In “Who Owns the Sacred?” Eline Kieft, who was raised Protestant and considers nature and the ancestors her teachers, noted that those of us who have left the Christian tradition but who have not signed on to another tradition are often demeaned; she writes:
any form of spirituality outside the five major religions is considered as empty, eclectic, post-modern consumerist product that lacks meaning and substance because of its diluted, selective ‘picking’ of traditions from other times and contemporary contexts.
I have heard this criticism from feminists and non-feminists alike.
Since 9/11, Christian feminists have questioned the widespread assumption that Christianity is the only true or important religion. However, recognition of religious diversity among Christian feminists is frequently limited to the 3 so-called Abrahamic traditions. More rarely Buddhists and Hindus are included. In either case, religious diversity is defined in terms of the 5 so-called “great”—and patriarchal–religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Ironically (or not!) the recognition of religious diversity among feminists serves to underscore the notion that the only legitimate feminists in religion are those who are working to transform patriarchal religions.
Indigenous earth-based traditions are more rarely included. “New” religions such as Wicca or Druidism are acknowledged even less frequently, though they are beginning to be recognized in polls on religious affiliation. Those who do not belong to any “tradition,” old or new, are usually ignored.
It has become popular to speak of “faith traditions” as a way of referring to diverse religious paths. From time to time, I come across petitions asking “leaders of faith traditions” to add their voices in support of a variety of liberal and progressive causes. I do not usually sign. By many criteria I am a “leader” or “founding voice” in the Goddess movement. However, I do not consider myself to be a follower of a tradition, nor am I an ordained “priestess” with a congregation.
Moreover, I do not profess “faith” in any individual, tradition, or text. In fact, I am suspicious of any form of faith that involves giving up discernment and power. All texts and traditions have been transmitted by fallible human beings. All of the so-called great traditions have taught things that I consider manifestly wrong, including the subordination of women, other groups of human beings, animals, and nature. Priests, rabbis, imams, gurus, and other teachers have been guilty of the abuse of power–including sexual abuse–and because of that I would never “trust” any of them.
Like Eline Kieft, I learn from nature and ancestors, but do not affiliate with any specific group. I came to love nature through my grandmothers. While floating in the ocean, standing before a California redwood, or looking in the eyes of a deer, I felt connected in the web of life. When I began to study religion, I struggled to understand my connection to nature and all beings as spiritual while being told that the spirit is above, not within, nature.
I was pleased to discover that indigenous traditions find the spirit within nature, but I have not studied with an indigenous teacher, and I am not by birthright or adoption a member of an indigenous group. I have learned a great deal from my study of the religious traditions of Old Europe, including ancient Crete.
I find the notion of reverence for the powers of birth, death, and regeneration as discussed by Marija Gimbutas meaningful. Yet I am separated from the traditions of Old Europe by several thousand years, and my ancestors have not been engaged in the agricultural work in which this insight is rooted for more than 100 years.
My interest in ancient Goddess traditions was sparked by questions I was asking from within my study and practice of Biblical religions. I was looking for the female God who was missing in them. I first learned about the modern western practice of Goddess spirituality from Starhawk and Z Budapest. For a time, I was captivated by the idea that they might be transmitting a Goddess tradition that had been handed down through the Christian era by witches and heretics.
Before long, however, I came to question certain aspects of this “tradition.” Why was the male God the one who underwent death and rebirth in the journey of the Wiccan year as presented by Starhawk? Who were the “Guardians of the Watchtowers” invoked along with of the four directions and what was a “Watchtower” anyway? Why was “birching” (being spanked on the bottom with a stick) part of Wiccan initiation? Was nudity an intrinsic part of Goddess spirituality?
When I learned that many details I had been told were “Wiccan tradition” were in fact part of Masonic and other western patriarchal traditions adapted by Gerald Gardner, I breathed a sigh of relief. I distanced myself from the idea that there was a Goddess “tradition” that had been inherited from the past that I should be following.
I understand the desire to root spiritual beliefs and practices in the teachings of a tradition. The idea that “our tradition teaches that …” provides answers to many questions. Moreover, the answer “I am a Buddhist,” “a Christian,” or “a Wiccan” provides a sense of personal belonging and satisfies others.
In fact, however, there are many of us who do not “follow” any tradition, old or new, and who do not give up any of our powers of judgment or decision-making to any text, tradition, individual or group. Many, but not all of us, are feminists. Feminism taught us to question all inherited texts, traditions, and authorities. And it warns us not to give our power over to anyone or anything.
As feminists, we are finding and creating answers to our spiritual questions by listening to our bodies and nature and by “picking and choosing” ideas and rituals from a variety of sources. (This is also true to a greater or lesser extent for feminists working within traditions.) The spiritualities that sustain us will be “hybrid,” cobbled together from diverse cultures and traditions. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.
Process relational philosophy tells us that nothing in the world was ever created out of nothing. Every moment is a new creative synthesis of elements of the past. Every “tradition”—no matter how old—was at one time created by bringing together insights and practices that had been handed down from somewhere or from someone.
Those of us whose sex, nationality, cultural inheritance, race, ethnicity, color, or other qualities give us power over others need to commit ourselves to creating a more just world. We should be wary of committing spiritual colonialism. But we should not be made to feel ashamed or inferior because we do not ally ourselves with or follow any religious or spiritual tradition, because we listen to our bodies and nature, or because we derive our spiritual insights from many sources.
And who knows? Our unabashedly feminist creative syntheses might be precisely what the world needs at this point in time.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent 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 $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.
19 thoughts on “Spiritual without a Tradition and Feminist to the Core! by Carol P. Christ”
Reblogged this on Project ENGAGE.
Great article Carol, it is something we are wrestling with in New Zealand. Religious diversity is often framed as ‘the great religions’ and rarely encompasses others on a spiritual journey beyond.
Fantastic post, Carol, you have done it again. Thank you so much for finding the words that speak for so many of us, and continuing to be a pioneer in articulating women’s experience in relation to feminism and religion. You write so clearly:
“When I began to study religion, I struggled to understand my connection to nature and all beings as spiritual while being told that the spirit is above, not within, nature.”
This resonates so powerfully with one of the earliest and most fundamental motivations for my own journey.
And I share the experience you describe with questioning aspects of what was presented in the 1970s and 1980s (and perhaps still today?) as a “Goddess tradition that had been handed down through the Christian era by witches and heretics”, but was really an amalgamation of more modern elements including many from western patriarchal traditions.
Even though it is true that we are ” separated from the traditions of Old Europe by several thousand years”, as you know, I believe that the women’s ritual dance traditions of Greece and the Balkans ARE the direct descendants of the Neolithic Goddess traditions Gimbutas described. No inventions, no no fantasy, just the living circles of women who learned what they do from the women who came before them – in your words, “insights and practices that had been handed down from somewhere or from someone” – going back in an unbroken lineage for thousands of years.
Whenever I dance with those women (as I did last week, and will write about in my blog on Saturday), I feel connected to them, to their ancient ancestors, and to the ancient worldview that honours the earth, the body, mothers and the mother principle, despite the separation of space and time.
We all need support now, and every chance we can get to strengthen community and the positive values of peace and justice. I hope you and I and every one of us will have many opportunities to join hands in one of these dancing circles and get the help we need to make it through these tough times.
Bless you and all that you do!
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Ditto cubed. Thx Carol & Laura
thank you laura – it was so nice to meet in Cheltenham last year… here’s to more dancing!!!
“I am suspicious of any form of faith that involves giving up discernment and power. All texts and traditions have been transmitted by fallible human beings. All of the so-called great traditions have taught things that I consider manifestly wrong, including the subordination of women, other groups of human beings, animals, and nature. Priests, rabbis, imams, gurus, and other teachers have been guilty of the abuse of power–including sexual abuse–and because of that I would never “trust” any of them.” — Exactly.
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Brava! This post is as good as your books. I think She Who Changes makes more sense than the good and useful books by Budapest and Starhawk and all the others. I’m glad you mentioned the Masonic elements of Wicca. I like the idea that the worship of the Goddess has endured through millennia of Christianity in Europe, but I agree that that’s a comforting myth. Well, today I like the idea of being a heretic.
I was born to parents who were Calvinist and Republican in St. Louis, but they almost never went to church and religion was seldom discussed in our home. I’m not interested enough in any of the standard-brand religions to want to improve them. They can have their gods. I’ll honor and worship my Goddess.
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Oh, here is yet another excellent post that I will re-blog.
My first crisis in religion occurred when I was about 10 -11 and got it that Christianity didn’t believe animals had souls… I never recovered… to stay within an accepted tradition meant splitting my love and relationship with nature from religion – eventually Nature won out. Crafting my own ritual life from various traditions coupled with my imagination and my experiential reality FREED me from bondage and frankly, I don’t care whether ‘my religion’ is acceptable or not or even if people think I am crazy (and many do).
You’re right. We find our way by listening our bodies and I would add the body of nature… inner and outer are so well connected.
Thank you Carol.
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Brilliant lucid explanation of the details myself and others feel and experience concerning being spiritual and not buying a package. Thank you so much Carol.
When raising our daughter, both my husband and I did not want to pass on any doctrine or package of answers, as we had each been fed when raised Catholic**. We are both innately spiritual people (possibly also to some extent thanks to that Catholic perspective regarding miracles), and could not find a way or even words to clearly pass this on to her. We just hoped that by living it, and also bringing her with us when we participated in (and then left due to the hollow ring) various circles, lodges, etc., that the spirituality would be absorbed. It was the best we could think of to do that was entirely authentic.
She is now 31 and has spent until almost now being skeptical about any spirituality; I have been (Catholically) feeling tremendous guilt about not having done better somehow, though I still don’t know how. Living outside of any tradition and always on the lookout for bits of authentic spirituality, I felt that it was impossible to hand her anything “unproveable” and call it Truth, other than ethics. Very lately however, I’ve noticed she seems to feel open to talk of spirituality, as if those deeply buried seeds did sprout.
**In fact, I did take her, at approx age 12, to a Catholic xmas eve midnight mass, expecting all the pomp. However, unbelievably, the priest gave a sermon railing against Indigenous peoples. We looked at each other and got up and walked out, from the front of the church, before he finished. I hoped that that too imbued in her a sense of ethics if not a sense of unseen benevolence.
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Hi Laurie — I’m sorry you never found Unitarian Universalism. I think you would have felt at home in a community that acknowledged spirituality, but refused any kind of dogma.
Excellent. Thank you.
I see this but I see more variances in Buddhism and Hinduism. Hinduism has the Shaktism branch that focus on the divine feminine and women are sacred. But this is not a popular school. Kali ma is a big figure and she has banned followers from killing women and children in the past. She is also associated with folklore about all female witch covens in India.
In Buddhism anyone can obtain enlightenment. It focuses on the self but encourages adherents that they can mix or not have to give up their original religions. Because of this Buddhism evolved in Asia mixing with a variety of religions, some more patriarchal than others and this is where much patriarchy comes from. In Japan for example, miko or priestesses of Shinto are pretty important despite them being culturally in other areas, patriarchal. Most people in Japan practice both Buddhism and Shintoism. Same with Tibet and other forms. So I can see how muddled Buddhism has become and why it is said to be patriarchal, when it’s more complicated than that.
While Gardner used some patriarchal esoteric practices, the Charge of the Goddess was done by Doreen and many foundations of Wiccan religion is all Valiente, and other women’s works. The idea of the Goddess in such
Sorry I accidentally hit reply.
The idea of the Goddess and women centered mysteries is not from Wicca. But is older. The cult of Isis focused on her many female forms and also priestess played a major part.
So there is quite a few grey areas but I do agree with the assumption that Abrahamic religions are patriarchal. They’re founded on such notions. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wicca have much more variances. Some of which focus on the female entirely depending on the school or sect.
Ancient pagans were the same way. Most were patriarchal, but sects like the cult of Isis slip through the cracks. Sometimes the religion isn’t sexist, the culture is. I think this is also an important distinction.
This is a long discussion but most would agree that Hindu culture is patriarchal. My view is that as in ancient Greece the Hindu Goddesses were co-opted into a patriarchal system, and made to serve patriarchy. The Indo Europeans came into India about 1500 BCE and attached their Brahmin system to earlier culture or cultures.
As for Buddhism, Rita Gross argues that the philosophy is not patriarchal but that the practice has been patriarchal from very early on. My view is that all religions of re-birth are matricidal and I would include Buddhism under that. To focus on suffering in life and overcoming it is not same as celebrating life which included birth, death, and regeneration.
Ancient Egypt was ruled by Pharaohs and Isis was made to be the throne of the Pharaoh. Women still retained certain powers–see Barbara Lesko,
Wicca is a modern creation. It harks back to ancient Goddess worship but Gardner used the western alchemical tradition, the Masons, and his knowledge of folklore to cobble it together, adding his own personal quirks.
The worship of the Goddess dates back to pre-patriarchal times in my opinion but I do not think we have direct unbroken access to those times. In addition to nature and my own body-mind, I turn to prehistoric traditions. Sadly, over time almost all of these have been patriarchalized and conformed to patriarchy, kingship, and war, in Europe and in Asia.So though, I can say my tradition is Old European if I want to, I am very far from the Old Europeans and did not inherit an unbroken tradition. What I inherited culturally and personally came through Christianity and patriarchy. Further I am distanced from farmers for over 100 years and many of my ancestors have been urban and suburban for almost 200 years, so agricultural wisdom is also a distant ancestral memory.
For Cult of Isis, I should have clarified, it was Roman one I meant. Not the Ancient Egyptian one. Hinduism is patriarchal in most practices but not all sects do it. I would say overall India has issues with women. One reason is because of Islamic invasions, India wasn’t as sexist until afterwards.
Depends with Buddhism too because certain places have a large female presence.
Yes Wicca is modern, I never claimed otherwise. I said it was rooted in old goddess cults that are part of Greek mysteries, is what I mean. The idea in Wicca are older than the religion is. Such as the Goddess being part of everyone and all goddeses etc.
I understand , actually was thinking about this phenomenon because it didn’t happen in Asia. Since Christianity and Islam are more patriarchal than even normal patriarchal traditions, they killed off any sort of pagan religion they thought a threat and especially the divine feminine.
It’s because of this many are disconnected from the gods of their ancestors and lack much spiritual training compared to say Asia. There was such a gap and much was lost to Abrahamics.
It is a bigger gap when you’re an America of European descent and do not even know the names of the first ancestors who immigrated here. We were so isolated and cut off from Europe, we’ve evolved completely different culturally speaking.
With prehistoric religions it’s mostly speculative so I don’t think there is enough information. Follow your heart. Even if that means creating a new tradition based of old.
Hi Carol, thanks so much for furthering the questions and continuing the dialogue!!! I love feeling the sense of permission for “hybrid” spirituality, cobbled together from diverse cultures and traditions – like in the kitchen, this ‘fusion’ often makes for the most amazing discoveries….
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thanks for starting the conversation Eline
As the feminists of our recent generations go about the important work of rejecting monotheistic religions, we also come face-to-face with the fact that we are cultural orphans. “Feminist creative syntheses” are interesting and exciting, but there is another obvious path that is staring us right in the face. We are the first generation in human history to devalue our own roots and heritage(s), and to continually seek out “new” forms of spiritual expression lifted from cultures all over the world, ignoring the treasures in our own ethnoculture(s). It may be hard work to uncover and revive a specific legacy today, but isn’t that what our Ancestors are asking of us? If we listen hard enough, we can hear them calling from a place and time before Empire consolidated into the modern era, with false notions of imperialism, hierarchy and cultural superiority. The patriarchy has tried to erase cultural diversity all over the world, and modernity seeks to homogenize everyone, because that is what makes for good consumers. Instead of cherry-picking practices together from all over the place (which is a form of consumerism), why not revive our own earth-emergent traditions and align with our most authentic selves?
Perhaps it would make the most sense to create something new (using the best of the old where it works) that venerates diversity, creativity, nature, beauty, community. We need to get rid of patriarchal values which denigrate the different, which focus on consumerism and economic growth. Humans and natural diversity cannot survive the way we are currently headed.
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