Searching for the female face of divinity

2014-06-20 00:00

AMOMENTOUS development in religious circles was the invitation by Pope Francis to the Israeli-Jewish and Islamic Palestinian presidents, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, to pray with him for peace in the Middle East (The Witness, June 9). This powerfully symbolic interfaith communion indicates the potential of religion for good, in a region where religious conflict has demonstrated the destructive effects of intolerance, and must be applauded by all people of goodwill.

Without attempting to undermine the significance of this initiative, one is struck by the gender imbalance: three men representing three patriarchally dominated religions where a male God rules. Where are the women’s voices for peace? What role are women allowed in healing this turmoil?

Many women are disenchanted with male-dominated religions venerating a male divinity as omnipotent creator, enhancing the status of men, while relegating women to the second sex. This is oppressive; assuming male experience as the norm, that it is “divinely ordained” for men to dominate women. As feminist philosopher Mary Daly commented: “When God is male, the male is God.”

When the first Russian cosmonaut returned from space, a reporter asked: “Well, Comrade, did you see God up there?” and he replied: “Yes, and she’s black!”

Why does this idea still startle us? Perhaps partly because many still regard femaleness and blackness as somehow subordinate; inappropriate for envisaging the Supreme Being/Ultimate Reality?

It may surprise many to learn that, throughout history, deity has been envisaged in female form for longer than it has as male.

Innana, Isis, Gaia, Athena, Aphrodite, Tara, Kuan Yin, Durga, Kali, Draupadi; known variously as Queen of Heaven, Great Mother, Oldest of Divinities, Lady of the Beasts, Weaver of the Web — richly evocative names of powerful, supreme female figures; some still venerated by contemporary Hindus. What did these manifestations of divinity mean to those who revered them; have they any contemporary significance? How might it affect our worldview, our self-image, to envisage divinity as female?

Fairly recently, many women in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere, have asked what goddess imagery can offer as a model for the Absolute, “the Sacred Ground of all Being”. This women’s spirituality movement — Womanspirit — regards spirituality as concerned with developing the dimension of the spirit, human awareness, reverence for all life, recognising that reality transcends the sum of its material parts. Unlike traditional religious systems, there is no official dogma, no formal leadership or membership and no official sacred texts, although a considerable body of literature exists.

Denying women full participation in religious traditions is inimical to their wellbeing, depriving them of their full potential. Ironically, religion should be liberatory, promoting the welfare of all adherents, supplying answers to questions of ultimate significance. Religion constrains too many, rather than inspiring and transforming them.

Whether they are participants in a religious tradition or not, this attitude affects the general attitude of society to all women, resulting in their being regarded as intellectually and morally inferior to men, weaker, more prone to temptation. Women have been associated with the “lower” powers of earth, darkness and sexuality, while men represent light, reason and spirituality.

Womanspirit challenges the hierarchy that places males at the pinnacle of creation, assuming mastery over women and the natural world.

So, many women choose to identify with a female divinity, exploring the implications of replacing a male supreme being — the original father figure, curiously believed to give birth — with a female creator, matrix, mother figure, giving birth to all that exists. Nature is personified as Mother Earth, the life force and womb from which all life emanates; the tomb to which all life eventually returns.

The image of the goddess is not transcendent, external to the world; she is the world, she is nature, immanent within the world, representing creation and destruction, birth and death, womb and tomb. Natural disasters, disease, death and decay, are not totally negative, and certainly not evil, controlled by some satanic force, but essential components of the continuous cycle of birth, life, death and regeneration. Death cannot negate life, as it is acknowledged as the dark side of life. In order to replenish her powers, the Mother Goddess finally takes back all that she has given. Life nourishes itself on death; the Goddess destroys in order to create anew.

Confronting fear, death, destruction and chaos — even venerating the Terrible, as Hindus do in the black Goddess Kali — divests these forces of their power.

Apart from the ambivalent image of Mary, usurped and manipulated by the early church fathers, Western women have been bereft of a sacred role model to venerate, symbolising the strength and beauty of female power.

Men, too, could benefit from this shifting of patriarchally induced mind-sets. Although ultimately the Supreme Being is genderless, imaging this “Wholly Other” as female can provide a powerful corrective to the imbalance created by the exclusive image of absolute reality as male.

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