Ethics of Goddess Religion: Healing the World by Carol P. Christ


Nurture life.

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.

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Categories: Activism, Bible, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess, Goddess feminism

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25 replies

  1. Brava! Your writing, which is clear and concise, explains the difference between the standard-brand god and Gaia, which is something we need to understand. Let us not forget that Hosea describes Israel’s “sinfulness” as harlotry and compares the “sinful” Israelites to fallen women. All the OT prophets write in misogynistic terms. Why would anyone expect these prophets to teach ethics? The Puritans who founded the American colonies preached sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Why would we draw ethics from a sermon like this? Except that we apparently have. Is that god life-affirming? Alas. He’s a lot like Donald Trump. Alas.

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    • Yes the some of the prophets used the metaphor of harlotry to describe Israel’s sin, in very vicious terms. This is part of their rant against the people’s worship of “Gaia” on “every high hill and under every green tree.” I also note that their railing against “idolatry” promotes religious intolerance. So yes, their to my mind positive ethical message of care for the poor and the weak is embedded in a horrible theological system. Thanks for reminding us of that.

      And you are also right to connect the Puritans to the prophets. The prophets invoked an angry God who punishes sinners.

      And Trump, he is a lot like the all-powerful God who can do no wrong because whatever he does is right and not to be questioned–in the eyes of his supporters. We should never forget that though Trump is racist, his power is rooted in male supremacy as much as it is in white supremacy.

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      • I agree with you about Trump. He’s a king-god-dictator-autocrat.

        Back in the 1980s, I studied the Aramaic Bible (translated in 1933 by George M. Lamsa, who spoke Aramaic and said that was the language of Jesus and the first Bible before all the translations) with Rocco Errico, Lamsa’s protege. I liked most of the New Testament, but when we started reading and studying the OT prophets….well, that’s when I quit and followed my heart to the Goddess. I was lucky to meet several priestesses and scholars and learned quite a lot about our own foundational myths, our history, and how so many of us are living now. You and I met in November 2003 when you came to Long Beach to speak about She Who Changes, an excellent book.

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  2. Thanks Carol, love this post, great title, and so important where you say: “Practice great generosity.” Does Gaia, our Earth Mother, practice great generosity? So I searched the question: “How many species on Earth?”

    Yes, indeed, totally mind-boggling. Google answered: “About 8.7 million (give or take 1.3 million) is the new, estimated total number of species on Earth — the most precise calculation ever offered — with 6.5 million species on land and 2.2 million in oceans.”

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  3. Thank you for this wonderful post . . . so important to place ethics firmly in our own hands. We are responsible.

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    • Yes and it worries me that liberal Protestant Christians are quoting the Bible against Trump. As if it is a matter of proof texts. Let’s return to the tradition of natural law: it does not require any kind of special revelation at all for people to understand that taking infants from their mothers’ breasts is wrong!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Carol. You have written an excellent critique of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s argument in Gaia and God and I wish I had thought of it when I read her book. I’m looking forward to your next blog post.

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    • Yes it is amazing that so many readers of Gaia and God think RRR is affirming Goddess feminism in that book, when in fact she is arguing that Goddess feminists need to incorporate their insights back into Christianity and Judaism, otherwise they have no ethics.

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  5. Carol, so glad you dusted this off and brought it back out again. I constantly see a disconnect between Women’s Spirituality and the values, and a disconnect between our spirituality and politics, particularly. It’s something that was sadly lacking in many teachings that opt instead for Goddess 101 type content.

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  6. Wonderful post, and I look forward to the series on the nine ethical principles of goddess feminism. (Love the number nine).

    Something I ponder: nature, human nature, is the latter separate or distinct from the former? Are we not as much nature as a tree, a bee hive, a river? Any of those other 8.7 million species Sarah mentioned?

    I was taught (in and out of church) that there is a difference in kind between humans and others. More and more I wonder where in the web we are. People used to assume that animals did not have emotion or memory, a relationship with the future–or anything we might call ethics. Now we know or are beginning to know that trees communicate, can cooperate, nurture their young, sometimes have conflicts. Elephants and whales and ravens have complex cultures, hold rituals. So much we don’t know about ourselves and others. (We are remembering that human consciousness is only one form of consciousness. In fact, it may be human unconsciousness that sets us apart). How does this humbling before mystery affect our ethics? If we are, as I more and more suspect, part of not apart from nature, how did we get the notion that we were outside or above? (I know you addressed the history of that idea above). My whole being (not just my mind) still boggles.

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    • I have written on FAR about primatologist Franz de Waal who says the two pillars of ethics–empathy and reciprocity or justice–can be found in our primate ancestors.

      On the other hand, it is simplistic to say that everything human beings do is “natural” or “from nature” because we are always choosing which parts of nature to affirm when we make such statements. As we are well-aware and as de Waal also points out, neo-Darwinists claim that “nature” is red in tooth and claw and that it is “natural” to be selfish and cruel to others. Of course we can argue that this is a misreading of nature, and I would argue that it is.

      On the other hand, it is useful to understand that the indigeneous cultures we educated westerners like to think are “closer to nature” than our culture, also have highly developed cultural systems which they consider important and which they use to educate the next generations about how to relate to each other and to other than human nature.

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  7. I love these posts of yours Carol because they stimulate my thinking… there are so many points I could respond to but I shall just choose one:

    “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.”

    One observation I have about Indigenous people (that have not been influenced by Christianity etc – or those like the Tewa Pueblo people here that are reclaiming their culture without it’s former Christian influences) is that splitting “Earth from “Sky” simply isn’t part of their reality and how they live. The two are part of one whole.

    Yesterday I attended one of Carlos Nakai’s concerts. During the first half we heard flute music that was deeply moving. The second half of the concert in which Nakai also played was created by a white person who used the Pueblo Creation Story as the back drop for his music, but typically, TOTALLY split “spirit” from “nature” elevating the power of the spirit and light. As I was listening to the music which by the way was quite beautiful, I was staring out at a winding river lined with cottonwoods and thought to myself – the last thing I want is to be dis-embodied! Spirit is the Body of Nature. The two are one.

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    • I focused as well, Sara, on that one sentence, “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.” The doctrine of “original sin” kept me (for years) thinking I was even able to make a choice about what was best since the tainting of sin in one’s life goes deep. One is taught to rely on the wisdom of “godly” men (usually men) to shed light on (and guide) one’s ethical behavior. It’s a scenario that plays out in patriarchal cultures throughout the globe. A scary and sad situation.

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      • I love what you say about original sin keeping you from understanding that you had CHOICES. I had the same experience, and when I began to wake up from my stupor I blamed myself… no more… now I hold the culprit accountable and it sure wasn’t me.

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      • Yes Esther and even some liberal Christians wish to affirm that they are following Jesus or the prophets or the will of God. This is what bothers me about the arguments of some of them that the Trump fundamentalists are misreading the Bible. In my opinion, following the Bible can have both good and bad consequences. It is not a matter of “correct” interpretation or understanding of the Biblical “message.” In fact there are many different “messages” in the Bible, and even in the words attributed to Jesus, and different Christians or different Jews focus on the parts of the message that have meaning to them. Both liberals and others can find proof texts in the Bible and in the Jewish and Christian traditions to support their viewpoints.

        Of course it can be comforting to some to argue that the vast majority of Christians and Jews and Biblical writers were wrong on x, but the “Word of God” is to be found in “y.” But in fact I would argue liberals are choosing what to affirm in the Bible and what to reject and conservatives are doing the same. So the argument is not about what the “real meaning” of the Bible is, but about what kind of a world we wish to create.

        This does not mean there is no deity, but it does mean that what we say about the will of the deity comes through us and the choices we make.

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    • Sara, I was acutely aware on a visit to the Namib desert of how the vast overarching sky actually holds the earth and how the earth with her substance actually supports the sky…. yes, the two are one.

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    • In Europe it was the Indo-Europeans who created the earth-sky dichotomy. They worshipped the shining Gods of the Sky, esp. Zeus, and relegated the earlier Goddesses to the earth. Lucy Goodison argued that for the Minoans, the sun was also female.

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  8. Thank you so much for this illumination. We are so blessed to have the gift of your heartful brilliance among us.

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  9. Thanks, Carol for this post. It certainly has me thinking. My first reaction is that, like Ruether, you are perpetuating a dualism, namely separating human beings from the rest of nature. My experience is that we’re interconnected, and that ethics, therefore, cannot be separated from nature. It certainly doesn’t “feel” like that to me, but I’m a product of my culture, which constantly reinforces that separation. I didn’t notice this in _Goddess and God in the World_ (a wonderful, interesting read!). I’ll have to go reread it.

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    • Susan Griffin said something like, “we are nature thinking of nature, we are nature with a concept of nature.” Yes we are nature and we also create and are influenced by culture. I am not sure what you mean by we cannot be separated from nature, Nancy. We are interconnected in the web of life and cannot separate ourselves from that interconnection. On the other hand, we have created bombs and television, etc. I think it is important to recognized that for human beings at least culture affects how we understand nature and whether we live in harmony with it or use if for our own purposes without regard for other beings, etc.

      I had an aha moment in the Heraklion Museum years ago when I realized the Minoans were choosing how they portrayed nature in their art–they were choosing not to portray one animal killing another and not to portray human beings fighting or killing each other. The Greeks made the opposite decision, as does our current culture. Until that moment I was thinking that the Minoans portrayed nature “as it is” — namely joyous and happy, while the Greeks distorted it. I would still say the Greeks focused over much on the violence in nature. But I now see that the Minoans also chose what to focus on in nature — in order to create a joyous and happy culture. Obviously I approve of the Minoan “choice” but that is because I am also choosing what I want to affirm and what I don’t want to affirm in nature, and in the cultures I have inherited or studied.

      I like the way the Minankabau say they take the good in nature and throw away the bad. This means
      they learn from nature how to nurture life and they do not choose to imitate the aggression found within nature.

      In other words, it’s complicated.

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  10. Most grateful for your post, Carol. As the other commenters have said, you’ve given us much to ponder.

    Speaking for myself, I want no part of patriarchal religion. In my view, ethics have nothing to do with religious belief. Has anyone ever asked an atheist why she doesn’t murder, lie, or steal? Most atheists would reply those actions are wrong because they are wrong in themselves–they harm other beings. They refrain from doing harm for that reason, not because they fear punishment by an imaginary deity or from the law.

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