The Flourishing of Life and Feminist Theology by Carol P. Christ

carol christI first encountered the image and concept of “flourishing” in Grace M. Jatzen’s feminist philosophy of religion, Becoming Divine. For Jantzen “flourishing” is a symbol of a theology of “natality” or birth and life, which she contrasts to the focus on death and life after death in traditional Christian theologies.

Jantzen argues that the focus on death and life after death is a rejection of birth. Birth is rejected because birth through a body into a body implies finitude. Birth ends in death.  Jantzen argues that embracing natality means embracing finitude and death.

Jantzen is not arguing that motherhood is the highest calling or saying that all women must be mothers. Rather she is calling us—women and men—to embrace finite life in the body and the material world as the final and only location for spirituality. Defending pantheism as an alternative to transcendent theism, she argues further that divinity is to be found “in” the physical and material world—and nowhere else. Though she speaks of natality, Jantzen is no essentialist.  Rather she is a metaphysician making claims about the nature of life.

In our forthcoming book Two Views of Goddess and God for Our Time, Judith Plaskow and I find that most feminist theologies affirm life that ends in death and do not seek life after death.  We call this the “immanental turn” of feminist theologies. For the most part feminist theologians embrace the body and find Goddess and God “in” the world—not outside of it.

From the beginning feminist theologians recognized that traditional theologies created by men not only blamed a woman for the “fall” of “man,” but also characterized women as being more bodily and more connected to nature than men. “Saint Augustine’s Penis,” the title of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s first presentation in the Women and Religion group of the American Academy of Religion, with tongue in cheek made the point that men are just as embodied as women are. The involuntary erections of male theologians should have caused them to reflect on their own embodiment and connections to nature, she suggested. Instead they rejected their finitude and projected the vulnerabilities of their own bodies onto women.

Feminist theologians affirmed the female body that had been despised and vilified by male theologians. We also called on theologies to recognize the full humanity of women. But we soon recognized that we could not stop there. In rejecting birth into the physical world, traditional theologies not only despised women but also the whole of the material world commonly called nature. Ecofeminist theologians thus affirm the human connection through the body to the material world understood as “the web of life.” Social justice is also an integral part of theologies that affirm natality, for the flourishing of individual lives cannot occur when some are demeaned for their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or lack access to clean air and water, food, shelter, and health care.

At the root of the “immanental turn” in feminist theologies is a prior understanding and decision about the nature of human life and the purpose of religion. When feminist theolgians assume that embodied life is to be affirmed and that this world is our true home, we are making a metaphysical claim about the nature of human life and all life.

One of the great divides in the history of religions can be located here.

Where do you stand? Do you agree that theology should affirm natality and seek the flourishing of life in this world? Do you think the purpose of religion is to affirm life in the body in an interconnected world that includes death? Do you think the primary or one of the purposes of religion is to affirm life after death, transcendence of bodily existence, and immortality?

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 Voices of the Sacred Feminine,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 with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Ecofeminism, Embodiment, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Nature

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28 replies

  1. I Think Jantzen Is Right On Target!


  2. I agree that flourishing in this world is of prime importance and I have no need for immortality or life after death. I’m not ready to toss out the idea of transcendence–a non-material part of nature that is also necessary for our flourishing. Religion at its best may help connect us with that transcendence in a variety of ways. Or it may become an obstacle.


    • Amazingly provocative comment PennyD. What happens when religion becomes an obstacle to transcendence? I thought about that question all day. The answer came in a miraculous event, deeply connected to the human spirit — a moment when someone stepped in, took charge and saved a situation, with a wisdom that seemingly transcended all logic.


      • That makes me very curious to know more about the miraculous event. I appreciate your use of the phrase “transcended all logic” because I have come to feel that transcendence is not about supernatural, out there forces, but about a wisdom/spirit that is right here, always connecting us, but that we may or may not recognize.


  3. As usual, brava! Reading what you said about “Saint Augustine’s Penis,” I had a flash of insight: religion as psychological projection. That’s a pretty scary thought!

    There’s a Christian hymn (or maybe it’s a Christmas carol) titled “From a distance,” in which God is looking down at us “from a distance,” i.e., either up in space somewhere or from his throne on the mountaintop. It’s on a CD I play in my car sometimes. Second or third time I heard it, I rewrote lyrics: “right down here.” Goddess is keeping an eye on us right here, helping us along.

    Here’s the second verse:
    From a distance, there is harmony,
    and it echoes through the land.
    It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace,
    it’s the voice of every man.

    Just substitute “Right down here” (“here” has to slide into two syllables) in the first line and “voice of everyone” in the fourth line. It a nice song. I just want my divine energy right down here on earth, right next to me, in all our bodies, down here where women who want to give birth do so in relative comfort (well, it still hurts) and there’s no psychological projection of shame and guilt that magically (?) turns into religion. We don’t need a “hereafter” where life will be good. We need a “here and now” where life is already good. I wish politicians and theologians would realize this.

    I could go on, but I won’t. ;-)


    • “Religion as psychological projection” seems real, not scary, as long as we understand what we’re projecting. Michael Dowd says gods and goddesses are “personifications of reality”. He would agree that reality is all we have and it’s here on earth.


  4. This whole topic hits a sore spot with me. The Christian Church is responsible for nearly every ill that plagues civilization. I can’t think of a single instance where their “be good and obedient down here and you’ll get to go to heaven” dogma has benefited humankind. It has done exactly the opposite. And the demonization of the female which is the very source of all human life is unconscionable, and unfathomable. And yet after all these centuries it persists.

    Do I feel that some part of us, a soul, or genetic consciousness endures? Yes. Because we are energy and energy can’t be destroyed it can only be transformed. But will it be a consciousness or simply the effect of heat and light that comes from burning wood that was once a living tree. The energy released is the energy that was stored during the life of the tree. It had nothing to do with how the tree thought, felt or believed. So I guess at some point and in that one way we are just what was physical or born. But as the tree gives us oxygen during its life, we breathe in the exhalation of trees, the connections between living things is undeniable, at least here on mother earth. Afterward, I just cannot fathom. Nor do I think it important that I do so. I am mortal. And thus my life will end. That fact makes this life, indeed, all life, precious


  5. My thealogy informs me that we are here to embrace life and all that it brings.


  6. For me the turn to the world does not necessarily mean that theology is a projection. It can be, but it can also be a response to a divine power, personal or impersonal, that is real and “in” the world. Of course we experience divine power from our standpoints, but I would argue that sheer projection is a theological mistake, not the proper nature of the theological imagination.


  7. But aside from our relationship with nature, both as other, and as part of ourselves; is there any way to experience the divine other than projection?


  8. If the divine is in the world, the divine can be experienced in the world,though not as totally transcendent/separate from the world.


  9. I think the most important thing about immanence is that, if we feel that everything is connected to everything and everyone else, and that everything and everyone is sacred, then we cannot debase/hurt/pollute anything or anyone without doing the same to ourselves. That is why earth-based spirituality makes sense to me. Transcendence seems to imply that we are separate from the sacred, which allows us to create “the other,” which can easily lead to an unending list of ugliness (separation, prejudice, power-over, bifurcation/splitting, us/them, and war).


    • Katharine, I think you’ve hit on my core beliefs as well. I know that this conglomeration of cells that I call “me” will never exist again, neither here nor anywhere else. But everything that is “me” — the cells, the spirit, the ineffable — will find a new place in the universe. The Divine exists in each tiny speck that combines and re-combines into myriad forms. Our task on earth then becomes one of making this “me” the best that it can be so that when it re-combines into other forms, whether human, dust, air, pansy, rock, or drop of rain, that it will be the best that it can be. With the guiding hand of our Divine, our world will become better and better. Somehow that vision helps me deal with the wickedness of life, knowing that even I, in a very small way, can indeed make the world a better place.


    • Exactly what has happened.


  10. Carol, thanks so much for your on-going wisdom and commitment to this effort to articulate and advocate for what is life-sustaining and compassionate. I remember a conversation with you years ago about the both/and alternative….we concurred that immanence and transcendence co-exist. For me, examples of this philosophy include: Emerson’s Oversoul; Hekate of the Chaldeans; or even the Spiritualists’ sense of a continuing spiritual presence after death that communicates with the living. We are held in a cosmic connection through the astrophysical sense of the “web of life” that connects all living creatures of this world to that which exists throughout the Universe. DNA testing substantiates this. Recently I learned that humans are genetically linked to trees. Religion adds an emotional component. For me, in the true sense of the word, religion binds humans together in a community of unconditional love, which calls forth action for social justice. Conversations in thealogy seek to create constructs that define the nature of this bond. Ultimately, though, I rely on my direct experience of the truth of this Calling from the Goddess. I have found this is a common experience among those who embrace the female divine. A deep knowing sustains us as we Hear the Cries of the World and respond to them. Feminist thealogy has been a life blood for me because of the courage this community has mustered to speak our truths in these troubled times. In gratitude for your leadership, Elizabeth Fisher, Author, Rise Up & Call Her Name


    • It is clear from the discussion here that there are different meanings to transcendence. The meaning that Jantzen is contesting is the notion that God’s transcendence means that God “exists” outside and apart from this world and all other worlds.

      Some speak of self-transcendence, and from a process point of view we “transcend” our past in a new “creative synthesis” at every moment.

      Process philosophy also speaks of Goddess as being transcendent of the world in one aspect–as always loving and good even when the world is not.

      Some here speak of “transcendent” moments when a persons senses her connection to the whole web of life or to a divine power within the world.

      The only one of these 4 meanings I am questioning here is the first. I do believe that view has led to religions focusing on life after death and life out of the body to the detriment of the world and the body.


      • Thanks for this clarification, Carol. Transcendence is such a central thealogical/theological premise, I appreciate your ability to state succinctly the alternative meanings. It makes this string much more understandable and useful for me. Thanks also to all for the insightful and stimulating comments. A
        true virtual discussion!


  11. I agree whole-heartedly with Katharine. I experience the sacred in an immanent manner, in the world, through my body, and in relationship with others, whether human, animal, plant, landscape, rock, etc. But the Goddess — the “web of life” of which I am a part — is a lot bigger than I am, so sometimes when I really connect with Her, I transcend the little self inside of which I usually live. I guess I see it as a both/and rather than an either/or. But like most feminist thealogians, my mystical experiences (so-called transcendent experiences) are actually ones in which my self expands, not ones in which my self rises above the body, the earth, etc.


  12. While some men have indeed created religions which denigrate earth and women, that does not give them sole rights to appreciate eternity or cosmic consciousness. Yes, some Goddess worshippers do think that consciousness ends at physical death. Feraferia loves and celebrates Goddess, wilderness and the earth, but has a different view about death: Persephone revealed the truth of eternal rebirth at Eleusis for almost 2000 years, and enabled those who experienced her initiations there “to live happily and die with a better hope.” (Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36) I agree with Nancy Vedder-Shults about the sense of self expanding; my own experience of this was an impossible-to-put-in-words awareness of all that is, and it was intensely joyous, like ‘the laughter of the Gods.’


  13. There used to be an expression similar to “flourishing” that maybe ought to return, called “pluralism.” There was also discussion of religious pluralism, defined as the acceptance of all religious faiths as equally valid. So it’s maybe also an important concept for our work here at FAR.


    • Respecting pluralism is an important value.

      However, not every view is equal. I would argue that we can judge the views of some religious faiths as harmful to the flourishing of life.

      The flourishing of life is defined here as concern for life in the body, life in the material-physical world.

      From this point of view, we can respect a plurality of paths, while still making judgments about which threads within religions promote the flourishing of life.

      That is my view and Jantzen’s–if I can speak for her. It is also the view of Gordon Kaufmann who wrote that we can and must judge religious traditions in respect to their ability to help us to deal with the crisis that we are facing today–which is humanity’s ability to destroy itself and to destroy many other species. Before Jantzen and from a somewhat different standpoint, Kaufmann criticized the focus of much of Christian tradition on a God understood to be transcendent of the world in the sense of existing outside of it. At the same time, he found resources within Christian tradition to create a different understanding of God.


  14. My sense of flourishing requires all shackles be removed as regards the potential for life in this world to unfold to it’s best potential– but if the phystcal Is requred to dominate we deny true flourishing for some individuals. Pluralism sets us free to find the spiritual in the physical just as much as any other path if it sets us free. I’m trying to say true flourishing is freedom to grow and to evove our ideas on all fronts.


  15. I guess like Sarah I hear the same ranking of the immanence — Earth, bodies, the physical, finitude, birth, death, nature — above the transcendent — life after death, spirit, immortality, transcendence of bodily experience, etc. in your post, Carol. I agree to a certain extent with this ranking, since I’m immersed in this life, on this Earth, in this body, I experience the divine through my physical senses, and I will die. But it seems to me that anyone who has had mystical experiences, as I have, is not experiencing the Goddess as immanent in our normal lives. I think this is because the Goddess as I perceive Her is both immanent and transcendent: She dwells within me and within all of Nature and She is the source of all things and as a result, transcends all She has created.

    To answer your questions in the last paragraph: I agree that thealogy should (and by and large does) affirm natality and seeking the flourishing of life in this world. I think the purpose of religion is to affirm life in the body, but to me that does not preclude the possibility of life after death, which in my belief system means reincarnation. But as I’ve said here on FAR before, it’s not reincarnation as the Hindus and Buddhists imagine it — as a means to attaining nirvana or moksha — but as a return to the body and to the material world that we love. Of course, life includes death, and the fact that we don’t remember our past lives makes it all the more important to focus on this one life that we are immersed in. I think the main purpose of religion is to allow us humans to create meaning from our lives by giving us touchstones that help us understand how to live in the best possible way. These touchstones include ethical touchstones, aesthetic touchstones, metaphysical touchstones, and cosmological touchstones, maybe more. For me, the best touchstone is the Earth, Nature in all Her guises. She guides my ethics, my aesthetics, my metaphysical and cosmological understandings.


  16. I forgot to add: in my experience, most practitioners of feminist spirituality I know affirm natality, the embodied life, and the immanence of the Goddess PLUS they believe in reincarnation.


  17. You are right that I am making judgments about immanence and the form of transcendence that focuses on life after death and the transcendence of the soul and God from the body and the physical world.

    Feminist theology began with a critique of the male God out there and I think we need to continue to think hard about these questions and to continue to make judgments about which theologies promote the full humanity of women and I would add with Jantzen the flourishing of the world.

    I do have feminist spiritual friends who believe in reincarnation too, though I don’t know if they are the majority or not.

    For me it is enough to hope that life will continue to flourish and that the memory of the good things I have done and written will continue to influence the world for a time–and to hope that the not so good things I have done will not influence the world, even though they probably will. I am happy for others to take my place, I feel no inclination or need to go on in another life.

    I would also bring up Hartshorne’s argument that the notion of “I” in another body-mind doesn’t really make sense, given that the great distance between the “I” who was once 5 years old and the “I” I am now. The connection is made through sharing the same body-mind, once that connection is severed through death, I think my “I” will also die, and this is fine with me.

    What is not fine with me is the idea that human beings are destroying the conditions of life for future generations of human beings and bringing about the next great extinction of species.


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