Archives For feminist theology

I have a lot to report on from Sunday’s presentations and panels at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting, including issues of indigenous-Pagan relations and the development of modern Paganism on the West Coast, but I’d like to devote this post to the opening panel co-presented by the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group and the Religion and Ecology Group. The panel, “Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practices,” featured dual keynote talks from noted Catholic eco-feminist theologian Rosemary R. Ruether (author of “Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing” among many others) and Pagan eco-feminist, activist, and author Starhawk (whose latest book, “The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups” was just released).

Rosemary Ruether and Starhawk

Rosemary Ruether and Starhawk

Here’s the program description:

“Starhawk is the well-known feminist Witch, Earth activist, and writer who initiated the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition in San Francisco in 1979. Her books on Pagan ecospirituality, such as The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion (HarperOne, 20th anniv. ed., 1999) and the novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (Bantam, 1993), are still bestsellers. Over the last four decades her thinking and practices have spun off the emergent Goddess spirituality movement, but have also provoked and influenced feminist theologians. One of them is Rosemary R. Ruether, herself a major contributor to feminist theologizing in all Western traditions — be it Christian, Jewish, or Pagan. Over the last ten years, Ruether and Starhawk have developed similar interests in feminist earth practices, honored the four elements and permacultural social principles, and have quoted each other’s work respectfully. In this session all are invited to reflect on the notion of “elemental theology” and/or “feminist Earth practices” as a possible crossroad for feminist theology of different faiths to meet.”

I was lucky enough to get permission from the Contemporary Pagan Studies group to record this talk so that they could make a transcript available later. I’d like to post an excerpt of the entire panel, featuring Starhawk’s opening remarks.

You can download this audio, here.

As you can hear, its a wide-ranging speech that touches on elemental theology, activism, the Occupy movement, permaculture, and other topics. I hope to, in the future, feature more excerpts from this panel, as the contributions were important, not only from Starhawk and Rosemary R. Ruether, but from the responders: Marion S. Grau, Jone Salomonsen, and Heather Eaton. In addition, there was a spirited and interesting Q&A period that should also interest readers here. Once details emerge as to where and when the transcript will be published, I’ll post that information.

There’s more AAR coverage to come, so stay tuned!

Feminist activist, journalist, and icon Gloria Steinem, the subject of a recent HBO documentary, appears to have outed herself as a capital-P Pagan at a recent speaking engagement with Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy.

“Eltahawy’s family lived in England for most of her childhood, until her parents moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a teenager. She said she was raised Muslim, but not strictly traditionally, adding that she is now much more liberal than her parents and that her feminism was formed, in large part, in response to the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. Steinem’s father was Jewish, her mother was not, and she was raised without religion. She now calls herself a “pagan,” inspired by a trip down the Nile, where she witnessed how the ancient Egyptians incorporated nature into their worship.”

Feminism has always walked arm-in-arm with the modern Pagan movement, just ask Starhawk, Vicki Noble, or Diane Stein (among many, many others).The image of a Goddess, even if seen as only a symbol, is a powerful recurring element within feminist writing and theology. My only question is how recent is this shift? While there’s long been evidence that Steinem has been sympathetic to Paganism and the Goddess Movement, I think this is the first time I heard her label herself as a Pagan. In any case, welcome! Maybe we’ll see you at the next PantheaCon?

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! I may not be near a computer for much of today as I’ll be visiting one of Oregon’s sacred sites, so please forgive me if I don’t respond to comments or emails in a timely fashion. Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

In 2001 Cynthia Eller, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Religious Studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey, published “The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future”, a book that picked apart a theory that had found favor within academia, largely in the field of Women’s/Feminist Studies. Eller’s work fit into a larger trend of scholars taking a more critical look at historical claims within modern Paganism, the Goddess movement, and related groups, receiving quite a bit of mainstream press attention on its publication. However, Eller’s book was documenting a phenomenon that was already on the decline, or at least transforming itself in the face of new evidence, as evidenced by an Atlantic article published that same year.

“…both Starhawk and [Riane] Eisler, along with many of their adherents, seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates, without exactly accepting, the new Goddess scholarship, much as they have done with respect to the new research about their movement’s beginnings.”

The nuances of feminist spirituality and modern Paganism accommodating new scholarship was largely lost on journalists and scholars unfamiliar with the topic. Eller’s book became the go-to brickbat of choice for anyone wanting to take an easy swipe at feminists, Goddess worshipers, or Pagans.  Writers like Ross DouthatPaul Nathanson, Katherine K. Young, and Mark Oppenheimer, have all directly or indirectly referenced Eller to take make cases against Wicca, feminism, or even Dan Brown. Now anthropologist Peter Wyatt Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (an organization that fights “liberal bias” in academia) invokes Eller’s work to take aim in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog at the trouble theologically conservative Christians allegedly have in obtaining tenure in various departments.

“…higher education’s relaxed attitude about appointing faculty members who not only believe but who actually teach this moonshine demonstrates the hypocrisy of those who say that faculty members are acting out of the need to protect the university from anti-scientific nonsense when they discriminate against conservative Christian candidates for academic appointment. The possibility that a candidate for a position in biology, anthropology, or, say, English literature might secretly harbor the idea that God created the universe or that the Bible is true, is a danger not to be brooked. But apparently, the possibility that a candidate believes that human society was “matriarchal” until about 5,000 years ago is perfectly within the range of respectable opinion appropriate for campus life.

The problem with Wood’s screed is that he provides no evidence, aside from a book written in 2001 (that’s a whole decade ago), that this double-standard is indeed currently rampant. A fact that is pointed out to him in the comments section.

“Wood’s assertion that this paradigm is all-pervasive in contemporary Women’s and Gender Studies programs is false. It was never all pervasive and teaching it today, detached from the context of histories of feminism–where you are most likely to still find it, is *rare* not common.”

Cynthia Eller herself even pops up in the comments to emphasize just how out-of-style matriarchal theory is today.

“It’s my sense that approximately zero archaeologists and anthropologists teach the matriarchal theory as a sound, evidence-based hypothesis these days. Women’s studies programs are probably more tolerant of the occasional believer in the matriarchal theory, just as religious studies programs, even at public universities such as the one where I teach, are more tolerant of the occasional devout evangelical Christian. But I feel quite certain that there are far more gainfully employed academics who are evangelical Christians than there are those who embrace the matriarchal theory, let alone teach it as fact to their students. As myths go, the matriarchal theory is remarkably sturdy and versatile, popping up in all sorts of places in the social fabric, which is why it’s so fascinating as a topic in the history of ideas. It comes and goes, but right now, I’d say that in academic circles, it’s going. I just wish I knew where it was going to pop up again!”

Indeed, the biggest issue within Feminist/Women’s Studies may be its own decline, not that its been infiltrated and taken over by adherents to matriarchal theory. Wood’s argument constructs a straw man (or perhaps matriarchal straw woman) to concoct an illusory double-standard, one not even supported by the source he quotes. As Pagan scholar Chas Clifton points out, the power differential alone strains the comparison.

“…serious peaceful ancient matriarch-ists are tiny in numbers compared to biblical creationists. They do not turn up in state legislatures trying to thwart the teaching of evolution and the choice of school textbooks. They are invisible to the news media.  Having little political power outside Academia and para-Academia, they are treated more gently within its walls.”

One would hope that the revelations found here would trickle down (or up, depending on how you see it) to all the writers who have Eller packed away in their anti-Pagan/anti-feminist arsenal, but I somehow doubt it. For all that Pagans are accused of clinging to outdated scholarship, their critics seem just as, if not more, willing to do the same.

Oh, and for those who might be Eller fans, she has a new book out. “Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900”. Since this one stops in 1900, it probably won’t ignite the press and pundits, but it might be an interesting read.

My latest response at the Washington Post’s On Faith site is now up.

Here’s this week’s panel question:

“The discrimination against women on a global basis is very often attributable to the declaration by religious leaders in Christianity, Islam and other religions that women are inferior in the eyes of God,” former President Jimmy Carter said last week. Many traditions teach that while both men and women are equal in value, God has ordained specific roles for men and women. Those distinct duties often keep women out of leadership positions in their religious communities. What is religion’s role in gender discrimination?

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

If the goddesses are suppressed, if they are erased from history, reduced to lesser roles, or turned into demons, then there is no divinity that reflects the female experience. Instead of being the originators of life, subduers of injustice, and the source of all sovereignty, women are instead bearers of the “original sin.” No sane philosopher or theologian can claim this doesn’t change the very nature of a culture, or the way we perceive gender. Imagine for a moment how different the ever-raging debate over legal access to abortion, or even contraception, whether for or against, would be if women were seen as the final holy arbiters in the matter of creating life. I can only guess we’d see something very different from the parade of old white male politicians exclaiming about “moral” issues and threatening basic health care for women in the process. Once you open your mind to that first exercise in a world with goddesses it’s hard not to think of dozens, hundreds, more. Female priests and feminine divine pronouns would hardly skim the surface.

I hope you’ll head over to the site and read my full response, and the other panelist responses, and share your thoughts.

Top Story: Word is now emerging that pioneering feminist theologian Mary Daly passed away yesterday, after suffering from poor health for the last two years. With books like 1973’s “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation”, Daly became hugely influential on the then-emerging field of feminist theology, and in turn, hugely influential on certain strains of modern Paganism in America.

“The Goddess Movement would not be the same without her. Contemporary Paganism would not be the same without the Goddess Movement. The radical essentialism of thinkers like Daly was a challenge to the pole that said “only men can communicate with the divine”. That pillar that she went up against? Mostly it has changed, leaving behind laughable relics, some of whom unfortunately still hold a measure of power. Yes, inequality still exists and yes, I am still a feminist, but things have gotten better. Much, much better. I don’t know if Mary Daly was able to see the battles she actually won.”T. Thorn Coyle

To be sure, Daly will be well-remembered not only as an ardent foe of patriarchy, but also as someone who passionately wanted to remove the idea of God from an exclusively male definition. She gladly “went overboard” in service of her cause, but did so with her wit and humor intact. May she rest in the arms of a Goddess.

In Other News: The New York Times makes a new-year visit to the Original Products Company in the Bronx, the East Coast’s largest botanica and ritual supply emporium (they reportedly take in around three million dollars per year). The report does a nice job of giving a sense of the place’s scale, and also conveys the religious diversity of their clientèle.

“This is the busiest time of the year for Original Products and the many other botanicas around the city and country — purveyors of herbs, amulets and other items used in Afro-Caribbean religions and occult practices including Santería, voodoo and Wicca … The company has turned over the second floor, rent free, to the Pagan Center of New York, which holds witchcraft rituals overseen by a Wiccan high priestess named Lady Rhea … A short plump man missing half his teeth approached the counter to speak with Mr. Allai, the Santería priest…”

What I also found interesting was that the owners, descendants of Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Turkey, don’t share in any of the belief systems of their customers.

Jason Mizrahi, a co-owner of the company, which was started in 1959 by his father, the son of Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Turkey. The business, which fills a former A.&P. supermarket on Webster Avenue near Fordham University, claims to be the largest botanica on the East Coast … Mr. Mizrahi does not follow any of the faiths his store provides for, but said he subscribed to the “concept of spirituality and keeping a positive attitude by using these products.” “These things are daily needs, staples,” he continued. “Milk, eggs, bread, incense, candles, in that order. Sometimes incense and candles are ahead of milk and eggs, on a day like today.”

Perhaps the owner not being directly involved cuts down on drama? There’s no hint that the customers mind this arrangement. Whatever they are doing, it sure seems to be working. I’d just like to take a stroll through a botanica that large some day, it must be quite the experience.

Can you get anthrax from attending a drumming circle? The answer is apparently yes.

“A New Hampshire woman who is critically ill with gastrointestinal anthrax most likely swallowed spores while participating in a community drumming circle, state health officials said Tuesday.”

So how exactly do you get anthrax from drums? I got the following answer via e-mail from Michael Lloyd, who has some knowledge and experience of this phenomenon.

“When I am not writing about Paganism or running a Pagan men’s gathering, my real-world job is as an engineering consultant in the fields of risk management and security/anti-terrorism. One tidbit of information that I ran across several years ago was that shipments of improperly tanned hides from certain countries (notably Haiti) are routinely screened for anthrax contamination. Now while the exact cause of the anthrax infection in NH was not released, I suspect that one or more of the drum heads was made of anthrax contaminated hide. This appears to be bolstered by the article, which notes that several of the drums were contaminated. With the drum circle being held indoors during the winter, this would have increased the chances of exposure in the confined space by concentrating the spores. One good reason to use a synthetic drum head, at least when indoors. But this also points to a potential problem during other times of the year when the drummer has cuts, blisters, or abrasions on their hands that could allow anthrax from a contaminated head to gain entry to the body. Something to think about.”

Now scientists say the chances for infection from drums is very low, but it’s always good to know where your natural-hide drum-skins are coming from, and take proper precautions.

Apple growers in Somerset are getting ready to Wassail their orchards for a good harvest come the Spring.

“Wassailing is an ancient pagan tradition held on Old Twelfth Night which falls on 17 January. Although many are held on this date, others observe the Gregorian calendar where Twelfth Night falls on 6 January. The Wassail is held to scare off worms and maggots that are regarded as ‘evil’ spirits and to attract the ‘good’ spirit embodied by the robin. The ceremony takes place around the oldest orchard tree where it is toasted and traditional Wassail songs are sung.”

Of course you can’t have a good Wassail without some Morris dancing too! Any Pagans out there planning to do some Winter-time Morris-dancing or Wassailing? Let us know in the comments.

In a final note, the Washington Post wonders if the movies are getting more religious.

“In movies as varied as the dead serious “The Road,” the uplifting family picture “The Blind Side,” the biting comedy “The Invention of Lying” and even James Cameron’s sci-fi opus “Avatar,” issues of faith and morality and mankind’s place in the universe are all the rage.”

It’s a shame that the article seems to equate the “religious audience” with the “Christian audience”, even though they mention the pantheistic “Avatar” as part of the trend. With films like films “Agora”, “The Wicker Tree”“Clash of the Titans” and “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” coming up in 2010, it seems rather obvious there is a market for non-Christian “religious/spiritual” films.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Mandy Van Deven at Religion Dispatches interviews academic Chris Klassen about her new anthology “Feminist Spirituality: The Next Generation”, an exploration of  spiritual/religious expressions among feminism’s “third wave”. In the interview Klassen expresses some surprise at how the majority of submissions came not from within the traditional monotheisms, but from the spheres of Goddess spirituality, Wicca, and modern Paganism.

“Actually I did not intend this. It is simply how it turned out based on the response to my call for papers. In hindsight though I think it makes sense. The term ‘feminist spirituality’ does, for some, mean ‘alternatives’ to mainstream religion. Thus people working on third wave feminism within Christianity or Islam or Buddhism may not have initially thought the call relevant. (Well, assuming there are folks out there working on third wave feminism within traditional religions, and I really hope there are.) But, as I said before, much feminist spirituality in the new millennium tends toward blurry borders between religions, so it could be that those most interested in third wave feminist spirituality are not focusing on traditional religions.”

I find it hard to believe that feminist scholars working within a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim context wouldn’t jump at the chance of being published in an even faintly relevant academic anthology. Unless the old “publish or perish” truism has degraded greatly in recent times. Assuming that this anthology is a somewhat accurate mirror of religious expression among modern-day feminists, are we witnessing a triumph of the Goddess? Maybe, though Klassen is quick to point out that feminist spirituality in our current age is an increasingly syncretic and pluralistic phenomena.

“…there is also a lot more religious pluralism within the individual. You have Christian feminists participating in Wiccan rituals and Goddess worshipers honoring Jesus. Like much spirituality in general, in the new millennium, feminist spirituality is a bit of a smorgasbord, and it is important for the individual to create a spirituality which fits her own experience and needs.”

Perhaps these new-millenium feminists are the polar opposites of ultra-patriarchal Christian groups like The Family. Instead of “Jesus plus nothing”, it’s “The Goddess plus everything”. After all, doesn’t the old chant go “we all come from the Goddess and to Her we shall return”? In other words, maybe the Vatican is cracking down on American nuns for a particular reason. As for “Feminist Spirituality: The Next Generation”, you can find a list of chapters and contributors, here.

Baking Some New Cakes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 24, 2009 — 1 Comment

The Medusa Coils blog recently alerted me to the fact that the (in)famous feminist thealogy course “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” (the title taken from a famous Bible verse) has released a new and updated version, now available through the Unitarian-Universalist Women & Religion non-profit group.

In the past 20 years it is estimated that 80% of UU congregations have offered the “Cakes” curriculum. Many congregations have offered the series repeatedly. Women who participated state that, “Cakes changed my life! . . . It connected me with my spirituality. . . . It made me aware that history often excludes herstory.” Even when the curriculum was out of print, some congregations continued to offer the series, using well worn, if not battered materials. Today there are many women who are young or new to UU or who have never experienced this series. The woman affirming message of “Cakes” is still just as relevant and necessary today as it was twenty years ago. With the newly revised and republished materials, we can begin anew.

It is safe to say that this course has had a large affect on the growth of feminist thealogy, Pagan religion, and recognition of the feminine divine in our culture. Over twenty years later, despite this growth in popularity of more female-focused or gender-balanced faiths, the mere idea of a female divinity (let alone the “Queen of Heaven”) is still enough to drive some monotheistic adherents to distraction. The vitality and endurance of  “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” can perhaps be measured by the  scandals that erupt whenever the course, or one like it, dares to emerge outside the permissive boundaries of the UU church.

It should be interesting to see what the next twenty years of grass-roots feminist thealogy might do. Not only to Unitarian-Universalism, Goddess worshipers, and Pagans, but to the faiths with a vested interest in seeing women as subordinate. Check out the new “Cakes For The Queen of Heaven” blog, as well as samples from the course and a FAQ for more information.

Head over to the religion journalism blog Get Religion to check out Terry Mattingly’s examination of a recent New York Times write-up on the few enduring lesbian separatist communities. Mattingly rightly asks, where’s the examination of their religion?

But here is the mystery, to me. While the story is saturated with religious images — the sisters in this secret, hidden, gated community live on streets named after goddesses, like Diana Drive — there is no specific content about organized religion. Are the sisters agnostics, pagans, a mixture of various liberal mainline faiths? Are they feminist Catholics? Are any of the sisters ordained? We are not told. They are driven by very religious motivations and they are practicing strict, strict, strict doctrinal separatism. But we do not know if these beliefs link to organized religion — other than faith in radical feminism and to the vows that define their corner of the sexual revolution.

These women have “community full moon circles”, but do they have a Goddess? The article never makes it explicit. I encourage my readers to read both the NYT article, and Mattingly’s post, and leave your two cents. interviews gay Catholic author Richard Rodriguez about gay marriage, the “Desert religions”, and the power of women in religious life. What is striking about the piece, from my perspective, is how close he gets to endorsing a shift away from monotheism (or at least male-oriented monotheism) while discussing religion.

“The desert religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are male religions. Their perception is that God is a male god and Allah is a male god. If the male is allowed to hold onto the power of God, then I think we are in terrible shape. I think what’s coming out of Colorado Springs right now, with people like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, is either the last or continuing gasp of a male hierarchy in religion. That’s what’s at stake. And women have a determining role to play. Are they going to go along with this, or are they going to challenge the order?”

While Rodriquez talks about how the traditional monotheisms feel “threatened by the rise of feminism”, he seems unable to look outside the “desert religions” and see that millions of women are indeed challenging the order by leaving it entirely for a variety of faiths that are more egalitarian in outlook. From Wicca and modern Pagan faiths, to various New Age spiritualities and heretical Christian off-shoots, to the post-creedal and post-Christian Unitarian-Universalists, more and more women are simply opting out of a system that they feel oppresses them. Rodriquez seems almost blind to these shifts, and believes that feminism will continue to produce incremental changes within institutional Catholicism and other male-dominated monotheistic religions.

“The Episcopal Church in America is now under the leadership of a woman. Feminism is going to change a great deal. The most radical people in the Roman Catholic Church are women. They’re challenging everything from the priesthood to the male God to what it means to be married. I don’t expect to see gay marriage enter these conservative institutions in my lifetime. But I do see change.”

The problem with these proposed incremental changes is that they aren’t really working as feminists and other activists intended. The Episcopal Church is slowly splintering, the Catholic leadership is maintaining a hard line against feminist reforms, and anti-gay religious coalitions are becoming more strident. In fact, one could argue that not much progress has been made since some initial breakthroughs in the tumultuous 1970s.

I may be biased, but perhaps the best way to challenge the notion of a solitary male-defined deity is to stop participating in the systems that perpetuate it. The dominant monotheisms know how to handle dissenters and heretics, indeed the very history of monotheism is a history of heretical behavior, but empty pews are another matter altogether. If you want to see change, you have to hit them where it hurts, at the collection plate. Reform comes only when the Vatican can’t afford Benedict’s designer clothes. In the meantime, I advise Richard Rodriguez to investigate the wonderful word of polytheism. We have all the women priests, female deities, and gay-friendly rites you could possibly hope for.