Thursday Thealogy: Death & Suffering

This post is excerpted from an OSC assignment written last year. The subject is so close to the things in my life recently that I felt compelled to dig out these previous writings.

How does thealogy envision death? How does thealogy address the problem of suffering?

The Abrahamic religions tend to associate death with that which is evil and wrong. Dominant religions traditions also often emphasize transcendence over the physical form and in these traditions the spiritual and the physical are seen as separate (with women associated with the “lower” body-based realm and men associated with the transcendent and divine)—the body and the earth is seen as a prison, rather than of value or as holding wisdom. In thealogy, on the other hand, death is another part of the endless “wheel” of life.

As the refrain of a Goddess song goes, in the womb of the mother…we find rest. daCosta notes that, “This darkness she equates with the  darkness of innate, instinctive knowing, where we are within the womb of the Goddess” (p. 115). I find a comforting feeling in the notion of coming to rest in the womb of the Goddess–whether that is very literal in terms of my body returning to the earth and being absorbed back into it, or it is more metaphysical (i.e. drop returning to the “ocean”). I also do not completely rule out the possibility of some form of personal continuation of spirit/energy/consciousness after physical death–just as the physical body doesn’t “disappear” after the body physically shuts down and dies, it seems semi-logical that our soul/our life spark/life energy, also does not disappear, but does or become something else/somewhere else.

Some time ago I had a “vision” during the day in my post-yoga routine meditation time. I “heard”—the moments of your life are beads on a April 2013 024necklace. Death is one of those beads. Why be preoccupied with one single bead of many, many beads? I recognize this as related to something I previously read in a Zen book I think—your consciousness being the string that holds the beads and each bead passing into the next bead, no need to cling to any of them or to become attached to one point. But, this yoga experience was the first in which I had conceived of death as just one more bead on the string—and, just like I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of my life energy thinking about the bead from my sixth birthday, say, why would I spend a lot of time thinking about the bead of my eventual, guaranteed death. That said, I do find it very relevant and appropriate to consider my own life choices and path in the context of my eventual death–i.e. I probably think at least once per day, “If I died tomorrow, would this matter?” Or, “what would choose to be doing now, if I knew that I was about to die?” etc., etc. I make a lot of life decisions based on not wanting to have regrets when I come to die, on wanting to live fully, vibrantly, authentically, and consciously.

In this same timeframe, I also had an epiphany—no matter WHAT happens after my own death, it still represents the end of life as I know it (there are actually many of these points in the course of an average life—our life as a twenty year old also “ends,” as does our life as the parent of a toddler, and so on). BUT, regardless, I still have to be at peace with THAT—this life as I know it coming to an end, whether or not there is any continuity of self or soul post-death.

I previously spent a significant number of years feeling very preoccupied with existential questions about death and life purpose (essentially of the, “if you’re just going to die anyway, what’s the point?” variety) and after having these two realizations, I was no longer preoccupied by the topic. I made my peace with having no concrete answers. You must come to terms with your life, making meaning, and reconciling your life’s path and purpose regardless of what, if anything, happens “next.” You must still live well and wisely your one wild and precious life on this earth at this time and in this place, because your time here in this way will definitely come to an end.

Returning to the question of “why suffering?” Carol Christ presents a primarily panentheistic representation of Goddess. But, if Goddess is essentially earth and is all around us, then how do we justify evil and suffering in this world? Should She not be able to protect us from harm and suffering?

Personally, I have never turned to religion to provide explanations of evil or suffering. Perhaps if I had a past tradition of conventional theology, I would then find thealogy lacking in this way. However, I came to Goddess traditions from a history of basically…nothing…and had made my peace with the existence of suffering and inhumane treatment of others as a feature of the “human condition” rather than ever conceiving of it as something under divine influence or power.April 2013 036

However, to scholars like Melissa Raphael, “[b]ecause Goddess religions ascribes little or no moral transcendence to the Goddess, it becomes difficult to use the Goddess as the religious justification for a struggle against evil, or to construct meaning in the face of it” (p. 208). Personally, I look to humanism or feminism (as philosophy and theory), as well as my own inner sense of “rightness” and morality, rather than religion to provides this justification. I have never needed religion for morality. I think that is an “old fashioned” seeming reason to need religion and something that I’ve always found puzzling when Christians bring it up—i.e. “well, without Christ, how can you be a moral person? How can you know right from wrong?” I just can. It doesn’t need to come from an external authority or power and needing to have some “higher authority” impose the rules upon you, basically has always seemed to me like having a less mature brain somehow. In a similar manner this is how I’ve also always accepted the existence of “bad stuff” in the world—it just is. No overarching power causes it, or controls it, it is just part of the ebb and flow of life, of nature, itself. I also do not find New Agey concepts of “everything happening for a reason” or “attracting the lessons your soul needs” relevant or appropriate most of the time. Sometimes there just are tornadoes or earthquakes or people get cancer. Those things feel awful and are bad to experience, but they are not punishments or under the control of any divine authority or power. Perhaps this is depressing or nihilistic, but that is the past belief from which I have come to Goddess thought, so the “failure” of Goddess feminism to offer explanations for these phenomena is almost a non-issue for me—a Goddess outlook on the world is more than I’ve ever had before, it is not a replacement for or a substitute for a previous (religious) system of belief. To me, Goddess religion has filled a void left by an agnostic, default worldview, if I was trying to use it to replace a more traditional Judeo-Christian system of belief, perhaps I would also find it lacking.

I am a sucker for things growing out of rocks. Check out this delicate little rue anemone making its life here on a big stone!Raphael also states, “…many of the things theology has associated with evil or suffering (impermanence, disease and natural disasters) are not problematic for thealogy. It would be unreasonable to attribute moral responsibility to the divine for suffering when (natural) evil is an ecological and thealogical given” (p. 208). She goes on to further explain, “It may be that if the reality of human wrong-doing and suffering does not count against the existence or worth of a reality called ‘the Goddess,’ then thealogy cannot ultimately do some of the most important work of a popular religious theory, namely, to reconcile people to existential pain and to construct meaning in the face of it” (p. 210).

As I’ve indicated, personally, I don’t feel as if I need Goddess or religion to explain these things for me, but I understand that the failure of thealogy to provide answers on these issues means that it may never attract large amounts of followers who were formerly committed to more traditional religious views of the world. What I find helpful is Carol Christ’s process philosophy outlook on thealogy that asserts divine sympathy. Goddess/God cannot prevent suffering, but suffers with those who suffer, omnipresent, while not omnipotent. It is true that thealogy doesn’t completely fill the void left by theological understandings of divinity and suffering, but I believe that may well be because traditional religious interpretations have significant issues and theological mistakes that unravel under critical thought.

In Merlin Stone’s essay about the three faces of goddess spirituality in the collection, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality (p. 66), she writes “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.” As I’ve written before, this makes sense to me—Goddess as life’s “fuel” and as an energy that surrounds and holds us all, but that does not “control” our behavior and does not have the ability to stop specific events from happening—events are multicausal and there are a multiplicity of forces and natural laws in the world (gravity, for example, lightning for another), that act in and upon the lives of humans without divine cause or intervention, but still as part of an overall tapestry of being (that as a whole, might be called Divinity).

Personally, I actually found Goddess most meaningfully during a time of personal suffering. While I previously connected with Goddess imagery and was interested in Goddesses and women’s spirituality from a feminist perspective that valued the symbolism in a socio-political context, I did not feel a truly personal experience of Goddess “energy” until, as I’ve also written about several times previously, I experienced pregnancy loss. That is when I felt She actually existed and when I realized that I was in relation to her as well as recognized that I wasn’t “areligious” after all, but did have a set of spiritual beliefs, perspectives, and “tools” to draw on for personal support. I was amazed to discover at this time (after an “a-religious” self-definition of the past) that I did in fact have a spiritual language and conceptualization of my own and that these were the deep resources I gathered to draw upon during a time of significant distress, fear, and challenge.

Culpepper reflects on the reframing of redemption:

“Reframing redemption necessitates renewed reflection upon the meaning of death. Rosemary Ruether is at pains to distance the notion of redemption from its eschatological interpretations. Instead, she focuses on its political implications, and rejects any formulation of the concept of salvation which views it as ‘an escape from the body and the world into eternal life’.  She offers an ecological account of immortality, which suggests the cosmic recycling of matter, not the survival of the individual in some otherworldly realm. At the heart of this rejection is a serious reappraisal of the effect that longings for immortality have had upon human self-consciousness. Our true home, this idea seems to say, lies beyond the stars. McFague is highly critical of such a view, arguing that there is no need for some postmortem existence to maintain the divine-human relationship: ‘We are with God whether we live or die, for whether our bodies are alive or return to the other form of embodiment from which they came, they are within the body of God.’  Redefining death finds a ready resonance with key aspects of thealogy. Starhawk argues that what we perceive as destruction should not be feared but acknowledged as a necessary part of the whole lifeprocess.” (Culpepper, p. 36)

According to Starhawk, paraphrased in Clack, “In thealogy, the Goddess is generally understood as the generative power of ‘all that lives and loves life…’ Therefore, when women or natural things recover their naturalness or return to the aliveness of the wild state, they are recovering their divinity in the goddess: and as the goddess is female energy, women who situate themselves inside nature, in the body of the goddess, will recover divine/natural energies and powers that will, like nature/the goddess, overcome patriarchy. For to repeat, nature/the goddess is stronger and older than patriarchy.” (Clack, p. 56)

Related past post:

The role of death in the circle of life

Rocks look at dogwoods.

Categories: feminist thealogy, Goddess, OSC, spirituality, thealogy, Thursday Thealogy | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Thealogy: Death & Suffering

  1. Love the Bead and Strand info!!!

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