Seeking the feminine face of God Reinterpretation: A growing feminist spirituality movement is seeking a new place for women in religion.

Sun Journal

November 28, 1998|By Teresa Watanabe | Teresa Watanabe,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LA HONDA, Calif. -- In the womb of the Great Mother Earth, enveloped by the towering redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, a bare-breasted Hawaiian beauty and a stately crone prepare to receive ordination. A purifying bonfire illuminates the black night as five women slowly circle with incense, a candle, a bell and bowls of water and earth.

"Tonight we welcome ourselves into the lap of the Goddess," elder priestess Ruth Barrett calls out. "We acknowledge, honor and celebrate the resurgence of the Goddess."

The two women are smudged with the smoke of burning sage, anointed with sacred oil and given the ceremonial accouterments of the Dianic tradition of witchcraft: a necklace symbolizing rebirth, a scepter of leadership and a crown of honor. Now high priestesses, they pledge to help women everywhere to find their "strength, courage and beauty."

The circle of women erupt into a delirium of dance, some prostrating themselves to the Great Mother and others sensually swaying like snakes.

Some may snicker, but this ritual, part of a festival called Goddess 2000, represents one expression of a phenomenon that is sweeping not only alternative culture but mainstream religion as well: a surging desire, even demand, for recognition of the feminine face of God -- and of women as sacred sources of moral authority.

"Throughout history, women as a group have not had their experiences influence, develop and further the understanding of religion," says Susan Maloney, director of the feminist spirituality program at Immaculate Heart College Center in Los Angeles.

Proposing that feminist spirituality represents the next "intellectual revolution," Cullen Murphy, the managing editor of Atlantic Monthly magazine, notes that "Feminism engages doctrine, liturgy, ministry and leadership, and it engages them all at once."

Feminist spirituality is a hodgepodge of theologies, movements and motives, much of it sharply controversial and practiced both in and out of mainstream faiths. But the various strands are bound by a conviction that women are as godly as men and must regain their rightful place of respect and leadership in the world's spiritual communities.

Assertions of God's maleness -- the father, lord and master -- and biblical decrees for women to be silent and subordinate to men have propped up centuries of patriarchal practices, feminists argue. Recognition of a "divine feminine" -- or at least an all-embracing God that did not endow man with dominion over women -- would remove an enduring justification for sexist oppression, they say.

Some people are choosing Mother Nature as their metaphor for God or reviving the ancient worship of female deities -- Diana of Rome, Isis of Egypt, Kali of India. Some subscribe to a controversial archaeological theory that Neolithic cultures once worshiped a life-giving Goddess and, as a result, were models of peace, harmony and female leadership until they were invaded by warmongers who smashed the goddess faith and installed a patriarchal god.

Others accept as articles of faith that Christianity ripped off some of their symbols and celebrations: The sacred trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they believe, was lifted from the pagan female trinity of maiden, mother and crone used to symbolize the cycle of life.

Goddess followers say their experience of God the Mother is connected to the cycles of life and rhythms of nature and is powerfully healing. Aging women are honored as wise crones; overweight women find ancient Goddess figures abundant; women surrounded by male authority find inspiration in the power and beauty of such goddesses as Diana, the Roman huntress and protectress of living creatures.

A panoply of services offer Goddess books and newsletters, tours to ancient Goddess shrines, specialty stores like "The Goddess Shop" in West Hollywood and sometimes quirky goods -- such as bright silk "moon scarves" to wear as a proud reminder of menstruation's blessing, rather than curse.

Some spiritual feminists are reinterpreting traditional scripture and drawing on alternative documents to challenge what they see as sexism's theological grounding: the diminished role women have played in the Bible and the largely male interpretations of Scripture, such as blaming Eve for human downfall in the Garden of Eden.

Still others aim to reform mainstream faiths from within. They are flocking to theological schools and rabbinical institutes, taking on careers as ministers and rabbis, demanding that masculine references to God in Scripture, hymnals and prayer books be neutralized.

According to the new book "Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling," women make up between 10 percent and 20 percent of all clergy for most American Protestant denominations, with the Unitarian-Universalist Association recording the highest proportion at 30 percent.

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