Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“God and Goddess in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology”

An hour-long teleconference with

Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

1 to 2 p.m. ET


WATER spoke with Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ for our September 2016 WATERtalk. They discussed their new book, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology (Fortress, 2016) It begins, as they say,” from the premise that the transcendent, omnipotent male God of traditional theologies must be replaced with new understandings of divinity that can provide orientation and guidance as we face the social, political, and environmental challenges of our time.”

These notes are provided as companion to the call’s audio. A Q&A session followed.

Listen to our September 2012 WATERtalk with Judith Plaskow. Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, a leading voice in Jewish feminist theology.

Listen to our January 2013 WATERtalk with Carol Christ. Carol is a feminist theologian and highly respected voice in goddess movements. She leads goddess pilgrimages in Crete. Learn more at http://www.goddessariadne.org/.

Goddess and God in the World looks at questions of the nature of the divine. While they disagree on the nature of God, they both agree that theology matters because it helps make sense of the world we share. Theology provides orientation and guidance.  Both believe traditional theologies fail to make sense of the world. They do not agree with one another’s views on the divine, but they do agree that each of their different views promotes the flourishing of the world.

Given the dialogical method in the book, Mary E. Hunt was asked by the presenters to ask questions that they proposed as a way to lay out the fundamentals of the book.

Mary: Share about how you met, the thread of friendship, and how this influences the book.

Carol: We met at Yale in the 1960s. I started a year before Judith. The atmosphere for women was unbelievably bad. I was one of two women in the program. The walls were lined with paintings of men in academic robes. All theologians being read were male. I was told it was impossible to be a sexual woman and to have a theological mind. Men took bets about where I would sit in the dining hall. Even, after five years of study I was introduced as the “department bunny.” The way I was being seen and the way I saw myself were completely different.

Judith: We didn’t become friends until my second year. Carol and I both attended the first meeting of the Yale Women’s Alliance, the first feminist group at Yale, and our friendship dates from this moment. We began to ask questions about our studies: why hadn’t we read a book by a woman? We tried to do readings by women, and focused our studies around women in theology, but were not allowed to do our exams on the history of attitudes toward women. Carol helped found the Women’s Caucus of the AAR, and we are both very involved in the study of women in religion. In 1979 we co-edited Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion.

Mary: You both share a great deal theologically. Would you speak to the similarities in your theologies?

Judith: We began writing this book to explore our differences and expand theological arguments but realized our similarities are equally important. I couldn’t be an apologist for Judaism. There is no essential core of Judaism or Christianity that isn’t permeated by sexism. I utilize a “hermeneutics of suspicion” as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls it. I chose to work within Judaism to transform it. All texts and traditions must be interpreted and read critically.

Carol: We share a strong belief in the need to find alternatives to the image of God as a dominating male ‘other’. We look for new images of this conventional “God,” and share critiques of divine transcendence. We both reject the understanding of God as outside of the world, not within it. Divine power must be found within our own bodies and in the world we share, our societies, etc. The purpose of life is not to get to heaven or a transcendent realm, but to enjoy this life and to make it a better experience for everyone. We both reject the omnipotence of God (God as all-powerful) for two reasons: 1) If God has all the power, then we have none. This makes the idea of human freedom inexplicable. The divine cannot have all the power or there would be no world. 2) The presence of evil in the world. If God is all-powerful and has power to intervene, then he or she should have stopped slavery, rape, the Holocaust, and so forth.

Mary: Carol believes divinity is personal. Judith believes divinity must include good and evil. Would you share from the text some of your thoughts about this?

Judith: (Reading excerpt from book, pp. 184 – 185, “Credo”) “I see God as the creative energy that underlies, animates, and sustains all existence…” etc.

Carol: (Reading excerpt from book, 168-170, also see, 157-159) Goddess is a personal presence who loves, understands and inspires every individual. Earth is the body of Goddess, intimately connected to all individuals who live and have lived on the planet. The world was co-created in the beginning. Earth based spiritualties are rooted in gratitude and sharing, interdependence, and interconnection. Pouring libations is a central ritual to thank the Goddess as mother earth for all she has provided. It is an expression of deep gratitude for the gift of life. She embodies the flow and grace of life. Community is integrated without hierarchy, “as we bless the source of life, so we are blessed.” The impulse to share what we have stems from recognizing how deeply we are connected in the web of life, an earth based spirituality.

Mary: A question about methodology — what does embodiment mean for you? How does it differ from standpoint theology?

Judith: Our method grows out of the fact that we have been arguing about theology with each other for decades. We have tried to persuade each other, but we have been unable to convince the other of the truth of our positions. This made us realize that the roots of an individual’s theology are in experience. More than rational factors go into shaping a theology or worldview, so we decided to combine autobiography and theology. Embodied theology is transparent about its roots in experience. It is not only personal, but also shaped by our societies and histories.

Carol: Everyone speaks from a standpoint. Embodied theology takes this a step further by expanding standpoints beyond general categories. Categories such as white feminist or Jewish feminist or Goddess feminist do not account fully for our differences. Embodied theology is an extension of standpoint theology that brings us into our bodies and personal experiences.

Q&A/Discussion

Mary: I offer some comments on the book as we celebrate its publication:

1. You have engaged in a profound conversation, beginning with your own experiences and then situating your views in the context of Western theological thinking and in the history of feminist theologies. This is an enormous, ambitious task. To my mind, it constitutes a huge step forward for feminist work in religion. You have opened a new era when we can assume the normativity of our own work and use it as a springboard for the entire field. I can see this book being used in classes on theological method to great advantage.

2. You clarified your positions, your disagreements, your challenges to one another, and your openness to understanding how other people put together this mix of divine—world—persons—in an accessible, inviting way. Having devoured this book, I found it as compelling as a good mystery novel. When I got up to get nourishment while I read, I raced back to my reading perch to find out what would unfold in the next chapter. It is a brilliantly structured, impeccably written, well-researched, and meticulously footnoted book.

3. You have offered a new embodied theological method. You invite people, indeed compel us, to search ourselves in the same rigorous way. Whether we are theological experts or simply interested in how women live their lives in a vexed world, you prove that women can and must take our experiences seriously because they make a difference.

4. You make us long for the kinds of intellectual and spiritual friends and companions that you demonstrate yourselves to be for one another. At points, I wondered why you didn’t give up on each other, but you showed us the power of women’s friendships. It is not always easy to be friends, but given our troubled world it is hard to imagine negotiating it without women friends.

In all, this is a book that is as important a contribution to the field as your jointly edited best selling anthology Womanspirit Rising in which you gave us the early chapters of our feminist theological history. Goddess and God is as substantive and as original as Judith’s Standing Again at Sinai and Carol’s Laughter of Aphrodite. I believe that this book will stand with the classics in the field as women in religion continue to shape the world in profound and lasting ways. I can’t thank you enough on behalf of all of us.

Questions and Discussion

An audience member suggested we do another teleconference with Carol and Judith after more people have had a chance to read the book. WATER agreed to set it up.

1. Q: I enjoyed your comment that all text must be read critically If texts are all suspect, what did you use as a source as you examined your ideas?

Judith: There is no source or experience that doesn’t need to be examined critically. There is no absolute starting point for examining theology. We are aware that all experiences need to be examined in light of the world we share with others.

Carol: There is a tendency among women to think rational thinking doesn’t have much to offer because women have been excluded from such thinking. I consider myself to be both rational and mystical. Even mystical experiences need to be examined. I had a profound experience with the death of my mother when the room was filled with love. My interpretation of that experience is that the Goddess is love. We must ask if our revelatory experiences contribute to the flourishing of the world or are they harmful.

2. Q: Do they address Mary Magdalene at all in this work?

A: No. Writing as a Jew and a Goddess person, we don’t talk a lot about Christian theology.

3. Q: What do you have to say about people who might be interested in notions of afterlife or transcendence?

Carol: I have no hope for life after death. We should be focusing our attention here. This doesn’t mean there isn’t suffering here on earth. All people suffer, some more than others. We are born into the world, we have our lives, and then we die. I don’t know where western/eastern theology got the idea that having this life isn’t good enough. I see this as rejection of the mother who gave birth to us. Plato’s writing is an example of this approach. This view is that we need to be reborn through a male religious group or priest in order to have the real life we were intended to have. I think the life we have is the only life we have. We need to enjoy it and improve things for everyone.

–See Charles Hartshorne, “Do Birds Love Singing?” in The Zero Fallacy and Other Fallacies in Neoclassical Philosophy, edited by Mohammed Valady (Chicago: Opencourt Press, 1997), pp. 43-50.

Judith: We realized this commonality (that each rejects transcendence) very late in the writing of the book. It was so basic to our writing that we didn’t realize that this was a foundation of our book. We believe that this life is the life we have. I learned from one of Carol’s earlier books that in some sense we die gradually as those who knew us and remembered us, whose lives we shared, become more remote. The memory of my mother and her shaping of the world diminishes gradually over time and over generations. That is what life after death looks like.

4. Q: Is it possible to combine your different approaches such that the love that is Goddess for Carol is also the love that is the power of creativity that Judith affirms?

Judith: I hear this as subordinating my position to Carol’s. I don’t experience the divine as love. The divine is morally indifferent.

Carol: I experience the divine in daily life, the embrace of the Goddess in my skin, but Judith does not feel that. See John Cobb’s idea of the “two ultimates,” “Being Itself and the Existence of God,” in The Existence of God, ed. John R. Jacobson and Robert Lloyd Mitchell (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1988), 5-19.

5. Q: What about conversations with God/Goddess? I think of everybody as equals. I have often screamed at God/Goddess; even I could have planned this world better.

Judith: The problem of evil is very central in the book, so we share your question.

Carol: If you do believe in a personal God, then I don’t think it can be all-powerful. I have spent time questioning/screaming at God/Goddess. I realized She doesn’t have the power to control all as I have wished.

6. Mary: What are your next new projects for each of you?

Judith: I’m working on a project on embodiment, toilets, and social justice.

Carol: My memoir, A Serpentine Path. (Cleveland, Ohio: FAR Press, 2016) will be released in paperback and ebook soon. I am thinking of collecting my Feminism and Religion (www.feminismandreligion.com) blogs into a book; it would include my reflections on the new research of matriarchies, societies of peace in which men and women are equal.

The next WATERtalk will be on Wed. October 5, 2016 at 1 PM ET. Celia Wexler will discuss her new book Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Anger and Hope, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. All are welcome. Contact waterstaff@hers.com to register or see http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/october-5-watertalk-with-celia-wexler/