A Touch of Alyricism

Dedicated to the equally fascinating topics of autistic advocacy and the 'sisterly sophistries' of radical gender feminism. Other topics may occasionally crop up. Contactable at alyric@gmail.com


Polemicist since Grade 8

Monday, April 11, 2005

Il Papa vs The Goddess

I noted in the local rag (aka the Sydney Morning Herald) that the pundits are out and about scouting for a more progressive pontifical regime following the death of John Paul II. The late Pope was said to be an ‘absolutist’. His position was the Veritatis Splendor, the title of his encyclical and compromise with the modern world’s current cultural climate was not part of the agenda. But then, one must be careful with what passes under the progressive banner these days. Standard human rights for ordinary people, like gays and lesbians and getting rid of that vestige of Gnosticism, celibacy in the priesthood seem like a good idea to me. Other forms of the progressive are not so benign. Consider what emerged in the reaction to the conservative Cardinal George Pell’s refusal to allow feminist process theologian, Dr Carol Christ to give a lecture at Santa Sabina College, Catholic Church property. This was followed by a similar refusal from the equally conservative Anglican Archbishop, Dr Peter Jensen. Dr Christ eventually found a podium in the Uniting Church.

Senior lecturer in the Humanities at that latter day bastion of the Enlightenment, the University of Western Sydney, Dr Kathleen McPhillips was less than amused by the snub, citing whiffs of Galileo’s ordeal. In her article to the Sydney Morning Herald, she wrote:

“Theology is immensely broad, with a magnitude of ideas and debates, making a significant contribution to understanding faith in the modern world. Why should this be restricted?”

The Church’s stated reason for disallowing the lecture on hallowed ground was

"it would be inappropriate for a talk promoting Goddess worship and pagan spiritualities as an alternative to the basic tenets of the Christian faith"

Dr McPhillips protested that this is a misreading of Dr Christ’s work and the lecture was all about process theology and her latest book ‘She Who Changes’.

Now that is more than a little disingenuous on the part of McPhillips. A perusal of Dr Christ’s website indicates that part of her income is derived from conducting Goddess tours of Crete, a shrine for Goddess worshippers. You can also discover your inner goddess with Carol Christ for $12. Dr Christ herself characterises her beliefs as

“In Old Europe and Ancient Crete, women were respected for their roles in the discovery of agriculture and for inventing the arts of weaving and pottery making. Men were valued for their contributions to agriculture, to trade, and to the navigation of rivers and seas. Warfare was unknown or rarely practiced.”

This is the golden age of the Goddess worshipping Matriarchy, a Neolithic, earth centric, matrifocal idyll of pacific gender equality, which lasted for millennia

“until disaster struck, in the form of horse-riding, cattle-rustling, patriarchal, sky-god-worshiping, warlike, Indo-European-speaking nomads who, someplace out in the wilds of central Asia, had gotten completely deranged and lost touch with everything valuable”.

Driven underground, the scattered acolytes of the Goddess worshipped the ‘Old Religion’ in secret for the next 5,000 years or so until the unfettered blossoming of Wiccan tradition [1] and rediscovery of traces of the ancient Goddess in the 20th Century.

The problem with this Eden-like utopian vision of the past is that it is sheer fantasy whose production was spurred by the imaginations of those lackeys of the patriarchy, a couple of dead white males. It all started with the wishful thinking of a Swiss German romantic J. J. Bachofen, who first gave pen to the vision of this feminine utopia in an age of innocence in the late 19th Century. In the 1950’s, embellishing on the work of Margaret Murray and others, Gerald Gardner wrote the handbook on Wiccan ritual. It is to Gardner that we owe the Wiccan notions of working ‘skyclad’ (he was a fan of nudism), the eight festivals of the wheel and wands and other paraphernalia and rituals, some of which were purloined from Freemasonry.

The authoritative boost to the assumption that Neolithic = Goddess worship was given by the archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, a specialist in Neolithic settlements of the Balkans. Her books are an absolute treasure trove of the beautiful depiction of Neolithic art. Unfortunately her interpretative skills were less impressive. For Dr Gimbutas, every artefact uncovered could be classified as part of the Goddess iconography. The argument was the last word in circularity. Here is a Neolithic, hence Goddess worshipping, culture. If the artefact was female, it was a depiction of the Goddess. If it was male it was the son or consort of the Goddess and any of an androgynous nature would be classified by default as female and therefore also part of Goddess iconography. Re-excavations of Catal Huyuk in Turkey, the largest Neolithic settlement yet known, revealed that an astonishing number of these Goddess figurines were found in the midden. The rubbish dump is an unlikely venue for religious observance, which renders dubious the proposition that figurines, even female ones, were necessarily affiliated with Goddess worship. Gimbutas’ enthusiasms have been substantially tempered by a number of researchers. A short introduction can be seen here. Scholarly rebuttals of the Goddess/Wicca paradigm can be found in the following references: Cynthia Eller’s, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future, Ronald Hutton’s, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft and Philip G. Davis’, Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality.

So there never was a golden age of the feminine and what of it? Cosma Shalizi in her wonderful review of Ancient Goddesses - The Myths and the Evidence edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, writes:

“Three features make it objectionable. In the first place, it distorts our vision of the past, which is always bad in itself. Second, it isn't even good feminist tactics, since people are perfectly free, like Bachofen, to accept its factual claims, but reject the values, and say that the societies which replaced those which worshipped the Goddess were infinitely superior; a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist could go further and say that She was just Satan in drag. Thirdly, it's simply absurd to proceed as though the way some of our ancestors happened to live a few thousand years ago fixes the way we ought to live now and in the future.”

McPhillip may choose to be offended on Dr Christ’s behalf, but it is abundantly clear that Dr Christ, quite apart from advertising myth as fact, supports a theology that is far removed from Christianity and was quite accurately summed as pagan by the Catholic Church hierarchy. She writes:

“immortality as a focus in religion, removes us from this world which is our true home, and from our moral responsibilities within this world. And if we think of ourselves as being involved in a cosmic process of birth, death and regeneration, I don’t see a problem with all life being finite, including my own.”

Exit the Christ, redemption, original sin and any other article of Christian faith. Enter a mythology of stultifying superficiality, the Deity rendered impotent and fashioned in Woman’s own image. At the outset Dr Christ opines:

“I think the picture that almost everyone in our culture has in their minds when they hear the word ‘God’, is an old man with a long white beard. Now they may quickly said “I didn’t really think God is like that”, but I think that image comes to mind for almost all of us, and it’s very important to shatter that image, and the only way we can shatter that image I believe, is by affirming images of the divine as female.”

And of course it is of paramount importance that God is seen as She, because, according to standard feminist theological doctrine, it is an inability to recognise the feminine aspect of the divine that has resulted in the subjugation of the female through the ages. There is no evidence given for this and never a mention of the status of women prior to the advent of the Judaeo/Christian/Islamic traditions, nor the proper reading of the New Testament, which must have been remarkable in its day for daring to say that in the eyes of God, men and women are equal. Note that dualism is to be deplored in every guise except when it comes to the nature of the divine, and here it is a falsity. There is no gender in the divine.

Much is made by Dr Christ and others of the attractiveness of ‘change’ in process theology.

“process philosophy is a philosophy that affirms changing lives, and for me that often means “life in the body” …….And I think that in affirming change is a major departure from much of Western philosophy and theology, and I think it has very important consequences for women, because in Western philosophy, women have been identified with the changing body and the changing body in nature have been viewed as less than the immortal realm of God and the rational mind of men.”

Change is seen as synonymous with liberation. The immutability of the divine is interpreted as imposing shackles. In the words of Dr McPhillip, “creation is a process of constant transformation and is not fixed to eternal laws of truth.” The very notion of an external law is merely symptomatic of the earth dominance paradigm of the rationalist masculine mind. This is not just a very superficial and inaccurate reading of Christianity, since the primary Biblical exhortation is ‘be ye perfect’ an entirely transformative (emphasis on change) exercise. What process theology is holding out is an appeal to be a part of a vibrant dynamic something. The question is what is the nature of that something? Is it synonymous with ‘life in the body’ meaning corporeal changes like ageing, the passing seasons or recycling the atoms ? Does it get any deeper than that because if not, it seems that the promise falls short of the reality?

It is worthwhile considering the number of other changes that must be made to standard doctrine in order to have our Deity embedded in the process of creativity. As discussed above, immutability has to go. But that’s not all. It is axiomatic that being in the process means a loss of control over the whole proceedings Therefore this Deity is not omnipotent. As part of the process, and controlled by that process, foreknowledge of the outcomes is impossible so omniscience also has to go. The Deity we are now left with is hardly worthy of the title. If there are process theologians in Christian denominations, their predicament must be very similar to the clergy enamoured of libertarian zeal described by C S Lewis in Fern Seed and Elephants [2]. He wrote of the likely effect of these avant garde thinkers on the average church goer.

“What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same.”

Tacked on to the notion that change equals liberation in feminist process theology is the idea that process is the springboard to creativity, but note the form that this takes. Dr Lois Gehr Livezey writes:

“creativity should be understood not in terms of construction or making (the potter and clay image) but in terms of emergence from a social and bodily matrix to which it is responsive even as it is also unique and something new.”

The emergence of ‘something unique and new’ from a social matrix is not a particularly new idea. In the nascent pseudo-academic field of memetics, Dr Liane Gabora hypothesised that creativity has two elements and that

“ in a sense, culture embodies the best of both worlds; that is, each individual’s depth-first stream of thought is embedded in a highly parallel, relatively breadth-first social matrix which provides a second, outer tier of convergent pressure.”

It is not in the nature of social matrices to promote creativity of any variety, quite the opposite. Creativity means something new, that is, different from the norm and difference, because it disturbs the even fabric of the social matrix, is not to be encouraged. The general reaction of any social grouping to the unfamiliar is to enforce the status quo and that means a general bowing to conformity. Why feminists of all persuasions seek a creativity based on the perceived relational superiority of women is both mystifying and disturbing, since the basic assumption is that only men are intrinsically capable of creativity ‘in terms of construction’.

Thematic throughout Dr Christ’s writings, feminist theology and eco-feminism as a whole is the divine crusade to save the planet from the rapine of circa 5000 years of patriarchal dominance and destruction and return it to the nurture of those who can think holistically - females, naturally. The social and relational with intuition (default feminine) is pitted against the individual with reductive rationalism (default masculine). That these settings are necessarily false doesn’t seem to bother anyone. It is axiomatic that the intuitive will triumph over the rational because there is some mystical link between women and Nature. The argument goes that women are more nurturing and their more inclusive, experiential and holistic ways of thinking are naturally a huge advantage in understanding ecology.

It is, however, a simplistic proposition in the extreme to suppose that inclusive, nurturing holistic and experiential ways can be an adequate substitute for garnering the knowledge of the depth and complexity required to wisely manage a planet-wide ecosystem. It’s advanced chemistry, physics, biology and computer modelling you need to even begin to address the complexities of ecosystems, not an affinity with the earth mother. Gross and Levitt in the aptly title Higher Superstitions view this irrationalism as follows [3].

“ The threat of ecotopian enthusiasms is that they will, in fact and in the long road, weaken or eliminate the possibility of ecologically sound social policy, under whatever ideological banner that may materialize. We believe that such an effect must follow from the fervent antiscientism now embraced by radical environmentalists, an antiscientism that, if broadly influential, cannot fail to reduce the chances of success in answering questions and solving problems that are quintessentially scientific.”

The fundamental problem of Dr Christ’s ideology and process theology is the offering of what is essentially false coin. It all looks very pretty, but there’s precious little depth to it. Embrace the divinity as She and commit to the Gnostic heresy of advanced navel gazing. Be attuned to this so much more approachable deity, who’s in the process as much as you are and lose the very reason for having truck with a deity in the first place. Become more earth-centric and ecologically sensitive but hold in contempt the know-how required to avoid becoming an ecological menace. Rejoice in being part of the vibrant dynamic, the very epicentre of creativity, and fail to notice that nothing of real change or creativity is happening because the illusion requires far less energy than the real thing.

Messrs Pell and Jensen as industrious shepherds no doubt had the best of intentions in shielding their flocks from the newage of Dr Carol Christ. They would have done far better to allow the lecture, insist on a lengthy question and answer session and sent along a few Jesuits.

Endnotes and book references

1. The word Wica as originally conceived by Gerald Gardiner meant ‘wise’ and the witches of legend were nothing more that wise women, not the devil-worshippers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story goes that the world became a dangerous place for these wise women, who were persecuted mercilessly. Nine million of them perished during the ‘burning times’ of mediaeval and renaissance witch hunting, victim to the evil patriarchy that was threatened by the knowledge and independence of these women. As with other fractoids (fractured facts) of the radical feminist credo, this too is a dud. Witch hunts there were indeed but the numbers executed were between 30,000 and 50, 000. That’s a lot of unnecessary deaths, but there’s no need to blame a hegemonic patriarchy. It turns out that the victims weren’t the strong and independent wise women such as herbalists and midwives. They were the elderly, the solitary and the strange, and 25% of them were men. Their accusers were in most cases, other women.

2. C.S. Lewis, Fern-Seed and Elephants p 105, Collins, Glasgow, 1980.

3. Paul Gross & Norman Levitt, Higher Superstitions, The Academic Left and its Quarrel with Science, p156, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998.

Since the Sydney Morning Herald has only a short free viewing period for articles, Dr McPhillip's artcle is given here in full.

God's feminine side is still fighting for recognition

March 11, 2005

The Catholic Church operates like a men-only club, writes Kathleen McPhillips.
Last weekend the hierarchy of the Catholic Church intervened to block a lecture by the renowned feminist scholar Dr Carol Christ from being given on church property. The move was not wholly unexpected, given the conservative nature of Cardinal George Pell's governance of Catholic culture in Sydney.
While the pragmatic issue of finding another venue has been solved, the issue of Pell's authoritarian style is more difficult. It continues unabated for two major reasons.
The first is that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church allows a small group of celibate men to exercise ideological control; the second is that there are so few declared intellectual responses within the Church to Pell's theological stance to foster dialogue.
One function of theology should be to challenge orthodoxy and to encourage a dynamic interpretation of faith and culture. In this context, the censorship of Dr Christ is a concern. What danger does Dr Christ present to the Catholic hierarchy?

Is it because she suggests that the image of God as exclusively male does not and cannot reflect women's experience of the divine? Is it because she knows that in many societies the divine has been represented by the feminine? Is it because she argues that the continuing abuse of women's bodies is related to an exclusive male pantheon?
Are these such radical and dangerous ideas that they have to be quashed? That they are exposes a church that shores itself up by conformity rather than making a convincing case for Christianity.
So what is the nature of Pell's censorship? It represses free speech, debate and rational argument which are the hallmarks of understanding, diversity and intellectual rigour. Theology is immensely broad, with a magnitude of ideas and debates, making a significant contribution to understanding faith in the modern world. Why should this be restricted?
The statement banning Dr Christ from giving her address reads that "it would be inappropriate for a talk promoting Goddess worship and pagan spiritualities as an alternative to the basic tenets of the Christian faith".
This is a misreading of her work and indicates that the decision to ban her is not based on an informed reading of her book, She Who Changes, the subject of her lecture. This work is a critical engagement with process theology, the basic tenets of which hold that creation is a process of constant transformation and is not fixed to eternal laws of truth.
Originally argued by the theologian Charles Hartshorne, this view suggests that we can never fully know God because our understandings are constrained by the brevity and nature of our existence. We are a small part of a larger whole, and history shows that our ideas of God change constantly according to cultural, geographical and historical contexts.
Dr Christ takes these ideas into a feminist arena, arguing that it is only in the West over the past few thousand years that God has been exclusively imagined as male. One of the roles of feminist theology is to shatter this theological mistake and allow the divine to be imagined in the multiple ways in which God/Goddess is experienced by humanity.
As a feminist theologian Dr Christ is only too aware that religions such as Christianity, which portray God as male, are damaging to women; hence the low status of women in the major religions.
What can be so radical about the suggestion that we could conceive of God in a feminine form? Plenty of theologians have suggested this before. It can only be a dangerous statement to a patriarchal church. And in that sense it becomes a radical statement.Kathleen McPhillips is a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney.


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