The Great Commandment for Women: Love and Care for Yourself as You Love and Care for Others by Carol P. Christ


carol-christA rabbi known as Jesus of Nazareth taught that you should  “love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”  Charles Hartshorne, philosopher of relationship and a twentieth century advocate of the “two great commandments,” added that it should be understood that this means that God wants you to love yourself too.

I quote Hartshorne’s midrash on the great teaching often because, sadly, too many women—and some men too–have been taught to love their neighbors at the expense of themselves, to care for others, but not to care as much for themselves.  Indeed theological traditions have often parsed “Christian love” as “self-giving or self-sacrificing love,” comparing it to the self-giving love of God who sacrificed his son that others might live.  I think we need to question the notion of self-sacrificing love and to replace it with an understanding of the reciprocal nature of love for self and love for others.

Even when it comes to God, I think we must reject the notion of self-sacrificing love.  In the case of the theological trope about a God who loved the world so much that he sacrificed his son, I think we need to think again about what is being said. This theological understanding is rooted in traditions of animal sacrifice in which it is assumed that God demands that people kill animals in religious rituals in order to demonstrate their devotion to God. Did God in fact ever require any such thing? How could God ask one of the individuals God loves to sacrifice another individual God loves in order to prove something to God? I suppose God is clever enough never to have made such a stupid request of anyone.

Christian tradition revised the terms of the sacrificial tradition in which the individual sacrifices an animal or–as we have recently been discussing here–a child to God in order to prove something to God. Christian tradition claimed that God is not the one to whom the sacrifice is made; rather, God is the both the sacrificer and the sacrificial victim.  Great pathos can be evoked by the idea that God sacrifices his child or himself for the world.  However, I would allege that this is a kind of theological pathos we would do well to be done with.

If we take a step back, we can recognize that the concept of blood sacrifice is related to earlier traditions of “giving back” a portion of the harvest “to God” because She was the one who originally “gave life” and with it the agricultural cycles to people.  In such rituals, much of what is offered “to God” is then shared in communal feasts, thus completing a cycle of reciprocity: from You I receive, to You I give, together we share, from this we live.  To acknowledge the circle of reciprocity is not to “give up” or “sacrifice” what is “you” or “yours.” Rather it is based in a prior understanding of the interdependence of life.

When the interdependence of life is assumed as a beginning point, then we can redefine the love of God as an always generous and giving love, without any need to resort to the notions of sacrifice, self-sacrifice, or sacrificial love.  The love of God for the world is better understood through concepts of feeling-with and in-spiring than through concepts of sacrifice or self-sacrifice. God does not have to “sacrifice” anything in order to love the world, for the very nature of God is to love the world.  When God loves the world, She feels the feelings of every individual in the world intimately, compassionately, and with concern for the good of every individual in the world. This quite simply is the nature of God. It does God no honor and repays God no respect to assert that God sacrifices herself or any of her children for the good of the world. Indeed such an assertion dishonors God because it assumes that it is not in the “nature of God” to love the world. If the very nature of God is to be loving, then it can requires no sacrifice of God’s “self” for God to love the world.

I hope this short version of the history of ritual and theology sheds some light on the “twisted” (by which I mean sadistic, masochistic, and misguided) nature of some of the central concepts of Christian theology.

To return now to the two great commandments with which I began this essay. There is no need to read concepts of sacrifice or self-sacrifice into the commandments to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Nor are any such concepts implicit in them.  What is implied is a simple declarative statement on which the two commandments rest: God loves the world.  The syllogism is: God loves the world, therefore, we should love God with all our hearts; God loves the world, therefore, we should love our neighbor and ourselves as God loves us.

This is the great teaching. It did not originate with Jesus. He only transmitted it.  The origin of this teaching is the intuition of that life is a gift given to all in an interdependent world. This intuition is found “in the beginning” of all traditions.

For women raised on concepts of self-sacrificial love, this is a healing balm.  The commandment for women of our time is that we should love ourselves as much as we love others, that we should give to ourselves as much as we give to others, and that we should care for ourselves as much as we care for others. This truly is a great commandment.

Carol P. Christ created a newly released new website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.  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

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, General, Gift of Life, God-talk, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Interdependence of Life, Relationality

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53 replies

  1. An excellent reminder thank you.

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  2. “love ourselves as much as we love others”—to me the post speaks of the importance of harmony and balance……..

    …….this is from another tradition…….

    The Tao gives birth to all beings
    nourishes them
    maintains them,
    cares for them,
    comforts them,
    protects them,
    takes them back to itself
    creating without possessing
    acting without expecting
    guiding without interfering
    that is why love of the Tao is in the very nature of things.
    —Tao te Ching.

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    • “Love of Tao is in the very nature of things” — I suddenly realize that’s why I keep finding Taoist authors who never heard of Tao. Emily Dickinson may actually have had contact with the Tao Te Ching, but her way of thinking takes it deep. The robin, the bee and the butterfly are all her teachers. We should do more with Dickinson at FAR — she completes one of her poems by saying:

      In the name of the Bee —
      And of the Butterfly —
      And of the Breeze — Amen!

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  3. Another beautiful “matriarchal” teaching insofar as it puts care and generosity (which are associated with mothers) as the highest values! thanks for sharing that “anon.”

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  4. AMEN. Thanks for such a clear articulation of something that has always bothered me.

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  5. I disagree, because some people are more keyed to others, some more to self, the important thing is to let all judgments go. No one should feel guilty, either, if they happen to be keyed to overriding self in favor of caring for a beloved or an elderly person, or a pet, for instance. Imagine crossing a street in the city, trying to beat the light and there’s some oncoming traffic, and someone else hurrying across trips and begins to stumble, but you reach out your arm and grab them and hold on, before they can fall, without thinking about it all, There was no time to think, you put yourself at risk trying to save the other person through an instinct of some kind, it’s in the soul.

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  6. From time to time, of course we give more to others, but if someone gives to others at the expense of self all the time, I think this is a problem. “My” Goddess wants us to care for ourselves too, and not to feel guilty about healthy self-care.

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  7. This is truly a great blog post!!!
    Well done you!

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  8. Brava! All the followers of the so-called religions of the book should read and contemplate this teaching and consider how their co-religionists throughout history have acted…….and then they should vow to do better in their own lives. That is, let’s create a kinder deity and take better care of ourselves and ouir families and our neighbors, even if those neighbors live across the ocean. Let’s give up blood sacrifice in any form. As the song goes (more or less), “With God as our mother, children all are we. Let us live with each other in perfect harmony.” Carol, thanks for writing this blog.

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  9. Yes Barbara, we need a kinder deity. Somehow people have felt that making God cruel or irrational somehow made God bigger, when in fact in made God into something other than “the highest power we can imagine.”

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  10. Thank you, Carol. This is an important issues that I see all the time particularly with women clients in my psychotherapy practice. In the patriarchal world we have been steeped in, women are conditioned to be self-sacrificing. We call it co-dependence in relationships, when one puts others’ needs before their own, particularly when it’s a habitual pattern. It only breeds resentment and a starvation for love. If we learn to love ourselves first and do for others out of choice, willingness and love, not duty or self-sacrifice, we feel fulfilled and balanced.

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  11. Even as a child growing up in the bosom(?!) of the church, I didn’t get the idea of Christ being sacrificed for us to reconcile us to the father. It did not make sense. I would have thought it would have made God even angrier (and it was clear to me he already was). As for parents sacrificing their children, the story of Abraham and Isaac gave me the willies and made me uneasy about going off anywhere with my father alone. My paternal grandmother’s remedy for everything was “do something for others.”

    I became and remain mistrustful of the preposition “for.” When I can, I replace “for” with “with.” God/dess sorrows with me, rejoices with me, as I may with also sorrow and rejoice with my fellow creatures and they with me.

    Thank you for this beautiful, prescriptive post, Carol.

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    • Your post makes me shiver. Reminds me of how in grad school I took a course on Kierkegaard and nobody seemed to have any problems with K’s idea that Abraham’s sacrifice of what he loved most was what God wanted all of us to do too. Sigggghhhhh. Fear of being alone with your Dad stemming from the story, so sorry. And of course in some way your fear may have been vaiid.

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      • My interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac story: the nations that were Israel’s neighbours did practice human sacrifice. Abraham goes along with them in planning to “honour” his god by doing what the other people do to “honour” their gods – offer in sacrifice what is most precious. An angel/messanger stops him. God doesn’t require this kind of sacrifice. Isaiah 58 puts it nice and plain! Somehow the message was lost – too much desire for blood and power?

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      • In the “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” course that is taught in Unitarian Universalists circles (and beyond), one of the units is about the Abraham and Isaac story. We approach it from the perspective of Sarah, breaking up into groups and creating poetry, short plays, songs, etc. to express her experience, which the Bible does not relate. It’s always amazing what the groups come up with, including a short opera entitled “Noboby Messes with My Kid.” The healing anger is palpable in that class. Can you even imagine your husband taking your only child, whom you’ve given birth to at a very advanced age, off to be killed! No matter what the moral, this story is barbaric.

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      • Barbara, the response you give is the traditional “apologetic” one give by Jews and Christians. It assumes facts not in evidence, that child sacrifice was widely practiced in Canaan or elsewhere in the Near East.

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      • Carol wrote:
        Barbara, the response you give is the traditional “apologetic” one give by Jews and Christians. It assumes facts not in evidence, that child sacrifice was widely practiced in Canaan or elsewhere in the Near East.

        I presume in the Biblical stories that there is “outside” influence, that stories or events had a geographical, social, historical context. From the Abraham/Isaac story I would presume some knowledge and perhaps practice in the time of the author. I haven’t searched out the archaeology sites but findings in other places have found evidence of child sacrifice. I haven’t read all the links here, but found this site from Syracuse University.
        http://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/syllabi/w/watts/20060316/REL622.htm

        Are we not practicing “child sacrifice” when we send our children to wars where they could be killed, or kill the children of other mothers? And some mothers are proud of their children’s military “service”. Maybe sacrificing children isn’t as much of the past as we think?

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  12. Thank you Carol! I have not believed in the “sacrificial death” of Jesus for a long time. It just doesn’t “jive” with my experience of the Holy One. Nice to have someone agree – out loud so to speak!

    I think sometimes we over-think things instead of just “going with it”. There is only one Love. It embraces all: me, you, God, animal companions (human or otherwise), the earth and all that grows on it, the seas, lakes and all in them. I think we are learning to love better and more inclusively.

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    • Yes yes Barbara. I always had trouble with being told that God was only going to redeem people, I always felt God must love animals and plants as much as God loves us. Did I ever have a hard time getting that point even heard by my theology teachers. You are right, so many of us have come such a long way from there, through Native American teachings and the Goddess.

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  13. Reblogged this on Lead Me On and commented:
    This is a very powerful testimony to the power of spirituality to nurture ourselves and the world. For those of us exploring spiritually-infused leadership, and especially those of us whose vision includes servant leadership, it is a vital message. Leadership is about presence. Presence means being fully nurtured and caring for ourselves, not just nurturing and caring for others! I just want to requote the healing heart of this blog: “There is no need to read concepts of sacrifice or self-sacrifice into the commandments to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. God loves the world, therefore, we should love God with all our hearts; God loves the world, therefore, we should love our neighbor and ourselves as God loves us. The commandment for women (especially!) of our time is that we should love ourselves as much as we love others, that we should give to ourselves as much as we give to others, and that we should care for ourselves as much as we care for others.” This goes for any leader — male or female, from whatever spiritual tradition we celebrate. Beautiful! Thank you.

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  14. I’ve always hated the story of Jesus on the cross, and I never understood how such a barbaric practice could save the world from God’s wrath. I was made to feel guilty for not feeling gratitude towards Jesus and God for this sacrifice, and for thinking that there are people who have gone through worse torture. It’s the dogma I had the most problems with when studying theology, and I tried hard to think of alternative interpretations to reconcile myself with it.

    Until I realized that I don’t have to accept it, and that I don’t have to feel sinful for just being born. It’s just a way in which the church maintained its power, and power corrupts. I can never forget how Christian dogmas nearly destroyed me by making me feel sinful and worthless, although I had absolutely no idea what I had done wrong, and I cannot forgive the institution called the Church for hurting me and many others. I don’t feel I have to either, because they’re still doing it. I’m not a Christian anymore, I don’t think I ever was one, I just appreciate the good things we have left from Jesus’s life: his teachings of compassion. That one word is my religion.

    Thank you for this post. I’m glad I found this blog, because I’m finally realizing I’m not alone in my ideas.

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    • Andrea, you are not alone in those thoughts. I suggest along with the other books suggested in the replies today, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes by Charles Hartshorne.

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      • Carol, I think your point in the original post was very important: “This theological understanding is rooted in traditions of animal sacrifice in which it is assumed that God demands that people kill animals in religious rituals in order to demonstrate their devotion to God. ” Many forget that the first followers of Jesus were Jewish, and used what they were familiar with (or not!) to try to understand this Beloved Teacher and why he was executed as a traitor by Rome and those Jewish leaders who wanted to preserve their position of power.

        I can’t find it now, but Thomas Aquinas wrote that Jesus died to save himself. What choice did he have? If he renounced his teaching he would lose his integrity/his self. If he continued teaching that was, and is, in opposition to the dominant values of control, power and selfishness, he was/is an enemy of the State. It would be like Rosa Parks moving to the back of the bus when told to do so.

        The common interpretation given of “Jesus dying to save “me”” is much easier to swallow. Otherwise, we might have to stop wearing a cross as jewelry, and start to live as followers of one who taught us to be inclusive, respectful, and compassionate to all creation.

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      • Barbara, I can’t remember what the great Saint said either at the moment, but I do agree with you that the only “explanation” of the sacrifice of Jesus that makes sense to me is one that attributes it to chance and choices made by human actors, including the choice of Jesus to stand up for his beliefs and the choices of the Roman bureaucrats and soldiers to carry out crucifixions, including the crucifixion of Jesus. None of these choices were ordained from all eternity by God in order to save the world. But this of course is a “low” Christology, and I suspect Aquinas had a “high” one as well, otherwise his views might have been deemed heretical.

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  15. I think it is very hard for women to really know what love is in patriarchy. It took me awhile to realize that whatever people SAID was love, certainly didn’t feel like anything of the sort, and what I truly felt was love had nothing to do with anything out in the world.

    Women are expected to serve everyone but themselves, and if you really can’t spend time with yourself and float on that idea, then you are nothing but a servant of others–then everyone comes first except you, and we all know men don’t do this. The male vampire patriarchal state steals the life energy of women, and in this, men call it love. But it serves them, it is coersed worldwide.

    So when I stay within the lesbian state of mind, and when I am completely in love with my lesbian sisters, then this feels real. Everything else seems like male pleasing servitude, it’s why so much of what heterosexual women justify as love either bores me to death or seems completely false.

    Love yourself women!

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  16. As ever, Carol, a wonderful post and a reminder to women in our Christocentric culture that we need to love ourselves first if we are to be able to love others. Like many of the respondents here I have found this issue to be endemic among women. I actually recorded a song that had the intent of undergirding the message that we need to love ourselves in order to love others. The first verse was by Ntozake Shange from “For Colored Girls,” and the second verse was written by my minister of religious education at the time, Ruth Gibson:

    “I found god in myself,
    I found god in my self.
    And I loved Her fiercely,
    I loved Her fiercely.
    I found god in myself.

    Look for god in each other,
    Look for god in each other.
    And love your sister,
    And love your brother.
    Look for god in each other.”

    The first time I came across this idea was in the anthology that you and Judith Plaskow put out in 1979, _Womanspirit Rising_. The article you reprinted by Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” has been foundational for me ever since. Saiving says that “sin” needs to be considered from a women’s perspective, where selflessness only exacerbates the problem of acculturated other-orientedness. I recommend it to anyone interested in feminist theology.

    The other work that comes to mind is _Proverbs of Ashes_ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker (President of our UU Starr King School for the Ministry). Parker’s part of this book does a wonderful job of critiquing the Christian theology of sacrifice as being complicit with violence in our lives — especially child abuse — by portraying God the father as killing his own son for our sins. She comes to essentially the same conclusion as you re: when Goddess is “assumed as the interdependence of life as a beginning point, then we can redefine the love of God as an always generous and giving love.”

    Your description of how Jesus’ sacrifice comes from the traditions of animal sacrifice makes me want to look again at Nancy Jay’s book _Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity._ How interesting! You so often get me thinking, Carol. I love it.

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  17. I remember the first time I took communion, as a 12-year-old, and almost gagged on the wafer, because I kept thinking it was human flesh (Jesus’ body). I felt so depressed on Good Friday, and couldn’t shake the thought that it didn’t make sense that someone had to die to save me from my sins. It is amazing to me how humans are able to hold such impossible thoughts in their minds – a loving/terrifying God who watches everything we do so he can catch us doing something wrong and damn us eternally. When I finally discovered the Goddess, it was SUCH a relief!!

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    • I’m with you Katherine, I now wonder how so many great people could have spent their lives justifying such strange and twisted ideas. I wonder how many of them, like me, were uncomfortable with them in while studying theology, but realized there was no place to go if they didn’t toe the party line. And then how many people’s suffering like yours and Andrea’s was increased because no one could say–hey wait a minute and still be a minister or theologian.

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      • I was a member of an independent church and our minister said once that he personally didn’t believe in Jesus’s divine nature, that he was just human. It split the church in two camps… I was among his supporters because I felt he was entitled to his own personal beliefs, and that his personal beliefs were no threat to anybody else’s. (Plus I thought the whole dual-nature doctrine was a load of dogmatic waffle that doesn’t make any sense) There were evenings and evenings of meetings with these people who called themselves “the concerned” (I suggested a different name: the hypocritical), and who basically tried to get rid of him. He was (is) the best minister I’ve ever met in my life, and I’m glad to say I’m still in touch with him and his wife, because they’re among the warmest, most loving people I’ve ever met.
        And when I said that I thought that love for each other is the most important thing in church, people looked at me confused, and either turned it into “love for the Word of God” or just completely ignored me.
        I left the church for good not long after that.

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  18. Thank you for your interesting and informative article, Carol. I too have issues with the idea of God sacrificing his son. Any God who would do that is not one I want to worship. Anyway, I was thrilled when I read “Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited,” by theologian Marie Fortune, in which she says essentially the same thing. It is really sad that this idea of sacrifice has led so many women and men to sacrifice themselves and their needs for others, and it leads many women to think they must to stay with their abusers. Of course this idea comes from an ancient patriarchal culture, as you point out. Thanks again for bringing this issue to light!

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  19. Thanks Linda, what you are pointing out here is that theology is “systematic,” which means the ideas “hold together in a system” and are related to each other. How we think of love on the human level and how we think of the love of God are related ways of thinking, so if we want to change one, we need to change the other too. This is what we are doing together now in feminist theology, Goddess theology, and here on FAR.

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  20. I’d just like to add that I’m reading an interesting book entitled, “The Religion Virus,” by Craig A. James, in which he puts forth a theory about why and how our current brand of patriarchal religion may have evolved. To quote one of the reviewers, “The evolution of pre-Christianity from henotheism to monotheism is especially interesting. I can also see how it could be very threatening to believers. Using passages from the Bible and references to contemporary cultures, James gives us a clear understanding of Yahweh’s evolution, beginning as a local war deity, becoming an angry and jealous god who demanded exclusive worship among the gods, and finally a deity who claimed to be the only true god. In its mature form, this is the Monotheism Meme. Other notable developments in the Christian meme included the Intolerance Meme, the Godly Origin of Morals Meme, and finally, the Asexual Meme.” Hopefully, feminism will be the cure for the virus!

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  21. Katherine, sounds interesting, but it sounds like monotheism is being blamed while patriarchy and war and the control of female sexuality are being let off the hook.

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    • My take on it is that patriarchy/war/control of females are all related to the advent of monotheism, which may also be related to the growth of cities and the centralization of power by men.

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  22. But the root of patriarchy lies in the male dominant and glorified montheism, I believe to some extent as well as Greek anthopology put down by the Socatic philosophers for the most part. Male shame may begin there or earlier.
    However, I truly wanted to address the love yourself and your neighbor idea as well done. I always pray to take care of myself as I care for my neighbor because those 2 commandments tend to take ona distorted meaning for many women who think they need to sacrifice it all to be valid as human beings–not ture. We need to care for ourselves or we cannot care for others sufficiently or realistically. Thanks Carol for addressing this. Always a pleasure to read tour thoughts and reflective writings. Janice

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  23. Patriarchy appears to have been and to be compatible with polytheism, as long as the Goddesses like women, are kept in their place– as in ancient Sumer and in ancient Greece. Personally speaking, I am an inclusive monotheist, so I would not want to view monotheism as the root and branch of all evil.

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    • Carol, I think patriarchy has been compatible with polytheism, even when Goddesses are NOT kept in their place. A good example is Hinduism with many uppity Goddesses, even supreme deities as in Shakta Hinduism. But women in India (and other Hindu countries) are oppressed nevertheless.

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      • I should have added: That doesn’t mean that the Goddess(es) is/are unimportant in our culture. As Mary Daly put it so poignantly years ago: If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.”

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  24. I believe that any system of belief, or any philosophy for that matter can be used to gain power. It’s often not the belief that’s intrinsically wrong, it’s how it is used by individuals to dominate and rule others.

    My own belief is that God is above our earthly understanding of the world and the words we have to describe, so any mythology or religion that aims to understand the world and understand God is equal in that it contains a piece of the puzzle that is truth.

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  25. I love all the comments here as well as the article. I have always wondered if Jesus’s death was rooted in any request from God at all? It was always puzzling why they hung “King of the Jews “upon the cross. As I studied mythology a thought occurred. The ever present mythos of a king who is willing and obligated by humans to die for his land and people. Don’t get me wrong I believe that is a very horrible recurring event in practice and myth. But it might be a possible explanation that has nothing to do with a request from a Diety.

    I also had another thought. While women have mostly loved and cared for others. Is that not the reason I love and crave a Sisterhood. A community where we form interdependence. I ‘m not saying it is impossible to find with men. I am very happily married. But a circle of women seem to lessen the load for any individual to become worn from doing too much for others. Shared tasks, joys, food, tears, laughter, bathing, brings the wholeness of loving self and others. Just my thoughts. Thank you. Goddess Bless.

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  26. Great post and even greater reminder to re-think sacrifice and giving.

    Although much of the discussion got a little too specific to Christianity and post-Christianity I have a small contribution from Islamic feminist thought to share in the conversation.

    There is a saying of the prophet (s) “indeed your Lord (rabb… meaning care provider) has certain rights over your and your family (ahl, meaning also the family of human kind, or people) has certain rights over you and your Self (nafs, ego, personal self, etc) has certain rights over you. So give each the rights as are due.”

    Most women are taught to prioritize giving to others/AHL people, family etc OVER self (nafs). but I make it into a triangle and the sacred care taker (Rabb is at the top metaphysically) and mean to show by it that ONLY by balancing reciprocally the rights of others WITH the rights of self, can there be balance and fulfillment of the rights of the divine/Rabb/Lord.

    They all equally interact in my re-construction. This usually resonates very well with women who have spent a life time in service to others at the level of self-sacrifice. Suddenly they are back to the center of healthy giving.

    Loved this conversation! thanks

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  27. Ah yes, the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaiah always comes up here. I was always told that God wanted to put an end to child sacrifice and this story showed how horrific it was (and of course how faithful Abraham was), which I believe was a way to try and make it less horrific. I could never buy it. Like Jephthah’s daughter, I was always bothered by it. What if God had not told Abraham to stop? What if Abraham was living now and decided told us God wanted him to sacrifice his son? I don’t think he would be the father of the major religions of the world.

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