Chapter 7 in Freeing the Feminine by Elspeth and
Labarum Publications, Dunbar 1985, pp. 138-166.
Republished on our website with permission of the authors
If the relationship between two people can be made creative, fulfilling, and free of fear, then it follows that this can work for two relationships, or three or one hundred or, we are convinced, for relationships that affect entire social groups, even nations. The problems of the world - and they are chronicled daily in the headlines of violence and despair essentially are the problems of individuals. If individuals can change, the course of the world can change.(1)
Thomas A Harris
The most important biblical commandment is that we should love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. However, over the centuries many church leaders have tragically failed not only to love others, especially women, but even to love themselves. Their fear of women seems to have reflected a fear of their own bodies, just as the fear of nature as `red in tooth and claw' reflects the anxiety that our own natures might also be vicious and wild if given half a chance! An over-emphasis on sin and the need for redemption has obscured the glorious life-affirming truth that God made everything and it was good.
Fear is the great destroyer of life. It is fear that paralyses the schizoid child; denies women their birth-right of equality; sets up impenetrable barriers against nature; and it is fear that brings enmity between people and war between nations. Fear of failure, exposure, ridicule, rejection, hurt, death - so many named and unnamed fears inhibit life and growth. We are now in the age of the Cold War - the age of a chilling frozen fear which barricades itself in with neurotic intensity and self-destructive determination. As psychologist Thomas Harris has emphasised, the problems of the world are essentially the problems of the individual. Just as no individual relationship can be healthy if it is full of fear, neither can the state of the world be healthy while the superpowers and smaller nations are so intensely afraid of each other. Similarly the state and growth of the church cannot be healthy so long as there is a dread and fear of women and the feminine.
In his highly popular book, I'm OK-You're OK, Thomas Harris puts forward a simple and widely accessible interpretation of the psychological method invented by Dr Eric Berne, called Transactional Analysis, (T.A.). Through this Berne created a simple, clear, non-technical language with which to tackle psychological problems-both individual and social. His vocabulary made it possible for two people to talk about behaviour meaningfully, without a full training in psychoanalysis. Harris's book made Berne's method even more understandable, and brought psychological awareness to hundreds of thousands of people. His great message was that people can change. We can take control of our lives by becoming aware of what psychological `games' we play, what roles we adopt, and what negative influences from the past hinder our present. He also helped to explain why certain social groups, even nations, behave as they do, and therefore offers a tool with which to interpret history. Very helpful points have emerged from its application to some of the issues in this study. We take first a brief look at the T.A. method.
i. I'M OK-YOU'RE OK
Transactional Analysis offers three categories - Parent, Adult and Child - with which to interpret actions and reactions. These are not people; they are roles within each individual (almost differing aspects of the alter ego), which he or she adopts at any given moment, thus the Parent-role, the Adult-role and the Child-role. Continual observation and experiments have revealed that these three states of mind exist in everybody, imprinted on our brains and in our psyches. We each have within us the same person we were when we were very young, we each have the recorded messages of our parents still ringing in our ears; and we each have the potential to assess and transcend the influence of this Child and Parent within. We assess these with our Adult response.
According to Berne, the experiences of the first five years are the most crucial, leaving their mark (both conscious and unconscious) on the character, beliefs and capabilities of each individual. Miseries of frustration and hurt in childhood can stunt our growth and interfere with adult relationships. The parental commands of years ago can still have the power to move us, and can sound like the voice of inviolable authority. Those early experiences mould our pattern of growth, `play old tapes', and affect our transactions with others.
In a sense both the Child and Parent rely on archaic material, accumulated during the impressionable first five years, and not necessarily relevant to the contemporary situation. It is the task of the objective Adult to assess the truth of the feelings of the Child and the criticisms of the Parent. The Adult capacity apparently develops in any normal infant at around ten months.
Within each individual these three states of mind co-exist, and they interact in different ways according to the situation or person. The Child can give us a sense of play and fun, as well as emotional vulnerability and dependency. The Parent can give us wise, important advice as well as archaic admonitions. However, whether we adjust in a mature way to these inner messages is dependent on what Harris calls our life-position. He defines four life-positions which are so simple that they provide an invaluable guide to many problems. These are:
I'M NOT OK-YOU'RE OK
I'M NOT OK-YOU'RE NOT OK
I'M OK-YOU'RE NOT OK
I'M OK-YOU'RE OK
The first position is perfectly normal, although a position of inferiority. According to Harris every young child, however cared for and loved, feels inferior. Being tiny, dependent and ignorant, compared with the huge, omniscient parents, the child feels NOT OK, but believes that the parents and everyone else are OK in comparison. This attitude can continue right into adulthood, but it is not conducive to healthy, loving relationships. The Child within must be taught to love him or herself, as the parents have loved it in childhood.
However, if its parents did not love it, or were undemonstrative and distant, the child may have come to the conclusion that they too were NOT OK, giving it the life-position I'M NOT OK-YOU'RE NOT OK. This attitude can lead to depression, and in some cases even suicide in later years.
If the child is actually abused - physically or emotionally battered - then he or she may be unable to face reality, and withdraw from social contact, retreating into a personal fantasy world. The deeply distressed and dangerous life-position caused by this is I'M OK YOU'RE NOT OK. It can turn into an attitude of cruelty, violence, intolerance and self-righteousness. At its worst it leads to the position of the criminal psychopath who feels no remorse.
The first three life-positions are fragmented and full of fear. For life to become creative, happy and fulfilled they must be transformed into the liberating life-position: I'M OK-YOU'RE OK. This is the joyful attitude of self-acceptance and acceptance of others. It can be found through our objective Adult response which assesses the `old tapes' of the past, the fear and pain of the child and the strength of the parents' convictions. It gives the authority to rise above the bondage of old hurts, to gain control of its feelings, to stop projecting its problems on others and so achieve the life-affirming state of mind which declares I'M OK and YOU'RE OK. This is a statement of love - not a masochistic, neurotic self-denial, but an over-flowing self-giving which encompasses everyone. For those who achieve this position of maturity, every single person has value, including themselves; no person can be devalued, no person is NOT OK, Other, outcast or inferior. In this attitude of love and acceptance we can say:
I am a person. You are a person. Without you I am not a person, for only through you is language made possible and only through language is thought made possible, and only through thought is humanness made possible. You have made me important. Therefore, I am important and you are important. If I devalue you, I devalue myself.(2)'
This is the meaning of loving others as we love ourselves; it is the reality of redemption, reconciliation and enlightenment - a theme which is central to many great world religions. It is the returning of people to their rightful place of full personhood. It is the very essence of God's command that we love him first, and others as ourselves. The experience of Christianity leads to this realisation: I'M OK-YOU'RE OK.
In many ways the Christian church has shown great love and care towards the dispossessed NOT OK. It was the Christian impulse which led, for instance, to the abolition of the slave trade, to penal reform in the 19th century, to voluntary social aid and care for the poor. The innumerable homes, hospitals, schools and other pastoral and caring services pay tribute to Christian compassion as do many missionary activities overseas. Unconditional love is a very hard concept for people to grasp, especially if they themselves did not experience being fully loved or accepted by parents, teachers or friends. However, in many other areas the church has instigated and perpetuated a deeply self-righteous and condemning attitude of YOU'RE NOT OK towards those who do not conform to its theological ideal, and therefore pose a threat. The sort of universal love which Christ manifested does not build up dogmas, creeds or constitutions which have to be signed, power structures which have to be deferred to, labels which have to be displayed. Truly unconditional love does none of these things. It accepts people where they are with all their failures, fears and peculiarities. This was the difference that Jesus made.
The church would have been a very different place if it had heard and obeyed his radical message of self-acceptance and acceptance of the other. Anyone who reads the bible cannot fail to be struck by its constant exhortations to love others as oneself. Yet the history of Christianity is anything but a story of love. All too often it is a story of bloody battles, petty rivalries, persecutions, oppressions and wars. The superior, violent intolerance of the I'M OK-YOU'RE NOT OK position has often been more characteristic of the church than the joyful openness of I'M OK-YOU'RE OK. Harris says,
The non-Adult transmission of Christian doctrine has been the greatest enemy of the Christian message of grace .... The I'M OK - YOU'RE OK message has been twisted again and again to WE'RE OK - YOU'RE NOT OK position under which sanction Jews have been persecuted, race bigotry has been established as moral and legal repeated religious wars have been fought, witches have been burned, and heretics have been murdered.(3)
Christian intolerance extends over a very wide area, but as we have seen, it was that fallen woman Eve who received the church's emphatic projection of NOT OK. Applying the insights of T.A. to her and her female representatives can prove to be a very enlightening exercise. Tradition has it that it was as a result of Eve's sin and seduction that evil itself came into the world. Eve has been called the `devil's gateway', and women have inherited that stigma and guilt. Jesus did not see women in this light. He was startlingly revolutionary in his acceptance of and love for them. Against the traditions of his day, his attitude to women was I'M OK-YOU'RE OK. In his time Jewish men could not speak to a woman publicly, even if she was his wife or daughter No woman could enter into a theological discussion with a man, nor could she be taught by a man, especially a rabbi. A woman's testimony was considered to be of no worth. So inferior was woman's status, that Jewish men were taught to pray: `Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made me not a woman.'
In contrast to this, Jesus' attitude to women was unprecedentedly loving and respectful, accepting their value as equal to that of men. He often spoke to women in public, even the woman taken in adultery whom he addressed and forgave; women were among his closest friends and followers. Jesus openly engaged the woman of Samaria in a theological discussion, yet on at least three counts she was totally NOT OK to her society. She was a woman, she was a Samaritan, and she had had five husbands and was even then living with another man who was not her husband. For this reason she was forced to fetch water in the heat of the day, thus avoiding the respectable women who were at home. Yet the rabbi Jesus treated her with great respect and understanding, offering her acceptance.
Jesus gently chided his friend's sister Martha who became so critical of her sister Mary for departing from the woman's role of cook, and sitting at Jesus' feet to be taught. He told Martha that far from deserving censure, Mary had chosen `the better part'. His sympathy for the plight of women was movingly illustrated in his treatment of the haemorrhaging woman. She was so determined to be healed and so sure Jesus had the power to do it, that she touched the hem of his cloak, although her condition had rendered her permanently unclean. Instead of allowing her to be quietly healed and creep away, Jesus insisted on publicly identifying her, and talked to her - an act of total affirmation.
At the most vital moments in his life and ministry, it was women who supported Jesus. Not only did they support him through his public life, but they were with him when he died, and were the first to see him alive again. He first appeared to Mary when he rose from the dead and it was her testimony that the other disciples accepted as truth. There are many more instances of Jesus' love towards the socially unacceptable women which proclaimed his message, `I'M OK-YOU'RE OK'. How sad it is that over the years the church has proved so unwilling to follow his example! It has been greatly impoverished as a result and has caused considerable anguish to others.
THE ENDURING SHADOW OF THE GODDESS
In the language of TA, the church's attitude to women has been WE'RE OK-YOU'RE NOT OK. However, as Harris shows, despite its extreme self-righteousness, this position is one of deep distress, caused by an early and traumatic experience. What was it that created this neurosis in the church?
As we saw in chapter two, the early centuries in the history of the Hebrew people were haunted by terrible battles between Yahweh and Ishtar, the King of Kings and the Queen of Heaven. So bloody was the fight, and so intransigent were the Hebrews in their devotion to the goddess, that exile from their beloved land was the only punishment which Yahweh finally considered dire enough to teach them their lesson. After that first exile, the Jews were never the same again. That dreadful experience brought on by the worship of the goddess, and her followers' behaviour, was probably one of the most crucial events which led to the church's later fear and dread of women. It was foreign women who led their husbands astray and it was a female goddess who threatened and so angered Yahweh.
For the Jews, the exile was a catastrophe. The battering which reaction to the goddess inflicted on their fortunes left an indelible mark. As Rosemary Ruether suggests the struggle between Yahwism and the goddess religion was `one of the most important influences shaping Old Testament religion'.(4) It may have led to the rejection of feminine descriptions of God and the rejection of female religious leaders. In other words, it led to a masculinising of a supposedly transcendent God and the domination of men in an increasingly patriarchal religion.
The Jews returned chastened from exile. They had learned their lesson regarding idolatry, and the seductive goddess had been rooted out. However, as is the way with such intense episodes, it was not forgotten. Indeed, despite the fact that the goddess religion was at its peak so long ago, and although the battles between her and Yahweh took place between two and three thousand years ago, she still casts a shadow over religion today, as she did in fact over the exiles of the restoration, hence the savagery of Ezra's campaigns (Ez. 10:912).
For millennia she has wielded an archaic power over the minds and traditions of the Hebrew people and their legatees, the Christians. Just as grown people can have an archaic reaction to something which reminds them of their early experiences as a child, so it seems that many religions have had an archaic reaction to the ancient power of the goddess long after she had been defeated by the patriarchal male gods.
Clear evidence of the Jews' archaic dread of the goddess can be found in a traditional folk-tale which was woven around the woman who was made in God's image in Genesis 1. As we have seen, that account of creation was written by the priests after the exile and was purified from its former polytheistic influences. The equal status of woman and man in this account was in marked contrast to the earlier story of Adam and Eve. However, it appears that the freedom and independence of the woman in Genesis 1 proved too radical for those Jews who wanted to keep women subservient and who still remembered the stories of the goddess. So they made her into a separate woman. Jewish tradition as found in the Talmud, separated the two stories of creation, and built an entire myth around the woman of Genesis 1, dissociating her from Eve. Just as Augustine went through theological somersaults to explain away the differences between Genesis 1 and 2, so the Jews fabricated a legend to do the same. According to this legend, the first man and woman were Adam and Lilith. Lilith was Adam's wife: fierce and independent. She did not appreciate Adam's attempts to make her subservient, nor his easy assumption of superiority. So, after a time, she took off, leaving God and Adam to find a replacement. This they did, calling her Eve. But it was made very clear to Eve that she was not Adam's equal, only his helper.
Meanwhile, Lilith (whose name means `screech-owl'!) was turned into a blood-sucking monster of the night who haunted the deserts, attacked women in childbirth and had a particular penchant for murdering young boys. Behind the story of Eve we find the goddess lurking; it would appear that she also lurks behind the story of Lilith. Robert Graves has observed that very often the demons and bogeys of one religion are in fact the reduced gods and priests of another since superceded. (5) He sees the screech-owl Lilith as a remnant of the ancient worship of the goddess of wisdom, observing that its symbol the owl '. . . occurs on the coins of Athens as the symbol of Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom . . . the same owl that gave its name to Adam' first wife Lilith . .' (6) The Jews could not forget the ancient threat of the goddess with her priestesses and devotees. The OK woman of Genesis 1, like Eve, was made NOT OK in order to keep women in their place. Even the purged priestly account of creation, which had been so carefully cleared of references to other deity was expanded in popular thought to include a warning of the horrors of the blood-sucking goddess and the pride of women.
Jewish history is of fundamental importance to the Christian tradition. The Old Testament is the story of the Jews, as well as being the word of God. Since Christianity is based on the bible - Old and New Testaments - every episode is seen as having some relevance today. However, it has to be seen in its historical context. The Jews' battle with Ishtar happened between two thousand and four thousand years ago, yet for some it is as if it were yesterday. The same intolerant and fearful attitude of I'M OK-YOU'RE NOT OK is held against the feminine, in an absurd and anachronistic fashion. For instance, in a study of biblical vocabulary one scholar felt obliged to observe, in an otherwise objective article, that `the queen of heaven . . . as emerges so clearly from such passages as Jer. 7:16-20 and 44:15-30, has ever exerted a great power to seduce the feminine temperament'.(7) What exactly he meant by this statement is a mystery, but his scorn of the credulous `feminine temperament' is very evident.
The polemics continue yet. As we saw, one Church of England bishop feared that the introduction of priestesses would be a return to `sex-obsessed' nature religions. This was an extraordinary remark. C S Lewis also feared any hint of the femininity of God or the introduction of women into the ministry, saying that the religions which had goddesses and priestesses were quite different from Christianity.(8) On the issues of using feminine symbols for God and the introduction of ordained women, there have been some outrageous comments made by otherwise thoughtful people. The terms `goddess' and `priestess' apparently possess strongly emotive power, but it is a power that is out-dated, and any fear of it is archaic, irrelevant and positively damaging both to those who set up siege against the feminine and those who are consequently excluded. We must examine ourselves for signs of the distressed but destructive attitude of I'M OK YOU'RE NOT OK towards the feminine and women. One of the most distressed and indeed distressing examples of this attitude was the Church of Scotland's reaction to its own commissioned report on the theological implications of the concept of the Motherhood of God. This report was scholarly, well-balanced and not in the least revolutionary, yet it was vilified by many in the church, including a great number of ministers, simply because it did not stop at reaffirming the Fatherhood of God, but went on to demonstrate that the bible itself sanctions female and motherly images of God. We have looked at some of these pictures, which of course are so few because of the ever-present threat of the nature religions and their powerful goddesses. However, the impact of the fertility rites of surrounding countries also had the effect of making the writers of the Old Testament very careful about using the term father to describe God, for the male deities were just as active in cultic marriages as the goddesses. We are not afraid of calling God father today, because Jesus himself called God his father and commanded us to do the same. He did not mean to limit God in any way, but rather to expand our awareness of the intimate love God has for each of us. It was highly revolutionary in his day, considered in fact to be nothing less than blasphemous by the religious leaders.
The bible contains several descriptions of God using female and motherly terms, and some earlier church traditions also seemed to be less reticent about using this imagery than we are today. One seventh-century church council affirmed both the fatherly and motherly qualities of God by asserting paradoxically that the Son was born `from the womb of the Father'. Similarly, Anselm asked `And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?', and declared `So you, Lord God, are the great mother'.
Julian of Norwich is perhaps the most celebrated of those who saw God as mother. With great eloquence and poetry she described Jesus Christ as `our true Mother' and poignantly observed that `A Mother may feed a child with her own milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, feeds us with Himself, courteously and tenderly, with the blessed Sacrament, the blessed food of life. (9)
Despite these inspiring and elevated insights into the profound love which God has for us, a love which can be compared to, though it far transcends, the love of a mother at its best, there is still an overwhelming fear on the part of many in the Christian church today of releasing the more feminine aspects of our creator into our consciousness. This must be due partly to growing fear of feminist infiltration, as well as a fear of women themselves. As one journalist put it in the controversy surrounding the Church of Scotland debate: `The intrusion of feminists is getting a bit much. It was bad enough that they wanted to be elders and even ministers, but now they want to go right to the top and take over God.'(10) Or as one woman complained: `Many of us feel that "sexism" has really gone too far, when the gender of the Almighty is being questioned!'(11)
Does God have a gender? Perhaps this woman had it on the same authority as the journalist who declared: `God IS a man. My Sunday-school teacher said so!' (12) According to one antagonist, sanctioning even the `limited use of feminine gender in relation to God' would `give a foothold to more radical feminist elements who seek to justify a more dominant feminine presence in the Church, which is not endorsed or supported by the whole tenor of scripture'. (13)
What do these people have against the feminine? For some, no doubt, their resistance to thinking of God as mother is because of an unconscious (or perhaps conscious!) acceptance of the traditional demeaning of women and their association with uncleanness. To call God mother would be inconceivable to those who hold this view, for it would identify him too closely with the unclean, spiritually NOT OK human mother. But for many others, the idea of God as mother is offensive explicitly because it makes him sound like the Goddess. Clearly the church has not recovered from the effect of the sufferings endured by the Jews because of their persistent attachments to the Goddess over three thousand years ago. The very word `goddess' seems to conjure up some picture of orgiastic nature rites and female domination. No one ever suggested that the creator should be made into a pagan goddess, yet again and again the Great Goddess comes into the debate. In the Church of Scotland's report, repeated reference is made to the fact that the panel is not trying to turn the God of Jesus Christ into a pagan goddess or female deity. There is a horror of this in many people's minds, but they still accept him as a male deity. Is that inherent chauvinism any less pagan? At the end of the report it is re-affirmed that the panel is not flirting with neo-paganism but is examining the question of the `motherhood of God' without reference to the unbiblical neo-pagan goddess religion. The very fact that they bring the goddess into their report is significant. She undoubtedly was very powerful three thousand years ago. As Visser't Hooft says in his book, The Fatherhood of God in an Age of Emancipation, `In the Apostolic age, mother goddesses with their fertility cult were still a force to be reckoned with.' (14) But is the fertility cult still a cult to be reckoned with? Is not our fear of the pagan goddess now anachronistic? Apparently not, judging by the frequent references to her.
In a letter to The Scotsman, following the public prayer of the president of the Woman's Guild addressing God as `Dear Mother God' - a prayer which started the controversy - one minister wrote, `Apropos of Mistress [sic] Hepburn's ideas regarding the sex of God . . . It was tried of old. Demeter, the Earth Goddess, was I believe, the Great Mother. She was, however, in spite of the projection upon the Godhead of human ideas of procreation, conception and childbirth, found to be inadequate for reasons which are impossible to define with any accuracy now.'(15) All `Mistress' Hepburn had done was to address a prayer to God as Mother and suddenly there was the Goddess! Like many others, unfortunately, but surprisingly for a minister, the correspondent seemed to lack any concept of the transcendence of the Almighty over gender. He was afraid that the Woman's Guild president was attempting to dispense with the idea of God as male, as indeed she was, and warned that `. . . in abandoning the maleness of God we may be taking the first step down the path of, not a new theology, but of a neopolytheism. The next step will be to divide God up into various manifestations, sexually different from one another to satisfy the feeling of both sexes.'
It is not the president but the minister and those like him who insist on God's maleness, who introduce polytheism, as the report made abundantly clear. The highly theological writers of Genesis 1 used `Elohim' to convey his oneness and transcendence; those who try to make him uncompromisingly masculine reduce him to something akin to an Iron Age Marduk.
Just as men and women have been pushed into severely restricting stereotypes of behaviour and character, so many people wish to keep their creator confined to a male personality and a masculine role. They fear that to do otherwise would impair his image and recreate the battle between the Great Father God and the Mother Goddess. But our world is very different from that of three thousand years ago. We must not allow the fearful Child within, to overwhelm the Adult with irrational fears of the historical goddess, nor must we tolerate the unanalysed taboos of our inner critical Parent who blindly insists on following convention and keeping the peace.
Understandably, for those who do not understand the ancient wisdom that each person has both masculine and feminine qualities making up their full humanity, the idea of God as in any way feminine might be threatening. However, it is a wisdom we must seek, because it brings psychological and spiritual maturity. Those who are unaware of the historical circumstances of the masculine images of God are liable to stay hidebound to a tradition which is proving increasingly inadequate for our age. To understand God as purely masculine plays into the hands of those who reject Christianity as too patriarchal and who seek to resurrect the ancient goddess in a search for a feminine presence - the very thing which many church people dread.
In a world dominated by the drive for power, exploitation and aggrandisement, not everyone finds images of lordship, kingship and warrior-god or hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers helpful. By rejecting the feminine presence and feminine imagery in religion, Christian leaders not only live in the past, but fail tragically to meet the needs of the present. As one minister's wife wrote in the recent Church of Scotland debate,
At a time when the powerful of the world are so obsessed with doing and having they are losing the art of being; when the world is caught up in the crazy destructive logic of the arms race and the defence syndrome; when instead of nurturing and protecting our environment, we are bent on destroying it; never more has the Church and the world needed those `feminine' qualities which are God's gift to mankind, who made it in his own image.(16)'
Despite the obvious wisdom of this position and indeed its evangelical appeal towards those who are leaving, or have left, the church because they find it too masculine, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland refused even to discuss the report it had itself commissioned, dismissing it with curt and grudging thanks and voting to `depart from the matter'. The decision was taken amidst confusion and insult, with one delegate asking the Woman's Guild president if she could say whether `the Divine She who must be obeyed is a vegetarian or wears a C.N.D. badge!' Reaction had sunk to such a level. It is ironical, and indeed rather telling, that the previous day the Assembly had shown considerable compassion, not to say sympathy, towards a man who had murdered his mother. This man wanted to become a Church of Scotland minister and, following Christ's example, the Assembly acknowledged his forgiveness and granted permission. The following day the president of the Woman's Guild was angrily refused permission to present and discuss a report whose only crime was that it contemplated the concept of God as Mother. As an influential group of church people, including four former Moderators of the General Assembly, rather wistfully commented: `It is our belief that the Church of Scotland is more open, pastoral, and evangelical than this sad decision suggests.' (17) We may well ask the question, what are the members of the Church of Scotland afraid of?
THE ARCHAIC FEAR OF NATURE
It is likely that subconscious fears of the goddess are also at the heart of the church's disregard for nature, a disregard which, as we have seen, has paved the way for it being in part responsible for the current ecological crisis. Although the church is more guilty of the sin of omission than commission in this, in our present state of crisis all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that we do nothing. The church's indifference to the whole of nature is deplored by many who, like ecologist Lynn White, would define the typically Christian attitude to a tree as `if you've seen one, you've seen them all'. Fascinatingly, he attributes this indifference to the Christian horror of sacred groves - a horror that predates Christianity, going back to the battle between the Hebrew prophets and the nature religions. `To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact' he says. `The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.' (18)
This is what happened to the North American Indians. Tatanga Mani complained that the white men saw them as idolatrous savages because they sang praises to the sun, moon, trees and wind. But they saw the Great Spirit's work in everything, for which they were called pagan. Christians did not so see God's handiwork in his creation; they saw God as the ruler of heaven, and the devil as the ruler of earth.
The Christian propensity to relegate nature to the devil's domain, which rests on a primary reaction to all things `fleshly', negates the major biblical viewpoint of delighting in it as God's handiwork, a reflection of his glory. (We might recall in passing that the contempt lying behind the epiphet `pagan' is an extension of the Roman scorn for the low-born, the rustic country-dweller - the paganus.) Tatanga Mani protested against the simplistic judgment against his people: `Indians living close to nature and nature's ruler are not living in darkness.' A return to nature - by a desert or mountain-top experience - was often the only way for God's prophets, (and even his son!) to hear clearly his voice.
The sacredness of nature is by no means alien to the bible itself. According to the priestly (`Elohist') writers, for instance, it was from a burning bush that Yahweh chose to reveal his sacred name to Moses. This was one of the most important moments in the history of God's chosen people, and the fact that God chose a lowly bush from which to declare his name is an indication of how highly he regarded even one of the smallest plants in his creation; he did not destroy it by his presence for `the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed' (Ex. 3:2). As D M G Stalker points out, `Fire is a common form in which deity manifests itself .... It is the least material of the elements, and when it shoots up, it seems to make a link between earth and heaven'. (19)
Similarly in Jacob's dream at Bethel, while lying in the open air with his head on a stone, `. . . he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!' (Gen. 28:12). When he awoke, Jacob exclaimed `How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven' (Gen. 28:17). The place he described as the house of God was not a temple, but a field.
Christ's treatment of nature shows that he believed it to be the ready vehicle of God's actions. He told the Pharisees that even if his disciples had not been allowed to praise him as king on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the very stones of Jerusalem themselves would have cried out their recognition! The wind which had whipped up the sea while Jesus and his disciples were out in a boat also recognised its lord and became still when rebuked by him. The disciples were amazed that any man could have such power over the elements, and asked `Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?' Jesus also made constant references to nature's ways in his teaching or examples, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, himself to a mother-hen, and the unanxious life to the existence of the flowers of the field.
When the apostle Stephen was about to be condemned to death by the Jews, having spoken against the temple, his defence was based on the primacy of God in nature over the humanly devised temple. He reminded his persecutors that God preferred his own creation to the temple which his followers so admired. Quoting Isaiah, Stephen told them:
Heaven is my throne,
and earth my footstool.
What house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is my place of rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?
The bible is full of the glories of creation declaring the handiwork of God:
The heavens ire telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Yet it is also true that the bible issues stern warnings against worshipping nature herself - the sun, moon, stars and trees, rather than their Creator God. There were, as we have seen, explicit instructions to destroy the sacred and high altars of earlier religions, but this did not mean that the Hebrews could not appreciate the life-force of nature, because this life-force testified to its creator. Christians in general have been so afraid of possible pantheism that they have closed their eyes to the glories of creation. There has been a shying away from too much reverence for nature, calling it `nature mysticism'. Fear of too close an identification with nature springs from a fear of the goddess's nature religion. This fear of the goddess, now clearly archaic, has been so strong that it has helped create our present ecological crisis. A telling example of `typically Christian' attitudes can be found in a small World Student Christian Federation book written in 1972 and titled Ecology and Human Liberation. Its author, Professor Thomas Derr, while very concerned about the present environmental crisis, nevertheless displayed the kind of sentiments which have helped to cause it. He denied any autonomous value for nature, saying that there is nothing in the bible to establish a value for nature independent of man. He deplored any attempt to personify nature to overcome our sense of separation, and he poured scorn on those `counter-culture' people who seek an alternative way forward. Although denying that the bible preaches a body-soul dualism in which matter, the body and nature are the source of evil, Derr nevertheless made it clear that in his analysis, nature is only a sort of backdrop to the human drama: `Nature is a complement to the primary drama of redemption which takes place in history.'(20) God as creator is relegated to the second division; God as redeemer is at the head of the first division. This is precisely the doctrine which Ruether condemns as dualistic. (And in defiance of Paul's asseveration of the dual lordship of Jesus firstborn of all creation . . . the firstborn from the dead . . .' Col. 1:15-18.) Professor George Hendry points out that when God saw his handiwork in creation he saw that it was good. Good, not only for human beings, but good in itself.(21) The idea that nature is only there for our use has a long tradition, and it is only now being exposed as dangerously mistaken.
A clue to Derr's fear of granting nature any value independent of man can be found in his equally strong resistance to what he called the `remystifying' of nature. He scorned `the sentiment . . . that nature's "feelings" are analogous to ours, capable of experiencing humanlike offence and pain as the result of our thoughtless cruelty to the natural world',(22) and found it highly significant that some of those who call for a mystical union of humans and nature refer not only to early romantic poetry, but to the Great Mother. According to Derr, it is a sign of romantic poetry's decadence that it very, often personifies nature. `Indeed' he wrote, `we have today an epidemic of such language, where nature, or the earth, has become "brother", "sister", "she", and the like; even, once in a while, "mother". (23) Derr was clearly anxious in case the `remystifying' of nature would in some way resurrect the nature religions and their supreme deity, the Great Mother. He attributed such personifications to alien influences from the east and to counter-culture eccentrics, ignoring or dismissing as irrelevant all personifications of nature. Yet there are many eloquent and moving descriptions of nature in the bible in which we are encouraged and commanded to sense both her elation and her pain. In Chronicles we read how the field and everything in it exults and the trees of the wood sing for joy, (I Chron. 16:33). Isaiah tells how:
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall
clap their hands.
In Psalm 114 we are given a most beautiful picture of the mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs. No doubt the Hebrews could hear the song of the woodland trees and the dance of the mountains. How sad it is that so many people have hidden their eyes and stopped their ears to the exultation of creation. Again and again the bible poetically personifies creation, giving it the capacity to experience pain, sorrow and joy. Paul himself likened creation to a mother groaning and travailing in childbirth, `From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know has been groaning in one great act of giving birth' (Rom. 8:22, Jerusalem Bible).
It is not simply a trendy counter-cultural whim to attribute human characteristics to nature, nor is it purely an eastern concept to imbue nature with the spirit of God. The Christian tendency to separate spirit from nature, heaven from earth, God from creation, has contributed to our modern drive towards exploitation. The Hebrews had no such split. In the bible creation is not portrayed as inferior and peripheral - the backdrop to the human drama. It is God's arena. God spoke through his creation, and in one sense it was his book as much as the bible itself. This has been called heresy; `natural theology' has been all but outlawed by some, yet as we observed earlier, heresy means to see things partially, not as a whole. The American Indians saw another part of the whole but were massacred for it. `Civilised people depend too much on man-made printed pages' Tatanga Mani commented. `I turn to the Great Spirit's book which is the whole of his creation . . . the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature's university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains and the animals which include us.' (24)
God frequently spoke to the Hebrews through nature. They gauged their relationship to their maker by the fertility of the earth, the richness of the harvest, and the regularity of the rains. Yet they failed to recognise the supreme importance of the fertility of the land which God had given them, and failed to keep the sabbatical year which gave it rest and recuperation. It was because of this, as well as their idolatry and injustice to one another, that God caused them to be exiled.
Even so, if we fail to respect the inherent rights of the land to be kept fertile then we too might find ourselves `exiled'. This is already happening in the places where vital forests are being destroyed and desert lands spreading. So many people in the church refuse these rights to the earth. This attitude to God's creation confirms the accusation that traditional Christianity is one of the most anthropocentric of religions. The very survival of the human race is now endangered by our greed and mismanagement of nature's resources. It may be that for this reason alone enlightened self-interest will motivate attempts to halt the destruction. Nevertheless, the attitude of superiority towards nature, of I'M OK-YOU'RE NOT OK, continues. The fear of granting nature a value of her own, distinct from humanity, is a throwback to the fear of calling her `mother', of worshipping her seasons, and personifying her cycles: a fear of the goddess.
There was a time, as we have seen, when fear of the power of the goddess was legitimate. There was also a time when fear of the power of nature was legitimate. In the early days nature was mother and she was a goddess. She was not understood; she was a mystery - at times abundant and kind, at times barren and cruel. This was the period of nature religions, which truly personified heaven and the earth, the oceans and the trees. Humankind was at the mercy of the environment, often finding it hostile, destructive and violent. Droughts or floods, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, pestilences or plagues - so much could destroy the fragile human race. The following Babylonian lament tells of the agony of those suffering drought:
In Eanna, high and low, there is weeping,
Wailing for the house of the lord they raise.
The wailing is for the plants; the first lament is `they grow not'.
The wailing is for the barley; the ears grow not.
For the habitations and flocks it is; they produce not.
For the perishing wedded ones, for perishing children it is:
the dark-headed people create not.
The wailing is for the great river; it brings the flood no more. (25)
To people who lived in very close contact with nature, who read messages in clouds, saw spirits in rivers, heard God's voice in the thunder and lightening; to those whose own cycles and rhythms were totally dependent on nature's cycles and rhythms, disasters such as the above must have had a devastating effect physically and psychologically. The Great Mother Nature would then have been like some merciless, bloodthirsty Gorgon or witch. In terms of TA she was the supremely NOT OK parent. TA tells us that the effect of a NOT OK parent on a child can be depression and listlessness. Extreme effects can be unthinking violence and suicidal tendencies. The same applies to the effects of a NOT OK Mother Nature.
In some societies nature has been kind and her ways understood. A happy, ecologically balanced life-style has been found. Such is the case with many indigenous tribes and, until the past few centuries, true even in the west. However, in other societies where the environment has been hostile, there has been too much passive submission to the misfortunes of natural disasters and barrenness of soil, a resigned attitude of WE'RE NOT OK-YOU'RE OK. Religious rituals are often designed to appease a fickle and potentially cruel god or goddess of nature. India today is an example of just such a society, for the people tend to be passively resigned to the lot nature has given them. Climate and soil are hostile to agriculture and there is not enough determination to rise above these limitations and improve land fertility, using initiative and more effective tools. The masculine drive seems to be too weak. Significantly perhaps, the Great Mother Goddess is still very strong in India and is often worshipped as the destructive death
In the west, the opposite is true. We are very far from being passively resigned to nature's whims. Our drive to survive has been extremely strong and our pride in our `masculine' ability to transcend nature, to penetrate her mysteries and to subjugate her, has been such that our attitude has become self-righteously violent. We have over-developed our masculine traits, and used them to analyse, control and conquer nature, to bring order out of what we saw as chaos, and to make an apparently submissive mistress out of what others saw as a capricious tyrant. In our patriarchal wisdom we have invented increasingly clever tools with which to exploit natural resources for our own use. But the positive psychic connection with nature, and its spiritual meaning, which characterised the so-called primitive understanding has diminished because of our fear and then our pride. Our schizoid culture exploits, rapes, rejects and murders nature.
The western technologist believes he no longer relies on nature. He rates his own inventions far higher than hers. He believes himself to be the master of nature, free to use her for his needs and then abandon her. He has made himself and his world schizoid because he has convinced his followers that they have no more need of nature, their mother. She has been made into the sort of distant, undemonstrative, uncaring parent, who creates the schizoid problem. Those of her children who have believed the promises of the proud, rebellious and brilliant technocrats have, as Freud and others observed, been made anxious, restless and unhappy, eventually prepared to give vent to their frustration through acts of violence.
We are being warned increasingly often, that the rejection of the wisdom of nature is now so great that we are endangering our lives. We live under the threat of global destruction from that monster of monsters, the nuclear bomb; we risk polluting our earth irreparably for thousands of years through nuclear waste; we spew vast oil-slicks into the sea, bringing cruel death to countless creatures; we tear up our trees, ignorant and regardless of their worth; we tamper with our climate; we create deserts where there were rich lands; we cut ourselves off from the rhythms of nature in high-rise flats, huge cities and treeless streets. We have lost many of the ancient secrets which nature has to offer, and are inexpressibly impoverished as a result. She who was once an oppressor is now our victim; but in polluting her, we pollute ourselves. Our proud, vicious and self-righteous attitude of WE'RE OK-YOU'RE NOT OK, caused by an archaic fear of the uncertainties of nature and the feminine, has led to the certainty of global death, if we do not change direction. The way ahead is not by a return to the goddess, but a realisation of the truly feminine; not by nature-worship, but in a new understanding of God and creation.
1. Thomas A. Harris: 1M OK-YOURE OK, Pan Books, London, 1974, p xvii.
2. Ibid. p 217.
3. Ibid. p 222.
4. Rosemary Radford Ruether: Mary; The Feminine Face of theChurch, SCM Press, London, 1979, p 15.
5. Robert Graves: The White Goddess, Faber and Faber, London, 1977, p 220.
6. Ibid. p 315.
7. J.-J. von Allmen (ed): Vocabulary of the Bible, Lutterworth Press, London, 1958, p 146.
8. C. S. Lewis: Undeceptions, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1971, pp 191-196.
9. Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, extracts translated for Masters of Prayer Series, the General Synod Board of Education, London, 1984.
10. The Evening Times, Thursday, 26 April, 1984, Charles Graham column.
11. The Scotsman, Thursday, 27 May, 1982.
12. The Sunday Mail, 29 April, 1984, Bernard Falk column.
13. The Scotsman, 26 April, 1984.
14. W. A. Visser t Hooft: The Fatherhood of God in an Age of Emancipation, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1982, p 131.
15. The Scotsman, 24 May, 1982.
16. Ibid. 31 May, 1982.
17. Published in Life and Work, July 1984.
18. Lynn White: The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, Science Magazine, 10 March, 1967.
19. D. M. G. Stalkers commentary on Exodus in Peakes Commentary on the Bible, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1962, 178c, p 212.
20. Thomas Sieger Derr: Ecology and Human Liberation: A Theological Critique of the Use and Abuse of our Birthright, World Student Christian Federation, Geneva, vol III, no 1, 1973, Serial Number 7, p 13.
21. George S. Hendry: Theology of Nature, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1980, p 17.
22. Derr, op. cit. p 30.
24. Tatanga Mani, cited by T. C. McLuhan: Touch the Earth, Abacus, London, 1973, p 106.
25. Translated by S. Langdon, Tammuz and Ishtar, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1914, p 11.
This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church.
Dear visitor, you are welcome to use our material. However: building up and maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but find it difficult to pay our overheads. Please, become a Friend or support us with a donation. Also, as some of you recommended to us, we are exploring how to generate income by advertising. Please, support us in this effort and send us your suggestions.
Visit our new websites: