Some have argued that any form of theism is incompatible with science. Which is odd when so many scientists are theistic in some form or other.
When is a difference of opinion merely a difference of opinion, and when is it a matter for exclusion of the person who holds that opinion from polite society?
Wiccans can be polytheist, animist, pantheist, monist, duotheist, atheist/archetypalist, or “all of the above depending on the day”. Most Pagans believe that the divine is, or deities are, immanent in the world; and that includes most Wiccans.
This theological diversity works in ritual settings as long as everyone can “translate in their head” and have a certain amount of flexibility as to practice and the wording of rituals.Continue reading
It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.
What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.
Metaphor and Analogy
Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.
- A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
- An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
What’s wrong with chocolate cake?
I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.
Many flavours are available
If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).
None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.
We don’t all like the same flavours
The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.
And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.
Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far
- John Beckett – The gods are like apples.
There are many different varieties of apple (Granny Smith, Bramley, Russet, etc) but they are all apples. They are also distinguishable from oranges.
- John Halstead – How do you like them apples? On gods and metaphors
However, deciding where the tree ends and the apple begins – or whether it’s still an apple when you’ve eaten it – is difficult.
- Tom Swiss – The gods are like golden apples
Eris’s golden apple was inscribed “To the fairest” – and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, everyone’s experience of the gods is unique.
- Pat Mosley – Up in the mountains, there’s a tree that bears many apples
Everyone has a different experience of trees and apples, but what matters is that there are many stories and many perspectives.
- John Beckett – The Bakery of the Gods
If a person who has eaten vanilla pudding all their life comes looking for apple pie, but is confronted with people selling chocolate cake, changing all the labels in the bakery, and claiming that all desserts are the same, they might get confused about what’s apple pie and what isn’t
- Yvonne Aburrow – Polytheism and Apple Pie
But then there are people claiming that they have the One True Recipe for apple pie, and everyone else is Doing It Wrong
- John Halstead – The gods are “like warm apple pie”: The hidden meanings behind our metaphors
Careful with that metaphor, it’s not neutral
Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.
Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.
Some people have suggested that polytheism is endangered by archetypalist, non-theist, monist, and/or non-theist world views (especially those who would claim that somehow it’s all the same really, or that they are actually polytheists). The word polytheist means believing in many gods. If you want to add any more definition to it, I think you need a qualifying adjective.
Monotheism and Pantheism
I stopped being a monotheist in 1985, when I was 17. The reason for this was that I couldn’t see how an all powerful God could allow suffering and horror on the scale of the Holocaust and other horrors. I reasoned that if God was all-powerful, then “he” would prevent such horrors (free will notwithstanding) and therefore there must be many deities, none of whom were all-powerful.
Later, I discovered pantheism and monism, the idea of an all-pervading immanent deity. For me, this doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it.
An excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 arguments for the existence of God, disproves every single one of them except Spinoza’s view that the universe itself is God, which is completely different to the conventional monotheist view. Nothing is said about the existence of many gods, however, and in my view, the idea of many gods is in a completely different category to the idea of a single all-powerful deity.
Interestingly, some Christians I’ve talked to seemed to assume that I’m a pantheist, as they seemed to assume that the advantage of Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus. But I don’t actually like Jesus (and don’t believe the gospel accounts are reliable). So for me, the advantage of polytheism is that you can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. I think this is why the Catholics found they needed to have the idea of patron saints – but I find most saints pretty uninspiring and insipid. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. To paraphrase some famous French bloke: if the gods didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.
What is a deity?
There are many different types of deity: personifications of natural phenomena (winds, storms, trees and rocks and water), deified humans, patrons of arts and crafts, city goddesses, river goddesses. In my opinion, they are immanent in, or emergent from, the physical universe, in the same way that human consciousness emerges from the complexity of the human brain. Why shouldn’t other complex systems give rise to consciousness?
There is currently some discussion about what “real” means when we are talking about deities. No one has offered a definition of “real” in this context (or if they have, I missed it). My definition of a deity is a being with consciousness. A deity’s body (if they have one) is the natural phenomenon from which they emerged, if that’s how they came into existence. Or if they are a deified human, then their body is the etheric body (or whatever is divine in us that survives death). It’s also worth pointing out that love is real even though it doesn’t have either a body or consciousness – but that’s why a discussion of what “real” means is a distraction when it comes to deities: because being “real” applies to a lot of other things that aren’t deities. So it doesn’t matter so much what people think deities are, as that they think you can interact with them – that’s the point of relating to them and/or being devoted to them.
There also has to be room for honest doubt – we do live in a culture where most people deny the existence of multiple deities, so if someone has a wobble or a dry season where they have difficulty relating to deities, or if they have a different view of what deities are, then that is a natural fluctuation in belief that is difficult to avoid. Even when I had doubts that deities were conscious beings, the “many” part was never in doubt. And if you try to restrict access to polytheist ritual on the grounds of belief, then you will never give anyone the opportunity to encounter deities – though of course you might want to develop some sort of initiatory pathways to assist people to develop deeper relationships with deities. Or perhaps there might be open access rituals for everyone, and other rituals specifically for devotees.
Why duotheism is not polytheism
Some Pagans are duotheists (the idea of one Goddess and one God who may or may not be emanations from a single source). I have difficulty with this idea because I don’t see the universe in binary terms, but rather as a multiplicity. The major attraction of polytheism for a genderqueer and/or LGBTQ person is that there are multiple expressions of gender and sexuality among deities. And the idea of duotheism has the same problem for me that monotheism does: how can there be anything that big that perceives existence on the same scale we do?
As to the idea that all deities are emanations from an underlying substrate of energy or consciousness, I can’t see why this is a problem for polytheism as long as the deities are viewed as distinct beings, and humans are also viewed as emanations from that substrate. I can see it could be a problem if the emphasis was more on the divine source than the individual deity – because then we’re back to monism again.
Polytheism is the “default setting”
Interestingly, if you look at Hinduism, you can find monism, polymorphism (the idea that deities are forms of the ultimate divine), and polytheism all co-existing within the Hindu dharma. And if Buddhism is included as part of the same dharma (some Hindus view itthat way), then non-theism also exists alongside these other beliefs. Henotheism (devotion to one deity, acknowledgment that others exist) is also found within Hinduism.
I think it is worth clarifying terminology and describing clearly what we are doing, mostly in order to make the path easier for others to find. But I don’t feel that polytheism is endangered. I think it is pretty much the “default setting”, to which all religion will gravitate in the end. Christianity tried monotheism, but it gradually introduced saints and a goddess (the Virgin Mary is a goddess in all but name). Buddhism moved the focus of religion away from gods towards personal enlightenment, and ended up introducing Bodhisattvas. Even Islam has 99 names of God, and Sufis and Shi’ites have saints. In Judaism, God has aspects (especially in Kabbalah). So even in monotheist and non-theist religions, the multiplicity keeps re-asserting itself. You can’t keep a good deity down.
Even if the archetypalists succeed in convincing everyone that gods are only archetypes, people will still have real experiences of the gods.
It’s not so much that polytheism is under siege from monism or non-theism or monotheism – on the contrary: they are constantly on guard against the emergence of polytheism and animism. Everyone knows there’s a spirit that lives in the photocopier which must be propitiated. That’s why atheists are constantly on guard against “woo”. Everyone needs a personal deity to relate to, which is less than the Great All. If they happen to be a monotheist, they invent a smaller god of their own devising, whether that is saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a more manageable version of Yahweh. It’s a very rare person who feels they can relate to a completely impersonal deity.
And the final reason that I don’t think polytheism is under siege is the deities themselves. They survived for centuries with hardly any worshippers, and that didn’t finish them off: so a few people claiming they are just archetypes is pretty small beer. They have the power to communicate with humans and they do use it. I think we and they will be just fine.
Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.
The Devil and witchcraft
Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.
I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.
Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.
However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.
I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.
It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?
I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions, but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.
Who cleft the Devil’s foot?
From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).
Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity. However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists. I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin. I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?
Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.
I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)
As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict). If I acknowledge the existence of Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.
My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?
As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.
What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)
In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.
Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.
It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.
My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.
Adversaries in ancient paganisms
Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.
Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.
I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.
However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?
Civilisation and its discontents
It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.
Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.
If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.
So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.
When I started writing for this blog, I had some sort of idea that I would systematically wade through the various areas covered by theology – the personal, the interpersonal, our relationships with spirit, the nature of deities and spirits, interfaith dialogue within the Pagan movement, dialogue with other religions, community, society, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and so on.
But all of these issues overlap with each other and are intertwined.What has happened in reality is that my writing has focussed on issues that are important to me (gender, sexuality, Black Lives Matter, migration, consent), or responded to things that have happened – both online and in the physical world – that I felt could be addressed from a Pagan perspective.
It has become apparent that there is not really a roadmap for writing Pagan theology. I think that all the best theological writing assumes and acknowledges that it is a personal reflection on a theological issue, and runs with that assumption. I do not think that theology should be prescriptive. It is more about opening a space for dialogue on theological issues. That is why a blog is the ideal place to host a theological conversation – because people can post comments, or send in a guest post, or write a post in response on their own blog.
Sometimes my posts are just “thinking aloud“, and the comments on them significantly change my thinking about the topic being discussed, or highlight something that I hadn’t thought of.
I think that theology should always be discursive and not prescriptive. It is not up to me to tell anyone what to think – just to open up a space for discussion. I write to work out what I think, and to get feedback on it. I think the comments on a blogpost can sometimes be as illuminating as the blogpost.
There has been quite a bit of hoo-hah recently as some Anglican women are campaigning for the phrase “God the Mother” to be included in the liturgy. In the Pagan movement and much of Judaism, the concept of a female aspect of divinity is uncontroversial. The name YHWH is widely recognised to contain both masculine and feminine elements, and as Jason Mankey points out, the Jewish creation story acknowledges this.
But, as numerous progressive Christians have pointed out, there is a long history of addressing and acknowledging the feminine aspects of their God. There is also a long tradition of misogyny and denial of the feminine in the churches.
Would Christianity and Judaism pass the Bechdel test?
The Tanakh (as I prefer to call the “Old Testament”) would pass the Bechdel Test; I am not at all sure that the New Testament would pass it. The Bechdel Test is a way of testing for gender equality in films: it has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man. In the Tanakh, there are numerous strong female characters (Ruth and Naomi, Esther, Deborah, etc), who do have conversations with each other about something other than a man (at least Ruth and Naomi do, and some of the others may do so as well). There are also mentions of the feminine aspects of their deity: the Shekhinah, the Ruach, and Wisdom (in the Book of Proverbs, and in the Apocrypha). So Judaism passes the Bechdel Test; I am not at all sure that Christianity does.
The Divine Feminine
Mystics of all traditions have honoured the Divine Feminine. Julian of Norwich, the great Christian mystic, referred to God the Mother (in the context of Trinitarian theology):
And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. …The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. [http://www.gloriana.nu/mother.htm]
In the Orthodox Church, there is also a long tradition of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (known as Sapientia in Western Christianity); indeed the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was dedicated to Her. She is both the Bride of Christ and the feminine aspect of Christ. There is also the very important concept of Holy Silence (Hagia Hesychia). The Orthodox Church makes a distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies. God’s essence has no gender, though the persons of the Trinity are regarded as male, and the energies (Wisdom, Silence, light, and so on) are generally personified as female. The Virgin Mary has the title God-Bearer (Theotokos) in Orthodoxy, and is held in the highest regard in that tradition.
Niki Whiting has written an excellent piece on why the Catholic Church ought properly to regard Mary as co-redemptrix, which would have the added benefit of getting away from substitutionary atonement theology. In Catholicism, Mary is very highly regarded, but she is a Virgin Mother, which is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
Many liberal Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God – again following Jewish tradition, as both the breath of God, Ruach, which is translated in Christian versions of the text as the Holy Spirit, is a feminine noun in Hebrew.
In Judaism, there is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, and the Ruach, the Breath of God, both of which are seen as feminine. The Shekhinah is believed to descend on the Sabbath eve at the lighting of the candles (usually done by the lady of the house). The Shekhinah is exiled in the physical world and trying to rejoin the Godhead. We can help reunite them in the process of Tikkun – the exercise of compassion, which helps to heal the rift between the worlds. Also, it is regarded as a holy thing to make love on the Sabbath eve, as this helps to reunite the Shekhinah and the Godhead.
In Islam, there is the Sakina, the peace of God, which descends upon believers, who is mentioned twice in the Quran.
In Paganism, it is probably the existence of priestesses and the influence of feminism that have ensured the equality of women. Also, very importantly, all aspects of womanhood are represented: the maiden, the mother, the warrior, the sexual woman, the crone who is the embodiment of wisdom. However, a certain amount of gender-role-stereotyping is present in Paganism, and perhaps Pagans need to think more about the Divine that transcends gender.
In Unitarianism – the first denomination to have a female minister, Gertrude von Petzold, in 1904 – women are regarded as completely equal to men. Unitarians have also embraced the Divine Feminine to a certain extent, and use inclusive gender-neutral language wherever possible. In the 19th century, the great Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker, prayed to “God our Father and our Mother”, and also used gender-neutral terms like “Infinite Spirit” and “Infinite Presence”.
“O Father, who adornest the summer and cheerest the winter with thy presence, we thank thee that we know that thou art our Father, and our Mother, that thou foldest in thine arms all the worlds which thou least made, and warmest with thy mother’s breath each mote that peoples the sun’s beams, and blessest every wandering, erring child of man.” (5 February, 1854)
“Creating and Protecting Power, our Father and our Mother, we lift up our psalm of thanksgiving to You. You hold the world in Your arms of love. It sings thanksgiving to You every morning, evening and noon. We praise You for Your blessings. We desire to be deeply conscious of Your presence, which fills all time, which occupies all space. We would know You as You are.” (Our Father and Our Mother)
“Infinite Presence who lives and moves and has Your being in all that is above us and around us and underneath us: we remember that it is in You that we also live and move and have our being. Conscious of Your presence, we would look on our daily lives, that the murmur of our business, the roar of the street and the jar of the noisy world, may mingle in the prayer of our aspiration and hymn of gratitude. May the meditations of our hearts draw us nearer to You, always above us and about us and within.” (Our Daily Lives)
I think Parker’s strategy of mixing various different terms is good: it keeps his audience from ever settling on a specific gender for their deity. And since both Judaism and Christianity affirm that God doesn’t have a gender, this makes a lot of sense.
When I hear the word “God”, I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear “the Divine”, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn’t explicitly include the Divine Feminine – the Goddess. Of course, for Christians, the concept of the Goddess is immediately redolent of Paganism, which has a very different view of the Divine / deities. So, personally, I am quite happy for there to be a bit of distance between the two traditions: they are quite distinct from each other, and it’s no use pretending that they are not. I am not particularly keen on the idea that “all religions are one” – yes, religious traditions can and should learn from each other, but they are not the same.
So, how does the Goddess differ from traditional views of God?
- In all traditions, she is regarded as immanent in the world, not transcendent.
- She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be monotheist about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
- She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
- She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
- She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
- She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
- She is much more than a Virgin Mother – she is also the wise crone, the wild maiden, the sexual woman.
- Her worship includes sacred sexuality.
Because she is Mother Nature, she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (in contrast to much of Christianity, which regards it as a result of the Fall).
I think it is important, in honouring female images of the divine, not to start gender stereotyping, and assuming that some qualities are inherently masculine, and others inherently feminine. This is clearly not true. But rather than always using masculine and gender-neutral language to describe the divine, it would be great to use feminine language sometimes too, however you regard the Divine.
As Maud Robinson, a Unitarian minister, writes:
God does not have a gender and although we can readily accept that intellectually, we should be aware that many of us have a deep history of the use of male-centred language in prayer and that it is embedded in our collective psyche. The word God, in itself, causes me problems, it is a word, which despite our modern sophistication and political correctness can’t but conjure up images of a male godhead for many of us. How can we escape from these deeply ingrained images of a male godhead?
I think the answer to her question is to look at images of the Divine Feminine in your own religion. There are numerous books and websites devoted to Her.
I think it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that all religions are one, and for Christians to start stealing the clothes of Paganism. But there are plenty of images and descriptions of the Divine Feminine in the Christian tradition that they can use to get in touch with the feminine aspects of their God.
There are plenty of female images of deity in the Christian tradition, especially in Orthodox Christianity, and would-be reformers of the liturgy would do well to research them. There are also many prayers addressed to God the Mother (especially in the Unitarian tradition), inclusive liturgy, and gender-neutral liturgy.