“The error of anthropomorphism” is defined as the fallacy of attributing human or human-like qualities to divinity. Recent conversations with friends have provoked me to ask in what sense anthropomorphism is an error.
The Greek philosophers may have been the first to name anthropomorphism as a philosophical error in thinking about God. Embarrassed by stories of the exploits of Zeus and other Gods and Goddesses, they drew a distinction between myth, which they considered to be fanciful and false, and the true understanding of divinity provided by rational contemplation or philosophical thought. For Plato “God” was the self-sufficient transcendent One who had no body and was not constituted by relationship to anything. For Aristotle, God was the unmoved mover.
Jewish and Christian theologians adopted the distinction between mythical and philosophical thinking in order to explain or explain away the contradictions they perceived between the portrayal of God in the Bible and their own philosophical understandings of divine power. While some philosophers would have preferred to abolish myth, Jewish and Christian thinkers could not do away with the Bible nor did they wish to prohibit its use in liturgy.
Thus theologians developed the method of allegorical interpretation in which the anthropomorphism of the Bible was understood to symbolize higher truth. Thus, God did not really “walk” in the Garden of Eden, nor did God actually “get angry” with his people; the higher truth embedded in these tropes had to do with the love of God for the world. For some theologians even the notion of God’s love for the world had to be qualified by asserting that this “love” was dispassionate and implied no “need” the part of God for the world.
When my theological companion Judith Plaskow and I began to discuss our understandings of Goddess and God with each other, it became clear that one of our main differences was about whether or not it makes sense to think of God or Goddess as a kind of “person” who can and does “care about” and “love” the world. Judith invoked traditional notions of the anthropomorphic fallacy to defend her notion that God is an impersonal power of creativity that is the ground of being. She criticized my notion of a Goddess or God defined by a relationship of care, compassion, and love for the world as anthropomorphic.
In response to Judith, I defended anthropomorphism. I argued that if we value love and understanding in ourselves, then it makes sense that we “attribute” these “personal” qualities to divinity and “find” them in the divinity we know through our experience.
I find philosophical support for my experience of divinity as a power or presence that loves and understands me and all other beings in the world in the relational philosophy of Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne considered the (western) philosophical and theological tradition’s notion that God is dispassionate (without feeling) and has no need for this or any other world to be the height of theological folly.
He argued in contrast that God should be understood to be the most relational of all relational individuals, the most feeling of all feeling individuals, and the most loving of all loving individuals. Such a divinity is defined by relationship to the world, and its relationship to the world is best understood as love and understanding, encompassed in Hartshorne’s notion of “divine sympathy” (or empathy) for the world.
So—I responded to Judith–if experiencing divine “feelings” for the world and attributing consciousness feeling for the world to deity constitutes “anthropomorphism,” I affirm anthropomorphism and do not consider it a fallacy.
At the same time, I do not view Goddess as “really” having a human-like body, such as the ones portrayed in Greek statues, or even such as the ones portrayed in feminist art. In fact, the only images of Goddess that resonate with me are those in which she takes animal and plant as well as human forms. For me the world is the body of the Goddess.
Recently a friend commented to me that she found her new Buddhist practice liberating because it did not require her to “visualize the Goddess” in female (or any other) form. In addition, she stated, in her Buddhist practice she had stopped “asking the Goddess for things.” This conversation provoked me to rethink my earlier “affirmation” of anthropomorphism—and will no doubt lead to revisions of the book manuscript.
Although I have Goddess “figurines” in my home—mainly the early part-human, part-animal ones, my “practice” has never involved “visualizing” a female Goddess and then praying to her. As I said to my friend, I “feel”and “sense” the Goddess rather than “seeing” her. For me the presence of the Goddess is a feeling–that I sometimes sense entering through the pores of my skin–of a loving presence that cares about me and about every other individual in the world.
I do in fact sometimes experience this presence in places that have been considered sacred by others, such as caves and mountains in Crete, and I also have experienced it in the icons of the Panagia (Mary Mother of God) at sacred places in Crete. But I do not privilege visualizations of the divine presence in the human form. I also experience daily “the grace of Goddess” in the birds that bathe in my fountain and in the butterflies and bees that fly in my garden.
There was a time when I prayed to the Goddess intensely “for things”—for a lover, for my Greek citizenship, for the success of our Goddess pilgrimages. I was often disappointed when I did not receive what I asked for. This has led me to change the form of my practice of prayer. Now I am more likely simply to ask the Goddess to be with me in all that I do and in times of need—rather than to ask for specific outcomes.
I conclude from this that it is important to distinguish at least two different meanings of “anthropomorphism.” If anthropomorphism means that divinity has a specific human-like (female, male, or inter- or transgender) physical form, then I would agree that it is an error to be avoided.
However, if anthropomorphism means that deity has human-like (and animal-like and plant-like and mineral-like) consciousness and feelings, then I would argue that this second form of “anthropomorphism” is not an error.
I would add that when we pray to a Goddess or God who cares about the world, we should not assume that all of our prayers “for things” can or will be answered. The kind of “answer” to my prayers I now find most meaningful is the experience of divine presence in the world, in myself, and in all others. She is the grace of life in me, and She is with me in all that I do, loving and understanding me as no one else can, always inspiring me to love and understand the world and all of the individuals in it more.
Carol P. Christ will be leaving in a few days on the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute–early bird special for the fall tour until June 15. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Goddess Alive Radio and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding mother in feminism and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow GoddessCrete on Twitter.