2011-10-23

This Man's Thealogy

What is holy for me? What evokes in my heart the feeling of being in the presence of the sacred?

These words “holy,” “sacred”: I don’t know what they mean. I only know that people speaking of these things are feeling something that humans can feel. Their faces show a calmness and an awe. The speak in hushed tones, and allow long pauses.

I have been there. And sometimes – not always – it feels like a person. Do you feel that, too?

Maybe you talk to trees. “Hello Mr. Pine, Ms. Oak, and how are you? You’re looking…tall today.”

It does the heart good.

A couple months ago I was sitting at a retreat and a black cloud of fear enveloped me. It had no object – no particular thing I was afraid of – just generalized fear. After a moment of panic, I took a breath and greeted it, as I would a person. “Hello, fear. So you have come to visit me. Welcome to my heart. Can I show you around?” Fear was silent. “I guess you already know your way around the interiors of my heart,” I said internally. “Let me just sit here, then, and keep you company.” As I did that, there slowly emerged a sense of surrender: liberating surrender.

Gladness – and fear – together. I have had that feeling before...

It was on my wedding day to LoraKim.

I was scared then, too – and passed through to surrender and freedom. On that occasion, over 11 and a half years ago, I wrote:
The owl has special wing feathers that quiet its flight,
So the prey never detects the predator.
One noiseless flap, two, and the small mammal is caught.
As out of the soul’s dark night, love is suddenly there, upon us:
Talons and beak.
We succumb,
And turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing.
So eleven years later, there I was: fear, and yet out of it a kind of freeing peace. On this occasion, too, when I got up from the cushion and had a chance to get to my journal, it was metaphors of predation that presented themselves as expressions of my heart. What came out of me this time was this allegory of evolution
spirituality.
Prayer to the Rabbit God.

the night is dark and this I know:
the rabbit god herself made the foxes.

she put bunnies all over
gave them a green planet to eat
made them love to hump
like rabbits
and love their babies.

bunnies make bunnies faster than plants grow, she noticed.
so the rabbit god made foxes.

predation is kinder than starvation, she said.
and foxes will give my lovelies sharp ears
beautiful speed
a touch of cleverness.
let them be grateful for the red fur death
and the fear that makes them bright alert.

thus the rabbit god became the fox god too.
bodies are made of nutrients,
there being no other way to make them,
how could there not be carnivores?

dear god of hunter and of hunted
I, too, a body of walking food, pray
to be eaten rather than starve
to love
the beauty of this fear.
So it is that sometimes – not always – it feels like a person. The world that brought forth trees and rabbits and foxes and you and me seems to want to present itself to me as person-like – a rabbit god, this time. When the world is ready to tell, or when I am ready to hear, the holy, the sacred, then the world (sometimes) dons the robes of personhood. In that presence, fear – anything that I might fear – transforms, and I am not afraid. By, "I am not afraid," I mean, of course, that I am afraid, but that underneath, or behind, or within, the fear I find a  fearlessness. To give over my flesh to service – to a grander thing – to, as it were, die into life, to perish into this world, is scary. And at the center of that fear is fearless peace.

Strange talk, is this not?

These words, “holy,” “sacred”: I have to say, I don’t know what they mean – only what they feel like. When I feel the holy, sometimes it feels like the presence of a person. It seemed that way to our forebears from time immemorial. It’s what our brains do.

What, you may be wondering, has this to do with thealogy-with-an-A as opposed to theology-with-an-O? What has this to do with the feminine divine? With Goddess worship? I’m getting there. And at the same time, what I’ve been saying is already there.

When our spiritual imaginations find it satisfying to relate to the wonder of reality as if it were person-like, we may conceive of the divine aspect either as male or as female. Gender is so integral to our experience of persons that imagining something as person-like so readily includes imagining it either as female or as male.

Experiences of transcending wonder can transform our lives, reorient us to a more full, fun, whole and healed way of living, so naturally our ancestors who had such experiences wanted to share them – to join with others in spreading, maintaining, and deepening the sense of connection and the fearless peace now recognized as our true self of giving buried in the middle of all our protections and defenses. So we made stories – stories to evoke awe, to show us “the beauty of this fear.” For a long time in human history polytheism was the norm – in other words, any given society would have many such stories for the many different aspects of reality any of which might evoke awe, mystery, and wonder. Polytheist cultures had both female and male gods – to use the Greek, both Theos and Thea. As monotheism came to predominate, and there was only one person-like representation of the holy, that one was Theos. Thea was shut out.

Limiting our spiritual imagination to a male god privileges the styles of thinking slightly more common among men. We know that lots of women are linear thinkers, abstract, lead with their head, incline to dominate, and orient toward control – but the frequency of those characteristics has been slightly higher among men. We know that lots of men are highly relational and nurturant, lead with their heart, are in touch with their feelings, and have a deep emotive connection with the natural environment around them – but the frequency of those characteristics has been slightly higher among women. And the effect of having god stories about only one gender was to push the genders further apart. Privileging men made the men try to be manlier – whatever that might be.

So the style of doing theology – study of Theos – has been abstract, impersonal. Theology books read as if their authors have never been lonely or hurt, never surprised by joy, never fallen in love, or out of it. In the attempt to present universal reasoning, they leave out the unique experiences that made them care about Theos in the first place.

So here we are. We have inherited certain central texts: the Torah, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the Quran. And we have inherited not only the texts but longstanding habits of interpreting them – cultural understandings of what they mean. Women, as represented by Eve, are the source of sin. Women, as indicated by their scant representation in the Hebrew Scriptures, are appropriately invisible, passive, insignificant, subservient. Then the Apostle Paul, in his First Corinthians letter, wrote:
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.
For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (14:33-36)
In the centuries after Paul, with Christianity spread across Europe, the male-dominated Christian church, in fear of losing its power, tortured and executed millions of women identified as pagan witches, many of them healers, herbalists, keepers of ancient customs and lores. The only approved medical practices were taught in medical schools that did not admit women.

Theology – study of God-as-male, Theos – aims to systematically develop the implications of scriptural interpretation. Theologians have too often exacerbated rather than mitigated the patriarchal biases of Western religion. Two of the most renowned theologians of the 20th century were Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Karl Barth once wrote:
Properly speaking, the business of woman, her task and function, is to actualize the fellowship in which man can only precede her, stimulating, leading, and inspiring . . .
To wish to replace him in this, or to do it with him, would be to wish not to be a woman.
And Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote:
A rationalistic feminism is undoubtedly inclined to transgress inexorable bounds set by nature.
Theos without Thea made our religion patriarchal – which reflected and reinforced patriarchy throughout society.

Mary Daly, circa 1970
Mary Daly’s 1973 book, Beyond God the Father, was a groundbreaking rebuke of patriarchy – and a profound eye-opener for many women -- and men, too.

In claiming or reclaiming stories of the feminine divine, writers such as Marija Gimbutas, Charlene Spretnak, Riane Eisler and others have given us variations on the Prehistoric Matriarchy thesis. This thesis is that, before there were written records, society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers. Goddesses were the primary objects of worship, and women were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. In these halcyon days, people were nonviolent, never had war, and, in particular, peace reigned between the sexes. Then, about 5,000 years ago, warring, dominance-based tribes arose and began conquering the peaceful matriarchal people. Patriarchy arose and ruined everything ever since.

The Prehistoric Matriarchy thesis was such a powerfully attractive idea. I wanted to believe it – and I did for a while. If that kind of society could have existed once, then we could hope it might again. If Patriarchy can be seen as a 5,000-year aberration from the natural order of things, then prospects for a return to that order look much better.

Most anthropologists, though, saw the matriarchy thesis as long on wishful thinking and short on unambiguous evidence. Cynthia Eller particularly took the matriarchy thesis to task. Her book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will not Give Women a Future, argued:
The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals. But even with these limitations what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon it by the matriarchal thesis. Theoretically, prehistory could have been matriarchal, but it probably wasn’t, and nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is particularly persuasive. (Eller 6)
I believe that, ultimately, this does not matter. I believe that what the goddess can teach us – what it does to us when we address the deep awe of reality as if it were a person, and that person is conceived as a woman – does not depend on what sorts of societies and forms of worship humans had or did not have 5,000 years ago. As we face our world today – highly urbanized, highly technological – we (humans as a whole) are slowly becoming less violent. Yet this progress is painfully slow, and our world remains dominated by dominance: by hierarchy, control, war, and greed.

On some accounts, traditional Theocentric western religion is the root cause this problem. On other accounts, traditional Theocentric religion has merely been co-opted by the tendencies toward greed and violent domination, so that Theocentric religion is now powerless to offer a counter-cultural peaceful, egalitarian vision. Either way, we needed an alternative.

In the last 40 years, women’s spirituality groups, and the writers informed by those groups, have explored the idea of the feminine divine as an alternative to the hierarchy, control, dominance, war, and greed that traditional Theocentric western religion has caused or been co-opted by. They have developed practices of Goddess worship that explicitly celebrate and revere equality, peace, care and nurturing of one another – men as well as women – empowerment through power-with rather than power-over, and relationships of nurturing care with our earth itself.

Many women – and men -- have found a powerful healing and wholeness in Goddess spirituality. As one of woman put it:
There's a worthiness that I've found through the Goddess....You're already worthy. Your spirit is whole. It's OK to be worthy, powerful, spiritual and sexual, a fully integrated woman.
Men, too, have found Goddess practices helpful. On one level, they’ve helped us men learn the strengths of nurturance, patience, and even passivity. On another level, it’s helped us see that these traits traditionally held up as feminine actually belong equally to us all. Said one man:
On a soul level...we're not men or women, we're souls, and let's get beyond the matriarchy/patriarchy discussion....We're programmed into men being masculine and women being feminine, and it's so limiting.
While Goddess spirituality celebrates the personal, the intuitive, the embodied, the experiential and is therefore less centered in what can be written down, it has also spawned a lot of books. Thealogy, the study of thea, the Goddess, entails a different sort of literature.

Brock, left, and Parker
One striking and powerful example of Thealogy, I would say, is Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s 2001 book, Proverbs of Ashes. It’s not about Goddess at all, but it represents a very different way of engaging the theological questions – highly personal rather than dispassionately analytical, yet as thoughtful and rigorous as any theological writing ever has been. Parker and Brock give us a thorough-going critique of the theology of atonement, and show how an emphasis on Christ’s obedience to God and sacrifice on the cross sanctions violence, exacerbates its effects, blesses silence about the abuse of human beings, and hinders recovery and healing. Parker and Brock tell their own personal stories of dealing with male violence and the ways they found that violence abetted by theologies of redemptive suffering. They weave those stories together with careful historical and scriptural analysis to produce what I found to be a powerful and moving critique of traditional Christian atonement.

I read Proverbs of Ashes in Divinity School and it was a revelation – very different from the kind of theology I’d gotten used to from reading St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Schleiermacher, Barth, Niebuhr, and Tillich.

So, you see, when I spoke earlier about my experience with disturbing fear and fearless peace, and how that expressed itself in a parable of the person-like and female rabbit god, I wasn’t just leading up to thealogy, I was demonstrating it.

What is holy for you? What evokes in your heart the feeling of being in the presence of the sacred?

These words “holy,” “sacred”: you don’t have to know what they mean. But enter into creative playful relation with the people and animals and trees and rivers and sky of your world. What sense of personality can you let yourself detect or imagine in things and tasks? Do they seem male or female? What lessen might they have to teach? What funny jokes might they tell?

It’s a free, and creative, flowing, often laughing, way of being.
"Hello, tree."
"Hello, engine failure in my car, you wily goddess, you."

Hello, dear you.

It does my heart good.

When I enter that flow, or it enters me, I feel myself again dying into life, perishing into love for you.