Philip Davis concludes his investigation of goddess theology
The Earth is our Mother; we must take care of her.’ TMs line from a popular neopagan chorus captures much of the appeal of the Goddess movement. What could be more benign than a mother’s love? What could be more sensible than taking appropriate care with `Mother Nature’, our source of nourishment and well-being? What, then, could seem more reasonable than adapting our concepts, our language and our institutions to highlight the female element in our existence?
With such an appeal, Goddess spirituality has made striking headway in modem society- often by glossing over its roots in Gardnerian witchcraft and the Western occult traditions. It plays instead to our widespread cultural stereotype of woman as being naturally more loving, peaceful, intuitive and spiritual than the male. Thus the Goddess has moved beyond the coven into the public forum, including the university and the Church, with her offer of a female utopia of harmony and tranquility.
Many who encounter this sanitized vision of the Goddess will inevitably find it attractive. Others, particularly Christians who meet her in a Church context, may sense that the presence of the Goddess raises serious concerns about the faith; nonetheless, it is not always easy to articulate those concerns in the face of her welcoming summons to motherly love and harmony. Does it really matter if we round out our relationship with God by addressing him as both Father and Mother? What difference does it make?
The Theological Difference
The advance of Goddess spirituality makes it abundantly clear that when God the Father becomes God the Mother, the Mother Goddess is never far away. This simple change in terminology signifies more than it might seem. When American scholar Cynthia Eller reported that the Goddess is `not just God in a skirt’, she correctly identified one of the irreducible differences between Goddess spirituality and biblical religion: the very concept of divinity itself.
Goddess literature is both consistent and clear on this point. Alongside the gender factor, the Goddess is aligned with the idea that divinity is immanent in all things. The Goddess is not outside the universe, but within it and all its aspects. She is identified with the force of life which gives birth to all existence and, like a mother, shares her very substance with her offspring. The Goddess is to be found within the world, within nature, and especially within ourselves. Hence the joyful affirmation exchanged in so many of their ceremonies: ‘Thou art Goddess!’
6 hew Directions June 2001
The God of the Bible, on the other hand, is a transcendent being. he exists eternally in his own right, distinct from all created things. The universe is not an extension of himself; it is a separate object which he willed to create at a particular moment. Certainly God can be present in our world and make his presence felt. Fundamentally, however, the immanence of the biblical God is more an act of grace than a fact of nature. We know his presence best through the action of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, not from the mere fact that there is life within us and around us.
Our life as Christians begins in recognition of our separation from God, not our identity with him. We alone of all creatures were made in his image; while this does place us in a vital position within the created order, it also reminds us that we are mere images, derivatives, and not gods ourselves. We may become more fully his, but we are not and cannot become him.
Thus, even if we consider the terms `Father’ and `Mother’ as mere metaphors, the Fatherhood of God remains normative in orthodox Christianity. Mothering, as a metaphor, evokes ideas of shared substance
‘The advance of Goddess spirituality makes it abundantly clear that when God the Father becomes God the Mother, the Mother Goddess is never far
and existence. The expectant mother carries a child for nine months, physically inseparable, building up the child from her own physical resources; after birth, nursing and nurturing maintain the intensity of the bond, which only gradually dissipates in order to repeat the cycle in the next generation.
Metaphorical fatherhood, on the other hand, entails a single, instantaneous act of creation; the relationship which follows between father and child, though possessed of an intensity of its own, does not express this through the same sense of shared substance and identity. Scripture’s insistence on identifying God as Father rather than Mother reinforces the principle of transcendence, of the essential distinction between Creator and creature.
Properly understood, the principle of the transcendence of God prevents this observation regarding metaphorical fatherhood and motherhood from rebounding upon human beings. To insist that the biblical God is Father rather than Mother is not at all to say that fathers and men are intrinsically nearer to him than are mothers and women. Radical feminist philosopher Mary Daly won fame with her slogan, `If God is male, then the male is God.’ For biblical Christians, however, no human being is ever God, with the sole and unique exception of God the Son Incarnate.
John Wesley came much nearer than Mary Daly to expressing an authentic Christian sensibility when he described God as `the great Male before whom we are all female.’ Essentially, however, the God of Scripture is a transcendent being, beyond all hint of biology. The immanent Goddess, on the other hand, is a sort of pan-biological concept, most fully present in the life-force of all animate things.
The Spiritual Difference
Abstract as it may seem, the difference between transcendence and immanence as fundamental conceptions of God has enormous consequences in practice. Transcendence means that God is not the same sort of being that we are, and that we cannot know him as simply as we know ourselves or each other. The elementary recognition that God is infinite while we are finite makes this plain enough; the reality of sin compounds our predicament beyond calculation.
Divine transcendence means that any fruitful relationship between humanity and God requires divine intervention. God is beyond our immediate means of knowledge; he must reveal himself to us, if we are to know him in any fullness. God is also beyond us in his infinite holiness; he must provide us the means to come into his presence if we are to do so at all. We do not discover God through our own efforts, or win his favour on our own merit.
For Christians, our spiritual welfare depends upon accepting and responding to God’s initiative towards us. As creatures encountering our Creator, our response must be all-embracing. Because it is a response to his initiative, it begins with faith: accepting and relying on that initiative of revelation and redemption which is offered to us, and which was enacted for our sake. Once that step is taken, we grow in faith by seeking a deeper understanding of what God has done for us, and what he requires of us. TMs leads us continually beyond ourselves, towards a loving communion with him.
Goddess spirituality would lead us in a very different direction. Since the Goddess is supposed to be immanent, she would be most accessible to each one of us within ourselves. To discover the Goddess within, one does not embark on a rational analysis of the world at large, much less seek out the revealed word of a transcendent God.
Instead, one must `dive deep’ within oneself and alter one’s state of awareness to be able to perceive the Goddess there. Wiccan and Goddess rituals often serve precisely this purpose. By marking off a sacred space `between the worlds,’ chanting, and performing stylized ceremonies, devotees seek to heighten their sensitivity to another plane of reality. In this way, one supposedly becomes aware of and attuned to the presence of the Goddess within one’s deep self.
Despite the grandiose claims we find in much Goddess literature, this is nothing more (though in some ways it is much less) than the typical quest for self-deification found amongst European occult groups and high magicians since the Renaissance. Like other branches of the New Age movement, Goddess spirituality has simply but successfully re-packaged this quest and marketed it to an ever-growing constituency of self-obsessed Westerners in the late twentieth century.
The Moral Difference
Considerations of this sort often carry little weight in these days of pragmatism, when anything might be deemed acceptable as long as it `works.’ As we saw previously Goddess spirituality does `work’ in the sense that it offers immediate gratification to its adherents – enough to spark steady and rapid growth in the movement over the past forty years. There is, however, another aspect to this question: can the Goddess movement plausibly fulfill its promise to create a better world centred on the female principle? This is the question that should matter to our fellow citizens as well as our fellow Christians, for it bears on the movement’s intention to change the way we all conduct our lives.
The most urgent ramifications of this question lie in the realm of morality for Goddess literature is quite explicit in its advocacy of moral relativism. This stance is hardly unique to the Goddess movement; indeed, it is arguably becoming the norm in much of Western culture. The materialistic atheist and the neopagan New Ager both reject the existence and authority of a transcendent God whose will constitutes the absolute standard of right and wrong. Both leave it to human beings to decide, from situation to situation, what is good and how the good should be achieved.
There is, however, a difference in how relativism is applied. A pure materialist may be content with utter selfishness; one with a conscience, however, will likely resort to the principle of `the greatest good for the greatest number.’ Morality becomes essentially a rational calculation, almost a question of quantity – how much does each of us possess? If physical things are the sole reality, then the two logical options are to acquire as much as possible for oneself, or to seek an equitable distribution of goods amongst all. Hugh Hefner and Karl Marx exemplify two variations in this approach to morality.
A morality grounded in divine immanence takes its guidance, in the final analysis, from our deepest human impulses. History gives us much reason to fear those impulses.’
In neopaganism at large and the Goddess movement in particular, we see quite a different brand of moral relativism. The crucial difference, naturally, is the doctrine of divine immanence. It is one thing to say that I determine good and evil for myself; it is potentially quite another thing to say that as I do so, I am in touch with my own inner divinity.
Again, the principle can be applied in different ways. This grandiose view of the self as divine may invite a certain narcissism, a claim to the unfettered empowerment of one’s innate infinite worth. The notorious occultist Aleister Crowley followed this path to its end, declaring “`Do what thou wily” shall be the whole of the Law’ as he pursued self-deification through drug use, sex rituals, and animal sacrifice. His erstwhile pupil Gerald Gardner toned this down somewhat for Wicca. While he too enshrined sadomasochistic elements in his rites, he framed his ethical guideline (the so-called Wiccan Rede) in more palatable terms: `An ye harm none, do what ye will.’ Either way, the individual will determines the highest good.
Divine immanence can play out in another fashion, however; instead of narcissism, it may breed tribalism. If the Goddess is essentially one with the life-force, she is inseparable from biology. All the different forms of life would therefore have their source in her; indeed, those very differences must be direct expressions of the immanent divinity. Thus we often find Goddess books in which the writer moves easily from extolling the unity and equality of all life, to affirming that women as a biological group are naturally in tune with the Goddess in a way that men can never be. It is astonishing how often a pronounced reverse sexism can be discovered behind the call to oneness and harmony; the old stereotypes of the oppressive, violent male and the loving, nurturing female survive in undiluted form in the Goddess movement.
Astonishment gives way to déjà-vu, however, when we see the Goddess within the larger context of modem neopaganism. The pantheistic notion of the ultimacy of biological distinctions has been widespread since the rise of Romanticism two centuries ago, and has stimulated tribalism in various forms: nationalism, racism, and (with a materialistic twist) the dogma of class warfare. Gender tribalism may not carry the same potential for international cataclysm as do its social and ethnic cousins, but its destructive, polarising effect on family and community life is increasingly evident.
A morality grounded in divine immanence takes its guidance, in the final analysis, from our deepest human impulses. History gives us much reason to fear those kind of impulses.
Living with the Goddess
The Goddess movement is still on the rise, and as long as we preserve religious freedom in our societies, it is likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future. As traditionalists, we ourselves are now a minority in Church and society; we need to protect and cherish that freedom for our own sake, and for the sake of the One whose power is made perfect in weakness rather than coercion.
On the other hand, we cannot pretend that a religious compromise is possible. It is abundantly clear that Goddess spirituality is not simply a contemporary resource for updating and refreshing Christian teaching. On the contrary, it stands firmly against the most elementary principles of the faith. To affirm the immanent Goddess is to deny that there can be a transcendent God who has revealed himself in a definitive way. To affirm that moral truth is ultimately subjective and relative is to deny that there can ever be a decisive incarnation of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
After all, it is virtually a tenet of faith in the Goddess movement that the Church itself is one of the arch-villains of human history-not simply from its failures to live out the teachings of Christ, which we may all lament, but from its adherence to those teachings in the first place. According to the Goddess, anyone who confesses faith in God the Father and God the Son is automatically a servant of the patriarchy. When the Goddess comes to the Church, she comes to subvert it.
The Church cannot embrace the Goddess without gutting its own historic message, reducing the Gospel to gibbering incoherence. Let us rather speak the truth and live it, plainly and courageously, in the assurance that when the true Light shines, the darkness shall not overcome it.
Philip G Davis is Professor and Chairman of Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.