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Women and Spirituality. 'Voices of protest and promise' by Ursula King. Contents page

Women and Spirituality

Voices of protest and promise

Ursula King, Macmillan 1989


  Acknowledgements xi
  Prologue 1
  Showing one's face and finding a voice of one's own
A broad understanding of feminism
Feminism and spirituality
Crisis, change of consciousness and choices
Listening to feminist voices
1. Voices of protest and anger 12
  The challenge of anger
The feminist challenge in historical perspective
Feminist consciousness and sisterhood
Challenging patriarchy
The perception of androcentrism
Sexism and the critique of masculinity
2. Voices of challenge 33
  Women and world religions in a cross-cultural and Global perspective
Women's roles and status in religious institutions
Women in religious language and thought
Women and religious experience
3. Voices of experience 59
  The changing experience of women
The international dimension and pluralism of women's experience
Women's social and work experience
Female bodily existence as a source of women's experience
Women's experience of the self
The spiritual dimension of women's experience
4. Voices of spiritual power 91
  Spiritual resources within women themselves
The spiritual heritage of women
The paradigm of the woman saint and mystic
Women mystics in medieval times
Mysticism and feminism: some questions for the feminist mystic
Space for women's spirituality
5. Voices of a new spirituality 118
  In search of the Goddess
Contemporary Goddess worship and feminist witchcraft
Goddess worship in matriarchy groups and the debate about matriarchy
The many meanings of the Goddess
The ideal of the androgyny
6. Voices of a new theology 160
  What is feminist theology?
Basic orientations in feminist theology
Controversies in feminist theology
The ordination of women, ecumenism and dialogue
Feminist theology and the quest for spirituality
7. Voices of prophecy and integration 206
  Power, peace, nonviolence and ecology
Feminist dilemmas and choices
Transformation of human consciousness
Feminism and spirituality: An integration of perspectives


The idea of this book was first suggested to me by Jo Campling, editor of the Macmillan series Women in Society, after she had heard my Hibbert Lecture on Radio 4. The Hibbert Lecture is a long established lecture, or formerly series of lectures, in the area of religion, founded towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1983 it was suggested to present it in a different form by broadcasting a lecture first given to an invited audience. I was then approached by the BBC and Hibbert Trust who asked me to give a lecture on feminism and contemporary spirituality. It was entitled 'Voices of Protest, Voices of Promise: Spirituality for a New Age'.

The lecture was delivered in London on 17 February 1984 to an audience of over 200 people. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 21 February 1984 in a somewhat shortened form and more than 1300 people responded by writing in and asking for the text of the lecture. Many people also wrote to me personally, women as well as men from all age groups and walks of life, and I apologise for not being able to reply to them all individually. Some people sent me their books, poems and ideas and I have asked permission to quote from some of the material received.

The themes of this book have been expanded from ideas only briefly touched upon in the lecture. They have been developed over several years by thinking and working with students and teachers, through talking and lecturing in Britain, Germany, Holland, India and the USA, and through sharing experiences and thoughts with many women from all over the world. Parts of Chapters 2, 3,4, and 5 were first presented in the Teape Lectures given at St Stephen's College, University of Delhi, and Bishop's College, Calcutta, in December 1986.

This book is not primarily an academic exercise looking at contemporary feminism from an interested, but detached point of view. On the contrary, its approach is based on a positive identification with the experience of contemporary women, much of which is also my experience. It explores and engages in dialogue with diverse feminist voices in a sympathetic and critical way. The feminist vision appeals as much to imagination and feeling as to the mind. Consequently, this book is written with both my head and my heart.

It could not have been written without the patterns of my experience being shaped by the experiences and thoughts of many other women. Writing this book has led me into a continuous outer and inner dialogue through which I have personally learnt a great deal which has made me grow in insight and understanding.

I have drawn on the works of many women authors who are acknowledged in the following pages. At a personal level I would like to thank many women friends, both alive and dead, for their great help and inspiration. There is Jo Campling herself, but also the late Magdeleine Leroy-Boy and Charlotte Klein, Mary Kelly, Kim Knott, Ursula Wirtz, Jean Head, Jaya Indiresan and Indira Malani, Barbara Twigg and Sue Davies, the BBC producer of the Hibbert Lecture.

I would like to thank all the people who have helped me in one way or another in writing this book. Particular thanks are due to the staff of the interlibrary loan desk of the University of Leeds library whose collaboration helped me greatly in collecting material for the different chapters.

As the practice of feminism is of great significance in our daily family life, I especially dedicate this book to Tony, my husband, and to our four daughters Frances, Karen, Anna and Dominique Nina.


Much of the experience of contemporary women is similar to that of countless women in ages gone by. Yet in several important ways women's experience today is profoundly different and new, in a sense not experienced by earlier generations. Women ask themselves in a new way who they are, how they relate to others, and what they can do for the world to ensure its survival.

For generations, in fact for most of human history, women have been ascribed a place in society and family by others, by their elders, their fathers, husbands, children and relations. In the manifold web of social interrelations women have been central everywhere, but they have always stood at the intersection of patterns not made or shaped by them. Their role has been narrowly circumscribed by their biological function of producing children and by the associated tasks of nurturing and caring for the young as well as the sick, the old, the infirm. Women's activities have largely been relegated to the private sphere whereas the public domain, where history and culture are actively made and created, has predominantly been the world of men. Women have remained marginal and largely invisible in the public world and seldom, if ever, have their voices been heard. Much of this has changed today, but not as much as women wish.

Showing one's face and finding a voice of one's own

The modern women's movement, especially in its contemporary feminist phase, gives expression to women's active determination to shape their own 'self' and the world around them. Instead of passively conforming to a predetermined role, women want to actively decide for themselves what to be and do, and what to contribute to the life of society. Women have learnt to see the world anew and name and shape it differently. Thus the contemporary feminist quest, concerned with many specific issues, can symbolically be described as showing one's face, seeing a vision and finding a voice of one's own to proclaim it.

In York Minster there stands a stark statue of the Pieta, of Mary in her sorrows as the mother grieving over her lost son, hewn out of the solid, unpolished trunk of a tree. The sculptor, Fenwick Lawson, has shaped the contours of the woman's face as if it were growing out of the grain of the wood, as if the features were firmly pressing against the trunk from within, to emerge and become slowly visible to the outside - an image of extraordinary power and beauty. Quite apart from the religious figure it represents, this sculpture of a woman's face emerging, surfacing and finding shape, of a woman in grief and sorrow turning her face to the world with a determination and strength grown out of affliction, powerfully proclaims to me how the face of woman, of all women, is coming into a power and expression of its own. This power also finds expression in a newly found voice.

Finding a voice of one's own has much to do with a newly discovered and newly developed sense of self. It is the expression of a new identity among contemporary women. This is grounded in a new self-awareness, a more critical self-knowledge, a newly gained self-confidence and a strongly expressed new self-assurance. Gaining such self-confidence and awareness is an important part of personal development towards growth and maturity. But today this process of finding a sense of self does not only occur at the personal level. It is happening at the social level to women as a group, in our society and many other societies around the globe. We are witnessing the global rise and surfacing of woman - of woman coming to face her own self, the world and others. In the past, women have almost been like a dumb and deaf person, enclosed in a world of their own, separate from that of most others, with no public voice to express their feelings or communicate their thought. But now women have learnt to speak for themselves. This happens in many different ways but nowhere more clearly and challengingly than in the feminist movement. It is to this, then, that we must turn as the most articulate and critical voice of contemporary women in order to listen attentively, hear, interpret and understand the experiences of women today.

But of course feminism does not speak with only one voice. There are many different voices, with different stories and sometimes contradictory messages. People unfamiliar with the feminist movement are surprised, stunned and even hurt when confronted with women's array of questions, actions and options which are often little understood.

We hear so many voices in the press, on the radio, on television, but they are mostly the voices of men. Women's voices have been heard much more in public lately, but they are still not yet given the hearing they deserve. Also, a special effort is needed to listen to feminist voices which may be pleading or protesting, aggressive, angry or shrill, but there are also voices which sound wise, strong and resourceful, voices carrying power and calling for response.

To many, feminist voices sound utterly confusing, unconvincing or even plainly wrong. Yet if one takes all these different voices together, one can discern a certain connection between the different themes, an overall pattern and dynamic, and an acute sense of responsibility and concern. Some people consider the voices of feminists as truly prophetic as they express a vision which links together the personal, social, spiritual and political dimensions of human life. The overall goal of feminism is both a 'new woman' and a 'new earth' (Ruether 1975). In other words, feminism seeks a change of consciousness and a change of the organisation, power structures and fundamental values in our society - a new culture and civilisation. Feminist voices thus express a powerful vision of new personal and collective forms of life. They are not the only voices to express such a vision of the possibilities of a new age and a new spirit to come, but they speak from an important vantage point. Whether this vision of a profound transformation of self and society will come true will depend on the concerted efforts of many individuals and groups. More than anything else it will hinge on our will and determination to make it come true.

A broad understanding of feminism

Contemporary feminism is not a unitary movement but consists of many different political and ideological orientations. There are liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical and other varieties of feminism. David Bouchier in his study The Feminist Challenge uses a highly inclusive definition which covers the whole range of feminist beliefs and practices. For him feminism 'includes any form of opposition to any form of social, personal or economic discrimination which women suffer because of their sex' (Bouchier, 1983, p. 2). In the most general terms feminism has been described as a movement to overcome the oppression of and discrimination against women which is deeply embedded in our social and cultural institutions.

If one accepts this view, then feminism can be understood as a movement for women, but not exclusively of women. Radical feminists would strongly disagree with this. Yet it is possible to argue for a wider, more inclusive approach to feminism whereby anyone, whether female or male, who works for the abolition of women's subordination and oppression, can be considered a feminist (Richards, 1982, pp. 15-17; Midgley and Hughes, 1983, pp. 21-25). There exists no general consensus on who can or cannot be counted as a feminist. A broad understanding of feminism has the advantage of being flexible and inclusive of a wide variety of approaches. It will be acceptable to many women who may otherwise not wish to be associated with the more extreme forms of feminist thought and practice. This is important as the feminist movement, though growing around the world, is numerically still relatively small and needs to gain a much wider support.

Bouchier describes feminism today as 'a universal movement touching every aspect of politics and daily life. In its broadest definition, feminism includes women and men who advocate pro-women issues in governments, political parties, trade unions, schools, universities and the mass media, as well as socialist groups, radical separatists, consciousness-raising groups, peace campaigners and women's centre volunteers' (Bouchier, 1983, p. 177). Like most other writers on feminism, he is mainly concerned with the social and political aspects of the women's movement. Yet there is another aspect which has received relatively little attention so far. That is the spiritual search and quest associated with some parts of the feminist movement and with some particular individuals within it.

The richness and diversity of feminist literature becomes apparent when one examines the contents of current Women's Studies courses, but even recent ones (Open University, 1983) do not make any reference to the field of religion and spirituality. Admittedly, comparatively few feminist voices are explicitly concerned with this area and yet they are becoming more numerous. Besides these explicit voices, there exists also an implicit dimension and a spiritual quest within modern feminism which require systematic investigation.

Feminism and spirituality

How do feminism and spirituality relate to each other? Feminism is an important social and political movement which has perhaps not yet come of age. Spirituality, on the other hand, has to do with an age-old human quest to seek fulfilment, liberation and pointers towards transcendence amidst the welter of human experience. But today, more than ever before, spirituality is itself at the crossroads. It has become an empty and meaningless word for many people who feel deeply confused and confounded by the sea of changes surrounding us. Many seek a sense of direction and identity amidst the turmoils and divisions of our contemporary world. Many ask what are the fundamental values, the goals and meaning of life. Some claim that our society is suffering from a materialistic world-view where 'things of the spirit' are neglected; they are seeking a profound transformation of society and new paths towards an alternative spirituality.

The term 'spirituality' is easily misunderstood. It is too often associated with an exclusively 'religious' or even 'ascetic' stance separate from the secular world. Many, though not all, spiritual teachers of the past have preached and practised a world-denying spirituality based on a sharp separation of the different spheres of human experience, a separation which has been altogether unwholesome.

However, spirituality must not be understood as something apart from or as something added on to life. Rather, it is something which permeates all human activities and experiences rather being additional to them. Spirituality can be described as a process of transformation and growth, an organic and dynamic part of human development, of both individual and society. Spirituality has been variously defined as 'an exploration into what is involved in becoming human' or an 'attempt to grow in sensititivity, to self, to others, to non-human creation and to God who is within and beyond this totality' (Scottish Churches Council, 1977, p. 3), Others speak of spirituality as 'the way in which a person understands and lives within his or her historical context that aspect of his or her religion, philosophy or ethics that is viewed as the loftiest, the noblest, the most calculated to lead to the fullness of the ideal or perfection being sought' (Principe, 1983, p. 136). The spiritual has also been described as 'a category of being whose form is the personal, the co-ordinates of which are thought, freedom and creativity and the expression of which is in commitment, aspiration and valuation' (Webster, 1982, p. 89).

These definitions are probably too abstract for practical life. The important point is that they highlight the understanding of spirituality as an integral, holistic and dynamic force in human life and affairs. This is important in relation to contemporary feminism which is not only a strong social movement but also acts as an important critical category in contemporary thought. Its cutting edge dissects all areas of knowledge and culture to show their separateness, partiality and exclusiveness of women in order to seek a new way forward to a more integral and holistic way of thinking and acting.

Feminist thought acts as a decisive critical category for spirituality itself. Negatively speaking, feminist critical thought challenges traditional religions and spiritualities for their exclusiveness, their rejection and subordination of women; positively, it seeks to discover different, more integral world- and life-affirming religious possibilities. The women's movement can be seen as a 'spiritual revolution' (Daly, 1974a, p. 6); it certainly bears witness to a new 'womanspirit rising' (Christ and Plaskow, 1979). At a very decisive moment in human history the search for viable spiritualities is expressed in different but related ways in the writings on both feminism and spirituality. Their themes can be woven together in a criss-cross pattern of search, promise and quest for wholeness and healing in a world torn asunder.

This fruitful and decisive intersection of feminism and spirituality is perhaps best expressed in the title of the essays edited by Charlene Spretnak, The Politics of Women's Spirituality. Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power within the Feminist Movement (New York, 1982). We shall have occasion to explore this conjunction of women, spiritual power and politics later in the book. At present it is important to note that I do not connect feminism and spirituality in an exclusive, separatist way as if feminist spirituality were opposed to and different from all other spiritualities. Similar to the broad understanding of feminism, I want to explore the broader connections which exist between feminism and contemporary spirituality, and how these relate to other thinking in this area. Someone might object that I am really dealing with the wider area of women and spirituality rather than with specifically feminist spirituality. To a certain extent this is true. But I am not primarily interested in a historical and descriptive treatment of the spirituality of women; rather, I am looking at those themes expressed by feminist voices which have a bearing on spirituality and indicate a spiritual dimension within contemporary feminism.

Crisis, change of consciousness and choices

The word 'spirituality' has its origin in the western Christian tradition where it has a long history in theology and religious practice (Principe, 1983). But in our times 'spirituality' has become a more universal code word for the search of direction at a time of crisis. In secular society it has become a cipher for the discovery and recovery of a lost dimension. The term 'spirituality' is now used in many different ways. It can refer to a shared reverence for life or to the new thought emerging from a wide range of experiences - from profound social changes to political liberation movements, and to the insights of a new physics and psychology. Some discern the shaping of a global spirituality which may lead to a new genesis (Muller, 1982), a new becoming so desperately needed to prevent the destruction of our planet and to ensure a better quality of life for all members of the human family.

Looking at contemporary society and at feminism in a global context, as we must, we perceive a profound paradox around the globe between growing diversity and tension created by a self-destructive pluralism on one hand and the genuine search for integration and a new wholeness on the other. We are living at a moment of true crisis, a decisive turning point which has been called a 'hinge moment in history' (Morgan, 1982).

The Greek word 'crisis' originally meant 'discrimination', 'decision' and its wider meaning has been described by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied especially in time of difficulty, insecurity and suspense in politics and commerce'.

This insecurity is due to the profound changes and fast transformation at work in contemporary society. There are the dominance of technology, the revolutionary changes in communication, the experience of a growing social, racial and religious pluralism at a regional, national and international level. There is the democratisation of human aspirations, desire and hopes, as well as the exponential world population growth with increasing competition for decreasing world resources. Most unsettling of all, there is the continuous threat of war and armed conflict, the unprecedented escalation of the nuclear arms race and the real possibility of a nuclear holocaust on a regional or global scale. But there is also a deep and growing yearning for peace.

The many changes in society have led to a profound change in consciousness. There is a shared awareness that we are one human family with a common destiny, faced by a common threat. There is a search for a new kind of universalism linked to an exploration of the outer world and a new exploration of the inner world, of the complexity and depth of human inwardness. The change in religious awareness cannot be seen in isolation but is deeply embedded in other social, political, cultural and psychological processes of transformation.

These profound changes are not apparent everywhere and in everybody. But they can be found in many people and especially among the young. A new interest in religiousness is evident, although it is often found at the margin or outside the established religious institutions. This transformation of contemporary religious consciousness is visible in many areas, not least in feminism, but it can also be seen in the new religious movements and in a new interest in religious experience. Everywhere it is linked with the quest for meaningful religious symbols and viable spiritualities.

The American sociologist Peter Berger (1979, 1980) has pointed to the denial of transcendence and repressive triviality inherent in much of the western secularist worldview. He characterises the experience of many contemporaries as a world without windows on the surrounding wonders of life. His perceptive analysis shows that modern consciousness is governed by the imperative to choose. Choices are not optional. They must be made, and the way in which they are made will decide our future. The urgent necessity of decisive choices is nowhere more apparent than in the fundamental issues regarding life and death, the future of our species and of its planet.

Decisive choices will have to be made at the personal, social and global level. They ultimately imply major political issues. Choice itself is not a matter for choice - we must choose in order to survive. But choices can imply dilemmas and contradictions which are not easy to resolve. The values by which we choose, the goals and visions we hope to realize, are of decisive importance in shaping our choices. The outcome of our choices will much depend on the spiritual power and insight we have into the nature of things, of society, of ourselves and others, and the way we connect these different parts of our experience to each other.

The emphasis on choice for life, for the earth, for a future of humankind is powerfully articulated in feminist thought and practice, especially through women in the ecology and peace movements. Here a new spirituality is being born which is central to feminist self-understanding. Increasingly one comes across references to ecofeminism, spiritual feminism, metaphysical feminism. These are fluid terms which can be associated with quite different phenomena, but they nonetheless express a unified sensibility and quest. Yet the underlying pattern of these experiences and the dynamic of this transformative vision stretch into a web larger than feminism itself. The promise of feminism holds a prophetic potential for the future of humankind; at the same time, present-day feminism must face some of the dilemmas in its own thinking and make the right choices to ensure its own future (Midgley and Hughes, 1983).

Listening to feminist voices

In public discussions about spirituality, usually conducted by professional theologians or religiously committed people, feminist voices on spirituality have so far been little noted. Feminists are perhaps better known for their critique of traditional religion than for their views on spirituality. It has also been shown that on the whole feminists tend to be less religious in a traditional sense than non-feminist women. However, the sharp feminist critique of religion expresses the profound alienation of many contemporary women and challenges important aspects of traditional religious teachings. Yet besides this critique there also exists a genuine religious quest within feminism which seeks to overcome women's sense of alienation through a profound experience of liberation which extends not only to the external social and political sphere but also to internal mental and spiritual life.

Why are the intentions of feminists so often misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored? Do feminist voices not speak loud enough? Are they perhaps too contradictory and confusing? Or are people simply not patient enough to decipher their messages?

Feminist thought expresses a particular sensibility of the present age which carries the seeds of a new age within it. It is absolutely essential that this thought be taken seriously even when it needs to be criticised, as it must be on a number of points. Because of the very nature of feminist thought and practice an objective, analytical, detached and non-committed study cannot reveal the full potential of feminism. As feminism is concerned with life issues which demand decisive choices, an imaginative immersion into it, an active engagement with it and a personal response to it are required from both writer and reader. Feminism requires for its understanding what Harvey Cox in a somewhat different context has called a 'participatory hermeneutics' (Cox, 1974).

Over recent years a number of studies have dealt with women and religion in general (Culver, 1967; Plaskow, Arnold and Romero, 1974; Gross, 1977a; Carmody, 1979; Christ and Plaskow, 1979; Clark and Richardson, 1980; Falk and Gross, 1980; Coll, 1982; Holden, 1983; Gaube and von Pechmann, 1986; Sharma, 1987) or with particular issues of faith and feminism (Dowell and Hurcombe, 1981; Maitland, 1983), or with specialised aspects of feminist theology (Fiorenza, 1983; Ruether, 1983; Soelle, 1984; Moltmann-Wendel, 1986) or with wider aspects of feminist spirituality (Christ and Plaskow, 1979; Asphodel, 1982; Giles, 1982; Garcia and Maitland, 1983; Coghill and Redmond, 1983; Conn, 1986; Hurcombe, 1987). All of these will be referred to later. My specific aim in writing this book is to introduce the reader to a global range of feminist voices so that we can listen to what they have to say, explicitly or implicitly, on spirituality and its meaning for us today. This will be deliberately related to new thinking on spirituality elsewhere.

The book gives serious attention to the different and sometimes contradictory voices of women today. It attempts to engage in discussion with them so as to unravel some of the paradoxes inherent in their messages. Feminists have been accused of appealing to emotion rather than argument. In certain circumstances this may be the right thing to do if it is not unreasonable. A more serious flaw of some general feminist writing, including some writing on religion, is the unnecessary and excessive use of jargon only understandable to the initiated or converted. This detracts from the force of emotional appeal as well as that of rational argument. Some voices simply sound too vehement and abusive to be convincing. Their message is branded as ideology or empty rhetoric or even declared a new religion. We shall have to consider these criticisms and face the question of what true liberation means for women as persons.

Listening to the voices of contemporary women we must first of all investigate the feminist challenge to traditional religion. We must also listen to women's claim about the nature and power of their own experience as well as about those experiences from which they strive to be liberated. In relation to religious experience Christian and Jewish feminists have voiced aspects of a new theology more intimately grounded in their experience as women, whereas others explore new spiritualities through the worship of the goddess, in matriarchy cults or in debates about androgyny. Feminist voices of spirituality also speak about our relationship to nature and about peace as a goal of political and human liberation. Women's voices have today entered into a worldwide dialogue which has created a new network and web of experimental thinking from which we hope that a new pattern of individual and corporate life will emerge. Let us then examine these global voices of women and discover what practical spirituality, grounded in new experience, is alive in contemporary feminism. Let us explore how these voices appeal to feeling, imagination, reason and will; and let us enquire how far they can help us to bring about the necessary transformation to create a more peaceful, just and loving world.

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