Experiencing Divinity in the World by Carol P. Christ


carol mitzi sarahAs I work on revisions of the new book, Goddess and God in the Worldthat Judith Plaskow and I are writing, I am thinking again about John Cobb’s notion of the “two ultimates” as two different ways of thinking about divinity. Cobb suggested that religions have defined the nature of ultimate reality as personal and as impersonal, as God and as the ground of being. The ground of being is the impersonal ultimate: the metaphysical principles that structure all of life, principles that he described as creativity or the creative process.

Judith describes God as the impersonal creative process and views personal language for divinity as metaphoric or symbolic. I define Goddess as personal, yet also view the impersonal ultimate, the creative process, as sacred. For me, this raises the question of the relationship between Goddess and the creative process.

In Cobb’s view, the two ultimates are co-eternal: the personal God did not “create” the creative process, nor was the personal God “created” by the creative process. Rather, for Cobb, God as the personal ultimate, like all other individuals, participates in the creative process. What then is the creative process? Although the term “creativity” has multiple meanings, in process philosophy it has a specific one.

Whitehead’s description of the creative process is rooted in the insight of modern science that the most basic components of our universe are particles of atoms that defy being categorized as either matter or energy, but seem to move and change, depending on their relationships. It is from the relationships of these tiny individuals that the evolutionary process of our universe began. This insight led Whitehead to recognize that the nature of reality (or being) is not fixed and static (as Western philosophers before him had concluded) but is always moving, changing, or “in process.” Whitehead’s understanding of the creative process is summed up in his much-quoted phrase, “the many become one, and are increased by one.”

The creative moment in the creative process (which is in fact every moment in the life of an individual) is the moment when the individual (whether particle of an atom, cell, animal, human, or divinity) in an act of creative freedom unifies the world (the many) into a new synthesis (the one): this new synthesis adds a new fact to the world (the many is increased by one). This is an abstract description of the creative process in its most basic form. In fact, however, we do not experience the world in the abstract, but in the concrete.

In this moment I (Carol) remember my past (many different Carols situated in many different worlds and some of the books I have read) as I shape this sentence (with my hands on my computer acting in concert with the feelings of my body and the thoughts that are flowing in my mind) and unite myself and my world in a new synthesis (which is this sentence). As I do so, I add a new fact to the world (the many are increased by one), a sentence that may be read by others in the future, therefore influencing their lives.

The reader who reads my words (you) reflects on them in relation to her or his memory (your memories of your past selves in your past) and asks if what I am saying makes sense: in the moment that she or he (you) decides if it does or it doesn’t, a new fact is added to the world (the many are increased by one), an opinion that in turn may be expressed to someone else (the many is again increased by one) who in turn responds to it (the many is increased by one more).

Though this description of the creative process focuses on mental actions, our mental processes are not divorced from our bodies and feelings, and the relations of mind, body and feeling are complex. In some creative moments, feelings are primary, while in others the body leads. This second richer description of the creative process is still an abstraction. We do not generally experience life as a series of moments but as a flow in which one moment is indistinguishable from the others; nonetheless, we can recognize that our lives are made up of a series of moments in which we along with others create the world anew.

Sometimes we take a longer and broader view of the creative process, recognizing patterns and cycles within the world that we share with other than human life. Traditional peoples, for example, often speak of or invoke the creative processes of birth, death, and regeneration that are the basis of life on this earth. This is also an important way of describing the ground of being because it situates human creativity within the creativity of the web of life. In our time we might also speak about the evolution of life. Taking a long view, we experience the sacrality of the web of life.

I experience—feel and sense—the personal ultimate, the presence of Goddess as intelligent love in my body, mind, and spirit and in all bodies, minds, and spirits, as I go about my everyday life. She is always there: feeling the love and joy I feel; supporting and understanding me when things are difficult; inspiring me to share the grace of life with everyone and everything. I also feel the power of the impersonal ultimate, the creative process that supports the creativity or freedom of all individuals who interact with each other in the web of life. For me the two ultimates—Goddess and the web of life—are both real.

Though the two ultimates are separate in the abstract, in the concrete experience of those of us who affirm a personal divinity, they are intertwined because the personal divinity is experienced through the creative process that is the basis of life. Thus, at one and the same time, I experience myself and divinity within me, other individuals and the divinity with in them, the creative process and the divinity within it.

I celebrate the creative process and its fruits, the powers of birth, death, and regeneration and the evolutionary process as a whole, as the ground of all being as well as the Goddess I experience as a personal, intelligent, loving, compassionate presence who cares about me, all other individuals in the world.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming in 2016, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

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9 replies

  1. Because of the Cobb/Whitehead references and also because of how you frame the issues I am curious if you have studied not just Buddhism in general but what the Chinese refer to as ‘Hua Yen’ Buddhism as represented in the Flower Ornament Sutra. Douglas Osto has recently argued (convincingly in my opinion) that the last book of that voluminous compilation of sutras (Skrt Gandavyuha) has so many female spiritual figures that it seems to betray sponsorship by women in India in the first few centuries CE.

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  2. Stuart, can you specify the question behind your question?

    I am familiar with Whitehead and Hartshorne and Cobb saying that Buddhism understood the co-dependent origin vs independent individuals issue long ago. In regard to that, I think I prefer Whitehead and Hartshorne, because Buddhism (as I understand it) moves from there with the theory of nondualism to deny any “reality” to interdependent individuals who emerge from the creative process. With regard to Goddesses in Buddhism, I am aware that Miranda Shaw has argued that (Mahayana) Buddhism is a Goddess religion, in other words, that Goddesses are not just vehicles or metaphors on the road to nondualism. But I am not an expert in Buddhism, neither in experience, nor in making it a focus of my research and study.

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    • A quick answer to your question is that “Embodied Theology” sounds to me like what many people think Tantric Buddhism ultimately is about and the sutra I refer to is arguably the earliest evidence of that. My upcoming post (May 7th) happens to relate to this issue and its similarity to early Greek thought–that will, I hope, provide some useful context for why I found this post of particular interest.

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  3. Thanks, Carol, I agree with Judith’s view of personal language for divinity as metaphoric or symbolic, in the same way the Greek gods express various archetypes. But there is a deeper mystery, or awakening, hidden in that understanding.

    We do not experience the world in the abstract, as you say, but in the concrete. How do we know what freedom is, for example, except by first experiencing, in everyday life, what it means to be free.

    Nice to see the doggies again!!

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    • The question Judith and I are discussing is not the power of metaphoric or symbolic language per se, but whether or not divinity is personal, a Person who cares about the world.

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      • PS Some of the Greek divinities may express universal or eternal truths, but I sure hope the “rapist God” (Zeus) is a product of patriarchy, and therefore neither universal or eternal. (I know you are thinking about Demeter and Persephone.)

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      • Thanks for the question, Carol. I understand Nature (Demeter) as the Source of Creation and as divinity. I love Nature dearly, but I don’t know if in reality she is what we think of as a Person. Nevertheless, Nature has a whole lot of laws that encourage evolution. And that’s a kind of built-in compassion, which allows us to keep growing and adapting and improving. Thus the laws of nature, in that sense of evolution, and also of healing, truly seem to me to be deeply caring.

        In the ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter, the supreme Zeus on high (Patriarchy) at war with Demeter, or with Nature, seems very realistic to me too.

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