Walk in love and beauty.
Trust the knowledge that comes through the body.
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what you need.
Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
Repair the web.
In a recent interview on Voices of the Sacred Feminine on “Gratitude and Sharing: Principles of Goddess Spirituality,” Karen Tate asked me to review the “Nine Touchstones” of Goddess religion I offered in Rebirth of the Goddess as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. Tate expressed concern about the lack of social and political ethics in New Age spirituality and in some parts of the Neo-pagan movement at a time when ethical discernment and action is more necessary than ever.
Before discussing the ethical principles of Goddess feminism, it is necessary to dispel a common assumption that there can be no ethics in Goddess religion because ethics stem from a transcendent principle of justice that stands outside the world. Christian liberation theologians usually identify this transcendent principle with the commanding “Word of God” in the prophetic traditions of the Bible. They often assume that this word comes from outside ourselves and outside nature and as such is the only firm basis for ethics.
In Gaia and God, Rosemary Radford Ruether argued that “Gaia,” which is the ancient Greek name for the Earth Mother, stands for the body and nature while “God” is the name of the deity of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions derived from it. According to Ruether, mainstream Christian tradition adopted from Platonism the “classical dualisms” that separated mind from body and spirit from nature. Gaia and all the other Goddesses were viewed as antithetical to the Christian God, and the body and nature were disparaged in Christian theology and Christian ascetic practices. According to Ruether, the ecological crisis of the modern world is one of the fruits of the classical dualisms that continue inform the modern scientific paradigm in which nature is said to be “mere” or “dead” matter to be shaped to human ends.
Ruether calls for a new ecological feminist theology in which both Gaia and God are recognized. Incorporating Gaia into the Christian understanding of God, she says, will encourage Christians to respect the body and nature. Ironically, the marriage of Gaia and God that Ruether envisons is itself shaped by the classical dualisms she identified and criticized in “Mother Earth and the Megamachine.”
In Gaia and God, Ruether states that ethics cannot be derived from Gaia because nature is indifferent to good and evil. Rather, she says, ethics must come from the transcendent God known through the prophetic traditions of the Bible. Though Gaia’s contribution is important, Gaia remains the junior partner in the new ecofeminist Christian theology Ruether imagines, incapable of inspiring or instilling morality in human beings. Ruether states that the feminist Goddess movement “needs” (the Biblical) God to provide ethical standards as much as Christians “need” Gaia in order to appreciate the body and nature.
But does this dualistic understanding of Gaia and God stand up to scrutiny? Does Gaia really need God? Do Goddess feminists need the prophetic tradition to provide the ethical guidance that we need to combat the forces of evil in our world? Do the ethical principles found in the prophetic tradition really stem from a God who stands outside of the body and nature? Did the prophets hear a voice that came from outside nature? Or did they hear a voice within themselves, rooted in social and cultural traditions which were created by human beings who are rooted in nature?
Recently, I have been discussing the egalitarian matriarchal society of the Minangkabau of West Sumatra as described by Peggy Reeves Sanday in Women at the Center. Their traditional ethical system which is based on nurturing the weak is derived from nature. Like Ruether, the Minangkabau recognize that nature has good and bad in it, but they say that they choose to affirm the good in nature and throw away the bad. In this sense they are making a conscious choice about which part of “Gaia” they will affirm and which part they will not affirm. However, they do not attribute this choice to a prophetic voice that comes to them from outside the world.
Rather, the Minangkabau base their choice on observation of both nature and human life. They “see” that the continuation of human life depends upon caring for infants and children and on caring for those who care for infants and children. They also see that farming requires nurturing seeds and young plants with the same kind of care given to human infants. The Minangkabau derive their ethics from their own observations of the earth within which they are rooted, making conscious choices about how to best promote human and other forms of life.
Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow is firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition. Like Ruether, Plaskow recognizes that the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions have good and bad in them. Though she is inspired by the prophets’ concern for the poor and the weak, she recognizes that the prophetic tradition is both good and bad. Prophetic theology envisions God as a dominating male other who achieves his will through violence, an image Plaskow finds troubling. Because of the ambiguity within the prophetic tradition, Plaskow asserts that it cannot be held up as a standard by which to judge the rest of the Bible or the Jewish tradition as a whole. Plaskow states that human beings rooted in communities are the ones who must choose which parts of any tradition—including the prophetic traditions–they will affirm and which they will not affirm. She chooses to affirm the prophets’ concern for the poor and the weak, while rejecting the prophets’ image of a male God who achieves his will through violence.
While we were writing Goddess and God in the World, Judith Plaskow and I came to understand that while one of us roots her theology in “Gaia” and the other in “God,” we stand in the same hermeneutical position and come to the same ethical conclusions. Neither of us appeals to a transcendent voice as the source of our theologies. Both of us affirm that we pick and choose what parts of nature and what parts of traditions we will affirm and what we will throw away. From this perspective, Ruether’s assertion that “Gaia” provides grounding, while “God” provides ethics can be seen to be fundamentally flawed. Instead, human beings rooted in nature and traditions are the ones who create ethics.
With this preamble, I will discuss to the Nine Touchstones of Goddess Religion in subsequent blogs, but let me say here that the forced separation of children and parents currently being practiced at the US border is not compatible with a single one of these principles. Here are some ways to help.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator currently living in Lasithi Prefecture, Crete. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for only $10.98 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.