JUSTICE AND PREJUDICE IN THE “PROPHETIC TRADITION” by Carol P. Christ

carol christBesides being advocates of social justice, the prophets of Israel were advocates of “exclusive monotheism,” exclusively “male monotheism,” “religious othering,” and “religious prejudice.” 

Many progressive Jews and Christians find inspiration in prophets because of their insistence that their God cares about the poor and “the widow at the gate.” For progressive Christians, Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, and the core of his message is “concern for the poor.” For progressive Jews the prophetic tradition is the root of their concern for human rights.

Those who locate their spirituality and concern for social justice in the prophets can point proudly to Martin Luther King and the many priests, ministers, and rabbis, as well as ordinary Christians and Jews who marched with him as exemplars of the prophetic tradition.

But the prophetic tradition also has a nasty underside. For some Christians and Jews “the Goddess” provokes a visceral reaction—calling to mind the prophets’ condemnation of the people of the land for ignoring the poor while heading off to worship “on every high hill and under every green tree.” Both Jews and Christians have been taught to associate “nature worship,” “paganism,” “polytheism,” and—if the word is spoken at all—“the Goddess” with those who “go against” the traditions of “ethical monotheism” and “social justice” advocated by the prophets. From there it is only a short step to other negative and pejorative terms such as “idolatry,” “cult,” “orgiastic,” and “lack of ethics.”

by Judith Shaw

by Judith Shaw

For those who locate their spirituality and concern for social justice in the prophets, such terms are likely to spring to mind when they are confronted with contemporary women’s spirituality and the Goddess. Goddess feminists have been dismissed by Christian feminists as “narcissists” and “navel-gazers” who are concerned with their “personal psychological” issues rather than with “issues of social justice.” I know of Jews who are progressive on other issues who dismiss contemporary Goddess worship as “a cult.” Such attitudes came to the fore in the backlash against the Re-Imagining Conference. Because of these prejudices, experimentation with explicitly female images for divinity in has come to virtual standstill in churches and synagogues.

In the past week I have been working on a draft of the conclusion to the book Judith Plaskow and I are writing, now with a new tentative title Two Views of Goddess and God for Our Time. In it we consider* the dual legacy of the prophets as an example of why a more complex understanding of the inheritance from traditions is necessary.

Some feminists and other progressive religious thinkers have argued that while texts and traditions contain elements that reflect the standpoints of those who wrote or received them, there is still an “essential core” of texts or traditions that can be called revelatory and authoritative. For some Reform Jews the notion of “ethical monotheism” is considered revelation, while the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus as interpreted by the rabbis are not considered essential to “the Jewish message.” Similarly, for some liberation theologians, “concern for the poor and oppressed” as expressed in the prophetic tradition and the actions and teachings of Jesus are considered revelatory, while the development of a male hierarchy within the church is not attributed to the “core message of Jesus.”

Both of us were convinced by Mary Daly’s argument that in fact it is impossible to separate a “liberating” core from “the rest” of the Bible and tradition. Distinguishing her position from those of some other liberation theologians—including some feminists–Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza argues that it is “wo/men seeking liberation” who find a message of liberation in the words of Jesus and the community centered around him. In other words, the message people find in the words of Jesus and the Jesus community is affected by standpoint: those who are not seeking liberation themselves may read the New Testament differently, choosing different texts on which to base their interpretations.

Picking up on this insight, Judith argues that Jews–and by extension Christians, Goddess feminists, and others—are the ones who determine what is “essential” for them in texts and traditions. Thus, Judith would argue, progressive Jews like herself may choose to find Jewish meaning in the prophets’ concern for the poor, while choosing to criticize the prophets’ vendetta against those who worshipped (the Goddess) on every high hill and under every green tree. The fact that both “traditions” are found in the prophets makes it clear that contemporary choices–not the text itself—determine where meaning will be found. For Carol it is as important to criticize the warlike aspects of Goddess symbolisms and traditions as it is to argue that “women need the Goddess.” Thus she has felt it important to insist that Goddess feminists become aware that we are not simply choosing Goddess instead of the patriarchal God, but that we also can and must make choices about which aspects of Goddess traditions we wish to affirm.

While I do not choose to situate my own concern for social justice in the legacy of the prophets, I respect those who do. However, I think it is important for them to recognize and actively criticize the negative underbelly of the prophetic tradition. Besides being advocates of social justice, the prophets were advocates of “exclusive monotheism,” exclusively “male monotheism,” “religious othering,” and “religious prejudice.” The prophets are “the source” of the negative polarity between “pagan” and “polytheistic” worship of (unnamed) “Goddesses” “in nature” vs. “ethical monotheism” or the worship of “one God who demands justice.”

As the saying goes, “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.” Sadly some Jewish and Christian feminists do repeat this aspect of their history when they imagine that they hold the moral high ground as advocates of justice in relation to their Goddess sisters who–they say–“worship nature” and focus on “personal issues” while ignoring issues of “social justice.” This characterization is inaccurate and dismissive–and it “fits right in” with the prophetic tradition of “religious othering” and “religious prejudice.”

*Though based in our joint work, the words of this first draft are mine.

Carol P. Christ is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.   Space available.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Goddess Alive Radio and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

 

 



Categories: Bible, Christianity, Earth-based spirituality, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess, Judaism, Nature

Tags: , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. When I try to access this post, I get a message that says, “Error 404: Oops! Sorry, but the page you are looking for has not been found. Try checking the URL for errors, then hit the refresh button in your browser.

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  2. It is to learn compassion that we follow the Goddess as Nature (or Tao), especially in her earthliness, diversity and unconditional love. In terms of wisdom, science struggles constantly to search out the workings of Nature whose complexity of reason we seek so deeply to understand.

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  3. I like the theory that the OT prophets were supposed to take care of widows and orphans. I am also bemused when mainstream metaphysicians keep saying that God wants us to be prosperous and has only good fortune for us. But then we read the OT and see how mean the prophets often were, and when I ask mainstream metaphysical teachers to give me chapter and verse that says that god wants us to be prosperous, etc., etc., they can’t do it. One author told me she’s not a biblical scholar but she knows what she believes. (Me, I like the Sermon on the Mount a lot, but that’s about the only part of the Bible I like.) I’m sure your new book will be as good as all your earlier ones.

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  4. Great post, Carol! I look forward to reading your, and Judith’s, upcoming book!

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  5. Carol, I’m so glad you took on the prophetic tradition. I’ve been saying many of the same things about it for years now. I also have been asking Goddess women about the goddesses they revere, to make sure that they revere all aspects of them (you really like her warlike attributes?). This is a necessary and important post.

    By what logic do Christian or Jewish feminists assume that Goddess feminists are navel-gazers? Just because we demand a female deity? Because their God demands social justice? Is feminism not considered “social justice”? This makes no sense to me.

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  6. Carol, thank you for your new book to be published soon… these are important questions for those interested in the thea/ology of the male religions. Student Feminists in these fields of religion, should be required to read any one of the books written on the Sacred Feminine (cross culturally) on the neo/pale lithic periods forward to the patriarchal transitions. If one wishes to apply the term “social justice” what can be more just than there NOT being poverty but a sharing of resources, childcare, medicine and food – equitably? We have found this to hold true on all continents therefore, the lack of social justice within society began with men and the prophets were attempting to correct what males created by worshiping outside themselves – NOT what women created by worshiping nature. Women, by the act of birth, understand “other” and therefore, why their societies are equitable. Men come to know “other” by the act of initiation scare tactics or social mistakes. Again, thank you for the work you do in the world.

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  7. PS: For Nancy – the warlike aspects of the sacred feminine (Goddess being specifically a European) are called upon only in times when men are out of control and women and children are harmed… ie. “justice”. Such was the case with Lilith, Kali (Durga) etc. Male deities emerge when men want something that belongs to others – NOT justice.

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  8. I felt that “we also can and must make choices about which aspects of Goddess traditions we wish to affirm” was particularly resonant, not only in aspects of the traditions to affirm, but the inherent energies to affirm that will be most loving, healing, and nourishing. I don’t personally see much point in affirming aspects of violence, anger, and power in *any* tradition — it’s been done, is being done, and look where we are.

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    • Amen. I could not agree more, Darla. I can also hear my friend Judith Plaskow saying, “but we also need to remind ourselves constantly of our own capacities and inclinations towards violence, anger, and power over.” How do we do both, without “sacralizing” violence and prejudice?

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      • I guess I would distinguish first of all between anger and violence. I experience anger as a messenger that tells me that something has to change. If I don’t immediately act out in anger, I can then transform that energy (what the Hindus call “rajas”) into some action or even activism to make change in society.

        I believe that our (women’s) inclinations towards violence and power over are actually very similar to so-called “reverse racism.” They are violent/power-over reactions against the violence and dominance directed against us. As a result, they’re not intrinsic to a women’s experience of the world. If you re-read Susan Starr Sered’s _Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister_, she shows that spiritually, women-dominated religions regard divinity as immanent. Immanence rests on the assumption that spirit dwells within the world, that divinity pervades all of life, and as a result, the whole world is viewed as sacred. As a result, every person is considered sacred. Immanent religion influences people to see their everyday lives, the natural world that surrounds them, their own bodies, and the “here-and-now” as holy. In these societies, it’s hard to imagine the sacralizing of power-over or violence, since every act is spiritual and every person a manifestation of the divine. Peggy Reeves Sanday was one of the first researchers to discover this. After studying the Minangkabau in Indonesia, she realized that the maternal principles of love, care, and nurturing (especially of the young, the old, the sick, and the poor) changed the concept of power from one of force and domination to one of the persuasive power of tradition.

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  9. Thanks Nancy. I do believe that the principles of love, care, nurturing can be viewed as the highest principles for all-men, women, girls, boys. This is the greatest lesson of “matriarchal” societies and for me trumps the whole argument about “essentialism.”

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  10. Thanks, Carol, for this discussion. Perfect timing. I am in the process of revising the speech on Jezebel that I gave at the ASWM conference this year. In the panel, my friend Tamis Renteria read from her novel, in which Elijah the Prophet is a proponent of social justice and Jezebel a blood-thirsty tyrant. Using the same Biblical texts, I said, on the other hand, that Jezebel has been unjustly characterized as evil because she is a priestess of the goddess on the side that didn’t write history, and that Elijah’s (and Elisha’s) rigidity is problematic. I look forward to your book with Judith Plaskow.

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