.

One source of the notion that God’s essential nature is a mystery or hidden is found in the Platonic tradition that asserted that God is totally transcendent of the world. In this tradition, “God” exists alone, apart from relationships which constitute finite existence, and therefore, it is said, “God” cannot be “affected” by anything or anyone. If this philosophical premise is accepted, then it is “logical” to conclude that the idea that God is related to the world in any fashion at all is “a mystery” that cannot be explained. The further notions that God is involved the histories of particular peoples, was incarnate in Jesus Christ, or suffered on the Cross become “great mysteries” or “paradoxes.”

Another source of the idea that God’s essential nature is unknown is rooted in theological notions of divine judgment. Here the transcendence of God is expressed in terms of God’s ineffable or unknowable will. In Christian theologies in particular, it is asserted that if God’s demands (whatever they are) are not met by human beings, then God has “the right” to condemn human beings to the everlasting torments of hell. Once this premise is accepted, it becomes “logical” to speak of the “love” or “mercy” of a God who redeems anyone at all as “a great mystery.”

A third source of the idea that the nature of God is a mystery stems from the theological doctrine of divine omnipotence. If God is in control of everything, then the existence of evil and suffering in the world becomes difficult to explain. One response to “the problem of evil” is to say that the relation of God to evil is “a mystery.”

But don’t feminist theologians reject the God of the philosophers who is totally transcendent of the world? And don’t feminist theologians reject the God who stands outside the world and judges it? And shouldn’t we reject notions of divine power as omnipotence derived from notions of God as a dominating other?  Aren’t all three of these concepts legacies of the “God out there” feminists reject? Most spiritual feminists—Goddess, Christian, and Jewish—assert that God is not “outside the world” but (in one way or another) “in the world.” I have called this the “immanental turn” of feminist theologies.  Yet many of us continue to appeal to notions of the mystery or hiddenness of God rooted in notions of God’s transcendence of the world in order to justify feminist re-imaginings. Can we really have it both ways?

I suggest that feminist theologians need to question notions of God’s “mystery” and “hiddenness” that have their roots in philosophical notions of divine transcendence of the world. Similarly we need to question notions of God’s “mystery” and “hiddenness” that are rooted in notions of God’s transcendent judgment defined as the right to condemn human beings to hell.  And finally we need to reject the doctrine of divine omnipotence that denies any effective power to human beings and other beings in the web of life.

Pitcher Goddess MochlosBut if Goddess or God is not “a mystery” and not “hidden,” who then is She? I would argue that Goddess is “revealed” in the beauty of the world and “known” in the love, care, and compassion we feel for each other and by extension for all beings in the world.

From a matriarchal point of view—from a point of view that begins with gratitude for the gift of life—the love of mothers and others who nurture life, and the love of God the Mother is no mystery. Quite the opposite. Without the gift of life given by the Source of Life, and without the gifts of life given to us by others and by the earth itself every moment of every day, we would not be here. The Greeks have a word, “Faneromeni,” “She Appears,” that they use in speaking of places where the Panagia, She Who Is All Holy, has revealed herself. This too is no mystery. She is everywhere.

*Stuffed vine leaves, eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini prepared with love by Christina in Skoteino, Crete

Carol P. Christ  has just come back from the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  There she gave thanks for the gift of life on altars to Mother Earth and Mother Sea.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s 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. www.goddessariadne.org

25 thoughts on ““THE DIVINE MYSTERY”? by Carol P. Christ”

  1. An immanent God/dess is certainly knowable to an extent, but I don’t think immanence necessarily negates mystery. For me, the divine is the mystery within that immanence – the unanswerable questions that underlie the manifest universe around us. I embrace both immanence and transcendence, as I see the divine as encompassing both the manifest and the unmanifest. But even with a purely immanent divinity, I see great scope for mystery.

    I suppose, for me, the key is finding a balance. God/dess for me is both hidden and revealed, both experiential and deeply mysterious.


  2. My sense is that mother nature (φύσις) is the supreme deity. As a feminist, it’s not a question of bringing divinity down to earth, but recognizing nature as encompassing both the immanent and the transcendent.

    On the why of the mystery, the best insight I have ever read also dates back to Ancient Greece: “Nature loves to hide.” (φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ) ~ Heraclitus


  3. Thank you for this Carol, great post and comments. I am interested in what you think of the fierce or ferocious aspects of compassion as manifest in Kali, Durga, Inanna, Demeter, the Pythia, etc. I’ve always thought of fierce compassion as Goddess’ cutting through what is no longer needed or helpful…sometimes thought of as destructive forces…


      1. Yes, thanks Diane. I’ve read BGW’s Crone and her other works…I was referring specifically to Carol’s theological musings about immanent Goddess manifest in matriarchal values of compassion and gratitude for life.


    1. Hi Ann, Nice to hear from you (Ann is a former student). First of all let me say that I think it is very important for all of us and especially for women to get in touch with our repressed anger. I myself spent years pounding on pillows not even knowing (at first) that I was angry or what I was angry about. Judith and I selected Bev Harrison’s “Anger as a Work of Love” for Weaving the Visions because we both understand the importance of anger as a first inkling of a “no” to oppression.

      I have also written that one of the reasons I was attracted to Greece is because Greek people are “expressive” of feelings rather than “repressive” of them. I have learned to be in touch with and express my feelings more living here. At the same time, I have also come to understand that “expression” of feelings is not always a good thing. I know there is a great deal of family violence in Greece too. At the moment in Greece a great deal of “raw anger” is being channeled into the Neo-Nazi party the Golden Dawn. This also is not in my opinion a productive “expression” of anger–though it certainly is one way to “express” rather than “repress” anger.

      This makes me think we need a more complex understanding of “anger.” Yes we must be “in touch” with it and listen to the “messages” about oppression it embodies. At the same time, I think (and this was suggested to me by Rita Gross) anger should not always be expressed but often (more often) it must be transformed. Into what? Into clear seeing and clear action to end oppression. Red hot anger doesn’t usually get us very far.

      I underline anger should never be repressed, it must be felt in the body and its source understood in the mind, and then transformed.

      Now, the angry Goddesses such as the Hindu Kali. I understand that many women are attracted to them because these images give “permission” for women to express anger and in so doing to transcend stereotypes of women as submissive and always loving and good. I believe the Goddess (here drawing on Marija Gimbutas) is birth, death, and renewal. Death is part of life and is to be accepted. At the same time, I am not attracted to Kali. For me (you may not agree) what happened with Kali is that the “death” aspect of the Goddess became (in some cases at least) separated from the cycle of birth, death, and renewal. This happened in part because in some parts of Hinduism the basically life-affirming Goddess religion of “Old India” was transformed under Indo-European warrior influence into a religion of renunciation. Kali’s death aspects were emphasized in order to promote the negation of life or the renunciatory, ascetic path, which is also the warrior path.

      This is a long answer and I imagine you and many of our community may not agree with it.


      1. PS As regards Inanna, Ishtar, and the Greek Goddesses, there is no doubt in my mind that the “myths” that we have come to us from patriarchal warrior cultures. These are not “eternal truths” about “the Goddess” but “tales with a point of view.” In other words, I take all myths with a “grain of salt” and do not accept them as “the truth” about anything other than the culture in which they were produced. Patriarchal myths can be read from the point of view of trying to find the prepatriarchal understanding, as Gimbutas does sometimes, but this of course is a tricky business. Last semester we read Wolkstein’s Inanna in my Return of the Goddess class and my students were quite adept at pointing out patriarchal elements in the stories. In reconstructing the Inanna myths, Wolkstein seemed to assume that there was a single unchanging myth and thus she used fragments from different historical periods to create the stories she told. This is difficult to deconstruct from the text she produced and would require a thorough study of the original sources. Unfortunately these sources all date from patriarchal cultures.


      2. With awareness of patriarchal overlays, I do find value in the notion of “fierce compassion” which isn’t necessarily paired with anger. I guess I sort of equate fierce compassion with the element of death as needed for regeneration. I think we all have experienced times when certain jobs, people or other aspects of our lives must be “cut” or eliminated in order to facilitate our own growth, regeneration and well being. I engage Divine support for this process. I mean, for me the immanent, embodied, transcendent Goddess encompasses the totality of love and beauty as well as struggle, pain and death.


      3. I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching Kali and Her myths. If anything, Her myths point to pre-patriarchal times, i.e. in this case, before the “Aryan” invasion of India. She is an incredible embodiment of birth, life, death, rebirth, the whole round of the Goddess, with an emphasis on the death aspect in many of Her artistic representations. As I wrote in an article about a decade ago: “Kali is by necessity both the good and the terrible mother. Every nursing woman has to sustain herself in order to nourish her children, and since Kali is the mother of everything in the world, she has to feed on Her children as there is nothing else to eat. Hinduism’s world mother exemplifies the fact that life often creates through destroying, just as we humans recreate our bodies anew each day by destroying the plants and animals on which we feed. What Kali vividly demonstrates is that we live in a unified ecosystem, the interconnected web of all existence, each a part of the other. Her image forces us to confront our place in the food chain. Kali gives birth to us; we are sustained by eating Her other children; and finally we are eaten in turn. Life feeds on life. Life is a sacrifice to life. These are the sacred truths that such a picture opens to our view. This bloodthirsty goddess, as a unified vision of life-death-and-rebirth, allows us to see that the bright and dark sides of the sacred are just human divisions of one holy reality, and that when we participate in that divine reality we too are wild, unbound, free. For the sacred that Kali represents cannot be circumscribed. It is utterly free from the constraints of human imagination, beyond all our experience, encompassing both life and death, darkness and light, order and chaos, everything and the void.”


  4. whoa. convicted. i always use mystery to describe god because it felt so much bigger than my fundamentalist past allowed god to be–but i see what you are saying! god incarnate is a god revealed. you are a continuing inspiration to me.


  5. I love this analysis. And I’m going to think about it for awhile, since I’m not sure how I feel about your thesis. But first thoughts: Nature and the Goddess are still mysterious, in the sense that there is always more to learn and explore, but for me the difference is that in matriarchal spirituality, the sacred is open to all who seek, and it’s available in the everyday miracle of life, for all people. By contrast, in patriarchal religions, as in patriarchal culture, the goal is to keep things mysterious and secret in order to maintain political control. It’s a matter of access. Sacred secrets of the patriarchy that are transcendent, mysterious, and esoteric require someone in power to initiate, organize, authorize, explain, discipline. When the sacred is Life itself, no one can control access to the divine.


    1. …”but for me the difference is that in matriarchal spirituality, the sacred is open to all who seek, and it’s available in the everyday miracle of life, for all people.”

      I couldn’t agree with you more. In this regard, I am uncomfortable with aspects of Wicca that are inherited from esoteric traditions. I don’t see any need for secrecy or esoteric knowledge. It is natural to love life, though some of us lost that capacity as we grew older. For us it may not be “easy” to recover a childlike love for life and combine it with an adult knowledge of suffering leading to a desire to make the world a better place, but there is nothing “secret” or “mysterious” about loving the beauty of life.


  6. Even if I were a complete materialist, which I’m not, I would have to disagree with this analysis, Carol. Materialistic science has still not explained life, the universe, and everything,* so there are still scientific mysteries out there, things that are difficult or impossible to explain (the definition of mystery). As a Wiccan who is unschooled in Christian theology, I doubt that God’s “divine judgment” has anything to with my experience that the Goddess is a mystery, since I totally reject such a notion. And since for me the Goddess is the allness of life — which includes the good, the bad, and the ugly — “the problem of evil” has nothing to do with my feeling that Goddess is a mystery. And since I’ve spent much of my time in the last 20 years trying to show how our Platonic heritage has led to either/or understandings that hinder our thought processes and lead to unnecessary conflicts, I doubt that Plato has much to do with my experience that Goddess is a mystery.

    When I first discovered the Goddess, it was very important to me as a feminist for Her not to be “God in drag,” a deity — now with a skirt on — out there, who had all the power over me. But the longer I’ve been involved in Wicca, the less I can distinguish between “in here” and “out there.” I experience the Goddess everywhere, inside and outside me. She is the inner spark that animates my life as well as the Presence I encounter in other people and my surroundings, seemingly both internal and external. The problem here is actually cultural, since Western culture distinguishes between inside and outside, internal and external, when in reality we’re all components in the interconnected web of all existence that makes up the totality of the Goddess.

    Like you, I experience the Goddess as immanent, but She transcends my limited human understanding, my limited human body as well, i.e. She is also transcendent. Maybe it’s just that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t know. I CAN’T know. But I do know that this understanding of the Goddess as both transcendent and immanent comes from my mystical experiences. And these are buttressed by my suspicion that coming down on either side of this equation (immanence or transcendence) is part and parcel of the Platonic tradition. So for me, it does have everything to do with the fact that “the finite cannot encompass the infinite, and that all knowledge is rooted in particular standpoints,” as you state early on in this essay.

    I believe that the Goddess transcends our limited human abilities to understand. Just like the elephant in the Hindu story of the elephant and the blind men — where one man thinks the elephant’s a rope because he’s holding onto the tail, another a wall because he’s patting its side, etc. — the divine is far beyond our abilities to fathom, so we each see only a piece of it. I believe that the Goddess’s transcendence necessitates humility on my part, not the kind drilled into us women by patriarchy, but the kind that helps me realize that I need the Earth, Her creatures, and each other to survive, that everything I do in my life is co-creation or collaboration with Her. And it makes me realize that my conception of the Goddess is built on my own restricted human experiences, as are those of everyone else. And that helps me to hold off on judgments, since we all perceive the world/the Goddess differently. Knowing myself to be just a tiny piece of the Goddess makes me realize my parity with the rest of life, the seals and fishes, the parsley and dandelions, even the soil (humility comes from humus). I make this argument in greater detail in an article that will be published in the volume _Goddess at the Center_ edited by Karen Tate. Do you have an article in that volume as well, Carol?

    * For lovers of _The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe_ the answer to that is, of course, “42.”


  7. Thank you all for so many thoughtful comments.

    In this essay I was challenging a particular understanding of “mystery” that comes down to us in philosophical and theological traditions in the west. In this tradition it is more true to say that we “don’t know what God is” than that we do. In other words, God is not a man, a storm, a tree, etc., and also God is not love, mercy, or justice. This line of thinking leads to the conclusion that we do not know if God is love or hate, justice or injustice, mercy or cruel judgment. I cannot accept that conclusion.

    I think women may often attach different meanings to “mystery” than total unknowablility. We may refer to ordinary “miracles” such as the miracle of birth, the acceptance of death, or the healing of great sorrow. I think it is important not to confuse the two meanings of mystery.


  8. I disagree, Carol, as regards the Hymn to Demeter, on whether any of the ancient Greek myths can teach or heal us. The problem in many home situations where the young girl is abused by the mother’s partner, whether father, step-father or lover, is that the mother denies or will not act to prevent the situation. The daughter therefore can’t find solidarity with the mother, who often denies the situation is even taking place, though the daughter continues to complain. The Hymn to Demeter can walk with any adult woman through a story where Demeter fights like a mother bear protecting her cubs, until her abducted daughter is returned to her. Every author I have read on the subject (there are a huge number of writings on it) who found help in the myth seemed to be working through that tear in her psyche, essentially that the mother betrayed her. Demeter does not entirely win her case, the patriarchy still takes its toll (the cause of winter). But the point is that Demeter fights like mad to save Persephone, and for the most part rescues her. It’s that fight that creates the healing subconsciously via various archetypes. If this note resonates with anyone, I highly recommend an excellent translation and a very fine collection of essays on the Hymn to Demeter titled, “Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth,” by Tamara Agha-Jaffar.


  9. Sarah, I agree with what you say here, I find the Hymn to Demeter powerful in the ways you describe. On the other hand I don’t find the myths Ishtar as a warrior Goddess at all inspiring. So what I am saying is we must pick and choose and if that is the case we are taking the myths with a grain of salt and not expecting everything in them to be reflective of “eternal truth” or even of “truths we need to become whole.” But I do agree with what you say about the Demeter myth.


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