Voices of Challenge
from Women and Spirituality, Ursula King, Macmillan 1989, ch. 2, pp. 33-58.
'It might seem that the women's revolution should just go about its business of generating a new consciousness, without worrying about God. I suggest that the fallacy involved in this would be an overlooking of a basic question that is implied in human existence and that the pitfall in such an oversight is cutting off the radical potential of the movement itself.
It is reasonable to take the position that sustained effort toward self-transcendence requires keeping alive in one's consciousness the question of ultimate transcendence, that is, God . . .The new wave of feminism desperately needs to be not only many-faceted but cosmic and ultimately religious in its vision. This means reaching outward and inward toward the God beyond and beneath the gods who have stolen our identity.'Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, pp. 28 f.
Women have always been deeply involved with religious beliefs and practices, but they have rarely held positions of institutional authority in the world religions. Yet many women in past and present are known for their great moral and spiritual authority which has given them a high status and much prestige within their own community. Many aspects of traditional religion and spirituality have been called into question and deeply challenged by feminist writers. This challenge is not only addressed to religions from without, but also from within, as quite a few women who are strongly committed to a religious faith have developed a growing feminist consciousness. This enables them to criticise religion from within probably more effectively than secular women can do from without.
Women and world religions in a cross-cultural and global perspective
Women have always had a place in religion, but what kind of a place and who determined what that place was to be? By looking at past religious history we can certainly discover a great deal about the image, role and status of women in world religions past and present, and comparative religion scholars have shown considerable interest in the place of women in religion for some time (for example, the German scholar Friedrich Heiler lectured on women in world religions from the 1920s onwards; see Heiler 1977; also Parrinder 1980). There is no doubt that such enquiries have brought many data to light which disclose fascinating aspects about women's image, status, and function in ancient and tribal as well as in the great historical religions of the world.
However important and pioneering such studies have been, they appear insufficient and defective from a contemporary feminist point of view. Earlier studies contain much fascinating source material, but they are mainly descriptive without any awareness of feminist consciousness. Thus they give no adequate attention to gender differentiation and do not uncover the patriarchal framework of all religious beliefs and practices. In many ways they only highlight the marginality and invisibility of women as the predominant scholarly perspective remains entirely androcentric. Scholarship on religion still denies full equality and space to women, as do most other disciplines of knowledge. Women are not considered to be a subject or object of study in their own right, but are rather seen and defined from an already given, but unexamined perspective unilaterally established by men.
Thus it is right for contemporary women scholars to call into question much of the accepted interpretation of the history of religions regarding the details of women's participation in and contribution to the past religious history of humankind (Plaskow, Arnold and Romero, 1974; Carmody, 1979; Christ and Plaskow, 1979; Gross, 1977a; Sharma 1987). This is a growing field where still much work needs to be done, just as much critical analysis is required to challenge the sex-stereotyping in religious education (Trevett, 1983, 1984a). A brief survey of the cross-disciplinary development of feminist theory on women, religion and gender can be found in Constance Buchanan's article 'Women's Studies' in The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987; vol. 15: 433-40).
So far, most of the challenge has been addressed to the patriarchal heritage of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but increasing evidence exists that critical feminist consciousness is growing everywhere around the globe, not only among Jewish and Christian women, but also among women in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other religious traditions. It would be impossible to even attempt a comprehensive survey of recent developments; one could write a separate book on the voices of challenge in each of the world religions. Only a few examples from different religions can be mentioned here in order to illustrate that the feminist challenge to religion must be seen in a global and cross-cultural perspective.
Too many western people mistakenly think that the feminist challenge to Christianity, for example, concerns either the complete rejection of Christian teachings or is primarily about the ordination of women. But the latter is only one particular aspect which has to be seen in a much wider perspective of which even Christian feminists sometimes seem to remain unaware. To realise the extent of the challenge one has to look at women and world religions in a comparative framework and see how in spite of the many historical, cultural and doctrinal differences of the various religious traditions there are many similarities with regard to women.
It requires courage and the imaginative envisioning of genuine alternatives to defy the pattern of established traditions. Feminists ask with radical sincerity what in the past of religion is, and remains, usable for women today. This is radicalism in the original sense of the word, in the sense of going back to the roots by returning to the original creative experience in which all religion is grounded. An even greater challenge, however, is posed by the question whether religion can remain meaningful at all for women today - whether its spirit is life-giving and empowering or, on the contrary, deadly and stifling to contemporary women.
Is there any room for women in religion? Sometimes one thinks not. It is therefore not surprising that different feminists take a very different stance towards religion. Some reject it outright; they simply see religion as an external institution, authority and power structure which keeps people in a state of dependence and thereby prevents them from acquiring autonomy and the will to actively shape their lives and take full responsibility for it.
Other feminists, however, have a much deeper insight into the continuing importance of religion in the life of individuals and society. Whilst sharply criticising the negative features, they nonetheless accept certain important parts of religion, especially its spiritually empowering, transforming and healing aspects. But there is a great difference between those feminists who in principle accept the possibility of reforming or revising the sexist characteristics of religion, and others who take a much more revolutionary attitude by seeking religious experience in new religious groups or cults outside the main religious institutions. The important fact which all feminists have in common, whether they be antireligious, inclined to reform or revolutionary recasting, is the deep conviction that a new spirit is needed, a different approach to symbols, myths and rites capable to reflect and express their new experience of self, world and cosmos today.
The contemporary world is suffering an immense spiritual hunger. In Carl Jung's words people are 'in search of a soul', in search of something that will give them wholeness, a sense of meaning and a purpose which can direct their thoughts and actions. Traditionally much of this wholeness - of being able to connect and integrate the different experiences of suffering and joy, of growth and diminishment, of being active and passive, of giving and receiving, loving and forgiving - has been grounded in religion as its deepest source and matrix. The springs of faith, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, African, Chinese or Japanese, have given countless millions a pattern and a language with which to make sense of their own selves, of others, of the world around them.
Religious traditions, then, at their strongest, most vital and nourishing - not in their rigidly fossilised forms as we often encounter them now - appeared in the past like a seamless web, a plausible, self-evident whole which made sense and could give meaning and direction to generations. But as the world - the natural world of the cosmos, the human inner world of the self and its uncharted depths, the social world with its pluralistic complexities -has changed so profoundly and so threateningly, and as the sensitivity of our consciousness has changed with it, this seamless web has now been rent apart and lost its unquestioned plausibility and taken-for-grantedness for many, if not most, of those most consciously alive today.
Questions never asked before, problems never encountered in the past, possibilities never envisaged confront us today in most unsettling and perturbing ways. Never before have we sensed the precariousness of our position, the threat to the frailty and dignity of human life, the abyss of life-or-death alternatives with quite the same intensity. This is where feminist consciousness, at its most acute, articulate and critical, acts like a wedge which accentuates and cleaves apart the spiritually powerful from the spiritually empty and pretentious. Feminist consciousness of this kind is not simply one alternative among many, an additional option one can take or leave, but it is a radical transformation of earlier historical perspectives in human consciousness. It is not about the straightforward and somewhat simplistic question 'where are the women?' (as some, even certain feminists, seem to think), of simply adding up numbers on the female side so that once women are 'let in', so to speak, all is well. No, the vision of feminism is much greater, its spirit much stronger and more challenging - and that is why some consider it so threatening.
But if feminism is true to its own holistic perspective, it must strive for the healing of all separations, for wholeness and integration wherever needed, not least in the life of the spirit which animates self and society. On these premises, feminism can simply not be separatist, as spirit cannot be divided, but must create and spread a new cosmic web. Whatever attitude is taken towards religion by individual feminists - rejection, reform or revolutionary recreation - the ideas of feminism challenge religion in several important respects which will now be briefly considered. For the sake of clarity one can group together the numerous voices challenging religion under three different perspectives. The feminist challenge concerns external and internal aspects of religion and implies a progressive level of depth and interiority from the challenge of (1) status, roles and patriarchal institutions to that of (2) exclusive language, androcentric images and symbols in religion to questions regarding (3) the core experience and underlying spirit of a particular religion and the place of women's own religious experience in it. These three concerns frequently overlap in feminist writings, but the challenge possesses both a historical and contemporary dimension as evidence from both past and present is used in the debate.
Women's roles and status in religious institutions
What status and roles do particular religions assign to women? What are the patterns of participation or exclusion from ritual and liturgy? What kind of religious authority can women wield in what kind of religious institution? Are women given equal status in the religious life, i.e. in the priesthood, where it exists, and in various forms of monasticism?
Here the challenge is about the lack of official recognition, the absence of power and status in visible hierarchies, the subservient and frequently invisible role played by many women and the blatent sexism of religious institutions throughout the world.
A cross-cultural historical study of the role and status of women in different religious traditions shows that the less differentiated religion and society are, the greater is the participation of women (Heiler, 1977; Carmody, 1979).The more institutionalised a religion becomes, the more it generally excludes women from positions of authority and power. Thus it is true on the whole that women hold higher positions in archaic, ancient, tribal and relatively non-institutionalised forms of religion (such as shamanism, possession rites, spiritualism, or in non-hierarchical groups such as the Quakers) than in the highly differentiated religious traditions with their complex structures. In both primitive and ancient religions we find the widespread presence of women magicians, shamans, healers, visionaries and seers prophetesses and priestesses. (For numerous cross-cultural examples of female shamanism see Mühlmann, 1984). Female visionaries played an important part in Germanic religion, and the women oracles of ancient Greece are equally well known. So are the sibyls, the prophetesses and fortunetellers, considered to be the mouthpiece of a particular god.
Female temple priests and attendants existed in Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Greece and ancient Japan. Roman religion knew the vestals, the consecrated virgins charged with the perpetual care of the sacred fire in the temple of the goddess Vesta. Women's role in the religion of Rome has been summarised as follows:
Women played an essential part in the celebration of Roman religion. The wife shared responsibility with her husband for supervising the household cult. Apart from the Vestal Virgins, whose function was official and important, the wives of two of the major priests were themselves priestesses. Women had cults and ceremonies from which men were excluded (and vice versa). . . . The Christian practice keeping women away from the altar was to be a departure from Roman custom. (O'Faolain and Martines, 1979, p. 88)
In another quite different religion, the Shinto religion of Japan, women have held and still hold important positions. These were admittedly much higher in ancient times, in primitive Shinto, than in the subsequent shrine and sect Shinto, but they are still of considerable significance in contemporary popular Shinto, the religion of the people. A recent study of the position of women in Shinto states:
Woman appears in Shinto as a female deity, a virgin, empress and ruler, priestess, cult dancer, founder of sects and as a 'shaman' outside the organised system of Shintoism. These female figures have in common a special relationship with the deity, based largely on the experience of ecstasy. They have always been, and are still, called Mikos, literally 'children of God'. This term means a mediator between the gods and men, and is used to designate not only the lower order of priestesses in Shinto shrines and women unconnected with any shrine claiming religious and magical powers, but women in general, who because of their charism have played an important part in religious life from primitive times to the present day. (Okano, 1976, p. 206)
It is undoubtedly a challenge to women that none of the great founders of religion was a woman. Moses, Mahavira, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad - all are men. But women founders exist in more recently established religions, especially in sects and cults, and in new religious movements in Japan, India and the West. There is also the remarkable phenomenon that an extraordinary number of important women seem to surround at least some of the male founders of religion. At the time of a new religious breakthrough when a charismatic personality - an enlightened being -shapes a new way of life, much is questioned and, one might almost say, new seeds of liberation are sown. In such a period of flux women, in their support of new movements of reform or radical renewal, often have greater freedom than is customary in their environment and play a crucial role in the early development of a religion. One can think of the many outstanding women in the history of ancient Israel (Nunnally-Cox, 1981, pp. 3-96) or of the women surrounding Jesus (Moltmann-Wendel, 1982; Nunnally-Cox, 1981, pp. 97-117) or the Buddha (Horner, 1975; Paul, 1979) or Muhammad whose spouse played a decisive role in early Islam and whose daughter, Fatima, occupies, an eminent position among Shia Muslims.
The earlier, more undifferentiated religions - whether prehistoric, archaic or tribal - all share a primal vision characterised by a unitary consciousness within which self, society and nature still form a continuum, an uninterrupted whole. The historical religions, with their breakthrough to individual, reflexive consciousness, lost this basic unity and are all shaped by a fundamental dualism affecting time (past/present; present/future) and space (sacred/ profane), cosmos (earth/heaven), self (body/spirit) and society (men/women). From their early origin the historical religions have been male-dominated, cast in a dualistic and patriarchal spirit. With the institutionalisation of religious roles and functions sacred authority, like secular authority, came to rest in men. The exercise of most religious functions, whether sacrifice, teaching, preaching, blessing or initiation, became a male prerogative almost everywhere. We can observe such developments in ancient Mithraism as much as in Brahmanism (where we know of women seers in the early period of the Vedas and Upanishads), Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The regressive participation of women in religious life historically manifests itself in two different ways. First, there is the general decline of the oracular, prophetic and priestly activities of women if one compares the situation of ancient cultures with that of more recent times. Then there is the specific regression of female religious activity in particular religions if one compares the creative time of a founder with the practices of subsequent ages. Where women founded their own religious communities to follow the highest spiritual ideals of their religion, as did the nuns in Buddhism and Christianity, they were always given lower status than the male religious.
It comes as no surprise that women from very different religious backgrounds today find inspiration and strength in the rich historical data available now on the religious activities of women in the past. They use these materials to challenge existing religious authorities and structures by demanding full participation as well as public recognition of the many-sided and varied work already done by women in religious institutions. Buddhist nuns in the Theravada tradition strongly request the right to full ordination in Sri Lanka and Thailand; in the Mahayana tradition women ask for full recognition as Zen masters (Bancroft, 1987). Hindu women have established the right to recite the Vedas and follow the path of renunciation (sannyasa) traditionally closed to them; some also campaign to be gurus in their own right (King, 1984b).
Unless anyone might think that the demands of women's liberation only influence the religious lives of western women, here is a quotation from the 1974-6 Report of a Hindu religious order of women, the Sri Sarada Math, founded as an innovation in 1954;
During the last hundred years women in the West have reorientated themselves, and the fruits of their labours are now enjoyed by women everywhere in the world. Women, so long regarded, by themselves as well as by men, as inferior, weak and somehow not full adult, now play a different role as partners and co-sharers.
The rise of woman may be seen as an event of far-reaching significance, an event which links up with the chain of circumstances that characterize the present era and act as propelling forces in shaping the future . . .
The rise of woman, in both East and West, and also the founding of the Sri Sarada Math, must be viewed in this context . . . The Sri Sarada Math is part of woman's rise to strength; it is also part of the tidal wave of spirituality set in motion by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. [Important reformers of modern Hinduism] (Sri Sarada Math, 1974-6, pp.3, 4, 5)
Whilst Hindu women ascetics are in a tiny minority when compared with the large number of male ascetics in Hinduism, the number of Catholic nuns both in India and in the Roman Catholic Church worldwide is known to be three times larger than that of male religious and priests taken together. Yet women in the churches, and in the Roman Catholic Church in particular, have always been kept in a dependent status. In the words of Susan Dowell and Linda Hurcombe (1981), Christian women have been and still are 'dispossessed daughters of Eve'.
Over recent years, many campaigns have been undertaken to counteract the public invisibility and lack of recognition of women in the Christian churches. The Movement for the Ordination of Women has gained considerable support in Britain and elsewhere and it represents an important challenge to the established institutions and structures. But the challenges goes much deeper too, as the same authors clearly stated:
we find ourselves continuing to debate the importance of the symbol of female priesthood in the healing role of the church. We began with a question - 'Why?'. Why is the church the last place to initiate the true feminization of the moral order enshrined in its gospel? Why is the church the last place to make the equality of men and women a reality in its structures? (Dowell and Hurcombe, 1981, pp. 112 f.)
To many the issue about the ordination of women appears to be a predominantly contemporary one - and so it is in the larger Christian churches, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic or Orthodox. But many smaller Christian denominations have been far more flexible and innovative at an earlier stage. One must not forget that the first Christian woman minister, the Reverend Antoinette L. Brown, was ordained in the Congregational Church in New York in September 1853. Forty years later, at the famous World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893) - the first global gathering of members of different faiths - a considerable number of women speakers took part, seven of whom were ordained ministers. But there must have been considerably more, for by 1921 when Reverend Brown died, it was estimated that there were more than three thousand women ministers in the United States (Deen, 1959, p. 396).
These women must have made a considerable impact at the parish level, as did the numerous women from many nations who worked in the mission field abroad and made an essential contribution to Christian missionary activities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By 1928, Methodist women missionaries were talking about 'a world missionary sisterhood' (A Centennial Tapestry 1983, p. 3). Then, as now, women were active in the work of the churches at the grassroots level, but received little public recognition for it. They were also excluded from the main institutions of theological education. This only changed significantly after the Second World War when theology courses became more widely available to lay people in general and to women in particular.
Traditionally, most religions have excluded women from advanced learning and teaching (King, 1987c). Hindu women were not allowed to study the Vedas, just as Jewish women were excluded from studying the Torah and Talmud, which were indispensable for becoming a rabbi. For a very long time Christian women had no access to theological faculties and seminaries. In the USA, Oberlin College allowed a few women to attend its theological school in the 1840s, and some Methodist and Congregational seminaries had a few women students by the late nineteenth century whilst Harvard Divinity School did not admit women until the 1950s (Ruether 1981).
During the last thirty years, the number of women theology students has risen exponentially. In many theology courses in the West more than half and sometimes the overriding majority are women. The increasing participation of women in theological debate is one of the crucial factors in understanding the rise of feminism within Christianity and Judaism. To have become theologically literate, however, has brought the inequality and injustice of religious institutions towards women into even sharper relief.
Reformed Judaism ordained its first woman rabbi in the USA in 1972. Ten years later there were already 61 women rabbis and by 1986 their figure had increased to 131. Now even conservative Judaism which opposed the idea for so long has several women rabbis.
Christian women participate to a greater, though still not sufficient, extent in the work of those churches which ordain women ministers. Women theologians are still in a minority among their peers but they do speak up, not only in the West but also in Asia (Chatterji, 1979; Katoppo, 1979) as well as in South Africa (Vorster, 1984). The feminist challenge does not only concern itself with the role and status of women in religious institutions, but calls into question the very concepts, images and symbols embedded in religious language and thought.
Women in religious language and thought
The power of naming is one of the most decisive human activities in constituting the world as experienced. That power has been an almost exclusive male prerogative throughout most of human history. This power is well illustrated by the Jewish-Christian story of Adam (Genesis 2:19-20) whom God empowered to name all the animals after their creation, which occurred before the creation of Eve. Contemporary feminists rightly claim the power of naming as one of their most fundamental rights for expressing and shaping their own experience and worldview which, in turn, includes the power of transformation. As Mary Daly has powerfully declared,
it is necessary to grasp the fundamental fact that women have had the power of naming stolen from us. We have not been free to use our own power to name ourselves, the world, or God. The old naming was not the product of dialogue . . . partial and inadequate words have been taken as adequate.
To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God. The 'method' of the evolving spiritual consciousness of women is nothing less than this beginning to speak humanly - that is, a reclaiming of the right to speak. (Daly, 1974b: 130)
Much re-examination is going on regarding the language used in religious teaching, preaching and ritual. It is helpful to distinguish between religious language which makes wide use of images and symbols appealing to emotion and imagination, and theological language which primarily relies on abstract concepts and systematic ordering of thought arising out of critical reflection on religious experience (McFague 1.983). Thus religious and theological language are closely intertwined and yet distinct and quite different in their approach. It is perhaps not too large a generalisation to say that religious language, as found in prayers, songs, devotions, utterances of prophets and seers, and in the accounts of saints and mystics of all religions, is closer to its experiential source. It is thus more open to female imagery and experience than the language of systematised theological doctrine which is always closely controlled by reasoning rather than spontaneity. Theological language represents, without exception, the creation of a male specialist group, whether Brahmans, priests, rabbis, monks or whoever.
In examining religious thought and language one can begin by asking what different religions affirm about women in their sacred scriptures and doctrines. What language do they use in prayers, liturgy and ritual, and how far is this exclusive and antifeminist? Moreover, can we find examples of female imagery and symbolism, especially in reflections on the nature of the Spirit and Ultimate Reality?
At the heart of the different world faiths there is always the challenge of the spirit in the form of a promise for true liberation and salvation which ultimately transcends sexual divisions. This is the most powerful challenge of all, and one can always ask how far members of each religion do or do not live up to this challenge of the spirit. The belief in the possibility of spiritual equality has been put as little into practice as the teaching about the fundamental oneness of the human community. How often have the ideals of spirituality been taught and practised to the detriment and exclusion of women? One can apply to all religions what has been said about the Christian church, namely that they possess the message of liberation but it is others who liberate.
The scriptures of all the world religions - even those which pride themselves on a relatively high status of women - contain passages expressing the subordination or inferiority of women, even when the language is not explicitly antifeminist. Contemporary women look at the different sacred scriptures in a new light and re-examine their teachings in a critical perspective. The most radical critique has been applied to the sacred literature of the Jewish-Christian tradition, especially to the Bible. Most famous is the pioneering effort of the American woman Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902; see Griffith, In Her Own Right. The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1984) who took the radical measure of cutting out all antifeminist passages in her 1898 edition of The Woman's Bible (new edition 1985). This was highly criticised and misunderstood at the time, but has been rightly celebrated by more recent feminists for its daring innovation. Contemporary critics use a more differentiated approach in reinterpreting biblical materials by reflecting on the underlying principles of a feminist critical interpretation (see Russell, ed. 1985, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible; Fiorenza, 1983, 1984). They realise that an effective critique of biblical passages must be more concerned with 'depatriarchalizing' the Bible (Trible, 1978b) and 'reconstructing' tradition as customarily taught (Christ and Plaskow, 1979, pp. 131-92; Fiorenza, 1983) than with simply cutting out passages which appear unacceptable to women.
Both Jewish and Christian feminists have written on the reinterpretation of the creation story in the book of Genesis, chapters one and two. The figure of Eve in that story has had a far more wide-reaching influence in Christianity than Judaism because of the particular interpretation given to these chapters by early Christian writers. According to a later Jewish tradition the woman whose creation is mentioned first in Genesis 1:27 was not called Eve, but Lilith, said to be Adam's first wife whilst Eve was his third. Lilith insisted on full equality with Adam because of their identical origin (the Genesis passage reads 'God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them'). When Adam did not agree to this, Lilith left him in protest and even a group of angels sent by God was unable to make her return. It is hardly surprising that the figure of Lilith has caught the imagination of contemporary Jewish feminists. An American Jewish feminist magazine is called after her, and Judith Plaskow has retold the story of Lilith from a contemporary perspective bringing Lilith and Eve together for 'Lilith by herself is in exile and can do nothing. The real heroine of our story is sisterhood, and sisterhood is powerful' (see Plaskow, 'The Coming of Lilith: Toward a Feminist Theology' in Christ and Plaskow, 1979, pp. 198-209).
Much has been written by both Jewish and Christian authors on women in the Bible. The numerous female figures in the Old and New Testament can truly be regarded by contemporary women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as 'foremothers' of the faith whether they are the matriarchal figures of Sarah, Hagar, Rachel or Rebecca, the women of the Exodus and Promised Land, such as Miriam, Deborah or Delilah, women of the times of the prophets (Ohler, 1987), or women closely associated with Jesus and his disciples (Nunnally-Cox, 1981; Dumais, 1985; Moloney, 1985). By examining the stories and language of the Bible, Torah and Talmud, and the ideas found in the theological works of the so-called Church Fathers, feminist scholars have discovered many new data which were unknown or simply overlooked before. Similarly, the language and thought of other scriptures, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, Japanese or Chinese, require critical re-examination from a feminist perspective, but this has happened only to a limited extent so far.
What images of women can be found in the sacred literature of the world faiths? On comparing writings from different religious traditions two distinct types of images can be met in quite different religions (Gross, 1974). One is the mother image which can often be seen as arising out of male religious activity and projection, as it is an image closely bound up with the fertility and sexuality of women. The other is a non-maternal image which Rita Gross, for want of a better word, simply calls the mate-image. This woman-mate is seen as co-eval and independent or as complementary to males, but not as their adjunct.
The mate image tends to occur in religions where the co-participation of men and women in religious activities is also present, whereas the mother image is linked to religions with much greater sexual exclusiveness and division where women do not take part in ritual. These images relate closely to the way in which both profanity and sacrality are projected on to women. Thus women reflect in a particular way the ambiguity of the sacred so central to many religions where the sacred is a locus of tremendous power which is experienced as immensely attractive and terrifying at the same time.
It has been said that religions are the most important source for shaping and enforcing the image and role of women in culture and society. One must therefore enquire most carefully which images of woman a particular religion has created and handed down from generation to generation, and how far these may be beset with inherent contradictions. One must also ask in what way these images, especially when they are highly idealised and praised, such as the image of Mary in Christianity or that of Sita in Hinduism, may possibly relate to the actual lives and experiences of real women. Some important images of woman in the Jewish and Christian traditions are discussed in the volume on Religion and Sexism edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether (1974). The images of woman in the religions of classical antiquity have also been closely examined (Pomeroy, 1975, 1984; Cameron and Kuhrt, 1983) and an increasing amount of work is being done on women in non-western traditions, especially women in India (Jacobson and Wadley, 1977; Leslie, 1983, 1986) and in African traditional religions (Hackett, 1985; Gaba, 1987; Mbon, 1987).
In the theological anthropology of Christianity the biblical affirmation that God created woman and man in the divine image has always been and still is of fundamental importance. Every human being is considered to reflect the imago dei. But the interpretation of the Genesis passages on which this belief is based has often been conducted in a most exclusive and antifeminist manner. Real women in history have been 'not in God's image' (see the title of O'Faolain and Martines, 1979) but rather in man's.
From the earliest days of Christianity male theologians adopted a defective anthropology, largely based on Aristotle's biologically wrong understanding of women as being incomplete males (Horowitz, 1976). Traditional theological sexology-a term used by some writers to describe the theological understanding of the nature and meaning of the two sexes - has been thoroughly androcentric, as a number of studies have demonstrated (Bailey, 1959; Børresen, 1977, 1981). Christian anthropology, i.e. the Christian teaching about the nature of the human being, has not paid sufficient attention to the meaning of sexual differentiation. The 'Christian doctrine of man', as this aspect of theology is still called today, quite literally has been most of the time a doctrine about man and for man in the sense of the human male. It can be quite appropriately described as 'an anthropology of female inferiority' (Dowell and Hurcombe 1981, p. 85). The Norwegian woman theologian Kari Børresen writes:
Traditional theological sexology is androcentric in the sense that man is considered the exemplary human being (vir=homo) and woman (femina) is defined as differing from this norm. With this assumption, the biblical creation and fall are interpreted as follows: being created in God's image (Gen. I, 27), woman is spiritually equivalent with man (femina=homo). But as sexually different, she is created from and for man (Gen. IT, 18-24;. . . . As a community in this world, the church maintains the God-willed subordination of woman as femina; her full equivalence as homo will be realized only in the final resurrection. (1977, p. 32)
In other words, in the Christian tradition woman has been seen as subordinate to man in the order of creation, in the here and now. However, in the order of redemption, the order to come, the spiritual equivalence of man and woman has always been taught and affirmed as an article of faith. As is stated in a passage of the Letter to the Galatians much loved and quoted by Christian feminists: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor foe, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal. 3:28).
But this statement of equivalence, of spiritual equality, which could be matched by others, must be set against many other biblical passages, especially in St Paul, which express the subordination of woman. The entire Bible is characterised by what George Tavard, in his study Woman in Christian Tradition (1973) has called the 'double typology of womanhood'. Quotations from scripture are tied to a profound ambiguity as some express subordination and others the full equality of women. However, in the past male interpreters of the Bible have in general preferred to dwell on those passages which can be used to reinforce woman's status of subordination and dependence. A contemporary French theologian has analysed the inherent antifeminism of much Christian teaching (Aubert 1975) and speaks about a 'masculinising exegesis' whereby theologians have used passages of the Bible to legitimise the marginalisation of women in terms of their sexual function. This double typology still affects much Christian thinking on women as is evident from an examination of catholic, orthodox and protestant images of womanhood still widely prevalent in Christian churches today (Tavard, 1973, pp. 125-86).
Much that is taught on the image and nature of woman is deeply rooted in a dualistic perspective which sharply divides and opposes to each other the realms of body and mind, nature and spirit, woman and man, earth and heaven. This is not only characteristic of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but runs through all the world religions in one way or another. On one hand there is always a search for wholeness inherent in the quest for the spirit, yet on the other hand much religious teaching is not holistic, but dualistic. The theological issues pertaining to the search for human wholeness and identity have been most thoroughly investigated by 'The Community of Women and Men in the Church', a study group set up by the World Council of Churches in Geneva and supported by worldwide participation (see Parvey, 1983; also the section on 'Women in Church and Society' in WCC, 1983, Nairobi to Vancouver). In 1980, this group organised a special consultation for women to re-examine the Christian teaching on the image of God and human wholeness. Much of the material brought together then was published under the title In God's Image: Reflections on Identity, Human Wholeness and the Authority of Scripture (Crawford & Kinnamon, 1983). The testimonies, poems and reflections of women collected in this small volume provide an excellent basis for group discussions.
The symbol or, as some would say, myth of Eve is still a powerful one in western culture. For many women today it stands for the oppression and subordination of women through past centuries. The images and symbols relating to women are deeply embedded in our language and it is part of the feminist task to deconstruct language in order to highlight its underlying assumptions. For theological language this is increasingly being done, but Christian women also make great efforts to eradicate the many examples of sexist language in rites, hymns and liturgy (Morley, 1984). However, the symbol of Eve is still so powerful that a German publication calls feminists 'God's new Eve' (Luthi, 1978). How Christian women through the ages have been oppressed by the story of Eve is symbolically shown by a small sculpture in the Catholic Faculty of the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands) which represents Eve bent to the ground under the weight of a huge apple on her back. Symbols and language are powerful indeed.
We must be aware of the inherent dynamics of language and the way it may be used to persuade, to evoke, challenge or provoke. Language is one of the primary human tools to establish communication and thereby make community and communion possible - or to prevent it by enforcing boundaries, erecting barriers and false dividing lines. The new language of sisterhood aims to establish new links, new connections, and thereby to create a new sense of community and ultimately a new culture. Many feminist writers have addressed the issues of language and gender. From the perspective of religion one of the most important issues is the language used about Ultimate Reality itself which sustains and nourishes us all by way of participation (see the section on 'Feminine Language and Imagery in Constructs of Ultimacy: Cross-Cultural Examples and Theological Proposals' in Gross, 1977a).
For the Judaeo-Christian tradition this reality has always been named as God and although always asserted to be utterly beyond all names and sexual divisions, God has been customarily referred to by the pronoun 'he' and described as 'father', even though images of mother and lover are not absent in the tradition, and are of great importance in some mystical literature and writings on spirituality. Many recent writers have examined the association of the father image with God (see Concilium 143 , 'God as Father?') and its implications for the image of woman. The most iconoclastic effort in this direction is the radical stance of Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father (1974a) which has provoked a great deal of debate in theological and feminist circles. The issue has perhaps less to do with a particular image as such than with its exclusive and oppressive interpretations in terms of justifying patriarchy as a social system. If God is nothing but the ultimate patriarch, the dreadful authoritarian father figure, then this symbol may well be dead and not be speaking to our contemporaries any more.
However, often enough particular interpretations as well as critiques of the divine father image are based on a false literalness in assigning a rather restricted meaning to a particular word outside the wider context of images, symbols and metaphors in which the entire God-talk is rooted and embedded. One has to be particularly sensitive to many levels of meaning and especially to different models of God or the Divine found in religious language. The image of God the father has been more than any other the dominant model in Christianity. Thus the question arises whether the feminist critique of God the father calls into question the root-metaphor of Christianity and whether the Christian tradition possesses resources both for limiting the model of God the father and for permitting complementary models. However, Sally McFague in her study Metaphorical Theology, Models of God in Religious Language (1983) argues that 'the root-metaphor of Christianity is not God the father but the kingdom or rule of God, a relationship between the divine and the human that no model can encompass. The divine-human relationship, therefore, demands both the limitation of the fatherhood model and the introduction of other models' (McFague, 1983, p. 146).
A similar idea is expressed by Rosemary Ruether when she asks:
How can we think about God in new ways that are not sexist? Should we say that God is female rather than male, or both male and female? Maybe we have to go deeper than this. We have to ask why it is that the symbolic relationship of God to the world has been seen in terms of domination and subjugation and so provides a model for a similar social relationship. Can we think of divine transcendence in another way? God's transcendence could be seen not as a 'power over' that reduces creation to a servant status. Rather, it could be seen as the ground and power for created being to exist and to be continually renewed. God is thus both the ground of being and its continual power for aspiration to new being. (Ruether, 1979a, pp.64f)
The theological question is really about what the divine father symbolism implies, which aspects of it are utterly misleading or redundant, and which elements we cannot possibly do without. An excessive and impoverishing literalism is evident when some authors argue in a rather unsophisticated way whether God is man or woman. It is far more helpful for contemporary women to explore the feminine dimensions or aspects of God, whether expressed in biblical imagery or other similes relating to specifically female activities such as giving birth, suckling an infant, nurturing and caring or mothering in a wider sense. Many biblical passages, especially in the Old Testament, use specific images of female personhood and activity to illuminate God's own being and doing. Although God is nowhere directly addressed as 'Mother', Isaiah likens God's saving activity to a mother giving birth to a child. Elsewhere God is likened to the protective mother bird or the mother eagle, the midwife or nurse, or to a mother quieting and comforting her child (see Alan E. Lewis's report The Motherhood of God prepared for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh 1984).
God's activity is not only linked to female imagery but also to certain words of feminine gender. The Hebrews believed that God was present and acted in the world through his teaching (torah), wisdom (chokmah), his indwelling presence (shekinah), his spirit (ruah), mercy and compassion (rehem). These are all nouns of feminine gender and the most interesting is the word 'spirit' which remained feminine in its Greek translation 'sophia but became neuter in the Greek word 'pneuma' and masculine in the Latin 'spiritus'. There are some important Judaeo-Christian speculations on Sophia as Wisdom Goddess, especially in the documents found at Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in 1945, produced by early gnostic groups. It has been argued that the teaching of Sophia in the Wisdom Goddess tradition was masculinised in the name of Jesus Christ (Arthur, 1984, 1987) and suppressed in the New Testament writings.
In recent years, much effort has been devoted to showing how the dominant affirmation of the fatherhood of God is complemented in the Christian tradition by a whole spectrum of appellations and images relating to the experience of women, especially to motherhood. Julian of Norwich's invocation of Jesus as 'our true Mother' is often quoted. Much Jess well known are the expressions of other women such as, for example, Mary Baker Eddy, the nineteenth-century foundress of Christian Science, who objected to the sole use of 'Father' as a designation for God and replaced it by 'our Father-Mother God' (Trevett, 1984). Carol Ochs (1983) has explored with much sensitivity the whole process of infant care and mothering as profoundly nourishing our spiritual life whereas Margaret Hebblethwaite, in her book Motherhood and God (1984), has drawn on the experience of giving birth as a theological resource for thinking about God (for a critique see Pepper and Hebblethwaite, 1984).
Yet this line of thought is not without inherent contradictions as will become apparent when we look at mother goddesses in a later chapter (see ch. 5). The Anglican theologian John Robinson pointed out long ago that the association of God with motherhood is problematic for contemporary women as it does not so much express the autonomy and adulthood of women as persons in their own right as underline the very role women have been traditionally restricted to and limited by. In wider terms the entire father-mother symbolism with regard to God enforces a parent image for all people and can be seen as a dominant, hierarchical model of God which keeps human beings in a state of dependence as 'children of God'. This parental image of divine reality, however rich in some respects, may be as unhelpful to us today as some other models of God as lord, master and judge. Our egalitarian age is more inspired by images which stress autonomy, independence and equality, such as God the liberator, friend or lover. If family relationships are used as analogies for divine-human relationships, the sister-brother or wife-husband image may be more appropriate than the parent-child one.
If we consider the vast resources of religious traditions other than Christianity, we can find very different approaches to Ultimate Reality. In the devotional theology of theistic Hinduism we can find the parental analogy for God, but much is made of God as lover and friend. More important in our context, Hinduism knows the immense power of Shakti, the divine cosmic energy which is always thought of as female. There is a strong tradition of goddess worship in Hinduism. This implies profound ambiguities, however, especially at village level where the matas, the local goddesses, have to be appeased in numerous ways. The great Goddess, called Devi, appears in many different forms. For those who see in her the highest form of divinity she is the source of all existence, the supreme power which is also represented as consciousness and knowledge. Without this power or Shakti the gods are dead, inactive and unknown. It is thought that the origin of the worship of the Goddess goes back to pre-vedic times (before the second millenium BCE) as the Vedas, the scriptures of Hinduism, reflect a strongly patriarchal society with predominantly male gods.
In some Hindu texts the knowledge of the universe is a transcendent knowledge identical with the forms of the all-powerful Goddess. Thus the Goddess is sometimes described as 'knowledge-of-the-Immensity, mother of the universe, pervading the whole world. She is also called 'the Resplendent-One'. Gujaratis worship the Mother Goddess as Ambaji whilst Bengalis address her as Durga and both groups celebrate each year an elaborate festival in her honour. The symbol of divine energy or Shakti linked to the 'Mother' played an important role in Indian nationalism and the independence movement when the Goddess came to stand for the country and her power (Ratte, 1985). It is equally interesting that in Mahayana Buddhism supreme wisdom or Prajnaparamita, the 'Perfection of Wisdom', is not only feminine in name but it is also represented by many feminine statues and images, although she is not worshipped as a goddess. This feminine principle is wisdom as supreme compassion rescuing human beings from ignorance and suffering. Faith in her will lead her follower to liberation. The Buddhist scholar Edward Conze has described her as follows:
Like a woman, the 'Perfection of Wisdom' deserves to be courted and wooed, and the Sutras on Perfect Wisdom constitute one long love affair with the Absolute. Meditation on her as a goddess has the purpose of getting inside her, identifying oneself with her, becoming her. . . And in her ultimate core the Prajnaparamita is described as for ever elusive, not possessed by anyone, but absorbing all. (Quoted in Bancroft, 1987, pp.90, 91)
Whilst the personification of wisdom as feminine, whether as Prajnaparamita, Sophia or Shakti, can be inspiring for contemporary women, one must ask how far these speculations are entirely of male origin and remained exclusively accessible to males in the past. How far has the existence of goddesses, whether in Hinduism, Japanese Shinto, in ancient Near Eastern or African religions had any influence on the lives of actual women, not in the sense of their devotion to these figures, but in terms of real empowerment enhancing women's role and status in society?
If religion is about more than outward ritual or sophisticated doctrinal speculations, if it is the voice of prayer, praise and communion, or the centre point of meditation and true inwardness, if it is about that transformative power that sustains life, nourishes and heals it with the energy of the spirit, than we must in the end come to the question of religious experience and enquire how far the undoubtedly powerful religious experiences of women are expressed and reflected in the practices and teaching of the different religious traditions. The ultimate challenge is about the nature and depth of experience, but also about the question whether religion as traditionally understood and practised can remain meaningful to contemporary women.
Women and religious experience
Ever since William James published his work Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, the phenomenon of religious experience has been much discussed and studied, but until recently relatively little attention has been paid to gender differences. 'Experience' is a difficult term to define, Sociologists as well as scholars of comparative religion have attempted to classify religious experiences according to important variables such as the intensity of particular experiences, their connection with a time dimension pointing to past, present or future, or the relationship which individual experiences bear to the wider social order.
The word 'experience' can refer to a cumulative insight and understanding gained over a span of time (for example, when we speak of 'work experience') or it can mean a sudden event or encounter (the experience of shock, surprise, sudden joy or of someone's death). In the area of religion, too, many examples can be found of the prolonged, continued nature of experience and of its sudden occurrence or breakthrough. Thus much religious experience is related to continuing religious practice such as prayer, going to church, temple or mosque, performing rituals at regular intervals, etc. This may be considered the ordinary kind of experience which represents religious experience most of the time. However, the term 'religious experience is often especially connected with the idea of extraordinary experiences such as ecstatic or mystic experiences. The question arises then how far this kind of experience is different from ordinary human experience, whether it represents a sharp break from it or whether, on the contrary, it is part of a wider range of possible experiences which form a continuum.
In order to analyse religious experience and define it more sharply, it has often been asked what is significant in religious experience? This question already sets religious experience apart as something separate to be investigated, but a number of writers turn the question around and ask instead 'What in our experience is religiously significant?' In other words, they explore human experience as it occurs, whether in ordinary or extraordinary garb, and ask about the deeper meaning it has for the lives of particular individuals and communities.
The question about the religious significance of contemporary women's experience concerns us throughout this book and will be discussed in more detail later. As to a clearer gender differentiation in the study of religious experience, contemporary women writers have investigated both ordinary and extraordinary aspects of women's religious experience. For example, Pat Holden in her introduction to the volume of papers on Women's Religious Experience: Cross-cultural Perspectives (1983) distances herself from what she calls the 'exceptional' women in religion and emphasises that her book gives particular attention 'to the everyday religious experiences of ordinary women', whether in England, Greece, Turkey, Africa, Hinduism or Judaism. Another approach is found in the anthology edited by Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin, Women of Spirit, Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (1979). Here women are considered who were in many ways extraordinary in the spiritual authority and power they wielded in particular communities and the religious example they set to others. Contemporary women speak about the varieties of their religious experience in Sex and God edited by Linda Hurcombe (1987). Yet another approach is exemplified in the studies edited by Nancy A. Falk and Rita M. Gross, Unspoken Worlds, Women's Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures (1980) where are brought together different data about women's religious experience which highlight 'the contrast between extraordinary callings and everyday concerns in women's religious lives' (1980, p. xv). The two editors state clearly that at our present state of awareness it is no longer enough to know how religions view women. In order to discover new and meaningful religious worlds and recover lost data one has to look at the religious lives and experiences of women themselves:
Since most religions' views of women have been recorded and shaped by men, the study of these views all too easily becomes an extension of androcentrism.
To offer a new vision, our volume had to take up women's lives; it had to place women in center stage - as men had been placed so often in the past - and meet them as subjects, not objects, with their own experiences and aspirations . . . We had to show that women have their own perspectives and claims on religion, even in systems in which men have traditionally done most of the acting and talking ... we would explore the so-far unspoken religious worlds of women rather than the much more familiar religious worlds of men. (1980, p. xiv)
Women have always been conspicuous in some areas of religious practice such as domestic ritual or shamanistic and possession rituals or in the rise of new religious movements. What is more, women have made a very substantial and most important contribution to the mystical and spiritual literature of world religions, yet their own views are rarely reflected in the systematised articulations of theology or even the recent works of scholarship in religious studies. As in other areas of our culture this scholarship, concerned with homo religiosus, focuses in practice quite literally on religious man - the males of religious communities who have always held the dominant positions of institutional authority. And yet there are few religious traditions, if any, where men and women's religious lives are indistinguishably the same. Women scholars of religion have seriously questioned the underlying assumptions of such scholarship (Christ, 1976; Gross, 1974,1977b, 1983; Gross and Falk, 1980) Ruether, 1981; King, 1986a) and continue to uncover more data on women's religious lives and roles in the past so that not only men's, but the whole human experience in religion is recalled and made known.
However, it is much more difficult to examine the past than to study religious experience in the present. It is difficult to gain access to the past where data about women are often hidden, buried or left unrecorded. Thus it is particularly important to ask what is women's religious experience today and what place, if any, does it have in their lives. For many contemporary women the experiences of subordination and oppression, of violence and injustice have led to a profound alienation from traditional forms of religion which so often seem to justify the status quo. Much public religious practice highlights the invisibility and marginality of women. Contemporary women with a sharp awareness and critical consciousness rarely find a visible focus for their own identity in traditional religious groups and institutions. Yet at the same time there exists a lively search in the area of spirituality, precisely in order to find and give meaning to the experience of being a woman today in a profoundly changed and at times profoundly confusing social order.
The feminist critique of specific religious ideas and practices is becoming sharper, more articulate and detailed at present. It arises out of the cumulative effort of many women around the globe, but as I and many others see it, at the heart of feminism is a spiritual struggle and a new experience which challenges much of traditional spirituality itself. More and more women are coming forth to speak about their religious life and about the understanding of spirituality from a feminist perspective. This new venture has been likened to 'walking on the water' (Garcia and Maitland, 1983). It is a venture on new and uncertain grounds, into wide open and uncharted seas which hold the danger of engulfing us. But the strength of hope and the faith in a new vision can help women to discover as yet unknown shores. We must therefore listen to the voices of women speaking from the depths of their own experience.
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