“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.” –Crowfoot in The Earth Speaks
“To go into the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.” –Wendell Berry in The Earth Speaks
Take for example the idea that the earth revolves around the sun. We laugh at the thought that anyone would think the sun was revolving around the earth. But, in point of fact, that is our most immediate experience of the world: The sun rises east, moves over our heads, sets in the west, and then rises again in the east. But we say that what is “really” happening is the earth is rotating and revolving around the sun. That explanation is the most mathematically parsimonious, because is most easily accounts for the movement of the earth, the sun, and the other celestial spheres. But is it the most “accurate” one? Accurate to what? Certainly not accurate to our everyday experience…
…Objectivity is a myth. It is a good myth and it functions well for many things. But it is a myth nonetheless….
…For once I would love to hear someone say, “Oh, that’s just objective“, instead of, “Oh, that’s just subjective.” Subjectivity is not less than objectivity. In fact, I think objectivity is a less complete account of the world that the subjective one. We gain a certain power to control our environment when we attempt to bracket our subjectivity; but we also lose something. We lose the reality of our own experience, and we lose the sense of our own participation in that reality….
When I applied to Ocean Seminary College, I included the following explanation as part of my letter:
In recent months I have come to the conclusion that I need to follow my intuition as to what feels right to me, rather than to try to find answers in books or articles. What feels right in my heart and in my bones. Goddess feels right to me—authentic in a way that no other spiritual framework ever has. While I do not usually interpret Goddess in a literal sense, I do still feel Her presence in my life—call it an energy, call it the sacred feminine, call it the divine, call it source, call it soul, call it spirit, call it the great mystery…I perceive forces in the world larger than myself and I choose to put a feminine form to that energy—to name it and know it as Goddess. It only seems logical to me that SHE gave birth to the world, to reality—women are the birth givers and they are made in HER image.
I come to Goddess spirituality from a childbirth education and activism background. I am deeply committed to women’s birth rights and to me it has always seemed very logical that ancient peoples would have revered that which created the earth—which gave birth to the earth—the primary life force of the planet, as female. Though it could perhaps be viewed as an unnecessary personification, it just makes plain sense to me to vision the divine as feminine. Side note about personification and tying it to John’s post about objectivity, whenever I type the word I am reminded of a story I read somewhere in which a husband asks a wife, “why must you take everything so personally?” And she responds with something like, “this is my life, how could I not take it personally? It makes sense to relate to the world in a personal way.”)
And, still thinking about the value of subjective experience and the limits of objectivity, as I wrote in an article for Restoration Earth and later republished on my own blog:
How many generations of women have pushed out their babies and fed them at the breast without knowing the exact mechanics of reproduction, let alone milk production. There are all kinds of historical myths and “rules” about breastmilk and breastfeeding and even ten years ago we used to think the inner structure of the breast was completely different from what we think it is like now. Guess what? Our breasts still made milk and we still fed our babies, whether or not we knew exactly how the milk was being produced and delivered. Body knowledge, in this case, definitely still trumped scientific knowledge. I love that feeling when I snuggle down to nurse my own baby—my body is producing milk for her regardless of my conscious knowledge of the patterns or processes. And, guess what, humans cannot improve upon it. The body continues to do what the human mind and hand cannot replicate in a lab. And, has done so for millennia. I couldn’t make this milk myself using my brain and hands and yet day in and day out I do make it for her, using the literal blood and breath of my body, approximately 32 ounces of milk every single day for the last [two years]. That is beautiful.
A couple of months ago, while discussing biology, physics, botany and more with a friend, she commented to the effect of, “Once we know how it works, it isn’t amazing any more.” But, I said, isn’t it? And, do we ever really know how something “really works,” when we constantly are learning new things about the way things “really are”? Can we ever truly boil it down to “just the facts” or is there something invisible, ineffable also there? A creative, interlacing energy in which we are embedded all the time? Back to nursing babies, objectively my body is converting blood into milk to feed my offspring. A biological, hormonally programmed response to having reproduced. That’s hella cool too. But, subjectively, it’s love made flesh, it is embodied motherhood, it is biological synchronicity, it is pure magic. I don’t have to know how it works, I just have to do it. Some of the most important aspects of my life can’t be objectively determined and why should they be able to be? I take it personally.
One of the things that continues to keep me involved with Goddess spirituality is the value of direct experience. As Charlene Spretnak explains, “We would not have been interested in ‘Yahweh with a skirt,’ a distant, detached, domineering godhead who happened to be female. What was cosmologically wholesome and healing was the discovery of the Divine as immanent and around us. What was intriguing was the sacred link between the Goddess in her many guises and totemic animals and plants, sacred groves, and womb like caves, in the moon-rhythm blood of menses, the ecstatic dance–the experience of knowing Gaia, her voluptuous contours and fertile plains, her flowing waters that give life, her animal teachers…” (p. 5)
In Merlin Stone’s essay about the three faces of goddess spirituality she states, “So far, and let us hope in the future as well, feminists concerned with Goddess spirituality have seldom offered absolute or pat answers to theological questions. What has been happening is the experiencing, and at times the reporting, of these personal or group experiences: how it feels to regard the ultimate life force in our own image—as females; how it feels to openly embrace and to share our own contemplations and intuitive knowledge about the role of women on this planet; how it feels to gain a sense of direction, a motivating energy, a strength, a courage—somehow intuited as coming from a cosmic female energy force that fuels and refuels us in our struggle against all human oppression and planetary destruction.” She goes on to articulate a thealogical perspective that holds a lot of truth for me:
“Some say they find this force within themselves; others regard it as external. Some feel it in the ocean, the moon, a tree, the flight of a bird, or in the constant stream of coincidences (or noncoincidences) that occur in our lives. Some find access to it in the lighting of a candle, chanting, meditating—alone or with other women. From what I have so far read, heard, or experienced myself, I think it is safe to say that all women who feel they have experience Goddess spirituality in one way or another also feel that they have gained an inner strength and direction that temporarily or permanently has helped them to deal with life. Most women interested or involved in feminist concepts of spirituality do not regard this spirituality as an end in itself but as a means of gaining and giving strength and understanding that will help us to confront the many tangible and material issues of the blatant inequities of society as we know it today.” (p. 66-67)
This is one of the greatest strengths of spiritual feminism or Goddess traditions—women are capable of defining their own experiences. This means that the Goddess is hard to pin down. She means many different things to different people. I think that fluidity of definition is a powerful attribute that leaves the Goddess path open to many, many women. This fluidity is why it is possible for us to see Jewitches and Goddess Christians and spiritual feminists who connect to the symbol/metaphor, but not a literalist interpretation. The Goddess can hold it all.
When addressing the idea of the Goddess’ ability to elude definitional capture, it is also important to look at the notion of “believing in” the Goddess. Whether or not people “believe” in her might actually be an irrelevant question. I steer away from using the word myself and find I share the tendency of many spiritual feminists to prefer the explanation that they experience the Goddess.
This does not mean the Goddess is fictional, she can be experienced directly, but that she is not believed in in the conventional theological sense. “Most spiritual feminists explain this by saying it is only a question of semantics: everyone experiences goddess, but not everyone chooses to call her that” (p. 140). I identify with this, as I wrote above, having reached a point in my life where I consciously chose to name/label/identify those larger natural powers of the world as “Goddess.”
In Judith Laura’s book, Goddess Matters, she describes Goddess as “she who flows through all” and contrasts this with “God as manipulator.” Goddess is: “She what connects us, not only like a link in a chain but also like an electrical current.”
And, why personalize this or anthropomorphize it anyway? Because society is so very deeply rooted in the lens of patriarchal theology. This doesn’t dissolve because we say, “the Universe” or “the Mystery”—the white bearded old man in the sky remains our collective cultural image of Divinity (as something to which we can be in relation) unless we consciously and deliberately offer, reinforce, and promote other imagery.
As Christ quoted in Edelson remarks, “The real importance of the symbol of Goddess is that it breaks the power of the patriarchal symbol of God as male over the psyche” (p. 313). This is part of what I mean when I say that my interest in Goddess is first political and then later personal/religious. Both have great value to me and I do believe that whether or not someone believes in Goddess as literal or metaphorical, Her importance and value as a symbol within feminism, politics, and culture cannot be overestimated.
In the book Women’s Rituals by Barbara Walker, she makes this point: “Theology, or ‘God-knowledge,’ is a pseudoscience invented by men to define and describe the God whom they simultaneously call indefinable and indescribable. Real science studies objective phenomena. Theology studies a collective male fantasy. Much theological effort goes into hiding the fact that God is not an objective phenomenon but a construct of men’s imaginations, based on their own sense of what they are, what they wish to be, or what they think they ought to be” (p. 135). To this I would add, OR, what they wish to control and what type of social and political structures they wish to justify or wars they wish to engage in. Walker describes theaology thusly, “Thealogy, or ‘Goddess-knowledge,’ may be reinstated, after its long eclipse, as a similar collective image developed by women critical of the ethical shortcomings of patriarchal culture” (p. 135). Walker goes on to says, “Theologians established their God with a pretense of his objective existence. Thealogians need not to resort to such hypocrisy. It is possible to deal with the image of divinity as the collective self-expression that it really is, as a symbol of women’s true knowledge, and as the arbiter of moral instruction represented by humanity’s most ancient mothers” (p. 136).
So what, then, is Goddess? Walker shares the conclusions of a variety of women summarized here:
Goddess is love. Power. Nature. Femaleness. Feminine morality (rooted in care and relationship). Irresistible force. The universe. Creativity that drives me. Oldest power of the universe. Everything from born from her. The earth. The moon. Anger at patriarchal domination and oppression. Sense of what the world needs to relieve suffering. My own sentience. The trinity of Maiden, Mother, Crone. Light and dark. Body-oriented spirituality. Self-worth, liberation from inner shame (“original sin of being born female”). Each person contains her divine spark. “Cauldron-womb, the eternal matrix from which everything comes and to which everything returns…” Loving creativity. Mother. (pp 136-139)
We take her personally.