Philip Davis explains why She is something rather more than ‘God in a Skirt’
AT THE CLOSE of a century which brought us so many new religious movements, it is striking to note that one of the most significant of these is also one of the least recognised. In the English-speaking world and beyond, fear and scorn have followed such diverse groups as the Children of God (now The Family), Scientology, the Unification Church, and the Hare Krishna movement. On the other hand, many people express only puzzlement at the mention of Goddess spirituality. Nonetheless, its adherents can be found in prominent positions on university faculties, in the media, and even in the churches.
So, who is the Goddess? And, what is she doing in the Church?
Goddess spirituality is indeed a new religion, with roots which lie outside the biblical, Judaeo-Christian tradition. Its adherents and critics agree on the immediate background to its teaching. The Goddess movement is essentially a blend of Wicca, modern witchcraft as formulated by the English occultist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), with American-style 1970s radical feminism. The claims made by radical feminists on behalf of the Goddess go much further than this recent history, however. The Goddess now stands for a complete and distinctly neo-pagan view of human nature and history.
Goddess spirituality purports to be nothing less than the original and true religion of the human race. The earliest people, we are told, were attentive to the life-force which seemed to animate the natural world upon which they depended for survival. Awed by the mysteries of menstruation and childbirth, and unaware of the fact of paternity, they would have imagined this life-force in female terms. The first human cultures, therefore, must have worshipped a Great Mother Goddess; it supposedly follows that they must also have had woman-centred and even matriarchal communities which fostered feminine values of nurture and harmony amongst individuals and groups, and with the environment. The prehistoric civilisations of Europe and the Near East supposedly shared this ethos and enjoyed a life of cooperative productivity and sensual joy under the benevolent eye of the Goddess.
Such was human life from 40,000 B.C. to 5000 B.C., according to the modern Goddess myth. Then tragedy began to unfold, as marauding tribes of barbarians gradually spread devastation across the tranquil realms of the Goddess. By the time the last of the supposed Goddess civilisations, Crete, fell to the Mycenaean Greeks around 1500 B.C., Europe and the Near East lay at the feet of these crude warrior castes. They ruled by sheer force and imposed racism, class stratification, endemic warfare, and wholesale exploitation of people and the environment upon the peaceful and defenceless Goddess cultures.
Allegedly, the very foundation of this new order was patriarchy – the dominance of male gods of sky and storm over Mother Earth, reflecting the harsh and unnatural supremacy of men over women which characterised these primitive tribes. Whether in the tent, the palace, or the pantheon, this supposed triumph of the male marked the fall from harmony into exploitation, from cooperation into oppression, and from peace into war. The hegemony of patriarchy was assured with the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity. In Goddess books, Biblical monotheism stands for a male Father-God who lacks even a female consort, preached by male clergy forbidden to take wives, and thus for a complete repudiation of the spiritual significance of the feminine.
According to her modern devotees, the Goddess did not simply disappear at this point. Her loyal followers, primarily women, kept their fealty secret and passed it on from mother to daughter down the generations. When the secret became known, the consequences were dire. Today’s Goddess worshippers insist that the victims of the European witch hunts were themselves followers of the Goddess; they inflate the number of those victims as high as 9,000,000, characterising this period as the Church’s “war against women”.
Now patriarchy’s supposed desecrations are plain to see in the wars and environmental degradation of the twentieth century. The Goddess, they say, is poised to return and inaugurate a New Age which will recapture the virtues and glories of the ancient utopian matriarchies.
What is a Christian to make of this tale? It is of course a myth in the full sense of the word, an explanatory narrative within which its believers find inspiration, solace and guidance. At almost every point, however, it is at odds with the Christian story. God the Father has been recast as a symbol of oppression, the crucified and risen Christ as an irrelevance, and the Church as one of the prime villains of history.
It is also a myth in the colloquial sense of the word, an untruth. As I have attempted to show in my book Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1998), not one of the ancient civilisations claimed for the Goddess, from the palaeolithic cave cultures through Çatal Hüyük, Malta, the Balkans and early Britain to Crete, displays the quality of evidence which would persuade us that the Goddess’s story is true. In actual fact, today’s Goddess has no authentic roots whatsoever in the ancient world.
In order to make their case, Goddess books must take a highly cavalier attitude towards factual evidence. Time after time, they employ three strategies in developing their narratives: arguments from silence (for instance, since no chieftain was found buried in Silbury Hill, the builders therefore must have had an egalitarian and cooperative, and hence matriarchal, society); speculative interpretation of selected evidence (female statuettes made hundreds of miles and hundreds of years apart must all depict the same Great Goddess); and the dismissal of other evidence (especially the signs of weapons and warfare in these early cultures).
Nothing like today’s Goddess actually appears until much more recently: specifically, amongst those heirs of 19th Century romanticism who venerated woman as the natural paragon of intuitive wisdom and love. Within a year of each other, two seminal books prepared the way for the Goddess. J. J. Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (Mother-Right, 1861) argued that all cultures had passed through a stage of matriarchy before the establishment of patriarchy. Then in 1862, Jules Michelet published La Sorcière (The Witch), claiming that pre-modern witchcraft had been neither a dangerous heresy nor a paranoid fantasy, but an authentic ancient religion devoted to earthly welfare and simple pleasures, under the auspices of loving female leaders.
Despite the fact that neither book stands up to serious historical investigation of its claims, both of them inspired admirers and imitators who kept these ideas alive until Gardner and his friends put them into practice in the 1940s. Gardnerian Wicca was the first organised religion in the modern West to give priority to a Goddess and a High Priestess over their male counterparts. These are the features which recommended Wicca to the radical feminists who were seeking a specifically female form of religiosity, and so the Goddess movement was born.
Who is the Goddess? She is, in short, the imaginary deity and symbol of a new religion which sees itself in opposition to all that Christianity has represented over the past eighteen centuries in which it has been a dominant presence in Western civilisation. What, then, is she doing in the Church?
There she certainly is. The Goddess is not confined to Wiccan covens, or to Women’s Studies programmes in universities. When feminist theologians and liturgists sought more gender balance in the Church’s language, there was little in the Scriptures to which they could appeal for female imagery. Wicca was, in fact, the most readily available resource for female God-talk; when God the Father is supplemented by God the Mother, the Mother Goddess is generally close at hand.
By the late 1970s, Christian feminists like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly were co-authoring books with Wiccans like Zsuzsanna Budapest and Miriam “Starhawk” Simos. At the same time, the Unitarian Universalist Association began marketing “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven.” Named for the idolatrous practice condemned in Jeremiah 7.18 and 44.19, “Cakes” is an elementary ten-week group-study series on Goddess spirituality. This programme has been purchased and put to use in congregations of the mainstream denominations across North America, bringing word of the Goddess to perhaps thousands of church members.
The movement received extensive public recognition (much of it critical) in November 1993, when the Reimagining Conference was held in Minneapolis. The participants witnessed celebrations of alternative sexualities, liturgies dedicated to “Sophia,” castigations of Christian doctrine and practice, and a widely reported parody of the Eucharist in which milk and honey were employed as anatomical and sexual symbols.
The most striking feature of Reimagining was the fact that its sponsors and almost all of its 2,000 participants were, officially, Christians. Most of the funding came from the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the United Methodist Church. Those in attendance included significant numbers of Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, and members of the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada. The Rev’d Dr. Lois Wilson, a past president of both the Canadian and the World Councils of Churches, told the assembly that modern Christianity “demonstrates more a nightmare than a vision.”
The Reimagining Conference was not an isolated event. Local and regional groups across North America have been inspired to carry on its work. In Toronto, the Roman Catholic diocese had already begun banning an annual “Celebrate Women” conference from its premises because of its increasing promotion of Wiccan notions. Just this year, the Vancouver School of Theology engendered controversy through its sponsorship of a “Women and Spirituality Conference” which included two Wiccans on its programme.
What is the Goddess doing in the Church? She is not there simply as “God in a skirt,” a device for describing the biblical God in more gender-balanced terms. On the contrary, the Goddess is being used as a vehicle for changing the nature of the Christian religion from within. With her Wiccan, neo-pagan, and ultimately occult ancestry, the Goddess stands for an entire alternative body of beliefs and practices. According to her own devotees, the Goddess is an immanent, pantheistic deity; transcendence itself is derided as a stereotypically male notion which denies the value of the self and the world. Being immanent, she is to be known through neither revelation nor reason, but through subjective, intuitive experiences. Such experiences are to be sought in many ways, ranging from neo-pagan magical ceremonies to the active exploration of multiform sexuality as a sort of spiritual exercise. Moral norms are also subjective and intuitive, guided only by the so-called Wiccan Rede, “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” At least one Goddess writer has gone so far as to argue that abortion can be made positively sacramental through a ritual “dream-conversation” with the unwanted foetus.
It is only to be expected in times like ours that new religious movements will arise, some to flourish and others to wither away. The striking difference about Goddess spirituality is its success in penetrating and influencing both secular society and the churches. Moreover, all this has been accomplished in less than half a century, and despite the ease with which its factual claims can be disproven. In part this may be due to the lack of critical attention that the Goddess has received; in contrast to the flood of Goddess and women’s-spirituality literature now flowing from publishers, critiques of the movement have been few and unheralded.
All the same, the ease with which the Goddess has entered the Church gives one pause. Is the theological education of the people of God so lacking that too few recognize the radical departure from received truth which the Goddess represents? Has the Church so surrendered its agenda to the secular world that there are no remaining barriers to non-Christian and even anti-Christian modes of thought and life? The words of Jeremiah 7.18-19 seem remarkably up-to-date: “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven…Is it I whom they provoke? says the LORD. Is it not themselves, to their own confusion?”
The Goddess herself is a transparent fiction. The increasing prominence of her following should nevertheless be of grave concern to Christians who value the integrity and continuity of the faith.
Philip G. Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, and a parishioner of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Charlottetown. Goddess Unmasked is available in the U.K. from Amazon.co.uk and directly from the publisher at www.spencepublishing.com.