Inspired by the Goddess
Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.
“Immanent Inclusive Monotheism” with a Multiplicity of Symbols Affirming All the Diversity and Difference in the World
I wrote this blog as a contribution to recent discussions of polytheism vs. monotheism on PaganSquare when I noticed several people asserting that "most pagans" are "polytheists." I do not call myself a polytheist because while I affirm a multiplicity of images, for me they all point to a single divine presence in the world. I offer the below musings in a spirit of dialogue. I am interested to hear from those who call themselves "polytheists" whether they are speaking of a plurality of images and stories pointing to a "unity of being" or whether they are also saying that there are a "plurality of (sometimes) conflicting forces" that they would call "divinities."
In Rebirth of the Goddess I noted that monotheists were the ones who defined the term polytheism and wondered if in fact there really were any polytheists in the history of the world. I posed this question because monotheists assert that polytheists not only worship or honor a "diversity of images," but also insist that polytheists believe that there are a "diversity of conflicting and competing powers" in the world. Monotheists might even go so far as to say that polytheists deny that there is a "unity of being" underlying all of the diversity and difference in the world.
For me the notion that "the world is the body of Goddess" (or divinity) is more primary than multiply elaborated images, names, and stories about divine beings. I am less moved by myths of Goddesses and Gods than I am by images of the Goddess that incorporate plant and animal as well as human qualities. In one sense I am closer to animism than polytheism. It is the beauty of the world that moves me to reverence.
In recent years monotheism has been attacked as a “totalizing discourse” that justifies the domination of others in the name of a universal truth. In addition, from the Bible to the present day some have used their own definitions of “exclusive monotheism” to disparage the religions of others. Moreover, feminists have come to recognize that monotheism as we know it has been a “male monotheism” that for the most part excludes female symbols and metaphors for God. With all of this going against monotheism, who would want to affirm it?
In response to some or all of the above critiques, many modern pagans define themselves as polytheists, affirming at minimum, the Goddess and the God, and at maximum a vast pantheon of individual deities, both female and male, from a single culture or from many, including divinities with animal characteristics. Other pagans define themselves as animists, affirming a plurality of spirits in the natural world.
While also rejecting exclusive monotheism and male monotheism, Jewish poet, ritualist, and theologian Marcia Falk provided a definition of inclusive monotheism that I find compelling.
Monotheism means that, with all our differences, I am more like you than unlike you. It means that we all share the same source, and that one principle of justice must govern us equally. . . It would seem, then, that the authentic expression of an authentic monotheism is not a singularity of image, but an embracing unity of a multiplicity of images, as many as are needed to express the diversity of our individual lives.*
The notion that there is a unity underlying the multiplicity of life in the universe appeals to me.
I experience “the Goddess” in multiple ways–as a voice that whispers in my ear, as arms that comfort me in my sleep, as a conscious presence that understands me, and in all the beauty of other human beings, animals, and the whole of the natural world. I experience the Goddess through a plurality of stories and images—in the small figurines from the Paleolithic and the Neolithic such as the Venus of Willendorf or the ancient Cretan Neolithic Goddess with beaked face and snake-like body pictured here, and in contemporary paintings such as those of Jassy Watson.
I particularly resonate with images that are not exclusively human, but that have bird, snake, or other animal characteristics, because, while I do experience the Goddess as a personal presence, I also experience the world as the body of Goddess. I sometimes joke that I have never found an image of God as male that I like, but I recognize intellectually that the divine power can and must also be imaged as male. I am not interested in reviving any of the male Gods associated with conquest, war, or domination, but I am beginning to open my heart to the Green Man.
At the same time, my favorite prayer song (as I have discussed) is:
As we bless the Source of Life,
So we are blessed.
While I invoke the Goddess through a multiplicity of images, I also experience all of them pointing to a single Source of Life. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas spoke of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration found in all life forms, while my friend Judith Plaskow speaks of a power of creativity that underlies and supports life.** I experience the powers of birth, death, and regeneration which are found in all creative processes, physical and spiritual, to be grounded in a unity of being that underlies everything.
Marcia Falk’s re-creation of Jewish prayers is an expression of what Judith Plaskow and I have defined as the “immanental turn” in feminist theology. For Falk, God is found “in” the world, not “outside” or “beyond it.” While in her earlier prayers she invoked the Source of Life as an individual being, in her recent prayers “God” is more and more immanent in the world.
Though Falk does not add the word “immanent” to her term “inclusive monotheism,” I think the “immanental turn” is what can make monotheism inclusive. If God is understood to be “outside” or “beyond” the world, then it is likely that God will be defined in ways that exclude aspects of the diversity and difference in the world. On the other hand, if Goddess is fully “in” the world, then her images must include all of the diversity and difference in the world.
I suggest that unlike transcendent exclusive monotheism, “immanent inclusive monotheism” is not likely to become the kind of “totalizing discourse” that justifies domination or disparagement of others.
If polytheism and animism also affirm the unity of being behind the diversity and difference of the world, then their difference from immanental inclusive monotheism as I define it here may be matter of semantics*** or of emphasis or degree. What do you think?
*See my Rebirth of the Goddess, 111.
**In our forthcoming book Goddess and God in Light of Feminism.
***In Rebirth of the Goddess I argued that insofar as polytheism was defined by monotheists as a false belief in contrast to their true one, the meanings of both terms need to be rethought.
Published in different form on Feminism and Religion.
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